Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 26, 2014

Obama and Burger King Demagoguery

Who are the biggest villains in the United States today? As much as Americans may rightly fear the rise of ISIS Islamist terrorists, to listen to some commentators, the owners of the Burger King fast-food chain aren’t just the epitome of corporate greed. They’re also being depicted as 21st century Benedict Arnolds for planning to move their corporate headquarters to Canada to evade high U.S. tax bills. But instead of joining in a cost-free demagogue fest that both left and right-wingers can enjoy, rational citizens should be blaming the tax code and a president who could reform the system if he was willing to work with Republicans rather than use them as rhetorical punching bags.

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Who are the biggest villains in the United States today? As much as Americans may rightly fear the rise of ISIS Islamist terrorists, to listen to some commentators, the owners of the Burger King fast-food chain aren’t just the epitome of corporate greed. They’re also being depicted as 21st century Benedict Arnolds for planning to move their corporate headquarters to Canada to evade high U.S. tax bills. But instead of joining in a cost-free demagogue fest that both left and right-wingers can enjoy, rational citizens should be blaming the tax code and a president who could reform the system if he was willing to work with Republicans rather than use them as rhetorical punching bags.

The manner by which Burger King is heading to the great white north is called corporate inversion and is being facilitated by the fast-food franchise purchase of Tim Horton’s, the Canadian donut chain named after an otherwise obscure hockey player. Once they own Horton’s, BK can shift its corporate operations to Canada where they will pay lower taxes than they do now. This is an eminently sensible business decision, but to listen to the likes of MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, it’s tantamount to treason; the onetime congressman says he won’t eat there any more is encouraging others to do the same. Left-wing lawmakers like Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown agrees and also supports a boycott which would aid both White Castle and Wendy’s that are currently based in his state.

President Obama isn’t calling for a boycott. Instead he issued a call for Congress to pass corporate tax reform that would eliminate the need for American companies to flee the country over their tax bill. But he also said that the need to immediately pass a bill prohibiting such corporate moves shouldn’t have to wait until a solution to the years-long standoff about taxes that helped fuel numerous confrontations between the White House and congressional Republicans is found. Which is to say, he wants companies like Burger King compelled to stay without actually offering them tax relief.

Nobody need hold a benefit for Burger King but the hypocrisy and foolishness that form the foundation for all the demagoguery being aimed at that company seems at least equal to the venality of the fast food franchise.

First, the talk about patriotism and hamburgers is pure baloney. In the global economy trying to tie down a company that does business around the world in this fashion is silly. Americans haven’t owned Burger King since 2010 when SG Capital, a Brazilian private equity firm, purchased it when its previous proprietors dumped it because of its declining value. Expecting these stockholders who purchased a flagging company in the hope of increasing its worth and not to do their part in funding America’s out-of-control government spending is absurd. Global capitalism may not appeal to our sentimentality but it is a reality, and for supposedly smart people who are otherwise happy to profit from it to bash BK in this manner is hypocrisy on an Olympic scale.

Second, the president’s umbrage should be tempered by the fact that the person enabling this transaction is none other than his good buddy Warren Buffett. In 2012, Buffett was a major asset to Obama’s reelection because the billionaire’s support for higher taxes was seen as a definitive answer to conservatives who rightly believed Obama’s budget plans were bad for the economy and economic growth. But though he claimed to be personally in favor of higher taxes for himself, apparently Buffett doesn’t think the same principle applies to companies and it is his Berkshire Hathaway firm that is financing Burger King’s purchase of Horton’s. Hopefully, his secretary, whose higher personal tax rate than her boss (a disingenuous argument if ever there was one) became a staple of Democratic campaign rhetoric, will get a cut of the profits from the deal.

But more important than either of those facets of the story is the fact that if President Obama really wanted to reform our tax code, he could have done so years ago. While joining in the gang tackle of Burger King, Obama lamented Congress’s failure to pass reforms that would have made such moves unnecessary. Yet he torpedoed every opportunity to do so by demanding that a fairer revenue code be tied to tax increases. Rather than make cuts in the entitlements and government boondoggles he wishes to preserve, Obama preferred a continued stalemate because it enabled him to blame this failure on his congressional antagonists. That’s good politics but bad economics.

Liberals have given a lot of praise to Canada in recent years because of its government health-care program, but instead of trying to work toward the creation of a medical system that is a bad fit for Americans, they should have been studying our northern neighbor’s tax codes. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon of those wanting to boycott Burger King, the president and his supporters should stop the demagoguery and begin negotiating in good faith with Republicans in order to create a tax system that doesn’t punish success or reward failure. Kicking Burger King is easy. Protecting both citizens and corporations from the greed of the government and its permanent bureaucracy is hard.

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Unsatisfactory Cease-Fire Won’t Doom Bibi

Even before his acceptance of cease-fire terms that brought down criticism him on his head from across Israel’s political spectrum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity had dropped precipitately from the across-the-board backing he received at the height of the fighting in Gaza. But those thinking that dissatisfaction with his acceptance of what amounts to a draw with Hamas will hasten the end of the current government or cut short his time in office are mistaken. The choices facing Netanyahu’s critics are as constrained as those that were facing the prime minister when he swallowed hard and allowed Hamas to issue bogus boasts of victory today.

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Even before his acceptance of cease-fire terms that brought down criticism him on his head from across Israel’s political spectrum, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity had dropped precipitately from the across-the-board backing he received at the height of the fighting in Gaza. But those thinking that dissatisfaction with his acceptance of what amounts to a draw with Hamas will hasten the end of the current government or cut short his time in office are mistaken. The choices facing Netanyahu’s critics are as constrained as those that were facing the prime minister when he swallowed hard and allowed Hamas to issue bogus boasts of victory today.

The big drop in Netanyahu’s popularity in a poll published yesterday indicated unhappiness with the reality that Israel faced in Gaza. Netanyahu’s decision to scale back offensive operations against Hamas weeks ago after the Israel Defense Forces destroyed the tunnels it had found was not rewarded with an end to the fighting. The massive missile barrage from Hamas in the last week that caused two civilian deaths was seen as a setback for Netanyahu’s policy of restraint.

Though international public opinion blasted Israel for hitting Hamas targets hard and causing civilian casualties in Gaza, Netanyahu’s public understood that his attempts to avoid a massive escalation in the fighting until he was dragged into it by Hamas attacks was the result of his trademark cautious behavior. But taking out the tunnels didn’t end the rocket attacks or undermine Hamas’s hold on Gaza. With his right-wing coalition allies calling for a re-occupation of Gaza in order to enforce the demilitarization of the strip that Israel needs to really ensure calm, Netanyahu finds himself branded as a right-winger abroad but also denounced as a centrist temporizer at home by many of his erstwhile allies.

The unhappy truth about the conflict is that nothing short of an all-out war to eliminate Hamas will guarantee that Israel won’t face another round of fighting anytime the Islamists choose to up the ante in the conflict. It’s also true that so long as Hamas is still left in charge there, any talk of a two-state solution in the West Bank is also effectively shelved. Despite his threats of going back to the United Nations to force Israel to withdraw from the West Bank without a peace treaty, the fighting demonstrated anew the irrelevance of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. Even if Israelis were willing to believe Abbas is a credible peace partner—a dubious assumption even in the best of times—no Israeli government of any political stripe would ever give up that more strategic territory so long as there was a chance that it would mean another, larger and more dangerous Hamasistan on the country’s doorstep.

Abbas survives in the West Bank solely due to Israeli security protections for him. The notion that the PA can parachute into Gaza and ensure that construction materials aren’t used to build Hamas tunnels or to prevent it from bringing in more arms is ludicrous. Notwithstanding the promises of the United States and other sponsors of the cease-fire, the only thing it guarantees is that Israel will soon be facing another conflict with Hamas under perhaps less favorable circumstances than those that exist today.

But those who are blasting Netanyahu for his cowardice today must also realize that a decision to deal with Hamas once and for a while would incur a higher price than most Israelis are currently willing to pay, including many of those grumbling today about the prime minister’s choice. Taking down the Islamists would certainly cost the IDF hundreds of lives and result in thousands more Palestinian casualties, not to mention increasing Israel’s diplomatic isolation and worsening the already tense relations with the Obama administration. And that’s not even considering the cost of being forced to reassume the administration of Gaza and dealing with what would almost certainly be an ongoing terror campaign by Hamas and other Islamist groups.

Would it have been worth it? It’s easy to answer that question in the abstract since answering yes provides the only logical path to a better chance of calm as well as to a two-state solution. But Netanyahu can hardly be blamed for hesitating to pay such an egregious price in blood and treasure.

Nor should anyone imagine that this dismal result will — poll numbers withstanding — result in the collapse of Netanyahu’s government or a new election in the short term that might produce a new prime minister. There is no reason to believe that Netanyahu’s rivals on the right will be so foolish as to leave the Cabinet since that will leave the path open for the prime minister to assemble a new, more centrist government. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economics Minister Naftali Bennett will continue sniping at Netanyahu and will score points with their own followers as well as Likud voters who are disappointed that the prime minister won’t follow his own arguments about Hamas to their logical conclusion. But beyond venting their spleen at him, the PM’s right-wing critics have few options.

Just as important, nothing that has happened this summer altered the basic equation of Israeli politics of the last few years. For all of the grousing thrown in his direction, which is in part the function of dissatisfaction with the choices facing the country and the prime minister’s personal unpopularity, Netanyahu’s positions represent a clear consensus of Israeli public opinion. As much as most Israelis would be happy to be rid of most of the West Bank, few believe it makes sense to leave it in the absence of a Palestinian decision to end the conflict that Hamas’s survival makes impossible.

Even more to the point, no one either in the government or outside it emerged this summer as a credible alternative to Netanyahu. He remains the only possible choice for prime minister even if few people like him and even fewer are happy with the alternatives he must choose between.

Those who would like Israel to have easy answers to an ongoing security threat—whether by accepting more concessions or by taking out Hamas—are dissatisfied with Netanyahu. That’s a group that includes most Israelis. But at the same time most Israelis also understand that his answers are probably the lesser of a number of possible evils.

Even if Hamas really does observe this cease-fire, the coming months will be rough for the prime minister. But talk about re-occupying Gaza or a bold stroke that will make peace possible is just that: talk. The reality of the Middle East is such that Netanyahu’s unsavory choices are the only viable ones for a nation whose only real option remains doing what it must to ensure its survival until the day when its enemies are prepared to make peace. As such, the unheroic and cautious Netanyahu is still the only realistic choice to go on leading Israel for the foreseeable future.

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A Draw Can’t Be Called a Hamas Defeat

Viewed objectively, the celebratory gunfire and ritualistic declarations of victory emanating from Hamas today after it accepted a cease-fire with Israel are pure bunk. Hamas’s decision to launch a new round of fighting in Gaza turned out to be a disaster from a military perspective as well as from the point of view of the suffering Palestinians who paid the price for this folly in blood and destruction of their homes. But their boasts are not entirely foolish.

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Viewed objectively, the celebratory gunfire and ritualistic declarations of victory emanating from Hamas today after it accepted a cease-fire with Israel are pure bunk. Hamas’s decision to launch a new round of fighting in Gaza turned out to be a disaster from a military perspective as well as from the point of view of the suffering Palestinians who paid the price for this folly in blood and destruction of their homes. But their boasts are not entirely foolish.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu may have had little real choice but to go along with the formal end of hostilities, by emerging from 50 days of battle with its hold on Gaza intact, Hamas has ensured that its misrule over the strip and permanent block of any hopes of peace will continue.

Netanyahu’s decision to accept the cease-fire will be bitterly debated in Israel, but even his angriest critics will have to admit that the concessions given Hamas are minimal. The terms, which allow a slight increase in humanitarian aid and material into Gaza and an expansion of the zone allowed Gaza fishermen from three to six miles are more or less a rehash of the 2012 agreement that ended a previous round of fighting. The blockade of Gaza has not been lifted. Nor has Israel promised to allow the Palestinians to build an airport or seaport. Those requests will be discussed in negotiations that are supposed to take place next month in Cairo and will be placed alongside the Israeli demand for the demilitarization of Gaza. That means neither side will get what it wants, making the war, for all of Israel’s military achievements and the catastrophic impact on Gaza’s population, largely a draw.

That’s nothing for Hamas to brag about. It started the hostilities when its members kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers and then fired over 4,000 missiles at Israel during the past 50 days with little to show for the expenditure of much of its carefully assembled arsenal. While much of Israel’s population had to spend much of the last few weeks scurrying back and forth to shelters, Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system effectively neutralized the rocket threat. Hamas also lost the complex network of tunnels along the border on which it had expended so much of the money that poured into the strip from foreign donors. Instead of being able to use the tunnels to pull off a mass atrocity inside Israel as they had hoped, they wound up being destroyed when Israeli forces invaded the strip.

But any Israeli claims of victory are just as hollow as those of Hamas.

Even a slight loosening of the blockade will inevitably mean that Hamas will be able to replenish some if not all of its supply of rockets and other armaments. Nor can anyone in the international community, let alone in Israel, have the slightest confidence that any safeguards put in place will prevent the construction materials that will be allowed into Gaza for rebuilding homes, schools, and other civilian structures won’t instead be used to restore Hamas’s military infrastructure, including command center bunkers, rocket storage facilities, and the infamous tunnels.

All of which means that the next time Hamas decides that the time is right for more fighting, Israel will be right back where it was two months ago. Even if the Israel Defense Forces improves its ability to detect tunnels and Hamas doesn’t figure out a way to defeat the Iron Dome, that is hardly an encouraging prospect for an Israeli people drained from a summer of conflict. A draw isn’t a victory for either side, but any result that leaves Hamas standing and ready to start fighting again when it chooses can hardly be called a defeat for the terrorists.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the implications of this result for both Netanyahu and the future of the conflict.

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Will IRS’s Strategy of Destroying Evidence Pay Off?

If the latest revelations about the IRS are correct, then its officials have approached the abuse-of-power scandal with a clear strategy, pretty much from the beginning. They have been betting that, since their illegal targeting campaign against those who disagree with President Obama has had the backing of Democrats in Congress, they needed only a media strategy, not a political one. And that media strategy appears to have been: conceal or destroy potential (and actual) evidence, and assume that this activity will be less damaging than whatever is in the files they’ve worked to hide.

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If the latest revelations about the IRS are correct, then its officials have approached the abuse-of-power scandal with a clear strategy, pretty much from the beginning. They have been betting that, since their illegal targeting campaign against those who disagree with President Obama has had the backing of Democrats in Congress, they needed only a media strategy, not a political one. And that media strategy appears to have been: conceal or destroy potential (and actual) evidence, and assume that this activity will be less damaging than whatever is in the files they’ve worked to hide.

It’s a direct challenge to the media, in other words.

There are two aspects to the latest news. The first is that, according to Judicial Watch, the Justice Department believes Lerner’s records are backed up, but don’t want to put in the effort to find them:

Department of Justice attorneys for the Internal Revenue Service told Judicial Watch on Friday that Lois Lerner’s emails, indeed all government computer records, are backed up by the federal government in case of a government-wide catastrophe.  The Obama administration attorneys said that this back-up system would be too onerous to search.  The DOJ attorneys also acknowledged that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) is investigating this back-up system.

We obviously disagree that disclosing the emails as required would be onerous, and plan to raise this new development with Judge Sullivan.

This is a jaw-dropping revelation.  The Obama administration had been lying to the American people about Lois Lerner’s missing emails. There are no “missing” Lois Lerner emails – nor missing emails of any of the other top IRS or other government officials whose emails seem to be disappearing at increasingly alarming rate. All the focus on missing hard drives has been a diversion. The Obama administration has known all along where the email records could be – but dishonestly withheld this information. You can bet we are going to ask the court for immediate assistance in cutting through this massive obstruction of justice.

The second piece of news is pointed out by the New York Observer:

In two elusive and nebulous sworn declarations, we can glean that Ms. Lerner had two Blackberries. One was issued to her on November 12, 2009. According to a sworn declaration, this is the Blackberry that contained all the emails (both sent and received) that would have been in her “Outlook” and drafts that never were sent from her Blackberry during the relevant time.

With incredible disregard for the law and the Congressional inquiry, the IRS admits that this Blackberry “was removed or wiped clean of any sensitive or proprietary information and removed as scrap for disposal in June 2012.” This is a year after her hard drive “crash” and months after the Congressional inquiry began.

So the IRS attempted to destroy evidence of the emails after the investigation began, and those emails might still exist somewhere beyond the reach of the government officials in charge of destroying the evidence. Again, this is a direct challenge to the media: the IRS is expecting either a pass or scandal fatigue to play to their advantage. That is, they are hoping to set a precedent that the government can get away with heavyhanded abuse of its power so long as it destroys enough of the evidence once an investigation commences.

It is especially a challenge to the press if it’s true that the emails still exist but the government doesn’t want to go through the hassle of finding them. It’s actually more brazen, in some ways, than even trying to destroy them. It’s the sign of a government with nothing but pure contempt for the people. As Walter Russell Mead argues:

But if Fitton’s claim is true, then the IRS scandal really has arrived, and it is difficult not to conclude that we are dealing with a genuine constitutional crime. This wouldn’t be a matter of bribes or personal blackmail or sexual misconduct or any of the ordinary forms of corruption that are unfortunately far too common. Rather, it’s about the deliberate use of the power of the federal government to go after political opponents, and then a desperate attempt by others to cover it up. We’re still hoping that this story is exposed to a lot more light (and perhaps less heat), but the more we see, the worse and worse it looks.

Indeed, it would go beyond the sadly all-too-routinized forms of corruption, which are bad enough. The newest round of revelations describe a government agency (and its elected allies) not only thoroughly corrupted but also insistent on its entitlement to stand above accountability. The allegations warrant front-page headlines from the country’s major newspapers, surely. So where are they?

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Has Rand Paul’s Moment Passed?

This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

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This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

Paul scored a public relations coup by getting NBC to send a camera crew and reporter to Guatemala to observe him performing free eye surgeries. This kind of publicity is priceless as was the opportunity to draw attention to the senator’s grandstanding on the border crisis while in Central America. He also got the chance to lambaste the government’s sending of heavy weaponry to local police departments that was highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri. But the headline of the segment was his boast that the American public now agrees more with him about foreign policy than mainstream Republicans or even Democrats like Hillary Clinton who rightly say that what’s happening in Iraq is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to act in Syria before groups like ISIS had the chance to get going:

I think the American public is coming more and more to where I am, and that those– people, like Hillary Clinton, who, she fought her own war, Hillary’s War, you know, people are gonna find that, and I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, “You know what, we are tired of war. We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”

If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen.

In other words, Paul believes that Americans are so war weary from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are incapable of drawing conclusions from recent events. He’s not alone in thinking that. As Chris Cillizza noted in the Washington Post, a raft of polls taken earlier in the year all support the notion that Americans want a less aggressive foreign policy and are opposed to any further involvement in Middle East conflicts, like the potential wars that a “hawk” like Clinton might get the U.S. into.

Cillizza notes that these attitudes are far less popular among Democrats than Republicans, who, on the whole, remain faithful to their party’s traditional posture that deplores a more “narrow role in world affairs.” But, as Cillizza says, just because the GOP has been the standard bearer for a strong America in the recent past and Democrats the party of retreat, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

But, as we have noted here before, Paul’s problem is that the Obama administration’s disastrous mistakes abroad have made it far less safe to assume that fears about terrorism and the decline of U.S. influence will no longer dictate attitudes about foreign affairs. While Clinton will, at least in theory, stand to benefit from being seen as someone who can implement a rational course correction from Obama’s path (so long as, that is, voters forget that she was his secretary of state for four years), Paul is actually offering an even more extreme version of Obama’s foreign-policy vision that has left the world a chaotic mess.

The crises in the Middle East in which Obama’s follies have played a not insignificant role in exacerbating conflicts in Gaza and Iraq and with the Russian assault on Ukraine proceeding may be just the start. Barring an unlikely complete transformation of the Obama administration over the course of the next two years, the odds are that America’s foreign-policy woes will grow rather than recede. That will make it harder to sell Republican primary voters, let alone the rest of the country, on Paul’s brand of isolationism. The unique moment in history in which an opening for a Republican who was actually to the left of Obama on foreign affairs may have already come to an end.

Nor, as I wrote here last week when discussing Paul’s efforts to present himself as a friend of Israel despite opposing aid to the embattled Jewish state, do polls give Republicans much reason to believe that there will be, as the senator says, a surge of young Democratic voters coming over to their side if Paul is the GOP candidate.

But mainstream Republicans who have observed the way the murder of James Foley and the general feeling of crisis have affected the public mood should not be too confident about Paul’s inability to win the nomination in 2016. As his clever stage management of the trip to Guatemala as well as past coups such as his drone filibuster in 2013 proved, the Kentucky senator is a formidable politician. His willingness to reach out to groups that have little reason to back him such as blacks, Hispanics, and supporters of Israel does more than show his ambition to expand the base of extremist libertarians. It illustrates a political vision that seeks to establish him as a genuine front-runner and plausible option for president.

It is far too early to project how this will play out in 2016. But the point here is that Paul’s ability to generate positive press from even the liberal mainstream media just at the moment when his views about the world are being discredited by events ought to scare his potential opponents. The follies of the Obama presidency may make it safe for conservatives to espouse their traditional support for a strong foreign policy in 2016 in a way that was harder to do in 2012. Yet anyone in the GOP who underestimates Rand Paul’s sheer political talent will be making a big mistake.

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Assad’s American Reinforcements and Obama’s Plunging Credibility

The underappreciated casualty of the Obama administration’s one-eighty on bombing the Assad regime last year was the president’s credibility on such strikes. Obama had carefully cultivated a reputation as a man who will not order military action until it’s too late. And so when he told the country there was no choice but to bomb Syria last summer, he staked his credibility on it: we’ve tried everything, he said, and the only option remaining was, regrettably, blowing stuff up.

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The underappreciated casualty of the Obama administration’s one-eighty on bombing the Assad regime last year was the president’s credibility on such strikes. Obama had carefully cultivated a reputation as a man who will not order military action until it’s too late. And so when he told the country there was no choice but to bomb Syria last summer, he staked his credibility on it: we’ve tried everything, he said, and the only option remaining was, regrettably, blowing stuff up.

And then John Kerry stumbled into revealing that, from the administration’s perspective, the “last resort” argument was false. Obama accepted the proposal to get rid of certain types of chemical weapons instead. Administration officials had gone, in a matter of minutes, from telling the American people why we must bomb Assad to telling the American people why we must partner with Assad. It became clear that when it came to matters of war and peace, Obama was winging it, overwhelmed by the complexity of the world.

And yet, partnering with Assad to get rid of certain chemical weapons, while an obvious scam that still snared the naïve American president, is conceptually quite different from what we’re about to do–and, according to AFP, what we’re already doing: partnering with Assad and acting as his air force. That’s a somewhat crude description, of course; we’re not allying ourselves with Assad’s Syria in the way we are allied with numerous non-monsters of the world. But we’re cooperating out of convenience:

The United States has begun reconnaissance flights over Syria and is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Damascus through Iraqi and Russian channels, sources told AFP on Tuesday.

“The cooperation has already begun and the United States is giving Damascus information via Baghdad and Moscow,” one source close to the issue said on condition of anonymity.

The comments came a day after Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said Syria was willing to work with the international community against the jihadist Islamic State group, and US officials said they were poised to carry out surveillance flights over Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said foreign drones had been seen over the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on Monday.

Though it hasn’t been widely confirmed, it wouldn’t be the first such report of the U.S. sharing intel with Assad to appear in recent days. And of course, several news organizations reported in January that European intelligence officials were meeting with representatives of the Syrian regime to share information on Islamist groups:

Mekdad’s remarks followed a report in The Wall Street Journal claiming that European intelligence agencies have met covertly with Assad delegates to share information on European jihadists operating in Syria, in the first such meeting since withdrawing their ambassadors when the crisis began.

The report indicated that a retired official from the British MI6 made a trip to Damascus over the summer, and that the French, German and Spanish intelligence agencies followed suit, making contact with regime officials in November and traveling to Syria from Lebanon to carry out their meeting.

President Obama appears to grasp just how silly this all sounds, but is prepared to match it with other silliness. In the New York Times’s report on Obama’s approval of surveillance drones over Syria, which seems to be a precursor to American strikes against ISIS targets there, the story mentions early on the fact that if the U.S. is to have any real effect on ISIS, it would also change the strategic equation in Syria.

In other words, it would benefit Assad. The Times explains that Obama has yet to accept that reality: “a mounting concern for the White House is how to target the Sunni extremists without helping President Bashar al-Assad.” How could the U.S. help Assad win the war without helping Assad win the war? That’s a tough one.

Meanwhile, Obama’s credibility continues to plummet. The argument for staying out of Syria was that, well, we should stay out of Syria. Advocates of involvement in the Syrian war, especially early on when there appeared to be a window of opportunity, argued that staying neutral at the time might very well mean getting involved anyway at a later date, on someone else’s terms, with America’s strategic position weakened.

The idea that the U.S. could get dragged kicking and screaming into Syria was generally dismissed as warmongering. Yet now the conflict-averse president is doing just that. A year ago Obama began the preliminary process of building up to a strike on Syria. Now he is doing the same. The difference is that a year ago Assad was the target. Now he’s the beneficiary.

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U.S. Can’t Retreat and Still Call the Shots

Want to know what happens when the U.S. retreats from a leadership role in the Middle East? This is what happens–Egypt and the United Arab Emirates together collaborate to stage air strikes against Islamist militias in Libya. And meanwhile Qatar, which is at odds with its fellow Persian Gulf sheikhdom, the UAE, has been funneling arms to the very Islamist militias that UAE’s air force is bombing.

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Want to know what happens when the U.S. retreats from a leadership role in the Middle East? This is what happens–Egypt and the United Arab Emirates together collaborate to stage air strikes against Islamist militias in Libya. And meanwhile Qatar, which is at odds with its fellow Persian Gulf sheikhdom, the UAE, has been funneling arms to the very Islamist militias that UAE’s air force is bombing.

American officials quoted by the New York Times are said to be fuming about these attacks, “believing the intervention could further inflame the Libyan conflict as the United Nations and Western powers are seeking to broker a peaceful resolution…. ‘We don’t see this as constructive at all,’ said one senior American official.”

But guess what? When the U.S. has abdicated its leadership role, there is no reason for anyone–not our enemies and not our allies–to listen to what we have to say. In the case of Libya, the American failure to do more, in cooperation with our allies, to build up central government authority has brought us to a point where this country is fast becoming a failed state consigned to perpetual civil war. The UAE air strikes, enabled by Egypt, will do little to tilt the balance or restore order but they can be read as a cri de coeur from our allies–a protest-by-bombing against all that the Obama administration has failed to do as it has unilaterally and foolishly pulled back from the Middle East.

Even the president seems to be acknowledging that his chief foreign-policy initiative has backfired–how else to explain his newfound willingness to bomb in Iraq and possibly, before long, in Syria? But a few bombing runs, whether by the UAE air force or the U.S. Air Force, are not a substitute for a strategy of concerted engagement designed to stop the march of jihadist terrorist from Libya to Iraq. And that strategy is still not apparent.

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ISIS and Hamas: Spot the Differences

It’s not every day that an organization feels compelled to insist it’s truly nothing like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why Hamas leader Khaled Meshal felt this need is a mystery: He’s in no danger from the global anti-Israel crowd, which takes great care to avoid any information that might challenge its preconceived notions, whereas anyone who knows anything about Hamas knows the disclaimer is ridiculous. Still, since he raised the subject, it’s worth examining some of the common fallacies Meshal’s distinction relies on.

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It’s not every day that an organization feels compelled to insist it’s truly nothing like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Why Hamas leader Khaled Meshal felt this need is a mystery: He’s in no danger from the global anti-Israel crowd, which takes great care to avoid any information that might challenge its preconceived notions, whereas anyone who knows anything about Hamas knows the disclaimer is ridiculous. Still, since he raised the subject, it’s worth examining some of the common fallacies Meshal’s distinction relies on.

ISIS seeks a global caliphate, while Hamas just wants to end the Israeli “occupation.” Actually, Hamas also seeks a global caliphate, as its own interior minister, Fathi Hammad, reiterated on Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV last November:

We shall liberate our Al-Aqsa Mosque, and our cities and villages, as a prelude to the establishment of the future Islamic Caliphate … we are at the threshold of a global Islamic civilization era. The fuel and spearhead of this era will be Gaza.”

Indeed, Hamas’s charter explicitly terms the movement a “universal” one and declares that Islam must ultimately regain “all lands conquered by Islam by force” in the past. It’s just that every global caliphate has to start somewhere, and Hamas started with Israel, whereas ISIS chose Syria and Iraq. This might prove the ISIS is shrewder; starting with a weaker enemy enabled it to progress much faster. But it doesn’t change the fact that the goal is the same.

ISIS kills “anyone who gets in their way: Sunnis, Shia Muslims, Christians, Yazidis, Iraqis, Syrians,” while Hamas only kills Israelis. Actually, Hamas also kills anyone who gets in its way. That includes Palestinian civilians who dare to protest its decisions or belong to its main rival, Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party; its more memorable murder methods include throwing Fatah members off rooftops. It also includes Egyptians: According to Cairo, Hamas has cooperated with local terrorists on several attacks in Sinai; Egypt even sought to extradite three senior Hamas operatives for involvement in an August 2012 attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.

Granted, ISIS has greater opportunities: It controls a huge territory seized from two collapsed states, Iraq and Syria, whereas Hamas is boxed in by two functioning states, Israel and Egypt. But within the limits of its opportunities, Hamas has been no less enthusiastic about killing “anyone who gets in their way.”

ISIS is exceptionally brutal; witness the snuff film it disseminated after executing journalist James Foley. I particularly like this claim, given that Hamas promptly followed suit with its own snuff films showing the executions of no fewer than 25 fellow Palestinians, including two women. A few weeks earlier, Hamas executed over 30 fellow Palestinians. Of course, Hamas claims all were collaborators with Israel, but it offered no evidence. Thus as the pro-Palestinian Amira Hass delicately put it in Haaretz, these executions primarily appeared to be a warning to the Gazan public “to be careful in anything it says and does” that might upset Hamas, because “The definition of ‘informing’ and ‘collaboration’ can become very murky in times of war.”

But Hamas brutality doesn’t stop at executions. How depraved do you have to be, for instance, to shell a border crossing while your own wounded civilians are passing through it, as Hamas did on Sunday, hitting four Arabs waiting on the Israeli side to drive them to the hospital? Meshal risibly claimed on Saturday that if Hamas had more accurate weapons, it would aim them exclusively at military targets. But Hamas has deployed the extremely accurate smart bombs known as suicide bombers for years, and it used them almost exclusively to kill civilians–from elderly people at a Passover seder to buses full of schoolchildren.

In short, there’s only one significant difference between Hamas and ISIS: Hamas has infinitely less power than ISIS to wreak global havoc, because Israel has managed to keep its capabilities in check. And for that service, needless to say, Israel has reaped nothing but global condemnation.

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The White House Press Secretary Isn’t Telling the Truth. And I Can Prove It.

One of the notable things about the Obama administration isn’t simply that its key figures often make misleading claims, but that they do so in ways that can be so easily disproven.

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One of the notable things about the Obama administration isn’t simply that its key figures often make misleading claims, but that they do so in ways that can be so easily disproven.

The latest effort is in the White House’s attempt to have us believe that the president, in his now infamous “jayvee” analogy, didn’t have ISIS in mind. Here’s an exchange between NBC’s Peter Alexander and White House press secretary Josh Earnest that took place on Monday:

PETER ALEXANDER, NBC: Did the president underestimate ISIS when he referred to them in an interview only a couple months ago as a JV squad and making a reference to National Basketball Association basketball teams like the Lakers?

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE: Well, I thought somebody might ask this question today so I wanted to pull the transcript of the interview because it’s important to understand the context in which this was delivered. So let me just read the full quote and then we can talk about it just a little bit. The president said quote:

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.

So the president was not singling out ISIL [aka ISIS], he was talking about the very different threat that is posed by a range of extremists around the globe. Many of them do not have designs on attacking the West or attacking the United States, and that is what puts them in stark contrast to the goals and capability of the previously existing al Qaeda core network that was let by Osama bin Laden.

That claim–“the president was not singling out ISIL”–is simply not true. And it’s demonstrably untrue. To prove this assertion, it’s helpful to cite the relevant portion of the January 27, 2014 story by David Remnick in the New Yorker:

At the core of Obama’s thinking is that American military involvement cannot be the primary instrument to achieve the new equilibrium that the region so desperately needs. And yet thoughts of a pacific equilibrium are far from anyone’s mind in the real, existing Middle East. In the 2012 campaign, Obama spoke not only of killing Osama bin Laden; he also said that Al Qaeda had been “decimated.” I [Remnick] pointed out that the flag of Al Qaeda is now flying in Falluja, in Iraq, and among various rebel factions in Syria; Al Qaeda has asserted a presence in parts of Africa, too.

“The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. “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.

“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.” [emphasis added]

So we’ve established beyond any doubt that the president’s answer, which Josh Earnest quoted, is in response to David Remnick’s comment about the al-Qaeda flag flying in Falluja. And whose al-Qaeda flag in particular happened to be flying over Falluja at the time of the interview? For that answer, let’s go to a January 3, 2014 story in the New York Times, which begins this way:

Black-clad Sunni militants of Al Qaeda destroyed the Falluja Police Headquarters and mayor’s office, planted their flag atop other government buildings and decreed the western Iraqi city to be their new independent state on Friday in an escalating threat to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose forces were struggling to retake control late into the night. The advances by the militants — members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — came after days of fighting in Falluja, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar Province. [emphasis added]

What we’ve shown, then, is that several weeks before the New Yorker story was published, the al-Qaeda flag flying over Falluja belonged to ISIS/ISIL. The president knew it. There is therefore only one possible interpretation: the president had ISIS/ISIL in mind when he made his “jayvee” reference. And there’s only one possible conclusion about what Mr. Earnest said: It’s false. He’s distorting the truth in order to exonerate his boss, the president, from having made a statement that was deeply and dangerously misinformed.

The White House press corps should vigorously pursue this matter with the White House press secretary; and he in turn should admit what he said was false. If Mr. Earnest doesn’t do so in light of this evidence, then his claim will move from the category of being false to being a lie. That would trouble me; and I would think it would trouble them.

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