Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Immigration Stall Fooling No One

Back in June, President Obama promised to use executive orders to legalize millions of illegal immigrants. This blatant attempt to bypass both Congress and the Constitution put embattled red state Senate Democrats in a bind since more evidence of Obama’s attempt to rule on his own might doom his party at a time when concern over illegal immigration is rising. But to the dismay of Hispanic activists, the president punted on the moves, saying earlier this week he would keep his promise but only after the midterm elections so as to give his party a fighting chance to hold the Senate. But postponement may not be enough. If Democrats are going to keep the Senate, Obama may have to promise never to do as his left-wing base bids.

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Back in June, President Obama promised to use executive orders to legalize millions of illegal immigrants. This blatant attempt to bypass both Congress and the Constitution put embattled red state Senate Democrats in a bind since more evidence of Obama’s attempt to rule on his own might doom his party at a time when concern over illegal immigration is rising. But to the dismay of Hispanic activists, the president punted on the moves, saying earlier this week he would keep his promise but only after the midterm elections so as to give his party a fighting chance to hold the Senate. But postponement may not be enough. If Democrats are going to keep the Senate, Obama may have to promise never to do as his left-wing base bids.

As Politico reports, some Democrats are demanding that the president go farther and promise not to issue any executive orders that would unilaterally transform our immigration system even after the congressional vote. In particular, North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan has asked that the president make it clear that the postponement of his plans be made permanent. Angus King of Maine, an independent that caucuses with the Democrats agrees and he isn’t even running for reelection this year.

The reason for their concerns can be seen in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that came out earlier this week that showed the public now trusts Republicans to deal more effectively with immigration than Democrats by a 35 to 27 percent margin. That’s a startling reverse of the numbers in the same poll on this issue from last December when Democrats had a 31-26 percent edge. The jump in the GOP numbers can be attributed to the surge of illegal immigrants across the Texas border as a result of the belief that the president would offer amnesty to illegals soon.

Last year’s bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill that sought to both offer a path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants already here and to tighten security at the border may have been popular. But in the wake of this summer fiasco on the Rio Grande, conservative arguments that the border must be fixed before a solution for the illegals now makes a great deal of sense.

Even more importantly, outside of Hispanic activists who have been clamoring for Obama to use executive orders to unilaterally change the law without the consent of Congress, even Democrats are very uncomfortable with the notion of Obama running roughshod over the Constitution to deal with immigration.

Even worse, as Hagan’s public fears make clear, no one was fooled by Obama’s transparently political motives for postponing his planned moves. Merely putting off the decision until after the election hasn’t defused the issue for those who are rightly upset about the president’s power grab. Conservatives were already more energized about this election than liberals but the possibility that the president will ignore the will of Congress and try to govern without its consent is exactly the sort of issue that will drive the GOP base to the polls. By contrast, the president’s punt will likely depress his liberal base especially as Hispanics are disappointed by Obama’s broken promise after so much hype about the plan over the summer.

Even as most of her southern Democratic colleagues are losing ground in the polls, Hagan got a boost in the polls last week as a result of a strong debate performance against GOP opponent Thom Tillis. But the race is still very close and Hagan knows it might will turn on the possibility that Obama will seek to thwart the Constitution and act on his own to grant millions of illegals a path to legalization if not citizenship. It could also potentially doom any hope of getting enough Republicans to vote for an immigration reform bill at some point in the future because distrust of the president is so intense.

It may be that Obama’s desire to bypass Congress and do as he likes may be sufficiently high that he will refuse to disavow acting on his own. That would be in character for a president who acts at times as if he is allergic to cooperating with the legislative branch. But if he continues to threaten to act in this manner, his party may pay a high price.

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Palestinian Elections Postponed, Obviously

As a rule, Palestinians don’t tend to do democracy. The last time there was a proper parliamentary election was in 2006. That one had been essentially foisted upon them by the United States, but Hamas topped the polls and most people have regretted it ever since. There should have been another in 2009, but it was simply never held and few seemed greatly troubled by this fact.

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As a rule, Palestinians don’t tend to do democracy. The last time there was a proper parliamentary election was in 2006. That one had been essentially foisted upon them by the United States, but Hamas topped the polls and most people have regretted it ever since. There should have been another in 2009, but it was simply never held and few seemed greatly troubled by this fact.

Similarly, the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has managed to spin his four-year term into almost a decade as the head of the Palestinian Authority. When Abbas sabotaged the peace negotiations with Israel in May and instead signed a unity deal with the terrorists of Hamas, it was announced that Palestinian elections would be held within six months. European governments applauded. They welcomed the Palestinian return to democracy. But now, quite predictably, we hear that elections have been “postponed” once again.

This time the reason given is the aftermath of Hamas’s war with Israel. The PA prime minister Rami Hamdallah has claimed that rebuilding in Gaza is more of a priority than elections right now and that the war has made voting unpractical. This of course is nonsense. If elections could be held in the most war-torn parts of Iraq and Afghanistan then there is no material reason why they couldn’t be held in Gaza and in the West Bank.

A far more practical reason for why free and fair elections can’t be held in Gaza right now has nothing to do with the fact that parts of it are in ruins, and far more to do with the fact that it is run by Hamas. Of course the terror group’s left-wing apologists never tire of telling anyone who will listen that Hamas are the democratically elected government of Gaza. The fact that once Hamas took power they then promptly executed large numbers of their political opponents never seems to register with these people. And just like Abbas in the West Bank, Hamas has failed to ever hold any elections since.

Indeed, Abbas’s own record is little better than that of Hamas’s. At one point reports of how Hamas supporters in the West Bank were being imprisoned and tortured were common. Gradually, however, Fatah’s power in much of the West Bank has weakened. More recently in cities such as Nablus, Hebron, and Jenin PA security forces have seemingly abandoned their efforts to suppress Islamist groups such as Hamas and others.

This is the real reason that it was always impossible to imagine the Palestinian Authority giving the green light for another election. Back in 2006 Abbas’s Fatah had been assured that they would win. They are not about to make the same mistake again. Indeed, in the wake of Hamas’s recent war with Israel, the Islamists are boasting the kind of approval rating that Abbas could only dream of. Recent polling has shown that even In the West Bank, some 66 percent of Palestinians would vote for Hamas if elections were held today.

And so elections won’t be held today, or any time soon for that matter. Supposedly they are being put off until sometime next year. Of course, by then there will be a new reason not to hold elections. But the important thing for Abbas is that he is maintaining the veneer of democracy. It’s an act that only fools those who wish to be fooled by it. But for those in the Obama administration and the European Union who insist that Abbas is legitimate and that Israel and the world must treat him as such, these pretentions toward democracy are very convenient. In reality, however, Abbas is a despot.

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Defining Islam and the Islamophobia Myth

President Obama was going down a well-worn path last night when in his speech about stopping ISIS, he claimed the terrorist group was “not Islamic.” Like his predecessor George W. Bush, the president feels impelled to define America’s Islamist terrorist foes as somehow unrelated to the Muslim religion. The motives for this effort are utilitarian as well as idealistic but it comes with a cost, both in terms of our ability to wage an effective war against this enemy and the way these statements help fuel myths about American attitudes toward Muslims.

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President Obama was going down a well-worn path last night when in his speech about stopping ISIS, he claimed the terrorist group was “not Islamic.” Like his predecessor George W. Bush, the president feels impelled to define America’s Islamist terrorist foes as somehow unrelated to the Muslim religion. The motives for this effort are utilitarian as well as idealistic but it comes with a cost, both in terms of our ability to wage an effective war against this enemy and the way these statements help fuel myths about American attitudes toward Muslims.

As our Michael Rubin noted earlier today, it is not any president’s job to define who is and who is not affiliated with a particular religion. ISIS may practice a form of Islam that we find repellent but to pretend that it has nothing to do with the Muslim religion or that its roots are not very much part of the Islamic tradition isn’t a serious statement. Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, has many variations. But unfortunately, the violent and intolerant brand of Islamism that is championed by ISIS is not only not as much of an outlier as many Americans would like to pretend; in some ways its views are not dissimilar to other more mainstream sects such as the Wahhabi sect that dominates America’s Saudi Arabian ally. The difference between the two lies mainly in Wahhabi clerics’ loyalty to the House of Saud and the radicals’ belief in overthrowing most Muslim regimes, not in any innate contrasts between their views of the non-Muslim world.

In order to understand the strength of ISIS and its ability to rally the support or at least the sympathy of so many Muslims, it is necessary to understand its ability to appeal to those who believe Islam should dominate the world, just as it tried to in its heyday when Christian Europe was holding on for its life against a resurgent Muslim military tide. The intolerance it foments has its origins in a worldview that holds that the world must bow to Muslim sensibilities, even to the point of censoring Western expression about their faith. If it is to be defeated, it will have to be understood in the context of the history of the region and not by treating it as an alien outburst.

Nevertheless, it is necessary for American leaders to be at pains to demonstrate that the U.S. has never and will never be at war with Islam, a faith that commands the allegiance of a billion people, most of whom are not interested in war with the West. It is also important for Americans not to consider the millions of loyal American Muslims as being somehow responsible for the behavior of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or any other Islamist terror group.

But though both Bush and Obama have bent over backwards to avoid portraying the war against Islamist terror as having anything fundamental to do with Islam, their willingness to do so has given credence to those who have claimed that the opposite is true. The notion of a post-9/11 backlash against Muslims in America is a myth that has been repeatedly debunked, yet it continues to thrive and grow.

For example, in today’s Daily Beast, Dean Obeidallah claims “13 years after 9/11, anti-Muslim bigotry is worse than ever.” What proof does he offer for this? Not much. There is a poll sponsored by the Arab-American Institute that shows that less than half of those surveyed have positive views of American Muslims and 42 percent support the use of profiling by law-enforcement agencies that would focus on Arabs and Muslims.

These numbers may seem troubling. But the disconnect here is between what the poll rightly diagnoses as worries about homegrown terrorism committed by Muslims and in some cases supported by radical clerics and any actual evidence of discrimination or hate directed at Arabs or adherents of Islam.

As I have repeatedly noted here, FBI hate-crime statistics for every year since 9/11 have repeatedly demonstrated the emptiness of claims of a backlash against Muslims. In each of the last 12 years, hate crimes against Jews have outnumbered those directed at Muslims. And despite the poll Obeidallah cites, there has never been a single credible study that was able to establish a consistent pattern of discrimination or systematic violence against Muslims.

Even more incredibly, Obeidallah claims American popular culture has furthered the worst image of Muslims and refused to portray them positively. As anyone who has watched television or the movies in the last 13 years can attest, this is nonsense. Hollywood has gone out of its way in much the same way Bush and Obama have done to avoid stereotyping Arabs and Muslims. To the contrary, although some Muslims have been at war against the United States during these years, popular films that portray Arabs and Muslims as typical enemies are few and far between. This avoidance is virtually unprecedented in the history of warfare and culture.

Nor, despite Obeidallah’s attempt to portray a few stray politicians who are worried about the spread of sharia law as mainstream, has there ever been any attempt by the U.S. government to harass Muslims. Though in an era during which al-Qaeda and now ISIS are doing their best to strike Western targets it is simply common sense to pay more attention to Muslims of Middle Eastern origin, police departments around the country have eschewed profiling. The same is true of the Transportation Security Agency, whose airport personnel go out of their way to scrutinize elderly grandmothers so as to avoid the impression that they are keeping an eye on the same group that produced the 9/11 hijackers. In the same spirit, law enforcement personnel have often been more interested in establishing good relations with radical clerics than in monitoring their activities.

Discrimination against Muslims and Arabs is wrong. But those seeking to keep the myth of a backlash against them after 9/11 alive are pursuing an agenda that is not so much anti-bias as it is anti-awareness of the dangers of radical Islam.

Pretending ISIS isn’t Muslim won’t help us defeat them. But by acting as if Americans are barbarians who would resort to violence if they knew the truth about ISIS, the president is playing along with the same false narrative that seeks to establish American Muslims as the true victims of 9/11. That sort of thinking is not only offensive; it breeds a mindset that has often undermined our ability to act decisively against those advocating violent Islam and led some young American Muslims to join ISIS and other terror groups. So long as we keep ourselves in ignorance about both ISIS and its sympathizers we will not only never defeat them, we will also be fomenting a terrible lie about American society.

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Cuomo Agonistes

Just a few days before Andrew Cuomo’s victory over Zephyr Teachout in New York’s gubernatorial primary, a video of Cuomo at the Labor Day parade made the rounds. It neatly summed up the New York populist left’s relationship with Cuomo: he doesn’t acknowledge they exist.

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Just a few days before Andrew Cuomo’s victory over Zephyr Teachout in New York’s gubernatorial primary, a video of Cuomo at the Labor Day parade made the rounds. It neatly summed up the New York populist left’s relationship with Cuomo: he doesn’t acknowledge they exist.

Here’s the video, originally posted on the New York True website:

Teachout attempts for about a minute to get Cuomo’s attention to say hello to him. She is repeatedly boxed out by Cuomo’s handlers and he doesn’t appear to even notice her, despite her proximity. Eventually, she is crowded out when someone Cuomo does recognize, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, approaches. Although it’s doubtful Cuomo saw and ignored Teachout (unless I missed it), the forced smile pasted on his face and the complete lack of awareness of Teachout made for a pretty accurate description of how Cuomo feels about the Occupy left.

Cuomo won the primary by nearly thirty percent, but Teachout got 34 percent herself, the best primary challenge to a sitting New York governor on record. That left commentators with a kind of strange story to tell: a primary that wasn’t close but was closer than it should have been. It wasn’t a near-upset, but the publicity and support generated by the Teachout campaign (the New York Times even declined to endorse in the primary) were indicative of something not quite significant but not easily ignored either.

In a smart column for the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson tries to tease out the conflict:

Cuomo’s estrangement of Democratic liberals wasn’t due to any social conservatism on his part. In his first term as governor, Cuomo pushed through a same-sex marriage bill and tighter gun-control legislation. But his resistance to some key economic imperatives, allowing New York City to set a minimum-wage rate higher than the state’s and keeping a heightened tax rate on the income of the state’s wealthiest residents (that is, Wall Street bankers), and his unwillingness to campaign for Democratic control of the state Senate, which would boost the prospects for such legislation, angered many of his fellow Democrats. They believed Cuomo was cultivating Wall Street support for a possible presidential bid, an ambition that stood athwart their efforts to mitigate New York’s skyscraper-high inequality.

Cuomo’s vulnerability on economic issues was compounded by his vulnerability on ethical ones. Confronted with the spectacle of a steady stream of legislators moving from Albany to prison after convictions for corrupt practices, Cuomo convened an ethics commission to investigate and reform New York’s business of politics. Earlier this year, however, he disbanded it with its mission unaccomplished — a decision that prompted a federal prosecutor to announce that he was looking into Cuomo’s abrupt change of heart.

This strikes me as exactly right. So it’s worth playing this scenario out a bit. Meyerson compares the liberal angst bubbling up into Teachout’s campaign to that of Elizabeth Warren. The comparison is imperfect, but apt in one way: Warren would only run for president, presumably, if Hillary Clinton isn’t in the race. Clinton is running as a Wall Street Democrat through and through, and there does not appear to be real appetite on the left to take her on.

That’s because at the national level, Democrats are far more interested in winning. The only real friction between Clinton and the left so far, as Ben Domenech points out in this month’s COMMENTARY, concerned Clinton’s career-long opposition to gay marriage, until the polls shifted enough for her to flip flop. At the national level, social issues, and culture-war issues more broadly, get top billing from Democrats.

As Meyerson notes, that’s not true at the state level in New York. Democrats there care about social issues, but in a deep blue state those issues are not nearly so controversial. It’s how Cuomo could tell pro-life New Yorkers that they “have no place in the state of New York because that’s not who New Yorkers are” and still expect to win reelection. Liberals may appreciate Cuomo’s social liberalism (and his mildly totalitarian anger-management issues), but he’s not exactly going out on a limb.

And that’s why Cuomo would essentially have to decide between being a true-blue Democratic governor of New York or being a viable national figure. Since Cuomo has hopes of at least keeping the door to a presidential run open, he’s chosen to be a national Democrat. This has the advantage of not requiring him to have principles, and it’s also not much of a threat to his career as governor: if the best the left can do is keep him at two-thirds of the vote, he’s going to continue pretending they don’t exist.

And yet it may still come back to haunt him. Cuomo’s ethics shenanigans mean the possibility of indictment is unlikely but not nonexistent. If he makes it without legal trouble, people will wonder just how he did so. And if he alienates the left enough–Zephyr Teachout’s campaign had no trouble attracting headlines even outside New York, and she raised money outside the state as well–he’ll have no grassroots bandwagon for a national campaign. (Good luck in Iowa!)

Cuomo knows that it’s difficult to be a New York liberal in a national campaign. Now he’s learning that it’s not so easy not to be a New York liberal in New York. He wanted an uneventful governorship and a shot at the presidency. Both are looking increasingly out of reach.

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Jeers for Cruz and the Reality of Jew Hatred

Yesterday, our former colleague Alana Goodman reported in the Washington Free Beacon that a roster of speakers with ties to Hezbollah, Iran, and anti-Israel extremists tainted a Washington conference that was supposed to promote awareness of persecution of Christians. But it turns out the speakers weren’t the only problem at the In Defense of Christians event. Senator Ted Cruz was booed off the stage at the conference last night when he expressed support for Israel. While some are unfairly speculating whether Cruz’s courageous stand was a calculated gesture, what happened highlights the insidious growth of anti-Semitism even in places where one might not have expected it.

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Yesterday, our former colleague Alana Goodman reported in the Washington Free Beacon that a roster of speakers with ties to Hezbollah, Iran, and anti-Israel extremists tainted a Washington conference that was supposed to promote awareness of persecution of Christians. But it turns out the speakers weren’t the only problem at the In Defense of Christians event. Senator Ted Cruz was booed off the stage at the conference last night when he expressed support for Israel. While some are unfairly speculating whether Cruz’s courageous stand was a calculated gesture, what happened highlights the insidious growth of anti-Semitism even in places where one might not have expected it.

For the Cruz haters, the significant factor here is his presidential ambitions rather than the hate he faced. Over at Slate, Dave Weigel seems to imply that once Cruz figured out that he was attending an event that was sponsored by some fairly fishy characters, the Tea Party firebrand made a decision to distance himself from the group and dared them to boo him by making a strong pro-Israel statement. It was, the liberal pundit claimed, a “Pro-Israel Sister Souljah Moment” that will insulate the Texas senator against any claims that he made common cause with extremists.

If so, it was an extremely clever move by Cruz and his defiance of the crowd jeering him will long be remembered in the pro-Israel community:

Those who hate Israel hate America. Those who hate Jews hate Christians. If those in this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps. If you hate the Jewish people you are not reflecting the teachings of Christ. And the very same people who persecute and murder Christians right now, who crucify Christians, who behead children, are the very same people who target Jews for their faith, for the same reason. … If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews. Then I will not stand with you. Good night, and God bless.

But the idea that Cruz was worried about his pro-Israel credentials doesn’t wash. Cruz has made a lot of enemies on Capitol Hill with his take-no-prisoners approach to policy and an abrasive manner that has alienated colleagues on both sides of the aisle. But he’s also taken every possible opportunity to articulate strong support for Israel, often taking the administration to task for its predilection for picking fights with the Netanyahu government. While he certainly did himself some good by standing up to these haters, his statement was not out of character for a man who has often uttered these sentiments in other contexts.

It’s also not clear that this will give Cruz any material advantage in 2016. Other than Rand Paul, whose isolationist tendencies make him extremely problematic for supporters of the Jewish state or a strong U.S. foreign policy, all of the major and most of the minor GOP contenders have strong pro-Israel records. This is not an issue on which any of those contending for the nomination will be able to distance themselves from the pack.

But instead of speculating, as Weigel did, on the questionable notion that this was a political stunt by Cruz, the real issue here is the effort to mainstream anti-Semitism while operating under the banner of defense of persecuted Christians.

The issue of the oppression of Christians in the Middle East is an important one that has for too long flown under the radar. The rise of violent Islamist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram have brought this issue more attention in recent months. But the willingness of some Middle East Christians to make common cause with Muslims when it comes to Israel undermines their cause. Jews and Christians have always suffered under Muslim rule as Dhimmi, persecuted minorities that are nonetheless protected from murder so long as they accede to their second-class citizen status. In the 20th century, some Christians sought to prove themselves by affirming their loyalty to a pan-Arab identity that placed them in the forefront of the war against Zionism and the Jews. But the idea that their opposition to Israel could protect them against Muslim extremism was a tragic mistake.

Today, Christians find themselves under tremendous pressure in a region where true freedom of religion only really exists in Israel. Yet some who claim to represent Christians are once again outspoken in their hate for Israel and even absurdly blaming the Jews for their plight at the hands of hostile Palestinian Islamists. Instead of making common cause with Jews who are also targeted because of their faith, some Christian groups have become among the most outspoken advocates of hate against Israel.

This unfortunate trend must seen in the same context as the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe that is now beginning to be exported to American college campuses. As with others who oppose Israel’s existence and its right to self-defense, these Christian groups—whether mainline denominations such as the Presbyterian Church USA or organizations with their roots in the Middle East as is the case with In Defense of Christians—are spreading hatred of Jews and must be called out for their hypocrisy as well as the libelous nature of the propaganda they spread.

Americans need to speak up now against the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. But groups that wish to divert Western anger from Islamist killers to besieged Israel should not fool them. No matter his possible future plans, Cruz deserves credit for denouncing a hate group masquerading as victims. Rather than snipe at him, decent people on all parts of the political spectrum should be joining him in standing up to anti-Semites, not ignoring them.

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The Constitution and the War on ISIS

When President Obama announced last night that the United States was now committed to the destruction of the ISIS terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, there was one conspicuous omission from the speech. He will not ask Congress for a vote authorizing the campaign. That suits most members of the House and Senate—who are not eager to cast a vote for or against war on the eve of the midterm elections—just fine. But it begs the question of whether his decision is constitutional or wise.

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When President Obama announced last night that the United States was now committed to the destruction of the ISIS terrorist group operating in Iraq and Syria, there was one conspicuous omission from the speech. He will not ask Congress for a vote authorizing the campaign. That suits most members of the House and Senate—who are not eager to cast a vote for or against war on the eve of the midterm elections—just fine. But it begs the question of whether his decision is constitutional or wise.

In his speech, the president brushed over the question of a congressional vote when he said:

I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL, but I believe we are strongest as a nation when the president and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.

While he’s right about the majority of Congress supporting action at this moment, many in the House and Senate believe they must be formally consulted. While agreeing with the president’s dubious assertion that the terrorists were not Islamic, Senator Rand Paul believes Congress needs to authorize any military action against the group. The libertarian called for “an up or down vote” on the use of force and said authorizing strikes without one was “unconstitutional.”

Is he right? The president’s position on this is precarious but it is not completely illogical.

Last year when the president flirted with taking action in Syria against the Bashar Assad regime after it crossed the “red line” he had enunciated on its use of chemical weapons, he deferred to Congress saying he could not take action on his own. Now he claims he has the authority to order the use of force that he didn’t have last year. The difference is that the administration believes a conflict with ISIS falls under the rubric of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force voted by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks by al-Qaeda whereas a fight with Assad would not.

That makes some sense but ironies abound.

The first is that, as the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake writes today, fighting ISIS on the basis of a resolution against al-Qaeda makes no sense. The two groups are not the same thing and are actually in conflict with each other so how can a congressional resolution against one allow the president to fight the other?

Even more embarrassing for Obama is the recollection that, as Lake recalls, Obama specifically eschewed the right of the president to act in this manner in the absence of “an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” Though the president can assert, with some justice, that ISIS potentially does pose such a threat, given that he repeated his boasts about defeating al-Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden in his speech, using the resolution from a war he has pretended to have won to fight a new one against a different group is absurd if not illegal, as Lake asserts.

The fact that in May 2013 the president also asked Congress to repeal this very same resolution and vowed never to sign laws to extend that mandate only adds another layer of hypocrisy to the discussion.

Yet even if we were to assume that the president is right that the 2001 law applies to the new conflict, his decision not to ask Congress for a vote is a mistake.

The reasons for his choice are obvious.

First of all, the president was burned last year when it was clear that he didn’t have support for a Syria resolution even though his initial inclination to strike Assad was correct. The president has always been uncomfortable working with Congress and after nearly six years in office has more or less given up on the idea. Even though the odds would be in his favor after the universal revulsion felt by Americans about ISIS atrocities, Obama simply hasn’t the patience or the ability to cajole the House and the Senate to back him.

Moreover, though many members of Congress are unsettled by this usurpation of authority, they are more than happy not to be asked to cast a difficult vote sending the nation to war in the weeks before the midterm elections. Outside of critical voices like Paul, few in either the House or the Senate are upset about being given a pass by the White House.

But both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are wrong.

The president would be immeasurably strengthened by a new vote, especially when you consider that he would be almost certain to win it. Having called the nation to take part in war, albeit on the cheap without ground troops, choosing to avoid a vote while weakly welcoming the legislative branch’s support smacks of the same cavalier attitude toward the Constitution that animates his stands on immigration and the environment. Avoiding the controversies that have embroiled the administration on those issues would lift this conflict out of the partisan squabbles that characterize virtually everything that happens in Washington these days.

Even more important is that such a vote would make it clear that the nation was united and ready to pay the price, be in treasure or blood, to defeat ISIS. Arming himself with that support would be what a true wartime president—one that was able not only to articulate the reasons for fighting but also prepared to stick out a long hard fight—would do.

But this risk-averse president who has been dragged kicking and screaming into this fight by an American people who are outraged and fearful about ISIS rather than his own judgment isn’t willing to do it. A call for a vote would be a sign of respect for the separation of powers in the Constitution as well as a unifying gesture as the U.S. embarks on a new chapter of a war on terror that began 13 years ago today on 9/11. But Obama appears as indifferent to the former as he is uninterested in the latter. While it is to be hoped that his half-hearted approach to this conflict will be successful, this is not a good start to a war that may prove more difficult than he thinks.

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Israel’s Predetermined Guilt and the Irrelevant Left

If you’ve been around Israeli politics long enough, you pick up on the one thing that bothers leftist “human-rights” groups more than anything: their irrelevance. At times, their frustration boils over into quite humorous attempts to coopt credit for Israel’s democratic achievements when in fact, as usual, they’ve had nothing to do with it. Today’s New York Times marks yet another such instance.

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If you’ve been around Israeli politics long enough, you pick up on the one thing that bothers leftist “human-rights” groups more than anything: their irrelevance. At times, their frustration boils over into quite humorous attempts to coopt credit for Israel’s democratic achievements when in fact, as usual, they’ve had nothing to do with it. Today’s New York Times marks yet another such instance.

The Times story is on official Israeli investigations into possible wrongdoing on its part during its recent war in Gaza. This is exactly what Israel does after wars, and what it has done for decades. Not only does Israel tend to investigate individual strikes, but it puts the IDF’s strategic command under the microscope, and sometimes, as with the 2006 Lebanon war, takes the investigation right up to the Israeli prime minister himself.

Because human-rights groups are thus irrelevant to the process of Israel defending human rights, they seek to convince credulous reporters (or reporters who know better but prefer to keep up the propaganda war against the Israeli government) that when Israel does something right, it’s because of them. It may sound laughable to those who know the basics of Israeli life and politics, but these activist groups have a trump card: the New York Times will publish their self-congratulatory blathering.

Today that’s precisely what the Times does. It starts out with the headline: “Israel, Facing Criticism, to Investigate Possible Military Misconduct in Gaza.” If you didn’t know better, you might read that headline and think the beginning and the end of the headline are related. They are not. It’s true that Israel is facing criticism. It is also true that Israel will investigate possible military misconduct. It is not true, however, that Israel is investigating possible misconduct because fringe activists are lobbing spitballs at the IDF.

The Times continues down this road, in the process offering an illuminating portrait of just what Israeli human-rights groups do:

Some said the timing of the inquiries appeared to be an attempt by the Israeli government to pre-empt the impact of international investigations into allegations of possible Israeli war crimes committed in Gaza. They also pointed out that the cases, opened by Israel’s Military Advocate General Corps, included obvious episodes that had already drawn condemnation.

One prominent Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, refused to participate in the investigations and said history showed that the Israeli military could not possibly conduct a credible prosecution of itself.

“Based on past experience, we can only regretfully say that Israeli law enforcement authorities are unable and unwilling to investigate allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law committed during fighting in Gaza,” the organization said in a statement. “Should the existing whitewashing mechanism be replaced with an independent investigative body, we would gladly cooperate with it.”

So Israel will investigate without being prompted by B’Tselem. Also, B’Tselem won’t get involved in the investigation. What will they be doing? Whatever it is, it has no bearing on justice and truth and morality in war. (This 2011 COMMENTARY essay by Noah Pollak remains the indispensable profile of the group.)

Earlier in the piece, however, the Times delivered a truly telling message:

The announcement, conveyed at a briefing by the Israeli military, came only two weeks after a cease-fire in the conflict, an unusually speedy response. But critics, including human rights advocates in Israel, said it remained to be seen whether the investigations would yield significant criminal indictments and punishments.

Think about that second sentence. It “remained to be seen” if there would be indictments from the investigation that just began. You would be hard-pressed to think of a more superfluous sentence to appear in a major newspaper. But the key is who the Times is supposedly paraphrasing: “critics, including human rights advocates.”

That’s right: the human-rights groups are upset that Israel isn’t considered–or considers itself–guilty until proved innocent. In fact, they don’t even care if those under investigation are proved innocent. They want “significant criminal indictments and punishments.” Not just punishments: significant punishments.

Punishments for what? Well, nobody knows that yet because Israel–which is far more trustworthy in such investigations than outside organizations like the UN, which the Goldstone affair compellingly demonstrated–hasn’t completed its investigation. And “human-rights” groups like B’Tselem don’t know either, and won’t know, because they refuse to participate in the investigation.

What Israel’s critics want is not justice. They want show trials. Israel has long been more than willing to be its own toughest critic and to discipline anyone who earns it, in the military or in its political establishment. But Israel’s critics there and in the international community, including so-called human-rights groups, want Israelis punished for defending themselves lawfully and morally. For surviving and thriving in the face of their genocidal enemies.

To Israel’s critics in the “human-rights” NGO community, Israel’s guilt is simply taken for granted. The irrelevance of those groups is a testament to Israel’s collective judgment.

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Obama Repudiates His Own Past Strategy and Statements

My sense is that last night’s primetime address by President Obama was primarily a political damage-control operation. During the last month the president has been all over the lot on the issue of ISIS, and so the White House viewed this speech as a do-over. Forget what Mr. Obama has said in the past, the White House seemed to be saying; what the president laid out yesterday is really and truly what he believes.

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My sense is that last night’s primetime address by President Obama was primarily a political damage-control operation. During the last month the president has been all over the lot on the issue of ISIS, and so the White House viewed this speech as a do-over. Forget what Mr. Obama has said in the past, the White House seemed to be saying; what the president laid out yesterday is really and truly what he believes.

Here’s one problem with that. Last night the president said, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” If Yemen and Somalia are the models, then we’re not going to defeat ISIS. The situations are quite different in important respects, with ISIS a far more formidable, well-armed foe than what we see in either Yemen and Somalia; and, in any event, al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula remains a lethal threat. Our strategy in Yemen and Somalia hasn’t altered the facts on the ground in either country.

Beyond that, though, is that I can’t shake the fact that even yesterday, Mr. Obama appeared to be a reluctant commander in chief. His strategy is filled with qualifiers, including his chronic and peculiar habit of declaring in advance all the things he won’t do. One can just sense that he hates being pulled into this conflict–and that having been forced to engage because of events, and now by American public opinion, the effort will be mostly restricted to air power. Air power can help, but it can’t get the job done.

One other thought: Last night’s speech was a thorough repudiation of President Obama’s previous approach and statements, from calling ISIS a “jayvee team” to ridiculing the Syrian opposition as being “made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” to having to send troops back to Iraq after the president so proudly hailed the fact that he had withdrawn every last American from Iraq. This is not what a receding tide of war is supposed to look like. Even the Washington Post today, in a front-page story, said this:

Senior advisers have repeatedly said that the unexpected course of the Arab Spring greatly limited their ability to shape events in countries such as Syria. But whatever the source of unrest, it is clear that Obama was either naive to promise a new chapter in post-9/11 foreign policy, or simply failed to deliver on that vision.

President Obama’s entire approach to this point has been misguided, fraught with one mistake in judgment after another. Last night’s speech more or less conceded as much, even as the president himself pretended otherwise.

My fear is that Mr. Obama hasn’t had a change in heart; that he still doesn’t understand on a fundamental level what he got wrong and what needs to be done to succeed. He’s still lost in a fog, and we’re once again learning that community organizers don’t make very good commanders in chief.

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Obama Has the Right Goal on ISIS; Does He Have the Strategy to Attain It?

President Obama laid out the right objective in his address to the nation on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary: “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” He deserves credit for owning up to the threat posed by a group he had dismissed earlier this year as a “JV team.” He deserves credit, too, for removing the artificial limits which had allowed U.S. warplanes to bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq but not in Syria. Members of Congress of both parties should not hesitate to support the commander in chief as he undertakes a campaign against what has been called the strongest terrorist group in the world. But that support need not be uncritical.

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President Obama laid out the right objective in his address to the nation on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary: “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL.” He deserves credit for owning up to the threat posed by a group he had dismissed earlier this year as a “JV team.” He deserves credit, too, for removing the artificial limits which had allowed U.S. warplanes to bomb the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS or ISIL) in Iraq but not in Syria. Members of Congress of both parties should not hesitate to support the commander in chief as he undertakes a campaign against what has been called the strongest terrorist group in the world. But that support need not be uncritical.

There are ample grounds for concern that, however good the president is at describing the threat, his actions are not sufficient to overcome it. Listening to the president’s remarks, in particular, I wonder if the president’s strategy will only be sufficient to degrade–not to destroy–ISIS.

There is, for example, the salient fact that Obama stressed over and over–that his strategy “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” It is a mystery why the president would want to telegraph at the opening of a military campaign what the U.S. will not do, which can only raise doubts among friends and foes alike of our resolve in this struggle. Although no one is seriously suggesting sending large ground-combat formations to Iraq or Syria, there is a pressing need for a substantial force of trainers, air controllers, intelligence experts, and Special Operations Forces to direct air strikes and augment the very limited capabilities of our local allies–namely the Kurdish pesh merga, the Sunni tribes, the Free Syrian Army, and vetted units of the Iraqi Security Forces. I and various other commentators have suggested something on the order of 10,000 to 15,000 personnel will be required, but Obama said he was only sending 475 more personnel to Iraq, bringing our troop total to around 1,500. That’s better than zero but it’s probably not where we need to be if we are to actually assist in the destruction of ISIS.

There is no indication, in particular, that Obama will allow the Joint Special Operations Command to do the kind of highly precise network-targeting that, in combination with a larger counterinsurgency strategy, did so much damage in the past to al-Qaeda in Iraq, ISIS’s predecessor. This would require sending small numbers of Americans into combat, albeit on highly favorable terms. Simply deploying JSOC to bases in and around Iraq and Syria would require a deployment of probably 2,000 personnel–far more than Obama has so far ordered.

The president’s analogy to Somalia and Yemen is not an encouraging one. Obama may be one of the few people around who thinks that the U.S. has achieved so much success in those countries that it is a model worth emulating. Al Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Somalia, has withstood offensives by Kenyan, Ethiopian, and African Union troops. As Obama’s own National Counterterrorism Center notes, although “degraded,” Al Shabaab “has continued its violent insurgency in southern and central Somalia. The group has exerted temporary and, at times, sustained control over strategic locations in those areas by recruiting, sometimes forcibly, regional sub-clans and their militias, using guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics.”

Al Shabaab also has shown distressing ability to mount terrorist strikes outside Somalia, for example the attack on a Nairobi mall in 2013. And it is doubtful that the recent American air strike, which killed its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, will defeat the group any more than did a previous airstrike in 2008 which killed the previous leader, Aden Hashi Ayro.

As for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaeda affiliate based in Yemen, it too has shown a lot of staying power notwithstanding American air strikes that have killed leaders such as Anwar al-Awlaki. It may have been overshadowed by grimmer news on the ISIS front, but on August 8, AQAP murdered 14 captured Yemeni soldiers. A memo from the AEI Critical Threats Project warned that this “may presage the emergence of a renewed threat from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that the U.S and Yemen are ill-prepared to handle.”

At best, U.S. air strikes in Yemen and Somalia have disrupted these terrorist groups without defeating them. The only case that I am aware of where air strikes, without effective ground action, have had a more substantial impact on a terrorist group is in Pakistan where continued U.S. drone attacks over the course of more than a decade have done serious damage to core al-Qaeda, albeit without destroying it. But that’s only possible because core al-Qaeda is such a small organization with a few dozen operatives. ISIS is much, much larger with more than 10,000 fighters and control of a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is in fact more than a terrorist group–it is also a guerrilla group that is trying to create a conventional army. And in terms of money and weaponry it has access to resources that far exceed those of Al Shabaab, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or core al-Qaeda.

It is not, in short, a threat that will be eradicated by a few dozen or even a few hundred American air strikes. What is required is a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign enabled by a substantial force of advisers and Special Operators that would be able to dramatically increase the capabilities of our local allies. If we don’t put at least some “boots on the ground,” we risk bombing blind which could have the opposite of the intended effect. It could, in fact, drive more Sunnis into ISIS’s camp and wind up inadvertently helping extremist Shiite militias, which are present in large numbers, under the direction of Iran’s Quds Force, in both Iraq and Syria.

I have said it before and will say it again: If we’re going to do this, let’s do it right. As Napoleon said, “If you set out to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Don’t take a few villages outside Vienna.

I very much doubt that most Americans care whether we have 1,500 or 15,000 troops in Iraq. They are mad about ISIS and worried about its threat and they want it to be destroyed. Obama should commit the resources to achieve that objective rather than trying to send the smallest force possible so that he can say he is not repeating George W. Bush’s mistakes in Iraq. In reality, alas, there are eerie parallels between Bush’s failure to adequately resource the Iraq mission between 2003 and 2007 and Obama’s failure to do so today. Perhaps we can defeat ISIS on the cheap, but I doubt it.

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On What Is and Is Not Islamic

During his speech last night, President Obama declared, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” It is certainly true that the vast majority of the victims of ISIS, as the group is more commonly known, have been Muslim as have been the majority of victims of other radical Islamist movements, it is not the job of any president to decree what is and is not Islam; what is and is not Christianity; and what is and is not Judaism. For all practical purposes, religion is what its practitioners believe it to be, not what an American president says it is.

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During his speech last night, President Obama declared, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic.’ No religion condones the killing of innocents. And the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” It is certainly true that the vast majority of the victims of ISIS, as the group is more commonly known, have been Muslim as have been the majority of victims of other radical Islamist movements, it is not the job of any president to decree what is and is not Islam; what is and is not Christianity; and what is and is not Judaism. For all practical purposes, religion is what its practitioners believe it to be, not what an American president says it is.

On September 20, 2001, George W. Bush was more nuanced when he addressed this issue during his address to the Joint Session of Congress:

Al Qaeda is to terror what the Mafia is to crime. But its goal is not making money, its goal is remaking the world and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere. The terrorists practice a fringe form of Islamic extremism that has been rejected by Muslim scholars and the vast majority of Muslim clerics; a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam. The terrorists’ directive commands them to kill Christians and Jews, to kill all Americans and make no distinctions among military and civilians, including women and children.

National security should never be sacrificed upon the altar of political correctness. Ignoring the problem of religious interpretation by suggesting religion plays no part is disingenuous and ultimately handicaps the understanding of the enemy. No, the enemy is not Islam. But to pretend that the enemy—ISIS in this case—does not root itself in an interpretation of Islam is simply wrong. Obama subsequently paid lip service in his speech to the need to “counter [ISIS’s] warped ideology,” finally recognizing that its terrorism isn’t simply rooted in grievance that can be addressed by concession or incentive. But until we acknowledge what so many Muslims do—that theological interpretation is the problem—no efforts to counter such ideology will be successful.

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Allowing Others to Carry Us

Last week a good friend of mine told me that one of his groomsmen, someone he’s known since junior high, took his life. He had breakfast with this fellow a month ago and he remarked to his wife that his groomsman’s horizons seemed to have shrunk, but he didn’t realize just how great was his struggle. “It is very sad,” my friend wrote me. “I wish he had reached out to me.”

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Last week a good friend of mine told me that one of his groomsmen, someone he’s known since junior high, took his life. He had breakfast with this fellow a month ago and he remarked to his wife that his groomsman’s horizons seemed to have shrunk, but he didn’t realize just how great was his struggle. “It is very sad,” my friend wrote me. “I wish he had reached out to me.”

We heard many people say the same thing about the comedian Robin Williams, who committed suicide last month. Williams was battling depression and had been at a rehab facility recently, yet his death still shocked even his closest friends. How could a man who brought so much joy and laughter in the lives of others have found himself in such a dark place? “He had a magical quality about him,” his close friend Dennis Miller said. “At the core, his default set was gentle… He was one of the dearest men who ever lived.” But Miller, who was shocked by Williams’s death, added this: “The only other thing I can say is if Robin Williams, who was a locus of joy, can get to that dark place, any of the billions of people on this planet can. And if you’re ever getting to that corner, you have to round the corner off by getting hold of another human being… If you want to serve his memory, never not make the call to somebody.”

Fortunately suicides are quite rare, but these two incidents are a reminder to me that often we don’t have a clue as to what is really going on in the lives of even close friends. People can be struggling with depression and failing marriages, with illness and alienation from children and parents, with addiction and countless other challenges. It turns out that there is often a lot of brokenness in our lives that is simply hidden from view.

That is hardly the full story, of course. Everyone’s circumstances are different, and for many, life is filled with joy and wonder. Some people’s experiences are blessedly free of hardship; life for them is a sail on a summer sea. But at some point along the way we find ourselves living somewhere else than we thought we’d be, and somewhere else than we’d rather be.

I’ve been struck in recent years, in learning the stories of others and simply in dealing with the inevitable twists and turns of life, how vital it is to have people walk with us and help sustain us during our pilgrimage. We all need help making our way through life in this fallen world.

In saying this, I should probably make it clear that I’m no great fan of public confessionals and what the social critic Christopher Lasch called “the therapeutic sensibility.” It can turn into a type of exhibitionism that is undignified. But that is quite different than sharing one’s interior world with those who have special standing in our lives and who have earned our trust. For that to happen requires people willing to be transparent about their struggles and people who care enough to inquire about them. For everything there is a season, including a season to help others and a season to allow others to help us. Sometimes the latter is more difficult than the former.

Sharol Hayner is the wife of a dear friend, Steve Hayner, who is quite ill. (I’ve written about Steve before.) Sharol, in describing their ordeal, wrote this:

I’ve thought about the story of the paralyzed man whose friends carried him to Jesus to be healed in Mark 2. You all are the friends who are carrying Steve to Jesus to be healed and I’ve wanted to be part of that faithful crowd. But in sometimes finding it hard to know how to pray, I’ve recognized that it’s okay to crawl onto the stretcher with Steve and be carried myself. That too is so freeing.

This comes from a couple that has (figuratively) carried more people to places of healing than any I know. (I count myself among them.) But in this harrowing time, they are allowing others to carry them. That is a gift to them; and it is a gift to those of us who love them.

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Poll Driven War May Not Scare ISIS

President Obama used a lot of tough words about ISIS in his speech Wednesday night pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. But if the leaders of the group that has largely run roughshod over much of Syria and Iraq on the president’s watch were listening, they might not have been as intimidated by the prospect of a U.S. commitment to as Americans might like. The speech was equal measures of national security common sense, signals of the president’s half-hearted commitment to the conflict, and alibis and denials of six years of failed foreign policy.

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President Obama used a lot of tough words about ISIS in his speech Wednesday night pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group. But if the leaders of the group that has largely run roughshod over much of Syria and Iraq on the president’s watch were listening, they might not have been as intimidated by the prospect of a U.S. commitment to as Americans might like. The speech was equal measures of national security common sense, signals of the president’s half-hearted commitment to the conflict, and alibis and denials of six years of failed foreign policy.

Whatever may have brought him to this moment, let’s first specify that to the extent that the president is speaking plain truth about the threat from ISIS and willing to commit U.S. forces to its destruction, he deserves the support of the American people. This is a fight that the United States cannot ignore or pretend will go away merely because we wish to avert our eyes. As he rightly noted, the group presents a clear threat to the security of the people of the region and, if not stopped now, a very serious one to that of the United States. If the coalition which the United States is attempting to put together to deal with ISIS succeeds, it will be a singular success for an administration that can, despite the president’s boasts, point to a list of foreign-policy accomplishments that is remarkable for its brevity./

In going forward with this campaign, whatever direction it takes or for however long it goes on, the president can count on the support of the American people and even most of the Congress that he has not seen fit to ask for a vote authorizing the effort. He will have leeway to order attacks on ISIS targets as he and his commanders see fit without too much second-guessing outside of the precincts of the far right and the far left. Nor will Americans have to worry much about the kind of scrutiny other armed forces face when similarly targeting terrorists who often hide among civilians. There will be no United Nations investigations or media meltdowns about any civilians who will without question be hurt when U.S. bombers take out ISIS fighters or instillations as Israel must face when it fights another brand of Islamist terror in Hamas.

But the question that should be troubling Americans and others who are hoping that tonight’s speech marks a turning point in this troubled presidency is not so much about the goals that Obama stated tonight but the commitment of the commander-in-chief to this struggle and his ability to think clearly about the mistakes that led to the crisis that made this speech necessary.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the president’s remarks is that this speech, like the policy that it sought to explain, is largely a poll-driven affair. After all, the president could have made the same decision several months ago when he was deriding ISIS as the “JV” of terror even as they were taking the city of Fallujah that American troops had won so dearly during his predecessor’s watch. Or at any other time since then as the situation in Syria and Iraq went from a crisis to a near catastrophe as ISIS overran vast amounts of territory and committed many of the unspeakable atrocities that the president mentioned in his remarks. The decision was necessitated not by the severity of the challenge but by the fear generated by the videos showing ISIS’s barbaric murder of two American journalists.

More to the point, the president’s decision is a silent acknowledgement that much of his past policies were not only wrong but also directly responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq and Syria. It was Obama who spent three years ridiculing the very policies on Syria that he is now embracing as warmongering. And it was also Obama who chose to squander the victory he had inherited from the Bush administration by fleeing the conflict and assuming that if he said the war there was over that would mean that this must be so.

The president’s defenders will say that this is mere backbiting and irrelevant to the current dilemma. But as much as it does the country little good for the president’s critics to be saying “I told you so,” it must also be said that it might be easier to have confidence in this administration if its leader were man enough to admit his errors.

Instead, the president reinforced the impression that this was a speech written with focus groups in mind by insisting—in contrast to polls that show that Americans feel less safe today than at any moment since 9/11—that he has made the country more secure. In addition to the rote repetition of his reelection campaign boasts about killing bin Laden, he took credit for pulling all U.S. forces out of Iraq even though that is exactly what led to the current debacle.

Just as important was his insistence that this would not be a war like Afghanistan or Iraq because no U.S. ground troops would be deployed. Americans prefer wars where they can merely bomb their enemies without coming to grips with them on the ground. But the president also admitted that the success of the effort would depend on other nations, principally Iraq, that would supply the ground troops. But if you’re ISIS you may not be shaking in your boots. If ISIS is really the scary threat to the U.S. that Obama makes it out to be—and it is—then the terrorists must be asking themselves why no Americans will fight. If this is a battle for our values as well as our security why will it only be Iraqis or Kurds who will be asked to fight for them? As important as Obama’s talk about destroying ISIS may be, his refusal to say that America will do whatever it takes to beat it must be encouraging the terrorists.

We don’t need mea culpas from the president as much as an indication that he comprehends what went wrong and how to fix it. That was a test that his predecessor George W. Bush passed when he switched defense secretaries and war fighting strategies in Iraq in 2007. But while the president strove at times to copy Bush’s moral clarity about the fight (a position that Obama didn’t support at the time), he lacks his humility or his ability to admit his errors.

Obama’s conclusion in which he extolled America’s greatness was nice to hear. But I doubt that ISIS, which despises all this country stands for, was interested. They were listening for signals that Obama was so committed to their defeat that he would not let anyone or anything get in the way of that goal, including his desire to be seen as the man who ends wars, not the guy who starts them.

Listening to polls or employing half measures that minimize casualties so as to protect leaders from critical comments does not win wars. It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama can rise above his hubris and arrogant unwillingness to admit mistakes in order to beat ISIS. But judging by this speech, it is doubtful that members of the terror group are thinking they can’t outlast a president who leads from behind his allies and his own people.

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Tough on ISIS? Iran Senses U.S. Weakness

After weeks of indecision, President Obama is finally, albeit in a limited manner, mustering U.S. strength to respond to the challenge from ISIS terrorists. But at the same time, another dangerous Islamist power is sensing U.S. weakness in its struggle to build a nuclear weapon. The latest news about Iranian maneuvering prior to the resumption of the nuclear talks with the West provides a stark contrast to any talk about a more muscular Obama foreign policy.

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After weeks of indecision, President Obama is finally, albeit in a limited manner, mustering U.S. strength to respond to the challenge from ISIS terrorists. But at the same time, another dangerous Islamist power is sensing U.S. weakness in its struggle to build a nuclear weapon. The latest news about Iranian maneuvering prior to the resumption of the nuclear talks with the West provides a stark contrast to any talk about a more muscular Obama foreign policy.

As the New York Times reports today, Iran is going full speed ahead with a diplomatic campaign to undermine Western sanctions aimed at forcing them to come to terms on a nuclear agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry began the process of weakening and perhaps dismantling the restrictions on doing business with Iran last fall in the hope that this would lead Tehran to meet him at least halfway and sign another weak accord that might let them keep their nuclear program while committing them to not build a bomb. But in the months that have followed Kerry’s interim deal, the Iranians have not played ball. Instead, they have reverted to their pattern of previous negotiations in which they have stalled and continued to try to run out the clock until it is too late to stop them. While some sources close to the negotiations claim that a final agreement is possible and may even be within reach, Iran’s public stance and its diplomatic offensive leave the impression that they are standing firm and will agree to nothing that ultimately limits their ability to build a bomb.

The Obama administration’s zeal for a deal with Iran is no secret. Nor is the president’s desire to craft a new détente with Tehran. That impulse is only strengthened by the fact that both Iran and the U.S. view the ISIS terrorists as an enemy. As I wrote last week, the administration’s belated realization that letting ISIS flourish in Syria and Iraq was a colossal error is leading some to conclude that it should work together with the Iranian regime in an attempt to crush the group. But while it is to be hoped that the U.S. and Iran will not clash in Iraq, no one should trust Tehran or its motives in intervening against ISIS. Nor should this temporary confluence of interests be allowed to impact the U.S. effort to stop Iran from going nuclear.

But unfortunately, the mixed signals coming from Washington about Iran are already being interpreted abroad as indicating the administration’s lack of resolve on the nuclear issue. As the Times notes, Iran seems to be making progress in getting Russia (which is always happy to thwart U.S. interests on any issue even if it makes no sense for the Putin regime to let their Iranian neighbor acquire a bomb) and South Africa to think about backing away from sanctions or openly breaching them. And so long as the U.S. is behaving as if the nuclear issue is not a priority and that increasing, rather than weakening the restrictions in the coming year is on the table (a prospect that the administration quashed when it was proposed by Congress), it’s hard to blame these countries and others who are tempted to do business with Iran, that Obama doesn’t care much about the issue.

But whatever the administration is planning to do in the talks or if they fail, the Iranians seem determined to prepare themselves to withstand any pressure from the West. They are secure in the knowledge that Obama will never use force against them and that America’s allies and partners in the negotiations will crumble even if the president will not. Under those circumstances they have little incentive to be reasonable in the talks.

President Obama is reluctantly bringing the U.S. into the war on ISIS. But unless he wakes up and starts acting in a manner that will cause the Iranians to fear the consequences of trying to keep their nuclear program, he may face an even more dangerous conflict against a country on the verge of gaining a nuke.

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Live From D.C., It’s the First Amendment

Liberals are mocking Senator Ted Cruz for his speech yesterday claiming that a proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by Democrats would give Congress the power to shut down political satire such as that shown on NBC’s Saturday Night Live show. They say all they want to do is to restore the campaign finance laws of the country to what they were before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and ensure that elections are clean and free of the taint of big corporate money. But those dismissing Cruz’s speech as nothing more than a publicity stunt are wrong. If Democrats have their way, no one’s political speech would be safe.

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Liberals are mocking Senator Ted Cruz for his speech yesterday claiming that a proposed constitutional amendment sponsored by Democrats would give Congress the power to shut down political satire such as that shown on NBC’s Saturday Night Live show. They say all they want to do is to restore the campaign finance laws of the country to what they were before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and ensure that elections are clean and free of the taint of big corporate money. But those dismissing Cruz’s speech as nothing more than a publicity stunt are wrong. If Democrats have their way, no one’s political speech would be safe.

Let’s specify that the entire Senate debate on this issue is the real political stunt. The amendment has no chance of getting cloture in the Senate and will not get a hearing in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. And even in the highly unlikely event that the Democrats were to get control of both houses of Congress in November, it’s even less likely that enough state legislatures would subsequently vote for the measure in order for it to become law. The only reason Majority Leader Harry Reid has put the issue on the calendar for debate is that he wants it to help drum up interest in the issue as a way to help Democrats in the midterm elections. He believes that more attention to campaign finance reform will further his goal of demonizing GOP donors like the Koch brothers.

Reid’s anti-Koch crusade won’t save endangered red-state Senate Democrats any more than it will generate enough congressional support to pass the amendment. But voters would do well to pay attention because the issue here is nothing less than the future of free speech.

Democrats scoff at Cruz’s claims about the amendment being the end of SNL because they say all they are trying to do is restore the pre-Citizens United status quo that prevailed in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s when the program was as big as it is today. They claim all they want to do is to give back Congress the right to regulate the political speech of corporations and that no one is trying to silence satirists.

But the point of Citizens United was precisely the willingness of Congress and regulators to play favorites with speech and to silence those they didn’t like such as the donors who produced a film critical of Hillary Clinton that was at the heart of the case. Those determined to bring back the old campaign-finance regime are not so much trying to “reform” our electoral system as they are trying to ensure that corporate speech is limited to those media entities that have their own First Amendment protections.

It’s not clear whether SNL could claim the First Amendment protections afforded the press because it is part of the same corporation that broadcasts NBC news programs. But what we do know is that until the Citizens United decision was handed down Congress had the power to stifle the political speech of non-media corporations. Democrats think limited campaign expenditures makes things more fair but all campaign-finance reform has done is to create a regulatory minefield that employs armies of lawyers as well as vehicles for paying for politics that are far less transparent than anything that previously existed. Moreover, if these laws are broadly interpreted, as the film controversy in that case illustrated, it could mean effectively shutting down a broad range of political expression.

In his remarks, Cruz referenced SNL’s “wickedly funny” takedown of his friend Sarah Palin that he rightly noted had a not insignificant impact on the course of that campaign. It is difficult to imagine the federal elections bureaucracy seeking to shut down an iconic program like SNL under virtually any circumstances. But if a corporation not as well connected with the liberal establishment were to fund some forms of political commentary or satire there would be nothing, other than the good sense of the American people, to stop Congress and the regulators from seeking to impose limits of some sort.

What liberals have attempted to impose on the country in the name of campaign-finance reform is nothing less than the old “free speech for me, but not for thee,” spirit that separates banana republics from genuine democracies. If the First Amendment means anything, it ought to mean guaranteeing the rights of individuals and groups of individuals to pool their resources and speak out about issues and candidates to help influence the debate about elections.

We should be grateful that Reid’s assault on free speech is going to fail this year. But the left will not rest until they have restored the old regulations and expanded them to shut up their critics. Liberals can ignore or laugh at Cruz. But he deserves credit for calling to the nation’s attention the hypocrisy of a political left that is willing to defend corporate political speech only when they can be sure it will work to their advantage.

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Is Eric Holder Trying to Protect the IRS?

A remarkable conversation about the IRS’s illegal targeting of conservative groups took place on Friday in Washington. According to Rep. Darrell Issa’s office, at 5:01 Friday Brian Fallon, a former aide to Chuck Schumer and currently a communications aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, called Issa’s office. By mistake. And it’s quite a mistake.

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A remarkable conversation about the IRS’s illegal targeting of conservative groups took place on Friday in Washington. According to Rep. Darrell Issa’s office, at 5:01 Friday Brian Fallon, a former aide to Chuck Schumer and currently a communications aide to Attorney General Eric Holder, called Issa’s office. By mistake. And it’s quite a mistake.

The purpose of the call, according to a letter Issa wrote to Holder, was to work with the intended recipient of the call to strategically leak damaging information to selected, friendly reporters and to coordinate a damage-control plan. The intended recipient of the call was apparently Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee who has gotten quite visibly nervous over the extent of the investigation into the IRS abuse–despite his attempts to protect the abusers.

Here’s Jonathan Strong at Breitbart:

The aide, Brian Fallon, is a former senior aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and a well-known personality on Capitol Hill. The letter describes Fallon as “audibly shaken” when he realizes his request to leak documents to help get ahead of news stories about them was mistakenly made to the very office he was seeking to undermine. Issa believes the call was intended to be made to Democratic Rep. Elijah Cumming’s staff, the ranking member on the oversight panel, the letter said.

According to the letter, Fallon – who is not named in the letter but confirmed he made the call – asked if the aides could release the IRS scandal documents to “selected reporters” to give Fallon an “opportunity to comment publicly on it.”

Fallon explained to Issa aides that the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs had not permitted him to release the documents to the public and he wanted to get ahead of the story “before the Majority” – meaning Issa – could share it, according to the letter.

Issa aides – who had placed the call on speakerphone – were “caught off guard by the unusual nature of the call and the odd request” and asked Fallon to “e-mail the material for evaluation.”

“At this point,” Fallon “abruptly placed the call on hold for approximately three minutes.” When Fallon returned to the call, “he was audibly shaken. He immediately stated that there was a ‘change in plans’ and that there would be no effort” by DOJ to release the material early.

In other words, it looks like Holder’s Department of Justice is seeking to help the IRS and the Democrats protecting the IRS. And the only reason the public knows about it is that Holder’s office accidentally called the wrong phone. Oops.

The left’s response to the IRS targeting scandal has morphed over time as more information has come to light. Mostly gone are the truthers who think nothing unethical happened or that this is an aimless witch hunt. It’s now clear to any sentient person that the IRS was indeed engaged in this targeting scheme ahead of a presidential election. Additionally, as I wrote last week, it’s since been revealed that the IRS began destroying evidence once the investigation into the targeting began.

That particular destruction of evidence concerned Lois Lerner, the former official at the center of the scandal, in order to get rid of her email correspondence. The media yawned at the revelation of the destruction of evidence, apparently tiring of this story. So the same day of Fallon’s phone call to Issa’s staff, the IRS admitted it lost the email of “five more workers who figure in the investigation into the alleged targeting of conservative nonprofit groups,” as the Wall Street Journal reported.

The Democratic response to the investigation has thus gone from the eminently silly denial that anything untoward took place to actively trying to thwart the investigation and run interference for the IRS–which, in its targeting scheme, was only following the pronouncements of high-level congressional Democrats, after all. And those Democrats have gotten quite uncomfortable with the investigation. Democratic Sen. Carl Levin has put together a report attacking the inspector general conducting the investigation.

Such interference and/or stonewalling wouldn’t be out of character for this DOJ. As the Washington Examiner reported yesterday, according to the department’s inspector general “Department of Justice senior officials have barred or delayed the inspector general there from gaining access to documents crucial to high-visibility investigations.”

The “nothing to see here” brigade has lost any semblance of credibility. In response, they’d like to make sure there’s actually nothing to see by the time investigators come looking for it.

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Nobel Laureates Should Cancel South Africa Trip

One of the problems with so many of those who pretend to be the world’s moral conscience is that they are willing to posture but, when push comes to shove, they have no backbone.

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One of the problems with so many of those who pretend to be the world’s moral conscience is that they are willing to posture but, when push comes to shove, they have no backbone.

Hence it is the case with the forthcoming World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates to be held in Cape Town, South Africa next month. The South African government, however, has succumbed to Chinese pressure to deny one Nobel Laureate—the Dalai Lama—a visa to enter South Africa.

Patricia de Lille, the executive mayor of Cape Town, rightly says, “It is indeed a dark day for South Africa when the ideals for which Nelson Mandela and so many others fought are sold to the highest bidder.” She continues:

The Mandela, Luthuli, De Klerk and Tutu foundations will be writing to President (Jacob) Zuma appealing to him to intervene and ensure that a visa is granted to the Dalai Lama so that he can attend the summit. Past recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize (including former heads of state) will also write a petition to Zuma. The Nobel Peace Laureates who have already signed the letter of appeal to Zuma include Lech Walesa, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, Muhammad Yunus, Jody Williams, Betty Williams, Tawakkul Karman, Leimah Gbowee and Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo.

Petitions are meaningless. If the laureates truly wanted to stand on principle, they would refuse to attend unless assured by the South African government that the Dalai Lama will be among them. And if that is not forthcoming, then the summit should either cancel the October meeting or postpone it, moving it to another country. Perhaps changing the location to Taiwan would be an appropriate way for the Nobel Peace Prize laureates to signal that they will stand in solidarity for their own and not succumb to a dictatorship’s dictates.

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Ignore Poll Numbers Showing Support for Military Action

Ahead of President Obama’s speech tonight, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a clear majority of the American public support military action against ISIS. Let us hope that conservatives, progressives, and those supportive of such military action don’t cite these poll numbers to justify their position.

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Ahead of President Obama’s speech tonight, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows a clear majority of the American public support military action against ISIS. Let us hope that conservatives, progressives, and those supportive of such military action don’t cite these poll numbers to justify their position.

One of the more self-defeating political phenomena of recent decades is the tendency of presidents to base American national-security policy on polls, as they might any other issue. In this case, the public might be right about the need to defeat an organization which has sworn to defeat us, but to make the polls any part of a reason to conduct military action simply justifies their use—for better or worse—in the future. The public elects its president in part because of their trust that he will make the right call about national security. This was why Hillary Clinton’s campaign released its “3 a.m. phone call” commercial. But while military strategies play out in months or years, the American public can be fickle. Public opinion is too often subject to the whims of the media. It is a betrayal of our men and women in uniform to waffle constantly on their mission once they are in harm’s way. When it comes to ISIS, no politician should read polls and gleefully declare, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [in funding for U.S. forces in Iraq] before I voted against it.”

Real leadership requires making tough calls about national security regardless of the poll of the day. Any visitor to Harry S. Truman’s “Little White House” in Key West, Florida, has seen its collection of political cartoons criticizing Truman’s management of the war and his supposedly aimless objectives. Thankfully, Truman ignored the public’s turn, continued the U.S. commitment, and secured the Republic of Korea. The media lambasted Ronald Reagan for pursuing “Star Wars” and deploying intermediate-range missiles in Western Europe. But Reagan had a strategic vision and shrugged off his detractors. When George W. Bush announced the surge, polls showed a majority of Americans opposing Bush’s plan to augment the troop presence in Iraq. Bush ignored his detractors and did what he thought was best given the importance he placed on stabilizing Iraq.

Sometimes public-opinion polling will support decisive, military action and sometimes it won’t. But to justify any action with a poll simply gives credence to those who would undercut that action later with similar polls. National security shouldn’t be a political football.

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Why Is Obama Only Transparent with Enemies?

President Obama entered the White House promising to be the most transparent president. His track record, however, is murkier. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that the Obama administration is “absolutely” the most transparent, many supporters and journalists disagree.

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President Obama entered the White House promising to be the most transparent president. His track record, however, is murkier. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that the Obama administration is “absolutely” the most transparent, many supporters and journalists disagree.

But whatever transparency Obama lacks on domestic issues and in his dealings with Congress, he has absolutely become the most transparent president in our nation’s history in telegraphing to America’s sworn enemies what we are and are not willing to do.

When George W. Bush announced the surge in Iraq, he spoke about “victory” and didn’t enunciate publicly a timeline, even if he knew his timeline all along. When Obama announced his surge in Afghanistan, discussion of victory was conspicuously absent but talk of a timeline to end the surge was emphasized. Now the White House is suggesting that Obama will announce a three-year plan in his speech tonight. Obama considers himself a great orator. Perhaps he may want to take a hint from other presidents, however, who faced down enemies. Did Franklin Delano Roosevelt enunciate a timeline in his Pearl Harbor Address? No. And here is Harry S. Truman explaining the need to enter war footing in Korea. Again, no timeline. Operation Desert Storm? No timeline. In all cases, however, there was a commitment to victory. Why issue an arbitrary timeline? Why let the enemy know that there is light at the end of the tunnel?

Ditto the question of whether or not to involve ground forces. Whether or not one supports the insertion of Special Forces or other troops on the ground, why enunciate that? The United States can gain much more with strategic ambiguity. Likewise, why unnecessarily constrain U.S. forces in the future should the situation change significantly?

Every time Obama speaks on military strategy, he omits talk of victory but peppers his speech with caveats and assurances of what the United States will not do. Rather than create a culture of opacity at home and transparency for our enemies, perhaps it’s time for Obama to do the opposite.

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Charles Krauthammer’s Groundbreaking Literary Achievement

We’ve witnessed an extraordinary achievement. Charles Krauthammer’s book Things That Matter, after 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list–including 10 consecutive weeks at No. 1–has sold more than a million copies. For any book, especially a non-fiction book, to sell a million copies is exceedingly rare. For a collection of columns and essays to do so is unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened in the publishing world. That is has happened is, for many of us, quite an encouraging thing. It means there’s an appetite for elegant writing and rigorous analysis. A nation needs individuals who take words and ideas seriously; and on the American political landscape today, Charles Krauthammer (who will be honored at COMMENTARY’s annual roast in New York City on September 22) has no peers in that regard.

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We’ve witnessed an extraordinary achievement. Charles Krauthammer’s book Things That Matter, after 38 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list–including 10 consecutive weeks at No. 1–has sold more than a million copies. For any book, especially a non-fiction book, to sell a million copies is exceedingly rare. For a collection of columns and essays to do so is unprecedented. Nothing like this has ever happened in the publishing world. That is has happened is, for many of us, quite an encouraging thing. It means there’s an appetite for elegant writing and rigorous analysis. A nation needs individuals who take words and ideas seriously; and on the American political landscape today, Charles Krauthammer (who will be honored at COMMENTARY’s annual roast in New York City on September 22) has no peers in that regard.

In his introduction to Things That Matter, Krauthammer wrote about the trajectory of his political odyssey. “I’ve offered this brief personal history,” he said, “for those interested in what forces, internal and external, led me to change direction both vocationally and ideologically. I’ve elaborated it here because I believe that while everyone has the right to change views, one does at least owe others an explanation. The above [introduction] is mine. This book represent the product of that journey.”

That journey has been a remarkable one; and the book that represents it is now groundbreaking.

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Obama Still Leading From Behind

After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

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After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

Though belated, the administration’s decision to act is commendable. But what is remarkable about this radical shift in policy is that it seems to be as much a response to the change in public opinion about the situation in the Middle East as it is a realization on the president’s part that his past decisions to stay out of Syria and to bug out of Iraq were mistaken.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the president has spent much of his time in office mocking those who urged him to stop standing on the sidelines as the Middle East fell apart as warmongers. At other times, he engaged in puzzling maneuvers, such as his embarrassing back and forth decisions on Syria last year, that amounted to a gigantic head fake that encouraged America’s foes while puzzling and isolating friends.

But, as a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reveals, not only do Americans no longer have any confidence in the president’s foreign policy, they actually feel less safe than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. The poll also shows that a large majority of Americans support air strikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq with a substantial minority also willing to deploy ground troops to deal with the threat.

In theory, that ought to make the president’s job of selling the country and the world on the need for the U.S. to go on offense against ISIS and other Islamist terrorists. But the spectacle of the last several weeks during which it appeared that the president was being dragged kicking and screaming toward a decision makes it a bit harder for both friends and foes to take Obama seriously. More to the point, if the orchestrated leaks about the president’s speech are accurate, the cribbed nature of his plan for action in which he will take the possibility of a U.S. presence on the ground off the table and set firm time limits on the campaign will undermine the effort from the start.

Why are Americans so upset and fearful?

Part of the answer lies in the power of the disgusting videos released by ISIS that showed American journalists being brutally murdered. While one can argue that Syrian chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program may provide as much, if not more of a challenge to U.S. security as this terror group, the images in the videos were visceral and easily understood. Moreover, if the NBC/Journal poll is accurate, more than 94 percent of Americans saw it. Theoretical threats are one thing. Arrogant Islamists beheading Americans and taunting us (and President Obama) about it are quite another. The public seems to have understood long before the president that this is something that has to stop and that there is no negotiating with or maneuvering around a terror threat that, despite Obama’s reelection boasts, is very much alive.

Does it matter that negative poll numbers about the president are driving the anti-ISIS effort more than it is being pushed by his vision of defending both the U.S. and our allies against a clear and present danger?

One could argue that the motivation for U.S. action isn’t important so long as the president follows through on his plans and lets the U.S. military operate effectively to defeat ISIS. But the long-range success of those efforts will depend as much on the confidence of the people of the region that America can be counted on to stay the course in a conflict that won’t provide quick or easy victories. That will require more than a poll-driven speech that provides as many caveats about what the U.S. won’t do than anything else.

In any conflict, there is no substitute for leadership that not only can articulate policies that people want but also is prepared to tell them that there are some things that must be done that are not so popular. Not every wartime leader must be Winston Churchill, but one that is primarily concerned with “not doing stupid stuff” and who takes weeks to make up his mind to do what Americans wanted already done is setting both himself and the country up for failure.

What we need from the president tonight is a signal that his period of irresolute dithering is over and that he will spend the time that is left to him in the White House fighting to win against Islamist terrorists rather than managing the threat. Both doubtful American allies and a worried Congress are waiting to hear from a leader who will get out in front of this problem. More leading from behind will not only fail but also conclusively tarnish his legacy forever.

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