Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 12, 2014

UK Arms and the War on the Jews

The rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe has been harder to ignore in the last month. The war in Gaza has given a green light for Jew haters to take to the streets of the continent’s cities to vent their spleen at Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Islamists intent on genocide. But the decision of Britain’s government to threaten the Jewish state with a ban on arms sales shows just how far the discussion about the Middle East conflict has been perverted by prejudice.

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The rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe has been harder to ignore in the last month. The war in Gaza has given a green light for Jew haters to take to the streets of the continent’s cities to vent their spleen at Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Islamists intent on genocide. But the decision of Britain’s government to threaten the Jewish state with a ban on arms sales shows just how far the discussion about the Middle East conflict has been perverted by prejudice.

The announcement that the UK would suspend arms exports to Israel if the fighting in Gaza were to resume is a victory for the Liberal Democratic members of Britain’s coalition government over its Conservative majority. Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has not always been the most stalwart friend of Israel during his term of office but he has stood up for Israel’s right of self-defense after Hamas launched a new war in which it rained down thousands of rockets on Israeli cities and used terror tunnels to breach the border. But his allies in Westminster are hardened foes of Israel and, aided by the pressure generated by massive anti-Israel demonstrations, have worn down Cameron.

The advocates of this semi-embargo claim it is nothing more than an assertion of British neutrality in the conflict. The fact that they have not included the sale of components of the Iron Dome missile defense system purchased in Britain is also seen as a gesture indicating their good will toward Israel even as they push for a cessation of hostilities.

But the notion that Western democracies ought to be neutral in a battle between the one genuine democracy in the Middle East as well as the lone embattled Jewish state and a vicious Islamist dictatorship whose goal is to destroy Israel is indefensible. In effect, the British are saying that while they are not opposed to the Israelis using technology to shoot down rockets fired at Gaza, they believe that the Jewish state should do nothing to prevent those missiles from being shot at their airspace or to stop Hamas from digging tunnels they can use to cross over into Israel and carry out terrorist atrocities.

The point of this British pressure is not just to hamper the Israel Defense Forces’ efforts to seek out and destroy Hamas missile launches or terror centers. The purpose of the gesture is to add to the growing campaign of international pressure that seeks to force Israel to make concessions to Hamas in order to prevent further fighting. Though Hamas has repeatedly turned down and broken ceasefires and the entire war was fought largely at the insistence of the Islamist group, the onus for ending this round of fighting is largely being placed on Israel.

But the proposed concessions, such as the freeing of terrorist prisoners or an end to the blockade of Gaza that makes it more difficult for the Islamists to gain new supplies of arms, rockets, and materials used to fortify the strip, are hardly neutral. If Israel is forced to give in, the result would be to further empower Hamas and to reward terrorism. That would only hasten the inevitable next round of fighting.

It should be understood that any embargo on Israel would not be matched by a ban on arms sales or funding for Hamas from its sponsors in Turkey and Qatar. Those concessions will also make it easier for Hamas to rearm and to import the materials it uses to both protect its arsenal, leaders and fighters (though not the people of Gaza) and to build new tunnels from which they hope to send terrorists to kill Jews.

How would the Brits have treated a decision on the part of the United States in 1940 to approve the sale of anti-aircraft guns to the one nation standing alone against the Nazis, but not other armaments designed to take the fight to Germany? The fact that it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone in the British government that such an analogy is spot on speaks volumes about the level of prejudice against Israel.

Seen in that light, it’s clear that European neutrality is not only not very neutral, but also a shot in the arm for Hamas in its war against Israel. At a time when anti-Semitic invective that is sometimes presented as thinly veiled anti-Zionism is becoming part of mainstream culture in Europe, Britain’s decision to treat Israel’s efforts to defend itself against terrorism as beyond the pale is deeply troubling.

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The UN Human Rights Farce Gets Worse

Over the past few decades, the bias against Israel at the United Nations has reached the level of caricature. The disproportionate interest in anything that the Jewish state does matched with the world body’s general indifference to real crimes being perpetrated anywhere else is an object lesson in the definition of prejudice. But just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the choice of a man to head a UN Human Rights Council probe of the fighting in Gaza who has already called for the prosecution of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrates just how ridiculous the anti-Israel farce there has become.

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Over the past few decades, the bias against Israel at the United Nations has reached the level of caricature. The disproportionate interest in anything that the Jewish state does matched with the world body’s general indifference to real crimes being perpetrated anywhere else is an object lesson in the definition of prejudice. But just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the choice of a man to head a UN Human Rights Council probe of the fighting in Gaza who has already called for the prosecution of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrates just how ridiculous the anti-Israel farce there has become.

That the UN Human Rights Council, whose membership is made up of many of the worst dictatorships and human-rights offenders in the world, wouldn’t give Israel a fair hearing was already a given. The Council devotes most of its attention to attempts to undermine the Jewish state’s legitimacy or to promote libelous attacks on its policies. While a lot of the attention on this panel was devoted to the decision of George Clooney’s fiancée to decline participation in the probe, the appointment of Canadian law professor William Schabas demonstrates that the Council is not even interested in the appearance of fairness.

Schabas has already demonstrated his animus for Israel and actually called for Netanyahu to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague for prosecution. Lest anyone think he takes sides in Israeli political debates, he also advocated the prosecution of Shimon Peres in a comment in which he compared Israel’s actions in Gaza to the genocide in Darfur.

The organization UN Watch, which performs the tiresome yet essential task of monitoring the unfortunate doings of the Human Rights Council, assembled this collection of quotes and dubious positions from Schabas. A dive into his record shows that he is not only an avowed foe of Israel but also something of an apologist for Iran.

Of course, the appointment of someone like Schabas is hardly unique in the history of the UN, a world body where anti-Semitism and hatred for Israel is deeply embedded into the culture of the institution. Why, then should we bother even commenting on this?

The first reason is that the UN probe into Gaza will undoubtedly be used to bolster attacks on Israel and to delegitimize its right of self-defense against Hamas terrorists. No matter how outrageous the nature of anything produced by the Human Rights Council, the mere fact that such a report will bear the imprimatur of the UN will give it a hearing and a bogus legitimacy in the mainstream media.

Second, Schabas’s appointment is significant because it marks the further descent into Jew hatred at the world body.

It should be remembered that the last time the Human Rights Council injected itself into the war between Israel and Gaza, it took great pains to appear to be fair to the Jewish state. The appointment of Judge Richard Goldstone to head that probe was seen as an attempt to avoid accusations of prejudice since he was a respected member of the South African Jewish community. Goldstone was merely the beard for a UN panel determined to destroy Israel’s reputation and, until he subsequently recanted his involvement in an unfair attack on the Jewish state, an effective defense against accusations of prejudice against Israel.

More than five years later, the Human Rights Council has no such compunctions. Rather than bother putting up a chair that would pretend to be even-handed, Schabas’s anti-Israel advocacy is a statement of contempt for even the pretense of fairness. It demonstrates that in the UN world, Israel is so hated that no one there even thinks it worth the bother to staff this commission with people who are, at least in principle, unbiased.

While Schabas attempted to defend himself in an interview with Israel’s Channel 2 today, he actually just dug himself a deeper hole. Schabas not only attempted to explain his comments about Netanyahu in a way that made it clear he already thought Israel’s actions were unjustified and that he had no opinion about whether Hamas is a terrorist group; he even tried to claim that Israel gets favored treatment by the UN, an assertion so absurd that it would barely merit an attempt at refutation.

Israel should not have anything to do with a commission headed by a person whose view of the conflict is already a guarantee of bias. But the main takeaway here is not the obvious one about a report whose anti-Israel conclusions are already a certainty. It’s that anti-Semitism and hate for Israel has now reached such high levels that no one at the UN thinks it necessary to veil their bias.

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Change the Game in Gaza Talks

It’s no secret that Hamas seeks to win through post-war diplomacy what it cannot on the battlefield. Israelis—or at least Israel’s intellectual elite—can be their own worst enemies in this regard, as they seek Western gratification by downplaying Israel’s security needs and spinning reality. Just look at the pages of Haaretz on any given day. And Israel journalist Ronen Bergman describes the conclusions of many in this recent piece in the New York Times.

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It’s no secret that Hamas seeks to win through post-war diplomacy what it cannot on the battlefield. Israelis—or at least Israel’s intellectual elite—can be their own worst enemies in this regard, as they seek Western gratification by downplaying Israel’s security needs and spinning reality. Just look at the pages of Haaretz on any given day. And Israel journalist Ronen Bergman describes the conclusions of many in this recent piece in the New York Times.

Dictatorships–and the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are both dictatorships–have an advantage in shaping messages, because democratic discourse makes message discipline more difficult. That’s not to castigate democracy; individual liberty should be paramount. Still, the situation Israel finds itself in is reminiscent of the aftermath of the 2006 Hezbollah war, when so many journalists concluded Israel had lost, and never bothered to report Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s admission to Lebanese journalists that had he known how Israel was going to react in the face of Hezbollah’s kidnap attempt across Israel’s northern border, he never would have launched the mission. Nor did they report the protests of Iranian labor unions who condemned Iran’s funding of so-called Lebanese resistance at the expense of Iranian people in need.

It’s time Israel changes the game. As the Gaza talks continue, Hamas will certainly try to win the diplomatic round of its fight with Israel. Hamas knows that the international community seldom assesses the true impact of its aid and many diplomats and foreign officials are loath to let a good crisis go to waste, never mind the implications of their actions. So here is the New York Times castigating Israel for not fulfilling the Oslo Accords’ call for a Gaza seaport, never mind that Hamas doesn’t accept the Oslo Accords. Norway, of course, has begun preparations for a new donor conference for Gaza, in effect rewarding Hamas for the violence it began with is missile salvos and diverted humanitarian supplies channeled into tunnel and bunker construction. And here’s the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which by its own founding charter should have ceased to exist a half century ago, using the crisis in order to fundraise, never mind its own complicity in the crisis by allowing its schools to be transformed into weapons depots.

Diplomacy is war by other means. Israel’s diplomats have long been the keystone cops of Israeli officialdom, as the best and the brightest try more for careers in the private sector, military, or intelligence. Let us hope that they hold firm at the table and, rather than mow grass with all due respect to Efraim Inbar, they seek to change the game permanently.

Israeli historian and writer Moshe Dann emails with some good ideas:

The government of Israel could require that funds for reconstruction be used to build in uninhabited areas south of Gaza City and far from Israel’s borders. Under no circumstances should UNRWA be allowed to rebuild its facilities, as they have proven incapable of supervising their properties. In addition, El Arish can be used by Gazans as a port for exporting produce. Gazans should be allowed to relocate in the uninhabited areas between El Arish and the Gaza Strip, as well as other areas of Sinai. Reconstructions funds should be allocated to build a water desalination plant. Neighborhoods which were used to fire rockets should not be reconstructed. They should be used only for public purposes — parks, playgrounds, etc.

Let’s put the El Arish question aside for another day. Dann is absolutely right that UNRWA should not be permitted to rebuild facilities which it allowed to be corrupted. I would go further and suggest that any deal include the provision for the phased withdrawal of UNRWA altogether. The Palestinians want to govern their own affairs? Let them, without the promise of endless subsidy.

The urban planning—some of which admittedly takes on a security dimensions—is under-discussed but extremely important. With Western diplomats and UN officials essentially acting as zoning officers, telling Israel where it can and cannot build, there is no reason why they cannot reprise that role in the Gaza Strip.

A ceasefire is not enough, nor should the Gaza Strip become the scene for some sort of lethal Groundhog Day. It’s time to change the rules of the diplomatic game.

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Obama’s Failures Once Helped Rand Paul; Are They Now Impeding Him?

It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

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It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

Luck has been at his side as well. Events tend to shape elections, though it’s not always clear just how much. (The 2008 financial crash probably didn’t cost John McCain the election to Barack Obama, but it certainly didn’t help. The Russia-Georgia war of that year was expected to be helpful to McCain, but it didn’t provide any noticeable bounce.) There’s no question, however, that current events during Rand Paul’s first term in the Senate have been in his wheelhouse.

The NSA scandal, a botched undeclared war in Libya, bureaucratic belly flops like the ObamaCare exchange, and abuse-of-power scandals like the IRS targeting have all helped Paul and his supporters make the case that the government needs to be reined in. Back in December, a Gallup poll found a record high percent of Americans consider big government to be a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. And last February, Pew found that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans considered the federal government to be a threat to their rights and freedoms.

And then, like any story about conservatives that is years old, the New York Times even caught on, publishing a magazine essay last week asking: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The story ran a cover photo of Rand Paul.

Paul’s luck was bound to run out eventually, and just as he could thank President Obama’s string of domestic failures and abuses for his momentum, so too can he rue Obama’s colossal foreign-policy failures for the fact that events have reversed the tide on him. The Lightbringer giveth, the Lightbringer taketh away.

A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist. The Age of Obama, alas, is not. President Obama’s attempt to pull America back from a tenuous global balance was a bit like the would-be amateur magician’s first attempt to pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the plates and glassware. It wasn’t really thought through, and everything came crashing down.

And so we find ourselves going back into Iraq and trying to put out the fires Obama and John Kerry started elsewhere in the Middle East. Even Hillary Clinton has abandoned her former boss, joining with the interventionists to try to restore some order and push back the advance of terror pseudostates. What say you, Rand Paul? The senator, after a few days of silence, offered his thoughts on the airstrikes to push back ISIS in Iraq:

“I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said.

Paul has cemented himself as one of the leading potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates with a libertarian brand of conservatism that includes skepticism of foreign military intervention. However, he was initially conspicuously silent on the airstrikes and did not respond to requests to comment on the issue from multiple media outlets including Business Insider.

Along with implying ISIS grew because the U.S. did not back other groups in the fighting in Syria, Paul pointed out some of the same foreign policy hawks who support the current airstrikes also wanted to launch military operations against Assad.

“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year,” said Paul. “Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

Paul said the examples of Syria and ISIS show why some Americans might want a more “moderate” foreign policy.

In addition to not really answering the question (though we can certainly allow for some nuance), Paul seems to suggest that lack of intervention in Syria helped create this crisis, which apparently is a case for less intervention. Also, he senses hypocrisy in those who want to intervene against ISIS and also against Assad while Assad is fighting ISIS too.

Yet the point only really holds if those are the only two sides in the dispute. They’re not. There are also non-ISIS, non-Assad aligned forces. In seeking to help the Kurds and save the Yazidis in Iraq, for example, we’re not actively allying ourselves with Assad next door. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously: prevent genocide and build up the defensive capabilities of an American-aligned minority enclave in Kurdistan. Those who support intervention believe we have a responsibility to our allies and would gain strategically by strengthening a proxy that could shoulder some of the burden during our period of retrenchment.

That may or may not be correct ultimately (I think it is, and I think our experience with Israel and Jordan shows the potential). But I don’t think Paul comes off as being comfortable at all with this debate. Perhaps his luck has run out, or maybe it’s on temporary leave. But foreign policy has reasserted itself, and with two years left in Obama’s term, it’s likely to stick around.

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Bernie May Drive Hillary Nuts

As I noted yesterday, Hillary Clinton’s decision to criticize President Obama’s foreign-policy failures indicates that she believes the field has been cleared for her to take the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. But while there’s little doubt she will be her party’s choice, her shift to the center this early in the process guarantees that someone from the left will step up to challenge her. And though she may have scared all the credible contenders, it would be unwise for her camp to dismiss the impact of a Bernie Sanders candidacy on her chances to win the presidency.

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As I noted yesterday, Hillary Clinton’s decision to criticize President Obama’s foreign-policy failures indicates that she believes the field has been cleared for her to take the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. But while there’s little doubt she will be her party’s choice, her shift to the center this early in the process guarantees that someone from the left will step up to challenge her. And though she may have scared all the credible contenders, it would be unwise for her camp to dismiss the impact of a Bernie Sanders candidacy on her chances to win the presidency.

If Clinton isn’t shaking in her boots about the prospect of facing off against the Vermont senator, it’s hard to blame her. Even the self-proclaimed socialist with the thick New York accent doesn’t think he is likely to be elected president. In many ways, Sanders is a political consultant’s nightmare of a candidate with extreme views and about as much charisma as a soggy potato. But it is precisely because he has no plans for future runs at high office that he is potentially so dangerous to Clinton’s ultimate goal of winning the general election.

Sanders had already been making noises about his willingness to run in 2016 in order to ensure that the left’s issues are heard. But in an interview published on Yahoo News yesterday he made clear that Clinton’s attempt to leave her party’s base out in the cold would draw a stiff rebuke from liberals and ensure that the primary process will not be a coronation.

While Sanders did not go so far as to promise to try to stop Clinton or to change the direction of her candidacy, his criticism was pointed enough to encourage speculation that he is prepared to run. According to Sanders, Clinton is not sufficiently interested in the issue of income inequality:

“What is her agenda? I don’t know. You don’t know. She hasn’t said.”

Short of a tilt back to the left, it appears Sanders is willing to be the one to carry the water for the liberal base in 2016. While no one should think he is likely to beat out Clinton, a Sanders candidacy does have the potential to play havoc with Clinton’s strategy.

First, it should be understood that the very fact that Sanders isn’t serious about the presidency would make him dangerous. Unlike some other potential Democratic contenders, Sanders isn’t worried about offending the Clintons or anyone else in the party. Moreover, as a figure of the left and avowed independent, Sanders is more interested in ideology than Democratic Party unity or winning general elections.

That will mean he won’t shy away from hot button issues, both foreign and domestic, in an effort to either hammer the more centrist frontrunner for her apostasy or to embarrass her into tacking back to the left.

What Clinton and perhaps other Democrats who would prefer to avoid messy primaries may forget is that despite the discipline exhibited by so many liberals in recent years, there’s nothing like a hopeless underdog presidential challenge to engage the sympathies of primary voters. That means Sanders doesn’t have to appear presidential or even to make all that much sense in order to gain the sympathy of many Democrats. And, unlike conservative outliers running for the Republican nomination in recent years, Sanders won’t be pilloried as a nut case the way someone like Michele Bachmann was when she ran in 2012.

Instead, Sanders will be portrayed as a feisty truth-telling codger who won’t lie down for the Clinton machine. Though he has no chance of ever being nominated, he could roll up impressive totals in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire where minority voters—more inclined to support Clinton rather than an ideologue like Sanders—won’t play as much of a role.

That means Clinton’s strategy of attempting to run a general election-style campaign for president from start to finish may not play out the way she thinks. Indeed, her neoconservative tilt on foreign policy may only egg on Sanders and gain him votes from many Democrats who will feel that casting a symbolic ballot against Hillary will prevent her from straying too far from left-wing orthodoxy.

Rather than providing a stress-free primary season as Clinton thought, a Sanders challenge may actually be far more trouble for the former first lady than one from a more mainstream Democrat like former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is more afraid of offending the Clintons and has an eye on the future.

As we saw in 2008, Clinton is not merely vulnerable to an attack from her left flank; she is also a poor candidate who finds it hard to avoid trouble on the stump or even with friendly interviewers. Though Sanders may not be able to stop Hillary, he could make her life miserable. The path back to the White House for Clinton seems smooth, but a spirited left-wing challenge could undo all her plans and force her to not only spend time and resources battling other Democrats but undermine the united party front that appears ready to back her effort to become the first female president.

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Is America to Blame for Iraq Violence?

Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

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Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

The accusation that the United States is responsible for the travesty wrought by ISIS is nonsense. And while some Iraqi civilians died at the hands of American forces—and for these American forces take responsibility—the notion that the United States is responsible for the entirety of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died during the years of the American military’s presence is sheer and utter nonsense. Some take that even further and go so far as to argue that the United States should give reparations to Iraq because of the war.

There are many problems with such arguments: The first is that they single out the United States intervention among many. The world is a complicated place, but this myopic and self-flagellating narrative suggests that the United States is the only player in the region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan actively funded and supported the Sunni-led insurgency, while the Islamic Republic of Iran supported Shi‘ite militias. The United States acted under its Chapter VII authority from 1990 and, even if armchair analysts want to argue that it was legally necessary to go back for re-approval to the United Nations Security Council (and therefore set the precedent of the expiration of Chapter VII resolutions), the United Nations did ultimately bless the United States as steward. The United States lost hundreds of soldiers fighting these insurgents who targeted civilians. These men and women died to protect Iraqi civilians, and many more would have died had it not been for American efforts. That proponents who blame America first and only ignore the impact of these other states is as reflective as it is dishonest.

While it’s easy to blame insurgent violence on outsiders—and, indeed, Iraqis have always blamed foreign fighters disproportionately to absolve themselves of their own role—the fact of the matter is many Iraqis turned their guns on their fellow countrymen. Responsibility for such action rests on those pulling the trigger, those giving religious imprimatur to their actions, those accepting money to enable it. If there’s one thing that could make the Middle East a far better, more peaceful place, it is personal accountability. Conspiracies thrive as a means to absolve individuals and communities of responsibility. It is condescending if not racist to suggest Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, or members of any other community should be absolved of accountability for actions in which they individually participated, funded, or supported.

One of the most corrosive practices of journalism is the use of the passive voice: Newspapers relate how, for example, “a bomb went off at a school and killed 20” but never bother to report who planted the bomb or what efforts went into that terror attack. Terrorism is seldom random. Three weeks before a bomb explodes killing those school children, terrorists or informants scoped out that site among others and determined at what time they could have maximum impact. Whenever a journalist uses the passive voice, it’s an indication that they either do not know the subject of the action or they want to obfuscate it. It is a lot harder to be sympathetic to terrorists or suggest they are motivated by the most reasonable of grievances—as Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis did yesterday on the Baltimore NPR affiliate (link not yet available)—when audiences are forced to confront the reality of their actions.

There is also a logical fallacy to the idea that America is always responsible when such accusations are transposed onto policy. How many people have criticized America for doing nothing, for example, when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds (never mind that it was the Germans and the Dutch who sold the chemical precursors to Saddam, and not the United States)? And yet, in the face of atrocity, their policy advice is to do nothing? Likewise, if critics of U.S. policy consider the United States to be guilty of original sin for entering Iraq, then wouldn’t it compound the problem not to seek to prevent outcomes which lead to greater civilian deaths?

Syria shows clearly what happens when the United States does not intervene when it has an opportunity to do so. So too does Rwanda. While hard-hearted realists might say the United States had no business in Rwanda, the fact of the matter is that ISIS arose in Syria. Even if analysts wish to trace its evolution to its current form from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq, it shows moral inversion to suggest that al-Qaeda should be considered legitimate and indigenous in Iraq or, again, that the United States should not seek to crush it.

Would Iraq have been a better place had Saddam remained in power? Well, for the minority of Iraqis who were Arab Sunnis, perhaps. But not for Kurds living under the threat of continuing genocide, the Yezidis who are also Kurds (Yezidism being a religion and Kurds being an ethnicity), or for the majority of the country who were Shi‘ites. Baathism is an ethnic chauvinist party as much as Nazism. Nor is it fair to paint the entire Sunni Arab community as Baathists. While historians can still debate whether the invasion of Iraq was wise or not, what is beyond debate is the fact that Saddam planned to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program. This is affirmed both by captured documents and interviews with former officials.

Saddam Hussein was 66 years old when the United States invaded Iraq, and 69 when he was executed. Today he would have been 77 years old, assuming he was still alive. Had he died, the world would have confronted an Iraq governed by his malevolent sons or, if they were unable to consolidate power, then the ethnic and sectarian discord that Iraq currently confronts.

Our commentariat’s self-flagellation is dishonest and destructive. Perhaps some pundits think it will score domestic political points, but it also plays into the hands of those who mean America harm, those who embrace conspiracy theories about our intent, and those who seek to shirk accountability for their own murderous objectives. The United States is not the center of the world, even though sometimes only the United States has the logistical ability and wherewithal to try to make the world a better place.

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It’s the Obama Optics, Not the Golf

President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.

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President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.

As Lawrence Knutson writes today in Politico, the president is never entirely on vacation wherever he goes. The occupant of the White House lives, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “above the store” and even when they leave it for ranches, beaches, or other retreats, they bring the business with them in the form of armies of aides who are there to ensure that the government continues to run smoothly. Presidents have been leaving the seat of government to spend time at either their own homes or resorts since the time of George Washington. And their critics have never shied away from abusing them for doing so, even when such comments are transparently partisan in nature. Democrats pile on Republican presidents for taking breaks and the GOP returns the favor with both sides conveniently forgetting their lack of outrage when one of their one was the target.

But even if I agree that the routine carping about presidential vacations is hypocritical and off the point, there is something to the rumblings about the Obamas that goes above and beyond the normal grousing as well as the run-of-the-mill hysteria that he inspires in certain sectors of the political right.

The problem with the Obama vacation is both the habits of this particular president and bad timing.

While no one can say that Obama—or any president for that matter—doesn’t work hard, he has a habit of acting as if the normal rules of political behavior don’t apply to him. This president has spent more days golfing than any of his recent predecessors. While George W. Bush spent more days away from the White House—principally at his Texas ranch or at the family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, both of which functioned routinely as little White Houses—Obama has never shown he cares much about the optics of being seen recreating while terrible things are happening. Bush stopped playing golf in 2003 after the war in Iraq began principally because he believed it didn’t look right for the president to be strolling the links while Americans faced death abroad. Obama has no such compunctions.

The timing is also a problem. It can be argued that there is something bad happening somewhere on the globe every day of the year. But there is something particularly egregious about Obama loafing around while the successful outcome in the Iraq War that he inherited from Bush is transformed into a victory for Islamist terrorists.

As even his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted this past weekend, the disaster in Iraq is a direct consequence of decisions that Obama has made. The rise and spread of the ISIS caliphate wouldn’t have been possible without Obama’s choice to bail on Iraq. For him to treat this catastrophe for both human rights and U.S. interests as not worth changing his schedule over—even as he ordered U.S. air crews into action to launch strikes against the terrorists—is simply bad optics.

It wouldn’t have cost him much to delay his trip, even for a day or two, to be seen consulting with military leaders and advisors over this issue. But like everything else about Obama, it appears that he believes his historic status means he doesn’t play by the same rules other politicians have to live by.

While, like all presidents, Obama is entitled to some vacation time, postponing the getaway would have demonstrated both sincerity and a willingness to take responsibility for his own mistakes.

Losing a round or two of golf just to show the world and an American people who have already begun to dismiss Obama as the lamest of lame ducks that he is on the job would not have been a tragedy for the president or his family. Moreover, given the cushy nature of presidential retirement, it’s not unfair to tell commanders-in-chief that they should postpone most of their time off to the period when they leave the White House and begin their permanent post-White House vacation. While the responsibilities they must shoulder are crushing, the perks of presidential life are such that no one need waste much sympathy on Obama giving up a bit of his free time to look like he cares about Iraq and the other international crises that is unable or unwilling to do much about.

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“The Tide of War is Receding,” “We Don’t Do Stupid [Stuff],” and Other Myths  

Given unfolding events in the world–the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the breaking apart of Iraq and Libya, the war between Israel and Hamas, fears of destabilization in Jordan, the radicalization and rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, the mistrust toward America by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, an emboldened China in the South China Sea, and strained relations with allies in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia–it might be worth calling attention to some of President Obama’s statements on foreign policy and national security over the years. I’ve included excerpts and headlines from newspaper and magazine articles following quotes from Mr. Obama, in order to help provide context and clarify the record.

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Given unfolding events in the world–the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the breaking apart of Iraq and Libya, the war between Israel and Hamas, fears of destabilization in Jordan, the radicalization and rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, the mistrust toward America by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, an emboldened China in the South China Sea, and strained relations with allies in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia–it might be worth calling attention to some of President Obama’s statements on foreign policy and national security over the years. I’ve included excerpts and headlines from newspaper and magazine articles following quotes from Mr. Obama, in order to help provide context and clarify the record.

Think of this as an exercise in accountability, then; in holding Mr. Obama not to my standards but to his, to measure what he said he’d do against what he has actually done and what has come to pass.

* * * *

“The tide of war is receding.”–Address to the nation, June 22, 2011

“The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s… In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.”–“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2014

* * * *

“These long wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] will come to a responsible end.”–Address to the nation, June 22, 2011

“The crisis gripping Iraq escalated rapidly on Thursday with a re-energized Islamic State in Iraq and Syria storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq’s most formidable military force, the Kurdish pesh merga, was routed in the face of the onslaught.”–“Jihadists Rout Kurds in North and Seize Strategic Iraqi Dam”, New York Times, August 8, 2014

“In one of the most significant coordinated assaults on the government in years, the Taliban have attacked police outposts and government facilities across several districts in northern Helmand Province, sending police and military officials scrambling to shore up defenses and heralding a troubling new chapter as coalition forces prepare to depart… With a deepening political crisis in Kabul already casting the presidential election and long-term political stability into doubt, the Taliban offensive presents a new worst-case situation for Western officials: an aggressive insurgent push that is seizing territory even before American troops have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.”–“Taliban Mount Major Assault in Afghanistan”, New York Times, June 27, 2014

* * * *

“The analogy we use around here sometimes [in describing ISIS], and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”–Quoted in the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected. Should ISIS continue this pattern of consolidation and expansion, this terrorist ‘army’ will eventually be able to exert a destabilizing influence far beyond the immediate area.”–Janine Davidson, Council on Foreign Relations, July 24, 2014

* * * *

“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”–Responding to a question about the fall of Falluja to ISIS, the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

“U.S. expands airstrikes against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.”–Washington Post headline, August 8, 2014

* * * *

“What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision… the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left… So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were — a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.”–President Obama, asked by reporters if he had any second thoughts about pulling all ground troops out of Iraq, August 9, 2014

“After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011… So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”–Remarks to the press corps, October 21, 2011

“At one meeting, [Nouri al-] 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.”–“What We Left Behind”, Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker, April 28, 2014

“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.”– “What We Left Behind”, Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker, April 28, 2014

* * * *

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”–Remarks to the White House press corps, August 20, 2012

“US attack on Syria delayed after surprise U-turn from Obama”–the Guardian headline, August 31, 2013

“Forensic Details in U.N. Report Point to Assad’s Use of [Deadly Chemical] Gas.”–New York Times headlines, September 16, 2013

* * * *

“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”–“Obama on the World”, Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 8, 2014

“President Obama got angry at lawmakers who suggested in a private meeting that he should have armed the Syrian rebels, calling the criticism ‘horsesh*t.’”–“Obama Told Lawmakers Criticism of His Syria Policy is ‘Horsesh*t'”, Josh Rogan, the Daily Beast, August 11, 2014

“The White House … proposed a major program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, in a significant expansion of the U.S. role in a civil war that officials fear is bleeding into Iraq and across the region. The Obama administration requested $500 million—a larger amount than expected—to aid the Syrian opposition, reflecting growing U.S. alarm at the expanding strength of Islamist forces in Syria, who in recent weeks have asserted control of large parts of neighboring Iraq and now pose threats to U.S. allies in the region.”–“Obama Proposes $500 Million to Aid Syrian Rebels”Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2014

* * * *

“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free… Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.”–Address to the United Nations, September 21, 2011

“The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighbouring Tunisia under US military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said. ‘Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the US embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,’ a spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said.”–“US closes embassy in Libya after militia battles in Tripoli”, the Guardian, July 26, 2014

* * * *

“In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”–Commencement address at West Point, May 28, 2014

“With all the talk of coming home, of nation building at home, the perception has grown increasingly around the world that the U.S. is pulling back from the global responsibilities that it has shouldered for many decades. I believe Russia and China, among others, see that void and are moving to see what advantage they can take of it.”–President Obama’s former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, quoted in The Huffington Post, May 21, 2014

“[Obama’s is] a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”–“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy”, Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker, May 2, 2011

* * * *

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end. I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…”–Remarks at Cairo University, June 4, 2009

“In a number of strategically important Muslim nations, America’s image has not improved during the Obama presidency. In fact, America’s already low 2008 ratings have slipped even further in Jordan and Pakistan… in the Middle East there is little enthusiasm for a second term – majorities in Egypt (76%), Jordan (73%) and Lebanon (62%) oppose Obama’s re-election… There is little support for Obama, however, in the predominantly Muslim nations surveyed. Fewer than three-in-ten express confidence in him in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan. And … just 7% of Pakistanis have a positive view of Obama.”–“Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted”, Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, June 13, 2012

* * * *

 “Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage.  If we don’t, no one else will.”–Commencement address at West Point, May 28, 2014

“Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding… Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. ‘It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,’ the adviser said. ‘But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.’”–“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy”, Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker, May 2, 2011

* * * *

President Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space… This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

President Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”–Exchange between President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, March 26, 2012

“Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West”–New York Times headline, March 18, 2014

* * * *

“The truth is that Mr. Putin acted out of weakness, not out of strength.”–President Obama in a radio interview (KNSD) speaking about the Russian invasion of Crimea, March 20, 2014

“Putin clearly indicated [in a March 18 speech to parliament] he believes that borders drawn even earlier — right after the revolution of 1917 — can and should be redrawn. In other words, he positions contemporary Russia as the heir to the Russian Empire as it was constituted under the czars.”–Masha Gessen, Russian American journalist and author, “After carving up Ukraine, where will Putin turn next?”, Washington Post, May 9, 2014

“The Levada Center, a well-respected independent polling center, has also found that Putin had a 72 percent approval rating, up 7 points from January and a recent record. To put that in context on a world stage, U.S. president Barack Obama is currently at 43 percent, according to Gallup, while 79 percent of the French say they don’t approve of Francois Hollande’s presidency. Putin isn’t just popular, he’s extraordinarily popular.”–“We treat him like he’s mad, but Vladimir Putin’s popularity has just hit a 3-year high”, Adam Taylor, Washington Post, March 13, 2014

* * * *

“We don’t do stupid sh*t.”–President Obama describing his foreign policy doctrine in private conversations to reporters, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats”, New York Times, May 28, 2014

“The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.”–“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2014

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”–President Obama’s former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, August 10, 2014

 * * * *

“I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”–Barack Obama, September 6, 2008

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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