Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 3, 2014

Will ISIS Help Pave Way for Iranian Nuke?

One of the ongoing conundrums of Middle East politics is the fact that the United States and Iran have wound up on the same side in the conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But in this case the enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our friend. Or at least it shouldn’t serve to help weaken American resolve to stop Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.

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One of the ongoing conundrums of Middle East politics is the fact that the United States and Iran have wound up on the same side in the conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But in this case the enemy of our enemy isn’t necessarily our friend. Or at least it shouldn’t serve to help weaken American resolve to stop Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.

The complicated mess in Iraq is the sort of game in which, as the old baseball expression goes, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard. But by overthrowing Saddam Hussein and his minority Baathist Sunni rule over a majority Shiite country, the U.S. unwittingly put the U.S. on the side of Iran, Saddam’s deadly enemy and a patron of Shiite dissidents against his despotic rule. Since Saddam’s fall, the U.S. and Iran have danced a delicate minuet in which Tehran alternately opposed and then sometimes backed America’s effort to stabilize Iraq and leave it with a working democracy. Suffice it to say that while the U.S. and Iran share a common agenda in not wishing to see Sunni extremists overrun Iraq, the differences between the two on the future of the country are considerable.

The Obama administration fled Iraq prematurely while staying out of the Syria conflict and thus set in motion the chain of events that led to the frightening rise of ISIS. So it is not in much of a position to pick and choose its allies in its halting efforts to stop the terrorist movement from taking Baghdad and extending the reach of its so-called caliphate. That means it has to welcome any help from Iran to the Shiite-dominated government but should also be extremely leery about allowing it to deploy its own forces, let alone letting Tehran’s terrorist auxiliaries run free in Iraq.

But that uneasy relationship should not be allowed to play any role whatsoever in the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran which will resume later this month in New York ahead of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Yet the tenor of those talks, which were extended into the fall after missing a July deadline, seems to indicate that the Obama administration is more interested in détente with Iran than in halting its nuclear ambitions.

Last fall, the administration discarded most of its enormous economic and political leverage over Iran when it signed onto an interim nuclear agreement that loosened sanctions and tacitly recognized their “right” to enrich uranium in exchange for largely meaningless gestures that did not significantly halt the Islamist state’s progress toward a weapon. Since then it has pursued negotiations toward a final deal but has been given the same runaround that Tehran’s past negotiating partners experienced. Iran has signaled that it no longer regards President Obama’s threats as serious and its negotiating position—in which it has sought Western approval for keeping its nuclear toys rather than pledging to dismantle them—has hardened.

Even before the current crisis in Iraq, there seemed little likelihood that the administration would show any resolve in the nuclear talks with Iran. Rather than persuading the Iranians to negotiate safeguards that would mandate the end of their nuclear program, Secretary of State John Kerry’s concessions seemed to have persuaded Tehran that it can keep its uranium stockpile, nuclear plants, and military research facilities while sanctions gradually collapse. The fact that the administration thinks it needs to appease the Iranians on Iraq will only deepen their conviction that they can hang tough without facing any consequences.

If anyone doubted Iran’s resolve and its arrogant dismissal of Western attempts to monitor their nuclear program, the regime’s continued stalling of the International Atomic Energy Agency to investigate their program should convince them. Without real information about Iran’s military nuclear research any agreement, whether one with tough terms or one as weak as the document signed last fall by Kerry, will be meaningless.

It is to be hoped that President Obama will finally show some grit and destroy ISIS before it is too late. But if in the course of that effort he is prepared to appease Iran further, that will be a poor bargain. The U.S. doesn’t have to choose between an ISIS-run Iraq and a nuclear Iran. Both are disasters that must be averted at all costs. Strong American leadership could rally the world behind the fight against ISIS and efforts to isolate Iran until it renounces its nuclear ambitions forever. Unfortunately, that appears to be the one thing lacking in Washington these days.

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A Rabbi Upsets the Church of Liberalism

Last week, Rabbi Richard Block caused a bit of a stir by announcing he was canceling his subscription to the New York Times. It caused a stir because of who he is: “a lifelong Democrat, a political liberal, a Reform rabbi, and for four decades, until last week, a New York Times subscriber,” as he wrote in Tablet.

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Last week, Rabbi Richard Block caused a bit of a stir by announcing he was canceling his subscription to the New York Times. It caused a stir because of who he is: “a lifelong Democrat, a political liberal, a Reform rabbi, and for four decades, until last week, a New York Times subscriber,” as he wrote in Tablet.

Every so often, someone surprises and offends the intelligentsia by revealing they don’t read the Times. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger wrote the definitive column on the subject back in 2004 (reprinted online at NRO a few years ago). Because Block represented a somewhat prominent liberal defector, the true believers of the religion of liberalism were aghast.

Perhaps no one took this more personally than Chemi Shalev, columnist for Haaretz. Most of Shalev’s column is pretty silly, accusing Block of intellectual retreat because he no longer will give his money to the house organ of the Church of Liberalism. This is, essentially, the I know you are but what am I response to Block, since the Times’s extreme ideological rigidity and enforced narrative conformity are precisely what Block objects to about the newspaper. But Shalev’s column–actually, one sentence of the column–is interesting for two reasons.

The first is the extent to which the rise of conservative and pro-Israel alternative media has slowly driven the left mad. Shalev writes:

Really, Rabbi Block? You won’t miss the New York Times? You’ll make do with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Free Beacon, because they report on Israel in the way you deem acceptable? You’ll give up the Times because they upset you on Gaza?

It’s the third sentence there, of course, that is the interesting one. Can you imagine, Shalev asks, someone giving up the Times? What will they read, the Washington Free Beacon? This is supposed to be an insult directed at the Free Beacon, but of course a Haaretz columnist taking a shot at the reporting chops of the Beacon is actually punching up. (Sample piece from today’s Haaretz: Sefi Rachlevsky’s argument that the country’s Orthodox Jewish schools are putting Israel in danger of transforming the Jewish state into “the world of ISIS.” Haaretz tweeted out a link to the article, writing: “Israel needs humanistic science education, not religious – or else it will become like ISIS.”)

The other reason that line is interesting is because it offers an opportunity to point something out about the Wall Street Journal. Shalev includes the Journal with Fox and the Beacon, presumably to impugn the objectivity of its reporting. Shalev, in other words, has no idea what he’s talking about. As everybody knows, the Journal’s editorial page is conservative but its reporting–as the data make explicitly clear–is not. There is a view among many leftists that if the editors of a publication are reliably supportive of Israel, the entire publication isn’t to be trusted. It would be shame if Shalev subscribed to this mania.

But more importantly, the summer war with Gaza made clear that when it comes to reporting on the conflict in the Middle East, no one holds a candle to the Journal. It was by far the most important newspaper to read, at least outside of Israel, to understand the complex web of diplomacy before and during the war. Adam Entous, in particular, was head and shoulders above any of his peers.

Entous had two major scoops during the war, in addition to excellent general reporting. The first told the story of how the alliance between Israel and Egypt’s new strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi formed after the Egyptian military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in a coup. The story explained how Egypt’s policies changed toward Gaza, how Israel’s assessment of Sisi developed, and how and why the ceasefire diplomacy during the war took shape.

The second was the major scoop that the Obama administration had downgraded its military cooperation with Israel during the war and even withheld a missile shipment in order to tie Israel’s hands and force it to accept a ceasefire opposed not just by Israel but by the Arab states in the immediate vicinity who understood the deal would benefit Hamas and its benefactors, Qatar and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Times was making a fool of itself. It wasn’t just biased; it was, as the better reporting elsewhere showed, creating a version of events so far removed from reality as to make the reader wonder which war the Times was covering. This wasn’t altogether surprising: the Times Jerusalem bureau chief has had a disastrous tenure and does not appear to be at all familiar with the basic geography of the country she covers and the municipality out of which her bureau is based. And the Times’s Gaza correspondent was apparently using a photo of Yasser Arafat as his Facebook profile picture.

In sum, the point is not about bias: that’s nothing new. The point is that if you read the Times’s war coverage you did not learn anything about the war. You simply read proofread versions of Hamas press releases. I can’t speak for Rabbi Block, but I get the impression he’s not canceling his Times subscription because he can’t deal with inconvenient facts. I imagine he’s canceling his subscription because he is seeking out the facts, and this summer proved he’d have to go elsewhere for them.

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Biden v. Obama on ISIS

Vice President Joe Biden has given a speech in which he bellows about what America will do to ISIS. “We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” according to Mr. Biden.

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Vice President Joe Biden has given a speech in which he bellows about what America will do to ISIS. “We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” according to Mr. Biden.

I wonder, though: Will we follow ISIS to the gates of hell only if we are joined by the “international community”? And is “following them to the gates of hell” the same thing as continuing to “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem,” as Mr. Biden’s boss, President Obama, said earlier today?

Just wondering.

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Running Out of Time? Israel’s Getting Stronger, Not Weaker

Doomsayers about the State of Israel never run out of material. Since the day it was born and even before that, skeptics about the Jewish state’s viability and long-term survival have been numerous and loud. They have plenty of material. The many grave threats to its security as well as many profound domestic problems shouldn’t be minimized. But amid the continuous chorus of those predicting its demise and saying it is running out of time, there is abundant evidence bolstering the opposite conclusion. Today’s news of the conclusion of a $15 billion natural gas deal between Israel and Jordan is just one such story that undermines the dire narrative that many on the left take as a given.

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Doomsayers about the State of Israel never run out of material. Since the day it was born and even before that, skeptics about the Jewish state’s viability and long-term survival have been numerous and loud. They have plenty of material. The many grave threats to its security as well as many profound domestic problems shouldn’t be minimized. But amid the continuous chorus of those predicting its demise and saying it is running out of time, there is abundant evidence bolstering the opposite conclusion. Today’s news of the conclusion of a $15 billion natural gas deal between Israel and Jordan is just one such story that undermines the dire narrative that many on the left take as a given.

It can be argued that there is nothing terribly new about close cooperation between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom. Even long before the peace treaty between the two nations in 1994, Israel and Jordan closely cooperated on security issues. In fact, Israel leaped to Jordan’s defense in 1970 when its actions thwarted a Syrian invasion seeking to help a Palestinian uprising against King Hussein. Since then, the Jordanian government has remained tight with the Israelis as it sought to defend itself against radicals. Good relations with Amman are impacted by the widespread hatred for the Jewish state in a country where the majority are Palestinian Arabs rather than King Abdullah’s Bedouin kinsmen. But even though the monarchy must publicly keep its distance from Israel, in practice it remains closely allied to it. So it’s little surprise that with the conclusion of this gas deal, the Jewish state has become Jordan’s chief supplier.

This illustrates some important short-term trends as well as another larger truth about Israel’s future.

The first is that Israel’s energy production has the capability to transform its economy and its relations with at least some of its neighbors. Whereas Jews used to joke about Moses being led to the one spot in the Middle East that had no oil, in recent years the discovery of huge reserves of natural gas and shale oil have rendered that jest obsolete. Israel is not only on its way to energy independence but may soon become a major exporter of fossil fuels.

That means Israel isn’t just the Start-Up Nation commemorated in Dan Senor and Saul Singer’s book about the country’s unique ability to adapt to the high-tech age. The exploitation of its considerable brainpower and culture of innovation as well as its not inconsiderable national resources make it a formidable economy in a world where both are at a premium. While the rest of the Middle East languishes in Third World poverty or merely exploits oil wealth without building a more diverse economy, Israel has become a First World nation in every sense of the word.

Will these developments transform its diplomatic dilemmas?

Not entirely. So long as many people are convinced that Israel has no right to exist or to defend itself, one shouldn’t expect the siege of the Jewish state to end or for its enemies in Europe to pipe down. But only a fool would think that much of Israel’s diplomatic problems are not related to the influence of Arab oil wealth. An Israel that is forced to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism will never be popular in Europe or accepted in the Muslim world. But growing Israeli economic power can ameliorate some of that hostility. The BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanction) campaign is gaining support especially in Europe. But as is the case with oil exporters, boycotts of natural gas aren’t as easy or cost-free to promote as those of Israeli academics or fruit and vegetables.

That economic ties with Jordan should be growing at the same time as Israel finds itself in a strange bedfellows alliance with Egypt and Saudi Arabia against Hamas and Iran is no surprise. Pragmatic Arab nations know that Israel won’t be destroyed and that Islamist terrorists are as much if not a greater threat to themselves than to the Jews.

The larger point here is that rather than getting weaker as its opponents and critics have consistently predicted, Israel is getting stronger, both economically and militarily. Anyone who thinks the two factors are not linked should remember the decisive role technology in the form of the Iron Dome missile defense system played in determining the outcome of the fighting with Hamas.

This doesn’t entirely cancel out the disadvantage that Israel faces from the ongoing campaign against Israel from pro-Palestinian activists and outright anti-Semites. But when you hear both American officials and left-wing pundits talk about an “unsustainable” status quo that will drag Israel down if it does not make more dangerous concessions to Palestinians who still seek its destruction, remember that this is a line that has been parroted for decades even as the Jewish state became stronger, not weaker. Just as the assumptions about a demographic crisis in which Arabs will outnumber Jews haven’t panned out, conjectures about Israel’s isolation may also prove to be unfounded.

Rather than running out of time to make a peace that will save it, Israel actually has both the strength and the time to wait until a sea change in Palestinian and Arab political culture will make peace possible. While the doomsayers will never be silenced, the belief that time is not on its side is being given the lie by a growing economy and breakthroughs to the Arab world that can’t be negated by Jew hatred.

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Terrorists and the Mantle of Human Rights

Many analysts and scholars have pointed out the strange bedfellows that some self-described progressive organizations make with radical terrorist groups or autocratic regimes. The American Friends Service Committee, for example, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, subsequently aligned itself with and defended the Khmer Rouge until the full horror of that communist organization’s genocidal campaigns became clear. Lynne Stewart, a prominent lawyer famous for defending left-of-center clients, once told the New York Times that she supported violence “directed at the institutions which perpetuate capitalism, racism and sexism, and at the people who are the appointed guardians of those institutions, and accompanied by popular support.”

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Many analysts and scholars have pointed out the strange bedfellows that some self-described progressive organizations make with radical terrorist groups or autocratic regimes. The American Friends Service Committee, for example, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, subsequently aligned itself with and defended the Khmer Rouge until the full horror of that communist organization’s genocidal campaigns became clear. Lynne Stewart, a prominent lawyer famous for defending left-of-center clients, once told the New York Times that she supported violence “directed at the institutions which perpetuate capitalism, racism and sexism, and at the people who are the appointed guardians of those institutions, and accompanied by popular support.”

That may have been morally obtuse enough, but she eventually found herself in prison for supporting terrorists who promoted the most extreme forms of racism and sexism. This past January, I highlighted an incident in which Human Rights Watch (HRW) partnered with an organization run by a man subsequently designated by the U.S. Treasury Department as an Al Qaeda financier; HRW never bothered to review its reports and the information which it apparently accepted blindly from al-Karama, the partner in question.

Now, information is surfacing about the United Kingdom-based CAGE (sometimes called CAGEPrisoners) which has led a campaign on behalf of Mahmoud al-Jaidah, a Qatari national arrested and sentenced in the United Arab Emirates for helping al-Islah, the UAE’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood which last year sought to overthrow the government violently.

Here’s the problem: Last February, British police arrested CAGE Outreach Director Moazzam Begg on suspicion of “facilitating terrorism overseas,” and subsequently charged him with “providing terrorist training and funding terrorism overseas” in relation to Syria. This should not have been a surprise. Begg was a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who had confessed to training in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. Despite Begg’s arrest, CAGE continues to promote extremists in the name of human rights. For example, on July 17, 2014, it held a fundraiser to discuss “the ethnical, political, and legal consequences of caring for the oppressed.” Nothing wrong with that, but the event listed Israfil Yilmaz as one of the guest speakers. Yilmaz is a Dutch citizen identified by security officials as a jihadist training Islamist extremists inside Syria. We’re not talking about the so-called moderate opposition. By Yilmaz’s own admission, he said he was with Katiba Muhajireen, a group that in 2013 merged with Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate. Not surprisingly, British authorities intervened. Begg defended Yilmaz, however, as someone he “knew well in Syria.”

Alas, for CAGE, such an embrace of radicals seems more the rule than the exception. In 2009, for example, the group held a fundraising dinner at Kensington Town Hall in London. CAGE announced that the event was to include an “exclusive video message” from Anwar al-Awlaki, the senior Al Qaeda cleric who encouraged the Fort Hood shooting. British authorities ultimately prevented CAGE from playing the message. It’s the intent that counts, though.

The United Arab Emirates is by no means a human rights Utopia and it does not pretend to be a democracy, but it is a moderate country progressing in the right direction. Sometimes, however, a country’s enemies reveal a lot about a country. When Al Qaeda, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood are lining up against the United Arab Emirates, it’s probably not because the Emirates are tolerating or promoting radical Islam. Nor do Al Qaeda affiliates and their defenders in the self-described human rights advocacy community, whether Human Rights Watch itself, al-Karama, or CAGE, seem to have the embrace of human rights at heart when they attack the United Arab Emirates or defend those who appear to support the most extreme forms of terrorism.

Until human rights groups stop interpreting human rights through a subjective political lens, and until they cease allowing themselves to be used knowingly or through their own naivety by hardcore Islamist groups, they will both advance an agenda anathema to freedom, liberty, and individual and they will also make a mockery of their declared and important mission to promote human rights.

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Obama’s Monty Python Foreign Policy

Speaking to a group of donors gathered at a Democratic National Committee barbecue in Purchase, New York over the weekend, President Obama decided to put his own peculiar spin on world events.

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Speaking to a group of donors gathered at a Democratic National Committee barbecue in Purchase, New York over the weekend, President Obama decided to put his own peculiar spin on world events.

While conceding, “I can see why a lot of folks are troubled,” the president said this: “And the truth of the matter is, is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” According to Mr. Obama, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” (The remark weirdly elicited laugher from his audience.) He added that while the Middle East is challenging, “the truth is it’s been challenging for quite a while.” The president told his audience, “I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago.” In fact, “we are much less vulnerable than we were 10 or 12 or 15 years ago.”

Let’s sort through these comments, shall we?

It’s certainly true that the world has always been messy; but it actually has gotten a good deal messier during the president’s watch. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in a front-page story published earlier this summer, “The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s.” Things have even gotten worse since that story. On Sunday the Washington Post, in front-page story, put things this way:

Short of world war, it’s rare that a chief executive goes through a foreign policy month like President Obama’s August.

U.S. warplanes struck in Iraq for the first time in years, as U.S. diplomats struggled to establish a new government in Baghdad. Islamic State militants beheaded an American journalist in Syria and spread their reach across the Middle East.

War raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In Afghanistan, U.S. plans for an orderly exit at the end of the year teetered on the brink of disaster. Russia all but invaded Ukraine and dared Obama to stop it. Libya descended into violent chaos.

Even since that story, it’s been reported that a political crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan is worsening. And it was confirmed today that ISIS beheaded another American journalist.

In his remarks on Saturday the president seemed to be advancing the thesis of Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My concern is that the president, in taking comfort from long-term trends that are driven by a variety of factors (including the rise of the nation-state, commerce and cosmopolitanism), is underplaying the dangers that characterize this particular moment.

Professor Pinker’s book may well be right in broad historical terms; but it’s the trajectory of events just now that are so alarming. And that’s what the president, I think, is missing. This is a period of rising disorder and instability that could unleash catastrophic consequences. And Mr. Obama has shown he’s wholly unprepared to meet them. He has been completely overmatched by events – confused, hesitant, often passive, sending mixed signals, desperately hoping a deus ex machina arrives in the form of allies who confront these threats in lieu of America leading the effort.

The president made that clear once again during his press conference in Estonia this morning, declaring that “if” we are joined by the “international community,” we can continue to “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

But that “international community” isn’t going to emerge unless America leads the way, which is something the president hasn’t shown any inclination to do. His preference since Day One has been “leading from behind,” in the words of an Obama advisor. Which means not leading at all. It turns out coalitions in the abstract mean nothing at all and can do nothing at all.

The president, rather than facing reality, appears to be turning from it. He looks to be falling deeper into denial. He doesn’t like what’s happening in the real world, so he’s reinventing it. This is how it plays itself out: Mr. Obama now insists he really and truly wanted to keep American troops in Iraq rather than withdraw them. The tide of war is receding. Vladimir Putin’s conquests are a sign of weakness and even unfashionable. (“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” Secretary of State John Kerry said as Russia began its invasion of Crimea earlier this year.) The Libya campaign was a model of success. As recently as the early part of this year, ISIS/ISIL was nothing more than a “jayvee team.” The president’s policies have, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, “improved the — you know, the tranquility of the global community.”

We now have a presidency that resembles a Monty Python movie. Apart from the Islamic State, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Gaza, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Crimea, Ukraine, Russia, China, Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, North Korea, and other nations, the world is a sea of tranquility.

The difference between the Obama presidency and Monty Python is Monty Python was intentional satire.

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OCare Will Still Come Back to Haunt Dems

After a summer of discontent and failure for the Obama administration that is leading into a fall campaign that may cost the Democrats control of the Senate, liberal pundits still have one thing to celebrate. In contrast to predictions from many conservatives last winter, it appears that ObamaCare isn’t an issue that is dominating the midterm elections. But while Democrats are trying to tell themselves that this means the debate about it is over, as even the New York Times conceded in an article today, the controversy over its impact will return with a vengeance next year.

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After a summer of discontent and failure for the Obama administration that is leading into a fall campaign that may cost the Democrats control of the Senate, liberal pundits still have one thing to celebrate. In contrast to predictions from many conservatives last winter, it appears that ObamaCare isn’t an issue that is dominating the midterm elections. But while Democrats are trying to tell themselves that this means the debate about it is over, as even the New York Times conceded in an article today, the controversy over its impact will return with a vengeance next year.

As the Times reports, the administration is bracing for the fact that the next open enrollment period may be even more traumatic than the first one. Huge price increases in premiums are expected. As Kevin Counihan, the man recently named to head the federal exchanges, told the newspaper, “Part of me thinks that this year is going make last year look like the good old days.”

Before the disastrous rollout of the president’s signature health-care legislation began, the assumption on the part of both its advocates and its critics was that once it was put into effect the law would become so popular that it would quickly become unassailable. With that it mind, the president and his team plotted to ensure that the benefits of the plan were to be felt immediately while the costs would not be recognized until much later. Yet when it became clear that the administration couldn’t even set up a website to administer the rollout, it was quickly recognized that assumptions about its popularity were mistaken.

As millions of Americans realized that President Obama’s oft-repeated pledges about people keeping their health care or the doctors if they liked was a lie, the notion of a smooth transition was forgotten. But while the website fiasco undermined confidence in the government and the law, it also served to obscure other more fundamental problems about cost and the law’s impact on jobs and the economy. The website fix and the herding of millions of Americans with no coverage and few choices into the program was represented as a great victory for the president. But the president’s seemingly never-ending touchdown dance about that goal being met may eventually be seen as being as pointless as his boasts about Osama bin Laden’s death heralding the end of the war on terror.

Part of the problem will be the sticker shock many Americans will experience as year two of ObamaCare begins.

Just as there was an uproar when some people found out last year that their policies had been canceled, individuals this year may be surprised to find that they could be asked to pay much more for the same plan because their carrier is raising its prices or the amount of the federal tax credit they will receive is changing.

But the price free-for-all and its impact on the state exchanges that the Times discussed is just the tip of the iceberg.

The only reason ObamaCare stopped being the major issue of 2014 was the tactical decision on the part of the administration to backload all of the really painful aspects of the law. The postponement of the employer mandates effectively limited the impact of ObamaCare this year. But once the requirements start going into effect, some of the long-term problems will start to be felt with a vengeance.

We don’t know yet just how badly the law will impact employment, but it’s clear that it will be serious, as companies will now have an incentive to cut jobs or reduce full-time workers to part-time status in order to avoid the enormous costs imposed upon them by the legislation. This will probably not only increase joblessness but start the process by which increasingly large numbers of Americans will lose their employer health coverage and be driven into the public-sector marketplace.

All this will make the promises made for what was dubbed by the administration as the Affordable Care Act seem even more mendacious. The resulting tumult from the price increases and the dislocation caused by the mandates may not be a story that is as easily told as the one about the malfunctioning website, but the impact will be more damaging.

It remains to be seen just how much of an impact this will have on future elections. There’s no way of knowing whether the pain that is felt in 2015 will last into 2016 and a presidential election in which Hillary Clinton will be trying to avoid the impression that she is running for Obama’s third term. But the main point is that the idea that the discussion about ObamaCare is over is wishful thinking for Democrats. As bad as things looked late last year for the health-care law, they may get a lot worse for the president and his law next year.

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WaPo Calls Out White House for Misleading on ISIS

Last week I went into painstaking detail to prove that White House press secretary Josh Earnest wasn’t telling the truth when he claimed that President Obama didn’t have ISIS in mind when he used the phrase “jayvee team” in a New Yorker interview.

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Last week I went into painstaking detail to prove that White House press secretary Josh Earnest wasn’t telling the truth when he claimed that President Obama didn’t have ISIS in mind when he used the phrase “jayvee team” in a New Yorker interview.

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler weighs in today, making essentially the same points and, by the end, awarding Mr. Earnest “four pinnochios,” the worst possible rating when it comes to judging the honesty of a claim.

According to Mr. Kessler:

With the passage of eight months, the president’s “JV” comment looks increasingly untenable, so we can understand why the White House spokesman would try to suggest that what is now known as the Islamic State was not the subject of the conversation.

But in quoting from the transcript, Earnest provided a selective reading of the discussion. In particular, he failed to provide the context in which Obama made his remarks — the takeover of Fallujah by ISIS. That’s fairly misleading. The interviewer was certainly asking about ISIS when Obama answered with his “JV” remarks.

Mr. Kessler also reports, “We asked Earnest and White House representatives for a response but over a four-day period did not get a reply.”

It’s little wonder why. The White House press secretary intentionally misled us, he’s been called out for it, and he can’t defend it. All of this from an administration which promised to return politics to a respected place in American life.

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Should Human Rights Watch Be Trusted?

Human Rights Watch (HRW) likes to consider itself the authority on human rights and adherence to international law. Unfortunately, in recent years it has weathered a number of scandals and prioritized its own subjective worldview above any objective standard for measuring human rights. Five years ago, for example, HRW spokeswoman Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use the money to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations,” never mind that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights.

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) likes to consider itself the authority on human rights and adherence to international law. Unfortunately, in recent years it has weathered a number of scandals and prioritized its own subjective worldview above any objective standard for measuring human rights. Five years ago, for example, HRW spokeswoman Sarah Leah Whitson held a fundraiser in Saudi Arabia promising to use the money to counter the influence of “pro-Israel pressure groups in the US, the European Union and the United Nations,” never mind that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights.

Its founding chairman took to the pages of the New York Times to castigate the organization he created for prioritizing politics over mission. Iraqis of all stripes tend to despise HRW because HRW’s leadership refused to provide evidence and documentation about Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign against the Kurds for the trial of Saddam unless Iraqis agreed to forgo capital punishment. Blackmail and imperialism are both unbecoming for an NGO.

In this month’s COMMENTARY, Jonathan Foreman chronicles “The Twitter Hypocrisy of Kenneth Roth,” the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who throughout the recent Gaza violence put politics and polemics above both fact and devotion to the international humanitarian law he and HRW claim to uphold. During the conflict, Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, highlighted Roth’s tweets which suggested Roth was even willing to cast aside the Geneva Conventions in order to support and advance the Hamas narrative.

Roth, however, appears not only a partisan in terms of his animus toward Israel, but also with regard to his embrace more broadly of political Islam. Because Roth wears his politics and polemics on his sleeve, and has seemed long ago to embrace detached neutrality when conducting research for HRW reports, the Egyptian government recently denied Roth entry into Egypt, where Roth hoped to unveil HRW’s report on the deaths of hundreds in a Cairo clash last summer.

Egypt acted correctly. Human Rights Watch may believe it wears the mantle of legitimacy in human-rights research and can be both a credible judge and jury, but that ship sailed years ago. The Egyptian government was able to quickly point out a number of well-documented factual errors. HRW, for example, claimed security forces did not provide adequate warning, but television footage showed warnings issued by loudspeaker and broadcast on television. HRW said 85,000 people were in the protest camp at the time the Egyptian police sought to disperse the crowds, but it is doubtful whether the Rabaa Square could accommodate that number. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government had timed the operation for hours when camp numbers were suppressed. And while HRW claimed there had been no investigation, former President Adly Mansour did order an inquiry; whether that inquiry is credible remains to be seen but, as Bahrain showed with the Bassiouni Commission, it would be silly to dismiss indigenous attempts at investigation and justice; in fact, encouraging countries to investigate themselves should be the paramount goal, one that trumps the jet-setting, headline-seeking culture that now infuses some of HRW’s top leadership.

Almost immediately after his return from Cairo, Roth started addressing his allegations against the Egyptian government in the most polemical ways. He took to the airwaves with Amy Goodman, an unabashedly partisan anchor, to accuse Egypt of engaging in a massacre worse than Tiananmen. Never mind that in Tiananmen, only one side was doing the shooting and one side was doing the dying, whereas in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood was fighting. Here he is making the same accusations in an op-ed in an Australian paper. Roth’s prolific tweets from mid-August grow increasingly polemical and unprofessional. Letting Roth into Egypt would be akin to hiring a kleptomaniac as the night guard in a jewelry shop.

Now, make no mistake. I mourn the loss of life in Rabaa a year ago, although I am not so certain that the situation was as black and white as Roth finds it politically convenient to claim. Nor do I see the Muslim Brotherhood as having been committed to democracy. President Mohamad Morsi made that clear when he sought to take dictatorial power.

Admittedly, I shed no tears over Morsi’s ouster, and while I also consider the current NGO law difficult to justify, the Egyptian government—and every other government, for that matter—is entirely justified denying Roth and HRW researchers access until such a time as HRW upholds professional standards to separate polemic and politics from more serious assessment, investigation, and analysis. I have also known—and sat down with—many HRW researchers over the years and many are hard-working, professional, and committed to human-rights work. Unfortunately, HRW’s leadership seems to subordinate such concerns to their own personal agendas, eroding the credibility of the entire organization. Rather, if the truth will be known, it is essential that professional journalists do the job (and be allowed to do their job) rather than partisans claiming privilege under the cloak of an organization coasting on its former reputation.

Let us also hope that General Sisi can rectify Egypt’s myriad financial problems and overcome the pressures of those in the military who might be more comfortable with the old crony capitalist system rather than one which puts both Egypt’s economic stability and the Egyptian peoples’ opportunity on firmer ground. Let us also hope that the West will not cease its pressure on Sisi to implement substantial reforms, all the while providing the Egyptian government the means to counter a real al-Qaeda and the terrorist threat within Egypt’s borders. The two goals need not be mutually exclusive. One-thing is certain, however: true human-rights advocacy should mean more than the political polemic and individual self-aggrandizement which some in HRW now seem to embrace.

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NATO, Ukraine’s Frozen Conflict, and the Georgia Precedent

President Obama gave a fairly strong speech this morning in Estonia, calling out Russian aggression and rejecting talk of “spheres of influence.” But there was one aspect of the speech that had a missing element, and that element undermines much of Obama’s bluster toward Moscow and his tough talk on beefing up the NATO alliance.

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President Obama gave a fairly strong speech this morning in Estonia, calling out Russian aggression and rejecting talk of “spheres of influence.” But there was one aspect of the speech that had a missing element, and that element undermines much of Obama’s bluster toward Moscow and his tough talk on beefing up the NATO alliance.

In a section of the speech on Ukraine, Obama pledged to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine and other regional allies, and that the West “will not accept Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea, or any part of Ukraine.” The Georgian conflict with Russia is helpful in understanding why Obama’s comments on defending Ukraine ring hollow.

The New York Times today reports on what should be encouraging news, but is actually nearly a repeat of Moscow’s victory in Georgia: Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are moving haltingly toward a ceasefire arrangement in eastern Ukraine. According to the Times, here are Putin’s conditions:

The primary conditions on Mr. Putin’s list are that the separatists halt all offensive operations and that Ukrainian troops move their artillery back out of range of all population centers in the rebel-held area.

Mr Putin also called for Ukraine to cease airstrikes, for the establishment of an international monitoring mission and humanitarian aid corridors, for an “all for all” prisoner exchange, and for “rebuilding brigades” to repair damaged roads, bridges, power lines and other infrastructure.

Mr. Putin made the remarks at a news conference during a state visit to Mongolia. After confirming that he had spoken with Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Putin offhandedly mentioned that he had “sketched out” a peace plan during his flight from Moscow. An aide then handed Mr. Putin a notebook, from which he read the plan.

This is a major victory for Putin, and–though it wasn’t picked up on by the American press–a very clear rebuttal to Obama’s NATO rhetoric. That’s because what Putin has done in Ukraine, if a ceasefire is struck along these lines, is create a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine.

When Putin invaded Ukraine for a second time by sending troops into the eastern part of the country, Kiev asked for Western help. The West ignored such pleas. So Kiev began maneuvering to make some type of robust Western help obligatory, first by asking to be named a major non-NATO ally and then making noises about getting on track to actually join the alliance. The frozen conflict makes this impossible. And here, the Georgia precedent is instructive.

At a 2008 NATO summit, George W. Bush advocated for putting Ukraine and Georgia on membership action plans (MAP), the path of domestic reforms leading to eventual NATO membership. The French and Germans opposed him. The disagreement over Georgia, which was closer than Ukraine to attaining the political stability essential for a MAP, had much to do with the frozen conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway provinces where Russia had installed Russian officers in the local positions of authority and stirred up enough trouble for a pretext for invasion. (Sound familiar?)

The conflicts in Georgia were longstanding; as I’ve explained before, for a decade before war actually broke out Russia had been staffing local governments, arming them to the teeth, distributing Russian passports to these Georgians, and even occasionally bombing Georgian territory. After the 2008 NATO meeting at which the spineless European hypocrites declared frozen conflicts to be cause for MAP rejection (the Germans had been reminded by one diplomat at the time that West Germany was admitted to NATO four decades before its own “frozen conflict,” the east-west division, was resolved), Russia invaded. Putin’s puppet Dmitry Medvedev later openly admitted that Moscow did so in order to keep Georgia out of NATO.

What the Russians are doing now in eastern Ukraine is quite similar, though Putin can’t count on the Western left for support quite to the same degree as when his opponent was the Georgian Mikheil Saakashvili. Putin doesn’t need to conquer territory to control it. Not only does he know how to use pipeline politics to get his way, but he’s already moved Russian military equipment into place in Ukraine and deputized local pro-Russian militants.

Putin may not annex eastern Ukraine (though he might also slow-bleed the territory into submission and lull the Western media into boredom in order to capture the territory eventually, in stages). But he knows precisely how to ensure that when Obama pledges to come to the aid of all NATO allies, that list never includes Ukraine.

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Army Turning Its Back on COIN?

The U.S. Army has been trying to resist the budget axe by citing to policymakers the lessons of history. Army leaders argue, rightly, that it doesn’t make sense to cut their active-duty end-strength from 570,000 to 420,000 as a result of sequestration: the U.S. has tried many times in the past to cut the army to the bone and every time we have paid a severe price in unreadiness to wage the next war. But sadly the U.S. Army itself is ignoring the lessons of history. That, at any rate, is the only conclusion one can draw from its decision to close the Army Irregular Warfare Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, on October 1.

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The U.S. Army has been trying to resist the budget axe by citing to policymakers the lessons of history. Army leaders argue, rightly, that it doesn’t make sense to cut their active-duty end-strength from 570,000 to 420,000 as a result of sequestration: the U.S. has tried many times in the past to cut the army to the bone and every time we have paid a severe price in unreadiness to wage the next war. But sadly the U.S. Army itself is ignoring the lessons of history. That, at any rate, is the only conclusion one can draw from its decision to close the Army Irregular Warfare Center at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, on October 1.

The center was created in 2006, under the leadership of my friend Colonel Pete Mansoor (now a professor of military history at Ohio State), to instill in the army the lessons of counterinsurgency which were badly needed at a time when the entire U.S. military was facing a terrible defeat at the hands of Iraqi insurgents. One of the center’s first tasks was to oversee the production of Field Manual 3-24, the first such army/marine manual on counterinsurgency to come out in decades. It was General David Petraeus, then head of the Combined Arms Center at Leavenworth, who was responsible for creating the Irregular Warfare Center (then called the Counterinsurgency Center) and for implementing the recommendations of FM 3-24 in Iraq. It was, in fact, these very principles which made possible one of the biggest come-from-behind victories in the history of counterinsurgency (a victory that was subsequently squandered by the premature withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq but that’s another story).

The Irregular Warfare Center was only a small office in a big army but it represented something big–a reawakening interest in the principles of counterinsurgency by a force that traditionally had focused only on conventional maneuver warfare. Likewise now the closing of the Irregular Warfare Center represents something big–the army turning its back on what is the most prevalent and most important form of warfare not only in today’s world but throughout history. The army will of course deny that is what is happening and point to continuing offices such as the Army Peacekeeping and Stability Institute as evidence that it remains as committed as ever to COIN (counterinsurgency).

Count me as skeptical. Ever since the U.S. pullout from Iraq and now with another major drawdown imminent in Afghanistan, the army has been eager to get back to conventional soldiering against mirror-image adversaries even though the odds of fighting such a conflict are a lot lower than the odds of fighting myriad insurgents such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Taliban. I fear the army is now repeating the mistake it made after Vietnam when it also turned its back on COIN–and paid a steep price for its neglect in Afghanistan and Iraq. The army would have a lot more credibility making the case for itself based on the lessons of history if it paid greater respect even to uncomfortable lessons that it would rather ignore.

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The Inevitable Appeasement of Putin

President Obama was in Estonia today uttering brave words. He said that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London” and vowed that the U.S. would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea anymore than it recognized the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic Republics. “Borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun,” he said.

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President Obama was in Estonia today uttering brave words. He said that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London” and vowed that the U.S. would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea anymore than it recognized the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic Republics. “Borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun,” he said.

Is Vladimir Putin impressed? Hardly. The smirking, swaggering aggressor just bragged that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he felt like it. Certainly Putin has little cause to think that even a Russian military march to Kiev would meet with serious Western opposition given the lack of response so far to the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.

In an article on the European response, the New York Times had a telling line: “Despite anger at Russian actions, there are few signs that Europe has the stomach for a more confrontational policy if the White House does not. In the end, European leaders whose economies are dependent on Russian energy are reluctant to widen the conflict beyond additional sanctions. Instead, they may seek an outcome that makes some concessions to the Kremlin.”

Thus, for all the rhetorical furor over Russian actions, the Europeans resist imposing serious sanctions or sending arms to Kiev. France is actually providing Russia with two state-of-the-art warships while leaving Ukraine high and dry.

It is hardly surprising that the Europeans would want to appease Russia no matter what. It is their way with aggressors whether named Mussolini, Hitler, or Putin. Only the U.S. can rally lethargic Europeans to do more to stop Russian aggression which, if left unchecked, will erode the entire basis of the post-1945 world order which created peace in Europe in the first place.

But for all of Obama’s tough-sounding words, he is not willing to back them up with tough actions such as sending arms to the Ukrainians to allow them to defend themselves, positioning substantial U.S. army units in the frontline NATO states, or imposing truly severe sanctions that would cut off the entire Russian economy from access to the U.S. financial markets and dollar-denominated transactions. And if the U.S., which is far away and much less economically connected with Russia than are the Europeans, won’t act, what chance is there that the Europeans–who will face real economic consequences for standing up to Russia–will do anything?

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Banning Uber Undermines Innovation

Uber is the ride-sharing application that connects freelance drivers with would-be passengers. I do not personally have the app, but have used the service several times with friends. It is convenient: Credit card information is stored with the service and payment and tip are automatically billed, so no money actually changes hands, making it as convenient as “E-ZPass” is for highway toll collection. Uber is even more convenient, however, since cars can be ordered through the app, and a map actually shows where the promised car is. Uber users, in other words, need not ever worry about not finding taxis during torrential downpours or waiting endlessly—as I have in suburban Washington D.C.—for taxis to come long after their reservation times and after multiple calls to dispatch promising that they would arrive in just five minutes, when they never came.

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Uber is the ride-sharing application that connects freelance drivers with would-be passengers. I do not personally have the app, but have used the service several times with friends. It is convenient: Credit card information is stored with the service and payment and tip are automatically billed, so no money actually changes hands, making it as convenient as “E-ZPass” is for highway toll collection. Uber is even more convenient, however, since cars can be ordered through the app, and a map actually shows where the promised car is. Uber users, in other words, need not ever worry about not finding taxis during torrential downpours or waiting endlessly—as I have in suburban Washington D.C.—for taxis to come long after their reservation times and after multiple calls to dispatch promising that they would arrive in just five minutes, when they never came.

Not surprisingly, as riders have flocked to Uber, taxi companies have cried foul. Taxi drivers have staged mass protests in London and, in many jurisdictions, taxi companies have sought legal remedy. Virginia was one such battleground, and San Francisco another. Now Germany has imposed a nationwide ban on the service. Many taxi companies claim they have the public interest at heart, because they adhere to far stricter regulations. Allow me to shed crocodile tears for the taxi companies. I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, throughout the 1990s. One taxi company had a near monopoly and fought tooth and nail to prevent competitors into the market, buying up all the medallions. While that company would claim that the market was saturated and cite the number of medallions issued, a good number of those were simply stashed away so that taxis were always scarce. Both service and convenience suffered. Recently, I was in Austin, Texas, waiting for a taxi in front of a prominent hotel. The bell cap said they had similar problems, with far more taxis operating on paper than in reality, with the net result being inconvenience.

Let us hope that as Uber expands, more politicians and regulators will turn a deaf ear to taxi company complaints, and instead let the market service the consumer. The simple fact of the matter is that consumers choose Uber because it is convenient. They like the services that any taxi company could have employed but didn’t. To try to shut down Uber and similar companies to protect taxi companies or their drivers is akin to shutting down blogs because newspapers don’t like the competition. Thankfully, regulators didn’t stop computer companies in the 1980s out of deference for the typewriter companies which they displaced. Or, for that matter, no one would seek to stop the automobile because it might put horse-and-buggy drivers out of work.

I wrote my dissertation about telegraphy in the Middle East, and spent more time than I cared to in the archives of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Perhaps some telegraph workers cried foul with the advent of radio, but no judge sought to mandate continued adherence to the wires. For all their lip service to “green energy,” utility companies dislike the fact that consumers can install their own solar panels and thus make themselves less reliant on the traditional energy giants. More power in such cases to the consumers and the marketable solar installation kits. Both email and private companies like FedEx and UPS have eaten into the profits of the U.S. Postal Service, but no one suggests banning them. Should driverless cars hit the market, whole industries—from auto insurance companies to parking garages—might go out the window along with that talking lizard from late night television commercials.

Change can be disconcerting, but it should not be the job of regulators to stymie innovation, even if it threatens whole industries. Nor should politicians expect that new technologies should abide by outdated regulatory systems. If taxi drivers want to defeat Uber, let them do it by serving the customer better, not by crying to judges and politicians. And if Uber leaves some consumers with a bad taste in their mouth—as some drivers have—then let them fall to the resurgence of more user-friendly taxis or the next generation of competitor.

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