Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 21, 2014

Sanctions and Appeasement: 1941 and 2014

There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

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There are reasons to doubt whether the sanctions that have been enacted against Russia as a result of its aggression against Ukraine will work. But the argument made against them in today’s New York Times by Paul Saunders about the analogy between today’s sanctions and those imposed on Japan in 1941 isn’t one of them.

The executive director of the “realist” Center for the National Interest think tank is clearly opposed to Western sanctions on Russia. Instead, he says, the U.S. should be offering the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin some carrots along with the threat of a stick or two. He worries that that the constant attacks on Russian policy combined with President Obama’s lack of credibility will not only not deter Putin from more adventurism; he thinks it might actually impel Moscow to do the unthinkable and launch invasions of former Soviet republics that are today NATO allies of the U.S. like the Baltic states.

Saunders is right that no matter what policy the administration pursues, without Russia believing that Obama is serious about stopping them, nothing will work. In that sense, sanctions may well ultimately fail.

But Saunders’ argument that the only applicable precedent for the standoff with Russia today is the failed attempt by the United States to force Japan to cease its campaign of aggression in Asia is completely off the mark.

Saunders is correct that the U.S.-Japan dispute involved miscalculations on both sides. President Franklin Roosevelt feared that Japanese aggression in Asia and the Pacific would ultimately end in armed conflict. Yet the oil embargo imposed on the Japanese Empire and the seizure of their assets in the U.S. was an attempt to give Tokyo a chance to back down before it was too late. Rather than seizing an opportunity for negotiations that might have provided them with a chance to avoid a suicidal war, Japanese militarists saw the sanctions as a challenge to their legitimacy that must be met with further aggression. Hence, rather than slow down the path to war, the embargo may have speeded it up.

From this, Saunders draws the lesson that great powers can’t be deterred by economic sanctions, only incited to up the ante in a game of international poker. The Japanese wrongly thought Roosevelt was bluffing and believed the U.S. was too materialistic and spiritually weak to wage a war of annihilation against them. Perhaps, similarly, the Russians today believe, not without some justification, that the Obama administration will ultimately back down if push comes to shove. The fear that Iran has the same evaluation of Obama’s character and fortitude makes the current nuclear negotiations with Tehran all the more perilous.

But the analogy with Japan gives Putin and Russia too much credit. Japan was vulnerable to economic sanctions because of its lack of national resources and dependence on oil imports. But it was also an expanding empire with a crack military machine whose hunger for great power status and hemispheric hegemony was such that it could not be stopped by negotiations or bought off. It had been waging an active genocidal war of aggression in China since 1937 and its occupation of Indochina (today’s Vietnam) illustrated its intentions to expand even further. There was never any chance that anything short of war would ever force Japan to give up its Chinese conquests or their dream of Pacific domination.

By contrast, as dangerous as Putin might be, his nation is a shell of a once formidable empire with a ramshackle military that struggled to deal with Chechen rebels and is now flummoxed by the ragtag army opposing them in eastern Ukraine. Though it stole a march on the Ukrainians and seized Crimea with ease, the Russians appear to be in retreat with little sign that they would dare risk a conflict with the West by attacking members of NATO. Putin would like to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. But if the U.S. and its European allies were sufficiently determined to punish Russia—something that is still in doubt even after the atrocity of the shooting down of a civilian airliner over eastern Ukraine by Russian loyalists—Moscow would be put in a difficult spot with little alternative but to back down.

But Saunders, stuck as he is in his realist mindset, seems to miss a broader point about the arc of American foreign policy than just the narrow question of the utility of sanctions. The “proud empire” of Japan that the U.S. sought to deter was an ally of Nazi Germany and already guilty of unimaginable atrocities when sanctions were imposed on them. A U.S. deal that would have left them in possession of China was not an option, even for an American government that would have preferred not to fight. The notion of a reasonable accommodation between the U.S. and Japan was not merely far-fetched but immoral, something that Roosevelt, though hopeful of staying out of the war that had already begun in Europe and Asia, seemed to understand. Just as appeasement of Japan’s ally Germany failed, so, too, would the course of action that Saunders seems to think would have been a good idea.

America’s embrace of sanctions against nations like Japan and Russia is a function of its values and interests, not merely a calculated effort to pursue a great power agenda. Feeding the appetite of nations like Japan and Russia for small nations never works. While some policymakers are too glib about using World War Two-era analogies about the dangers of appeasement, rethinking the virtues of such a discreditable course of action is even more misguided.

Saunders’ fears of a too-forceful use of American economic power is not only misplaced with respect to Russia; the idea that the goal of these confrontations is splitting the difference with aggressors is his real mistake. Offering Japan enough carrots in order to avoid an attack on U.S. territories would have been a disaster. The same is true of any misguided effort to buy off Putin.

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Like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, Hamas Is Fair Game

Hamas supporters came out in their thousands today in Gaza for the funerals of three senior commanders of the terror group’s “military” wing. The trio, along with their chief, Mohammad Deif, whose fate is still unknown, was targeted by Israeli air strikes after days of renewed rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli cities. While no one blinks an eye when the U.S. takes out leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists throughout the Middle East, the deaths of these Hamas figures is being discussed as a provocation that may well lead to more fighting that could have been avoided. But the attempt to draw any meaningful distinctions between Hamas and al-Qaeda or ISIS murderers in Syria and Iraq is mistaken.

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Hamas supporters came out in their thousands today in Gaza for the funerals of three senior commanders of the terror group’s “military” wing. The trio, along with their chief, Mohammad Deif, whose fate is still unknown, was targeted by Israeli air strikes after days of renewed rocket fire from Gaza on Israeli cities. While no one blinks an eye when the U.S. takes out leaders of al-Qaeda affiliates and other jihadists throughout the Middle East, the deaths of these Hamas figures is being discussed as a provocation that may well lead to more fighting that could have been avoided. But the attempt to draw any meaningful distinctions between Hamas and al-Qaeda or ISIS murderers in Syria and Iraq is mistaken.

The targeted killings of this latest group of Hamas murderers will, no doubt, set off the usual chorus of critiques of Israel from those who will claim that this action will somehow be the cause of more violence. As with acts of Israeli self-defense, we will be told that their deaths will sow the seeds of new generations of terrorists.

Throughout the history of Israel’s battles with Palestinian terror factions, Israel’s security services have been constantly lectured about the costs of their successes as well as their near misses.

Whenever attempts to take out known terrorists fail or result (as is often the case with similar attacks by the U.S. on al-Qaeda figures) in casualties among civilians or family members of the targets, Israel is lectured for its inability to differentiate between combatants and non-combatants. But when it does manage to take out Hamas members personally responsible for terror attacks, it is then told that doing so will anger the Palestinians so much that it will only cause them to double down on their war on the Jewish state.

But this is a circular argument. Palestinian terrorists have been waging war on the Jewish presence in the country for almost a century. Their determination to keep fighting has not been deterred by the Jewish acceptance of various partition plans to share the country or peace offers. Nor has it ever been primarily motivated by any particular Israeli counter-attack or defensive measure. Hamas will continue attacking Israel—as it has this week after the collapse of the latest ceasefire—not because they’re upset about what happened to Deif and his comrades but because their belief system will not allow them to make peace, no matter what the Israelis do. The next generations of terror are not motivated so much by specific tales of “martyrs”—be they terrorist killers or civilian casualties—as they are by the mission of avenging the real offense given by Israelis: their presence in their historic homeland that Hamas and other Palestinian factions believe should be cleansed of Jews.

It is precisely the implacable nature of the conflict with Hamas that makes the distinctions drawn between U.S. strikes on al-Qaeda and now ISIS so unfair and misleading.

While House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other credulous liberals may believe the propaganda spewed by Hamas ally Qatar about it being a social welfare organization, the truth is that it is just as much a terror group as those more notorious groups that target Westerners and Americans. Though much of the Western media seems intent on sanitizing Hamas and ignoring its use of human shields, it needs no lessons in brutality from either al-Qaeda or ISIS, as the deaths of the Palestinians who have been killed for dissenting from their tyrannical rule of Gaza could attest.

As is the case with ISIS, there is no compromising with Hamas. Just as the Islamist terrorists in Iraq and Syria will not be bribed or cajoled into giving up their goal of imposing their religiously inspired nightmare vision on the world, neither will Hamas be satisfied with anything less than the eradication of Israel and the genocide of its Jewish population.

As with ISIS, there is no “political solution” to a conflict with Hamas, only a military one. So long as Hamas is allowed to remain in power in Gaza, there is no hope for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Like Osama bin Laden and those who seek to kill Americans today, Hamas operatives are fair game for targeted assassinations. While the aim of Israeli Defense Force strikes on Hamas targets may not be any more perfect than those of their American counterparts elsewhere, they provide the only answer to an ideology that can’t be appeased.

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No, Virginia, There Is No Swing Voter

If a tree falls in the forest, and only swing voters are around to hear it, does it make a sound?

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If a tree falls in the forest, and only swing voters are around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Whatever your answer is to the original philosophical question, it should remain unchanged in this version. Swing voters, like political “independents,” are rarely more than science fiction.

That is not to say that voters never change their minds. It’s that when they do so, they tend to trade one opinion for another, not graduate from being undecided (no matter what they tell pollsters). More evidence for this comes from Columbia University’s Andrew Gelman, who takes to the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog to explain the results of his latest political science survey, conducted along with coauthors David Rothschild, Sharad Goel, and Doug Rivers.

At the blog, Gelman quotes the study’s abstract:

How can election polls swing so much given the increasingly polarized nature of American politics, where switching one’s support between candidates is a significant move? We investigate this question by conducting a novel panel survey of 83,283 people repeatedly polled over the last 45 days of the 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign. We find that reported swings in public opinion polls are generally not due to actual shifts in vote intention, but rather are the result of temporary periods of relatively low response rates by supporters of the reportedly slumping candidate. After correcting for this bias, we show there were nearly constant levels of support for the candidates during what appeared, based on traditional polling, to be the most volatile stretches of the campaign. Our results raise the possibility that decades of large, reported swings in public opinion — including the perennial “convention bounce” — are largely artifacts of sampling bias.

He adds:

The short story is much of the apparent changes in public opinion are actually changes in patterns of nonresponse:  When it looked like Romney jumped in popularity, what was really happening was that disaffected Democrats were not responding to the survey while resurgent Republicans were more likely to respond.

Gelman also notes a bit of humorous backstory:

This is a big deal and it represents a major change in my thinking compared to my 1993 paper with Gary King, “Why are American Presidential election campaign polls so variable when votes are so predictable?” At that time, we gave an explanation for changes in opinion, but in retrospect, now I’m thinking that many of these apparent swings were really just differential nonresponse.  Funny that we never thought of that.

That original question, though, arguably has accrued more relevance over the last two decades. It also seems like a fascinating reversal of process. Polls always carried with them a sense of scientific authority (today they are just plain fetishized). So even though the variability of polls in many elections just didn’t seem right, there wasn’t much more to that. The numbers said one thing and instincts or personal experience another. The numbers always won out. Gelman and Co. have flipped the script in a way.

The polling “swings” are consequential, however. As the authors note in their paper, they inspire a narrative of momentum and create a bandwagon effect:

For example, the Romney campaign saw a surge in donations and volunteers in the days following the debate, attributed in part to his perceived viability. Moreover, of the $400 million raised in the month between the debate and election day, donors making rational investment decisions would have likely directed some of their contributions to tighter senatorial elections if they did not believe the race for president was so close. Further, in an age of highly targeted campaign strategies (Hillygus and Shields 2009), misunderstanding voter intent likely affects decisions ranging from state-by-state spending (over $650 million was spent in that final month) to the general tone of the candidates. Finally, major poll movements often extend into the wider world, affecting, for example, stock and commodity prices (Snowberg, Wolfers and Zitzewitz 2007).

This helps explain why Barack Obama’s campaigns have been so successful. In both 2008 and 2012, the GOP presidential nominee was not exactly beloved by the party’s base. Obama had no such struggles. As I wrote here last month, we may scoff at the methods by which the Obama team fires up the Democratic base, but it is undeniable that firing up the base is an important component of a successful campaign.

In 2012 especially, it appeared bizarre that Obama had abandoned “independent” voters for Big Bird and birth control–a strategy that relied on the angry left to power the campaign. There’s a good reason to ignore independents: as I’ve argued before, they don’t exist, at least not in the numbers the media thinks. The country is deeply polarized; according to Pew, “Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history.” Vote swings are not the result of swing voters, and campaigns should plan accordingly.

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Parsing Paul’s ‘Evolution’ on Aid to Israel

Has Senator Rand Paul’s “evolution” on support for Israel and aid to the Jewish state gone far enough? That’s the question the pro-Israel community is asking these days as the 2016 Republican presidential contender attempts to navigate a changed foreign-policy environment in the wake of recent events in the Middle East. But while some credible voices think he should be given credit for moving closer to Israel, skeptics about both his position shifts as well as his ability to bring vast numbers of young voters to his party still have the better argument.

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Has Senator Rand Paul’s “evolution” on support for Israel and aid to the Jewish state gone far enough? That’s the question the pro-Israel community is asking these days as the 2016 Republican presidential contender attempts to navigate a changed foreign-policy environment in the wake of recent events in the Middle East. But while some credible voices think he should be given credit for moving closer to Israel, skeptics about both his position shifts as well as his ability to bring vast numbers of young voters to his party still have the better argument.

One voice raised on behalf of giving Paul a chance to prove himself is Abby W. Shachter, the author of Acculturated, the indispensable cultural blog, who writes in the Pittsburgh Tribune that both left- and right-wing critics of Paul on Israel are mistaken. While acknowledging the doubts about Paul’s sincerity about being a friend of Israel, she thinks friends of Israel shouldn’t consider his longstanding opposition to foreign aid a disqualifying factor. As Shachter notes, his position on aid to Israel has evolved since he began public life as a supporter of his extremist libertarian father’s presidential candidacies. Paul now claims he’s never really advocated ending assistance to Israel and says that even if all foreign aid is eliminated, Israel should be last on the list to be cut and even voted this summer for additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system that has saved countless lives from death at the hands of Hamas missiles.

Even more significantly, the recent controversy over President Obama’s willingness to use aid as a lever to pressure Israel may make Paul’s position on the question more defensible. Many Israelis believe the president’s decision to halt ammunition sales and transfers to Israel at the height of the fighting in Gaza so as to force the Jewish state to buckle to his demands about a cease-fire should force their country to ponder whether the price of this aid is too high in terms of their independence and security. If so, then maybe Paul’s position should be regarded as actually one that is helping Israel rather than a threat to its well-being.

Shachter goes even further and cautions conservative friends of Israel to think long and hard about labeling the libertarian senator as a foe of the Jewish state. She believes his ability to bring more young voters to the GOP has caused Democrats to fear him more than other Republicans. If Paul is spurned, she fears Republicans will rue the day they repelled the youth/libertarian voters that support the Kentucky senator, especially if they back libertarian or fringe candidates in November 2016.

But I’m afraid Shachter is giving Paul too much credit for both his “evolution” on the Middle East and his ability to help Republicans win in 2016.

Let’s first understand that Paul’s attempt to spin his record on Israel is blatantly insincere. If the senator has moved far closer to mainstream views on Israel since his presidential ambitions became manifest, that also illustrates just how far he has had to come from his starting point as a supporter of his father’s hostile attitude toward the Jewish state and the need for a strong American position on the Middle East. While he never explicitly singled out Israel for aid cutoffs, it’s also true that he has always opposed any assistance, a position that he still maintains to a large degree.

It is also true that many friends of Israel are rethinking the value of aid since Obama has used the assistance to pressure Israel to adopt policies that are against its interests. Paul is right when he says Israel would be better off if it were not dependent on the United States for military aid. But the problem is that even after the disheartening spectacle of Washington betraying its sole democratic ally in the Middle East in this manner, Israel doesn’t really have an alternative to this aid, no matter how many strings come with it.

The plain fact is that while Israel has a thriving arms industry of its own, if it is to maintain its qualitative edge over its Arab and Muslim foes, it’s going to need continued help from the United States. Without U.S. funding (started under the George W. Bush administration and continued under Obama), the Iron Dome system would not have been deployed as quickly or in the numbers needed to stop Hamas’s rocket offensive this year. Iron Dome might be the most prominent example of the utility of U.S. military assistance, but it is not the only one. Like it or not, Israel needs U.S. weapons and ammunition, especially when it is forced into shooting wars where resupply of stocks becomes necessary. Seen in that context, Paul’s rhetoric about aid cutoffs being to Israel’s benefit is beside the point, if not completely insincere.

Nor does Paul’s opposition to aid make sense even from a strictly American viewpoint. The U.S. has always gained nearly as much from security cooperation with Israel as the recipients. The U.S. not only benefits from Israeli technology and intelligence but the money is almost entirely spent in the United States. The assistance given is as much aid to the U.S. arms industry as it is to Israel.

As for Paul’s ability to bring in hordes of youthful libertarians who can tip the balance in 2016, that may be more of a myth than anything else. As Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog noted earlier this week, polls give us no evidence of any potential for such a massive swing vote. Young liberals may like Paul’s foreign policy, but not much else about the libertarian. But that shouldn’t recommend him to Republicans because the only reason they do like him is that his views are actually to the left of President Obama’s generally weak posture on foreign and defense issues. Even so, there is little evidence that liberals will back a conservative libertarian for president. Nor is it likely that any defection of libertarians, who have been hostile to every GOP presidential nominee for a generation, would be enough to cost Republicans the presidency.

Thus, while Paul should be encouraged to continue to evolve, his position on Israel is still unsatisfactory. More to the point, his position on aid reflects an even greater desire for an American retreat from the Middle East than that of Obama. In the unlikely event that his views truly change, pro-Israel conservatives should give him a chance. Until then, they would do well to seek an alternative that will both support Israel and have a better chance of being elected president.

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Victory Isn’t a Dirty Word

One of the points of discord between the Israeli military establishment (plus much of its political establishment) and the West is the concept of victory. President Obama has long been criticized for wanting to “end” wars instead of win them, painting a picture of a fatigued America on the run. Western Europe has not exactly been a model of resolve in the face of aggression either. But Israelis don’t have the luxury of retreat and can’t treat as quaint the notion of victory. Military victory, in fact, has been the necessary precursor to peace for Israel.

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One of the points of discord between the Israeli military establishment (plus much of its political establishment) and the West is the concept of victory. President Obama has long been criticized for wanting to “end” wars instead of win them, painting a picture of a fatigued America on the run. Western Europe has not exactly been a model of resolve in the face of aggression either. But Israelis don’t have the luxury of retreat and can’t treat as quaint the notion of victory. Military victory, in fact, has been the necessary precursor to peace for Israel.

And now again we see Israel’s enemy, this time Hamas, on the ropes. Yet the international community either doesn’t realize it or doesn’t care. To wit: yesterday Israel killed three top Hamas commanders, including two involved in the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit. One of those terrorists, Mohammed Abu Shamaleh, was also the head of Hamas’s southern command. There were rumors, not confirmed but not debunked either, that Israel had also taken out Hamas military chief Muhammad Deif.

Hamas’s latest series of rocket barrages does not appear to have much of a strategy, and calls to mind Hamas’s visible desperation after Israel found and destroyed most of the terror tunnel network earlier in Operation Protective Edge. Furthermore, Walter Russell Mead points to a Wall Street Journal report on a planned donor conference led by Norway and hosted by Egypt to raise money for the postwar rebuilding of Gaza–a conference whose hosts don’t want Hamas in control of the cash:

“The people of Gaza are suffering, and emergency help is urgently needed,” said Borge Brende, Norway’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Basic infrastructure must be repaired, so that people get electricity, water and sewage.”

The Norwegian government said the damages in Gaza were still being assessed, but were more significant than after the 2008-2009 war. This is the third time in five years that donors have to support a reconstruction of Gaza, the government said.

“The donors want to send a clear signal that basic conditions in Gaza have to change. Gaza can’t be reconstructed as it was,” said Mr. Brende. “The international society can’t simply be expected to contribute to another reconstruction.”

Mr. Brende said the donors want President Mahmoud Abbas to receive the aid, with his Western-backed government of technocrats responsible for handling the reconstruction of Gaza.

That article is making two points: first, that Gazans will need basic infrastructure built after the war, and second–crucially–that Hamas is not the proper vehicle for that aid. It calls attention to something Israel and its supporters have been saying, and which the war has proved, time and again: giving money and goods to Hamas will not help the people of Gaza. It will, in fact, hurt them because it will enable their further deprivation at the hands of Hamas as well as turn them into human shields when Hamas uses the money and supplies to attack Israel.

This is something critics of Israel’s continued military campaign keep missing. Today, Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev tries to coax Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama into patching things up. After blaming Netanyahu for John Kerry’s absence from the ceasefire talks, Shalev writes:

But without America – even a weakened America headed by a reluctant president – there can be no long-lasting arrangement in Gaza: only America can guarantee Israel’s commitments, only America can give proper backing to the Palestinian Authority and only America can lead the kind of international effort that is needed in order to rebuild Gaza and hopefully bring about its disarmament as well. And with all due respect to the regional changes that Netanyahu mentioned in his press conference, only America is capable of facilitating the kind of diplomatic process that would lead to the “new political horizon” that Netanyahu alluded to on Wednesday, in a transparent effort to woo coalition partners on his left as well as Israel’s more centrist-minded public.

America the indispensable. Which it is. And yet, I can’t help but point out that there’s something missing here. Why was Kerry “ejected” (Shalev’s word) from the talks? It’s not because Kerry was trying to “lead the kind of international effort that is needed in order to rebuild Gaza and hopefully bring about its disarmament as well.” Kerry’s failure, in fact, was that he wasn’t doing so.

Kerry had been duped (to be generous) into presenting the kind of ceasefire that Israel’s enemies wanted and would have enabled Hamas to live to fight another day, perhaps even using those tunnels that were later destroyed. Kerry wasn’t on pace to bring about Gaza’s disarmament. What Shalev (correctly) wants out of a resolution to this conflict would have been made impossible if Kerry had his way.

Hamas once again appears to be on the ropes. A ceasefire that truly brings peace and prevents future war and terror is surely desirable. In its absence, the Israeli government shouldn’t be blamed for pursuing victory.

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Is Hillary Rooting for a GOP Senate?

For Democrats looking for some early consolation heading into a midterm election in which their party seems fated to suffer the loss of the Senate, the New York Times provides some comfort. A piece by John Harwood in today’s paper claims that while a Republican Senate would blight the last two years of the Obama presidency, it might well guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But while there is a superficial logic to his thesis the notion that the former secretary of state should be rooting for Mitch McConnell to become majority leader next January is a bit of a stretch.

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For Democrats looking for some early consolation heading into a midterm election in which their party seems fated to suffer the loss of the Senate, the New York Times provides some comfort. A piece by John Harwood in today’s paper claims that while a Republican Senate would blight the last two years of the Obama presidency, it might well guarantee the election of Hillary Clinton in 2016. But while there is a superficial logic to his thesis the notion that the former secretary of state should be rooting for Mitch McConnell to become majority leader next January is a bit of a stretch.

The argument that a Republican Senate would help Clinton’s presidential hopes is simple. If the GOP controls both the House and the Senate heading into the 2016 election, that will make it even easier for Democrats to run against what they will undoubtedly label a “do-nothing” or “obstructionist” Congress. The confrontations between the Republicans and the White House would escalate in 2015 with the president seeking to govern on his own via executive orders. At the same time, as Politico notes in an interesting preview of 2015, McConnell is planning a series of actions meant to stymie Obama’s attempts to circumvent constitutional checks and balances that could lead to a veto battle and Republicans daring Obama to shut down the government in order to force them to fund his pet projects. These struggles will feed into the media’s favorite meme about dysfunctional government in which both parties will, not without some justification, be damned as part of the problem rather than the solution.

But the notion Harwood advances that this will allow Clinton to present herself as an outside-the-Beltway figure who is not tied to this fracas is hard to swallow.

The longer an unpopular president and his more-unpopular partisan adversaries battle to a standstill, the easier it is to offer herself as a fresh start.

“It would be bad for the country,” said Stanley B. Greenberg, President Bill Clinton’s former pollster, but “total gridlock would allow Hillary to be the change.”

Mrs. Clinton has had as many political personality changes as she’s had hairdos in her decades in the public eye, but the idea that this grizzled veteran of Washington could present herself as “the change” that voters want is laughable.

Clinton’s in a strong position to win the presidency no matter what happens in November 2014. As the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, unless a credible left-wing alternative emerges to force her to abandon her criticisms of Obama’s foreign-policy failures, she has already begun the pivot to the center that most candidates can’t attempt until after they’ve won their party’s nod. More than that, as the potential first woman to be elected to the presidency, she has a compelling narrative as well as the loyalty of most party activists even if they are to her left on many issues. And with so many Republicans defending Senate seats in 2016 as the class of 2010 seeks reelection, Democrats will, with the help of their traditionally large presidential-year turnouts, have a chance to take the Senate back.

But after hanging around the capital in one guise or another and engaging in some of the nastiest gutter fights there for more than 20 years, Clinton can’t pretend to be a breath of fresh air in hyper-partisan Washington. Nor, after serving as secretary of state for four years, can she completely evade the tag of running for a third term for the Obama administration.

Just as important, if, as is likely, the next two years are marked by more bitter partisan warfare, the likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 won’t be able to stand aloof from Obama’s struggles with Congress. While the GOP House and Senate will undoubtedly make for attractive targets for Clinton’s scorn, that will tie her even more closely to Obama’s autocratic governing style rather than allowing her to distance herself from his troubled presidency. Republicans will be able to point out that Clinton’s own positions on the environment and immigration will make her just as likely to try to override the will of Congress as Obama has been.

As Harwood points out, President Obama will likely see a Clinton victory as the best chance to solidify his legacy. So will the voters. Moreover, Clinton’s opponent in 2016 won’t be McConnell or House Speaker John Boehner, much though she would love to run against either of them. In contrast to Clinton, the Republican nominee may turn out to be someone who actually is from outside the Beltway or one of those members of the Senate who are seeking to stop the business-as-usual approach to politics that Clinton embodies.

It may be that Clinton’s strengths will enable her to overcome the handicap of being tied to an unpopular and unsuccessful incumbent. But a Republican Senate won’t make that any easier. The loss of the Senate will be a body blow to liberal plans to expand government even more than Obama has already done. Doing so may not stop Clinton from winning in 2016, but it won’t make it any easier for her either.

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Why the Passive Voice on Confronting ISIS?

There is something to be said for having an aloof, unemotional intellectual as commander in chief. He is more likely to avoid the kind of trap that Ronald Reagan fell into when, deeply distressed by the fate of American hostages seized in Lebanon, he authorized what became known as an “arms for hostages” swap with Iran. (In fairness, Reagan probably convinced himself that’s not what he was doing–that he was actually undertaking a broader opening to Iran.) This deal did get a few hostages out of captivity, but Iran’s proxies in Lebanon promptly seized more hostages, thus showing for neither the first time nor the last time why it doesn’t make sense to deal with terrorists.

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There is something to be said for having an aloof, unemotional intellectual as commander in chief. He is more likely to avoid the kind of trap that Ronald Reagan fell into when, deeply distressed by the fate of American hostages seized in Lebanon, he authorized what became known as an “arms for hostages” swap with Iran. (In fairness, Reagan probably convinced himself that’s not what he was doing–that he was actually undertaking a broader opening to Iran.) This deal did get a few hostages out of captivity, but Iran’s proxies in Lebanon promptly seized more hostages, thus showing for neither the first time nor the last time why it doesn’t make sense to deal with terrorists.

President Obama was not able to resist the temptation to make a deal in return for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl but he was right to do so–notwithstanding the tragic consequences–in the case of kidnapped American journalist James Foley. It is now emerging that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria wanted a ransom of more than $100 million for his release. European states routinely make such deals, turning them into al-Qaeda’s biggest financial supporters. (By one estimate Europeans have paid $125 million in ransom to al-Qaeda and its affiliates since 2008.) The problem is that while paying ransom may succeed in freeing one hostage or one group of hostages, it is almost certainly consigning more innocents to hellish captivity. The fact that the Obama administration refuses to pay up is to its credit; that Europeans are willing to deal with terrorists is to their ever-lasting shame.

And not only did Obama refuse to pay up, he ordered Delta Force to undertake a high-risk mission to free the hostages from a location in Syria deep in ISIS-controlled territory. That, too, was the right call. It shows, once again, that this is a president who is willing to pull the trigger on Special Operations missions that past presidents might have decided were too risky to authorize. Unfortunately that mission failed and James Foley wound up being barbarically murdered.

Obama was eloquent in denouncing this act of televised sadism, but he was unclear about what he will do in response. The most he would say was: “The people of Iraq, who with our support are taking the fight to ISIL, must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their communities. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.” Note how passive this paragraph is–Obama is deliberately putting the onus on Iraqis and Syrians to fight ISIS without committing the U.S. to that group’s destruction.

Secretary of State John Kerry also issued a strong statement of condemnation, which concluded: “ISIL and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed, and those responsible for this heinous, vicious atrocity will be held accountable.” Note again the curious sentence construction, which leaves unclear who exactly will “destroy” ISIS and who will hold Foley’s murderers “accountable.”

Unfortunately the president’s words and those of his aides don’t mean much in the world today–not after they have allowed red lines to be crossed with impunity from Syria to Ukraine. Strong action is needed and that action should be designed, as I have previously said, to annihilate ISIS.

General John Allen (USMC, ret.), Obama’s former commander in Afghanistan, gets it. He just wrote: “A comprehensive American and international response now — NOW — is vital to the destruction of this threat. The execution of James Foley is an act we should not forgive nor should we forget, it embodies and brings home to us all what this group represents. The Islamic State is an entity beyond the pale of humanity and it must be eradicated. If we delay now, we will pay later.”

I agree with General Allen, but does President Obama? It’s hard to tell. Alas, the longer we wait the more chance ISIS has to go to ground and thus withstand American military action. Already there are credible reports of ISIS “emirs” fleeing Iraq for Syria. But why should they find haven there? The Iraq-Syria border barely exists anymore. The U.S., working closely with local allies (Kurds, Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi security forces, Free Syrian Army fighters) must pursue ISIS wherever it hides and destroy it. It is far from clear, however, that President Obama will order any such action. It is a paradox that this president, so decisive in ordering Special Operations strikes, appears to be so hesitant and hand-wringing when it comes to larger decisions. The time for bureaucratic deliberation is fast disappearing; it is time, as General Allen says, for action now.

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The Nasty, Brutish World of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, a prominent atheist, and a moral fool.

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Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, a prominent atheist, and a moral fool.

I say that in part (but only in part) because a woman seeking advice from him via Twitter confessed that she wouldn’t know what to do if she were pregnant with a child with Down syndrome. “Real ethical dilemma,” she wrote. But not for Dr. Dawkins. He tweeted this back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Now that is a revealing adjective, isn’t it? Note what Dr. Dawkins isn’t saying. He didn’t say (as he later claims, when clumsily and misleadingly trying to clean up his mess) that he was merely recommending that the woman abort the child. Nor did he say it’s a morally complicated decision that should evoke sympathy. Or that it’s an agonizing matter she should, say, pray over.

No siree. From his Moral Mt. Olympus Dr. Dawkins decrees that parents who decide to give birth to, and unconditionally love, a Down syndrome child are committing a moral wrong, a moral evil.

Which raises some questions: Having given birth to a Down syndrome child, what should happen to that child? Under the theory that it’s better late than never, should the infant’s life be terminated post-birth since it was immoral to allow him to be born in the first place? If not, why not? On what basis does Dawkins decide people have moral worth? What’s the intelligence quotient that allows one to be welcomed in life rather than terminated? What other imperfections morally compel us to abort a child? And why stop there? What physical and mental imperfections should be eliminated by society in order to help us meet the ethical standards of Richard Dawkins? (Those standards, for the unaware, include a defense of “mild pedophilia”.)

Dr. Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand that Down syndrome children can live rewarding lives and can themselves touch the hearts and souls of others; and that there are parents of Down syndrome children who come to see the extra chromosome as not only associated with delays and impairments but also sweetness, joy, wonder, patience, and love.

For Dawkins, human dignity is not intrinsic; people’s worth is judged on whether or not they have 46 (thumbs up) or 47 (thumbs down) chromosomes. If children have intellectual disabilities or developmental delays–if they have flattened facial features, short necks, small heads–then off with their head. Or, to be more precise, suck out their brains, which collapses their skulls. In the nasty, brutish world of Richard Dawkins, this is what the mother and father of a Down syndrome child are morally obligated to do.

In our neighborhood there’s a young man with Down syndrome whom we often see running. My 10-year-old son and I have several times talked about him and how we admire him. Just the other week David asked me what the person’s condition was, and I explained to him what Down syndrome is. We spoke a bit about how a person’s worth isn’t based on intellectual abilities; it’s based on being a child of God. And that character matters more than intelligence.

Last night, after reading the comments by Dawkins, I asked my son what in particular he liked about this fellow. He replied, “I like that he’s so dedicated even though he has a sickness [Down syndrome].” He added, “I like that he’s so dedicated when so many other people who don’t have Down syndrome aren’t that way.” And then he added, “He’s kind of inspiring.”

Indeed he is. That person’s life has as much meaning as does Richard Dawkins’s. I would also wager a good deal of money that if he isn’t the intellectual equal of Dawkins, he is morally superior to him. And I for one would much rather have the young man with Down syndrome in my neighborhood than Richard Dawkins.

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The Myth of the Palestinian Underdog

One of the enduring myths of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that much of the West supports the Palestinians out of natural sympathy for the underdog. Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution effectively demolished that myth last week, pointing out that if sympathy for the underdog were really driving the massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations sweeping the West, one would expect to see equally massive demonstrations in support of occupied Tibet, the undoubted underdog against superpower China, or embattled Ukraine, the equally undoubted underdog against superpower Russia. In reality, he argued, anti-Israel sentiment flourishes not because Israel is Goliath, but because it is David:

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One of the enduring myths of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is that much of the West supports the Palestinians out of natural sympathy for the underdog. Victor Davis Hanson of Stanford’s Hoover Institution effectively demolished that myth last week, pointing out that if sympathy for the underdog were really driving the massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations sweeping the West, one would expect to see equally massive demonstrations in support of occupied Tibet, the undoubted underdog against superpower China, or embattled Ukraine, the equally undoubted underdog against superpower Russia. In reality, he argued, anti-Israel sentiment flourishes not because Israel is Goliath, but because it is David:

Israel is inordinately condemned for what it supposedly does because its friends are few, its population is tiny, and its adversaries beyond Gaza numerous, dangerous and often powerful.

Or to put it more bluntly, condemning Israel entails no costs and frequently provides benefits, whereas supporting it could invite retaliation from its numerous enemies. So just as Western countries are reluctant to push China on Tibet for fear that China will retaliate by barring access to the world’s largest market, or to push Russia too hard on Ukraine because Russia is a major natural gas producer with no qualms about cutting off supplies to its political opponents, they often find it easier to push Israel than to push its enemies.

Take, for instance, the cases of Qatar and Turkey, currently Hamas’s two main patrons. Qatar is Hamas’s leading financier, giving it hundreds of millions of dollars per year to build its rocket arsenal and tunnel network; it hosts Hamas leader Khaled Meshal; it reportedly torpedoed an emerging Hamas-Israel cease-fire deal by threatening to kick Meshal out if he signed; and according to former Israeli Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, about a third of all cement imported to Gaza for Qatari-sponsored projects was instead diverted to Hamas’s tunnel network–presumably with Doha’s willing cooperation, since EU-managed projects suffered no similar diversions.

Turkey also gives Hamas hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and hosts about a dozen senior Hamas officials, including Saleh Arouri–who, over the past week, has both admitted to being behind the kidnapping of three Israeli teens in June and been accused by Israel’s Shin Bet security service of organizing a massive terror network in the West Bank tasked with starting a third intifada and overthrowing the Palestinian Authority. Israel has arrested some 90 members of this network and confiscated weapons and funds; the PA took the accusation seriously enough to launch its own investigation.

In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that without the support Hamas receives from Turkey and Qatar, it could never have built the war machine that enabled it to start this summer’s war, and thus the death and destruction the world is now decrying in Gaza would never have happened.

Since both America and the European Union have designated Hamas as a terrorist organization, one might expect this flagrant support for Hamas to prompt sanctions on Qatar and Turkey as state sponsors of terrorism. But Qatar is the world’s largest natural gas exporter and richest country, as well as home to the main U.S. air force base in the Middle East, while Turkey is a NATO member and major emerging economy. So in fact, far from sanctioning Qatar and Turkey, both America and Europe consider them key partners. In short, it’s simply easier for the West to condemn Israel’s response to Hamas attacks and pressure it to accede to Hamas demands than it would be to condemn and penalize Turkish and Qatari support for Hamas.

Clearly, Israel has many strengths, including a thriving economy, a relatively powerful army, and strong American support. But as Hanson noted, it’s still a tiny country with few friends and many enemies, and anti-Israel protesters intuitively sense this. So don’t be fooled by their pretensions to “moral indignation” against Israel’s “oppression of the underdog.” They’re just doing what mobs have done since time immemorial: targeting a victim they see as fundamentally vulnerable.

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