Commentary Magazine


Criticism to Become Crime in Turkey

I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

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I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

Draconian internet laws in Turkey are deepening yet once again with a new reform package that will bring by new measures against freedom of speech in Turkey. Previously, the government has already tried to silence masses through censorship measures, surveillance of netizens, blocking access to web sites, or even raids on online news portals’ headquarters. The most recent “development” on the laws against online free speech is the most recent law draft that foresees up to 5 years of imprisonment for tweeps that criticize the government online.

The issue goes beyond simply social media or print criticism, but rather will extend to slogans during street protests:

The new bill’s scope is not limited to digital public spaces but also makes opposition movements’ visibility on streets problematic. The slogans that have been adopted by critical groups on street protests had already drawn many frowning faces so far, and with the new bill they will be considered a crime. New law also breaches the diplomatic immunity of politicians, allowing them to be put on trial as well, in case of threats against public-officers, soldiers, police, governors etc. The prison sentence will possibly go up to 5 years depending on the intensity of the “criminal activity.”

To make matters worse, the new law restricts the ability of lawyers to defend those accused of criticizing the government. Welcome to the new Turkey, a country intent on falling below even Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain in press freedom rankings.

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Throwing a Life Raft to a Failing Iran

One of the most important questions when assessing Iran’s economy and perhaps even the Islamic Republic’s stability is at what price of oil did the Iranian leadership calculate Iran’s budget. The oil market is historically volatile, but prognosticating the average price of oil over the fiscal year is important: Iran’s economy is not only dependent upon petroleum products but it is also beset by a bloated bureaucracy and inefficient management. If Iranian bureaucrats guess wrong about oil prices, then they risk not making payroll. As the price of oil declines, the Iranian government—and even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—also have less money to engage in special projects or to spend overseas.

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One of the most important questions when assessing Iran’s economy and perhaps even the Islamic Republic’s stability is at what price of oil did the Iranian leadership calculate Iran’s budget. The oil market is historically volatile, but prognosticating the average price of oil over the fiscal year is important: Iran’s economy is not only dependent upon petroleum products but it is also beset by a bloated bureaucracy and inefficient management. If Iranian bureaucrats guess wrong about oil prices, then they risk not making payroll. As the price of oil declines, the Iranian government—and even the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—also have less money to engage in special projects or to spend overseas.

Most analysts believe Iran calculated its budget based on oil being $90/barrel. Brent crude is now trading at $85/barrel, down from $115/barrel in June. Not only does that represent a 26-percent decline in the price of oil in just four months but, if the price remains at $85/barrel, it represents a potential 5.5 percent shortfall in the Iranian budget. If the price falls further and fast, the damage to the Iranian economy and its ability to invest money in international adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Gaza Strip will fall even further.

How sad it is, then, that the Obama administration seems to be greasing its diplomatic process on sanctions relief to the tune of more than $7 billion—122 percent of the official annual budget of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—while European and American firms now chomp at the bit to spend money inside Iran.

There is no coherent regional strategy in the White House or State Department: Heck, it’s been hard enough for the Obama administration to understand that it cannot treat Syria and Iraq as problems detached from each other. While the Obama administration increases its desperation to deal with Iran, it is prepared to ignore Iranian interference in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Afghanistan. Any cash crunch will negatively impact Iran’s influence and involvement in these countries and territories, especially given the cost of Iran’s subsidies of groups like Hezbollah and Iraq’s various Shi‘ite militias. There should be no argument that the activities of the Qods Force and various Iranian-backed militias are antithetical to regional security and American national interests. Over the past year, the Obama administration has been willing to compartmentalize and ignore this fact in order to advance its nuclear diplomacy.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that continuing to compartmentalize not only risks letting Tehran off the hook for its actions, but now risks snatching defeat from the jaws of possible victory. Rather than provide Iran cash (or enable investment which does the same thing) to help the regime in time of need, the United States should be doing everything in its power to reduce the price of oil further. This would give Iranian officials a choice: Either cease interfering in and destabilizing countries like Syria and Lebanon, or risk collapsing Iran’s own economy. And if the United States managed to play its cards right, it might just cripple the regime enough to set itself and Iran down the path of solving myriad other regional problems.

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Re: NY Times Partially Vindicates Bush on WMD

A recent New York Times article reported that the United States found roughly 5,000 old but dangerous chemical weapons in Iraq. The author, C.J. Chivers, claims the Bush administration covered up these discoveries because the old weapons ran counter to administration claims about active Iraqi WMD programs. As I noted a couple days ago, the Bush administration had always maintained that Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were part of the threat that needed addressing. On that point, the Times has proved Bush correct. But here’s who it proved wrong: the UN.

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A recent New York Times article reported that the United States found roughly 5,000 old but dangerous chemical weapons in Iraq. The author, C.J. Chivers, claims the Bush administration covered up these discoveries because the old weapons ran counter to administration claims about active Iraqi WMD programs. As I noted a couple days ago, the Bush administration had always maintained that Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were part of the threat that needed addressing. On that point, the Times has proved Bush correct. But here’s who it proved wrong: the UN.

A USA Today article from 2004 states: “A report from U.N. weapons inspectors to be released today says they now believe there were no weapons of mass destruction of any significance in Iraq after 1994[.]” That report represented a doubling down on the UN’s previous position that Saddam had no active WMD programs, but might still have had unaccounted for chemical weapons. Meanwhile, Americans were beginning to discover and suffer harm from those nonexistent weapons. So much for the reliability of UN inspections.

At the Daily Beast, Eli Lake reports that Karl Rove was the main figure behind the Bush administration’s low-key approach to finding Saddam’s old WMD. The article makes clear three important points. First, many Republicans and Iraq War supporters desperately wanted the administration to go public about the weapons because their discovery constituted an intelligence victory.

Second, according to Dick Cheney’s former advisor David Wurmser, when the WMD were initially uncovered, the administration “quite properly asked it be kept quiet until they track down the source of the weapons so that they can secure it and not tip off Sunni insurgents to go and retrieve them themselves.” Good policy.

Third, as time passed, the administration thought it imprudent to venture a victory lap over this partial victory. In Wurmser’s account, Karl Rove said, “Let these sleeping dogs lie; we have lost that fight so better not to remind anyone of it.” To what fight was Rove referring? It was obviously not the fight over the WMD Saddam was hiding. Indeed, as Lake notes, Wurmser,  Rick Santorum, and others were incensed because they wanted this accomplishment to be well known.  No, the administration had lost the fight over the public perception of the war and of the reasons behind it. The antiwar side, including the UN, had successfully revised history in order to pronounce anything but the discovery of an active WMD program a failure. So while Saddam’s old chemical weapons had always been one casus belli, the public had become disinterested. (Similarly, even though Bush’s freedom agenda had been a fundamental element of Iraq’s liberation from the start, the antiwar crowd managed to paint that as an insincere ad-hoc cause once no WMD programs were found.) Was the administration correct in downplaying the chemical weapons? It’s hard to say. With so much else going wrong in Iraq at the time, boasting about this one issue would probably not have played well. But this was no “covered-up” mistake; it was a quiet achievement.

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Has Saudi Arabia Really Become Moderate?

Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.

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Saudi Arabia has been an ally of the United States since that fateful day almost 70 years ago when President Franklin Roosevelt met King Saud on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal as Roosevelt returned from the Yalta Conference. Saudi Arabia was the only World War II non-combatant to take part in the Lend Lease program. And the relationship strengthened over subsequent decades alongside a deepening energy partnership. At times, Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally–for example, during Operation Desert Storm. But these instances of assistance pale in comparison to the damage Saudi Arabia has done in the region with its promotion and support of the most extreme and violent interpretations of Islam. To be blunt, Saudi Arabia has been just as corrosive to regional stability over the last decades as has the Islamic Republic of Iran. Only in recent years, as Saudi Arabia has begun to experience blowback from its own support of extremism abroad, has it begun to take the cancer of radicalism more seriously.

But while Saudi Arabia now portrays itself as moderate and responsible, and while many supporters of Israel concerned by Iran reconsider the role of Saudi Arabia in the region, ugly episodes, such as the the sentencing of Shi‘ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr to death, remind us just how sectarian and ideological the Saudi Kingdom is. In June, my American Enterprise Institute colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I published a short monograph surveying regional Shi‘ite communities outside Iran. We noted both the legitimate grievances many of these communities have and their efforts to maintain their autonomy from Iran. Many Shi‘ites despise the Islamic Republic and to paint all Shi‘ites as Fifth Columnists is counterproductive. To turn a blind eye to repression of Shi‘ites in countries like Saudi Arabia is to play into Iranian propaganda and give these communities no recourse but to turn to Iran for protection.

Saudi Arabia is as bigoted a country as Turkey or Qatar, its recent attempts to paint a moderate image notwithstanding. It can never become a moderate, responsible partner so long as its embrace of sectarianism trumps tolerance and rule-of-law. Let us hope that Saudi authorities are not so shortsighted as to execute—murder would be as appropriate a term—Sheikh Nimr. And if they do carry out the sentence, Saudi Arabia deserves no support when it faces the storm that follows. It is time to calibrate U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia not to that country’s money and oil but rather to its behavior and willingness to undo the damage it has done over the past half century.

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Mishandling of Ebola Virus Further Erodes Trust in Government

These things are always hard to know in real time, but my guess is that the way the Obama administration and the CDC have mishandled the outbreak of Ebola in America will do substantial long-term damage to the president, the CDC and the federal government more generally. It will certainly further erode public confidence in all three.

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These things are always hard to know in real time, but my guess is that the way the Obama administration and the CDC have mishandled the outbreak of Ebola in America will do substantial long-term damage to the president, the CDC and the federal government more generally. It will certainly further erode public confidence in all three.

By now the mistakes have been well chronicled. President Obama assured us in mid-September that the possibility of Ebola coming to our shores was quite low. He was wrong. The president said our screening process was up to the task. It was not. The director of the CDC, Dr. Tom Frieden, assured us that any major hospital can handle Ebola cases. They couldn’t. We were told protocols were in place in Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas. They weren’t. For example, reports are that Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died of Ebola, was left for hours not in isolation but in an area where other patients were present. In addition, nurses in Dallas–the early scapegoats of Dr. Frieden–have since testified that protocols weren’t in place. National Nurses United, which is both a union and a professional association for U.S. nurses, declared that nurses “strongly feel unsupported, unprepared, lied to, and deserted to handle the situation on their own.” The evidence seems to back up their claims. In addition, CBS News Medical Correspondent Dr. John LaPook reports that a second health care worker who contracted Ebola from Mr. Duncan, Amber Joy Vinson, called the CDC several times before boarding the plane concerned about her fever.

“This nurse, Nurse Vinson, did in fact call the CDC several times before taking that flight [from Cleveland to Dallas] and said she has a temperature, a fever of 99.5, and the person at the CDC looked at a chart and because her temperature wasn’t 100.4 or higher she didn’t officially fall into the category of high risk,” Dr. LaPook told the CBS Evening News.

No wonder a CBS News poll found that public confidence in the CDC’s ability to handle the Ebola crisis has dropped to 37 percent from a high of 60 percent in a Gallup poll in May of last year. As for Mr. Obama, earlier today he announced his new Ebola “czar” will be not a health or public health care expert, but a Democratic political operative, Ron Klain. How utterly perfect for this administration, which sees even a health crisis primarily through a political lens.

Mr. Obama’s staggering incompetence is doing extraordinary damage to himself, his party, and to contemporary liberalism. That’s well earned. The problem is that the damage to our nation and the world is massive; and the cost in human lives incalculable. (Our slow, feeble response to the initial outbreak of Ebola in Africa means we might witness what Michael Gerson has called “a human catastrophe that could destroy large portions of a continent and pose a global threat.”)

Mr. Obama said he would transform America and, in so doing, restore confidence in the federal government. He has done the former–but because he did, he has created acidic contempt for government and many of our public institutions.

This is what hope and change looks like six years in.

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Obama’s Bad-Faith Iraq Withdrawal

The United States has made at least two disastrous foreign policy decisions in the past decade: first, invading Iraq in 2003 without a clear plan or the resources to establish order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall and second leaving Iraq in 2011 without any idea of how to maintain the tenuous calm that existed while U.S. troops were still in the country. Few if anyone would dispute that the former mistake was ultimately the fault of George W. Bush even if much of the blame also falls on his subordinates. But President Obama has waged a semi-successful campaign to avoid being blamed for the latter mistake. He claims it wasn’t really his choice to leave Iraq—the Iraqis simply would not agree to maintain a U.S. troop presence.

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The United States has made at least two disastrous foreign policy decisions in the past decade: first, invading Iraq in 2003 without a clear plan or the resources to establish order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall and second leaving Iraq in 2011 without any idea of how to maintain the tenuous calm that existed while U.S. troops were still in the country. Few if anyone would dispute that the former mistake was ultimately the fault of George W. Bush even if much of the blame also falls on his subordinates. But President Obama has waged a semi-successful campaign to avoid being blamed for the latter mistake. He claims it wasn’t really his choice to leave Iraq—the Iraqis simply would not agree to maintain a U.S. troop presence.

Anyone who still believes this well-worn excuse should read Rick Brennan’s article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, “Withdrawal Symptoms: The Bungling of the Iraq Exit.” Brennan, a RAND political scientist who advised the U.S. military in Iraq from 2006 to 2011, provides copious detail to explode Obama’s alibi, which was that he had no choice but to withdraw troops because the Iraqi parliament would not provide our personnel with legal immunity and we cannot possibly station troops abroad without it.

Brennan points out that the 2008 agreement negotiated by the Bush administration to keep U.S. forces in Iraq did not have total legal immunity either: “Instead, in somewhat ambiguous terms, the agreement gave Iraqi authorities legal jurisdiction over cases in which U.S. service members were accused of committing serious, premeditated felonies while off duty and away from U.S. facilities.” U.S. military commanders were comfortable with this language “since members of the U.S. armed forces are on duty 24 hours a day and are not permitted to leave their bases unless on a mission.” Indeed the Iraqis made no attempt to prosecute a single U.S. soldier between 2008 and 2011.

Yet Obama insisted that he could not possibly keep U.S. troops in Iraq without approval of immunity from parliament. Brennan writes that in September 2010 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns that Iraq’s parliament would approve an American presence but not grant “complete immunity.” “Instead, Maliki proposed signing an executive memorandum granting immunity without the need to gain parliamentary approval.” But White House lawyers judged this language inadequate and Obama used this as an excuse to announce a pullout.

What makes this episode all the more astonishing is that now Obama has sent 1,600 and counting U.S. troops back to Iraq, as Brennan notes, “on a promise of immunity backed only by a diplomatic note signed by the Iraqi foreign minister—an assurance even less solid than the one Maliki offered (and Obama rejected) in 2010.”

Along with Obama’s decision to offer the Iraqis only 5,000 troops, rather than the 20,000 or more judged necessary by U.S. military commanders, this strongly suggests that the Obama administration was negotiating in bad faith: that the president was not really committed to maintaining troops in Iraq beyond 2011. We are now seeing the consequences of this monumental miscalculation as ISIS consolidates its control over much of northern and western Iraq. It is early days still, but it is likely that this mistake will haunt Obama’s historical reputation just as Bush’s mistakes in Iraq will continue to haunt his.

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Diplomatic Success Requires Willingness to Walk Away

In Dancing with the Devil, my recent study of U.S. negotiation with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I document how American diplomats who seek to resolve conflict by talking to parties that refuse to adhere to the norms of diplomacy often become so invested in the process that they end up prioritizing continued dialogue over the very goal of talks.

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In Dancing with the Devil, my recent study of U.S. negotiation with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I document how American diplomats who seek to resolve conflict by talking to parties that refuse to adhere to the norms of diplomacy often become so invested in the process that they end up prioritizing continued dialogue over the very goal of talks.

There are any numbers of examples: Successive administrations have desperately attempted to continue talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, even if it has meant absolving Palestinian leaders and factions of the requirement to forswear terrorism and recognize Israel’s legitimacy. The only president who sought to hold true to the Oslo Accord and who refused to tolerate terrorism was George W. Bush. For his sin of moral clarity and for his refusal to rationalize terrorism, he brought upon himself the opprobrium of the State Department, for whom the continuation of the process trumped its substance.

The same pattern occurred with regard to North Korea. Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of the Agreed Framework. That anniversary should be cause to reflect about just how irrelevant agreements can be when partners are insincere and treat diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy. Against the backdrop of ever more desperate American attempts to engage, North Korea developed nuclear weapons and new generations of ballistic missiles.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear determined to make the same mistake with regard to Iran. Jonathan Tobin already noted how the Europeans are betting that Obama will appease Iran. It’s not a bad bet. After all, while the White House and State Department seek creative formulas to keep talks going, it’s useful to remember multiple unanimous or near-unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions insisting Iran cease enrichment.  It’s also worth recalling the original International Atomic Energy Agency findings of Iran’s non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safe Guards agreement, which put Tehran in the hot seat in the first place. Obama likes to claim he values multilateralism, but he has become an extremely unilateral American president, voiding those multilateral Security Council resolutions for the sake of his own diplomatic ambition.

Alas, Obama seems intent to compound failure. In order to ensure continued dialogue, Obama and Kerry appear prepared either to take a bad agreement or extend talks beyond their promised deadline. This plays into Iran’s hands because, after all, there is very little to talk about: Either Iran complies with its responsibilities or it does not and faces the consequences.

If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if you’re a diplomat, everything looks like a reason to continue talks. Seldom, it seems, is their consideration of the larger picture or of the broader strategy. This is an administration without a strategist. Nor is it an administration with perspective. When the United States sits down at the table, it should not sit as an equal, but rather as the stronger, dominant party. Cultural equivalence is the refuge of the defeatist. If it looks like opponents are insincere with regard to talks, value process over commitments to peace, or are unable to offer a good deal, then the United States should simply walk away until it reinforces its leverage and is capable of getting a deal which fulfills its needs. That is not hostility to diplomacy; it is recognition that diplomacy means more than constant talk.

When describing Iranian negotiating behavior, many people—not only Americans but also Iranians—utilize the analogy of the Iranian bazaar. Negotiations over the price of Persian carpets may be just one example of the type of haggling Iranians engage in: they could just as easily be bargaining over the price of eggs, vegetables, crates of tea, or furniture. But when Iranians are unable to get a good price or if they believe their negotiation partner is being unreasonable, they will walk away.

That’s a lesson American negotiators should learn. Obama and Kerry are like the tourists who don’t recognize they face a 600 percent mark-up and could get a better deal if they demonstrate a willingness to leave the store. Alas, as the administration winds down and both Obama and Kerry see their legacies tarnished by repeated failure, they seem unwilling to question their basic approach and strategy. They act like gamblers who lose everything but can’t resist that one more spin of the wheel, to win it all back. How sad it is that they forget the house always wins. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is running the house and there are consequences to failure.

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Turkey Demonstrates Why It Does Not Belong in Europe

It’s been the age-old dream of liberal Turks to join the European Union, and many American diplomats still repeat the mantra that Turkey as a member of Europe would be a good thing for both Turkey and for Europe. A decade ago, I certainly would have agreed with them. The thinking was that the Turkish workforce could have jump started Europe’s anemic economy, while European membership might have given Turkey that final shove into the liberal democratic camp.

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It’s been the age-old dream of liberal Turks to join the European Union, and many American diplomats still repeat the mantra that Turkey as a member of Europe would be a good thing for both Turkey and for Europe. A decade ago, I certainly would have agreed with them. The thinking was that the Turkish workforce could have jump started Europe’s anemic economy, while European membership might have given Turkey that final shove into the liberal democratic camp.

While many Europeans saw the Turkish military as the impediment to Turkey’s democracy—and, to some extent, it was—undercutting its power also eviscerated the only check-and-balance the country had. Because Western diplomats and NGOs cheering the weakening of military influence did not simultaneously insist on building an alternate check to dictatorship,  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was given an opportunity. “Democracy is like a street car,” he once quipped. “You ride it as far as you need, and then you step off.” European and American policy simply stopped the streetcar, so that rather than jump off onto hard tarmac, Erdoğan could step daintily onto goose-down pillows, his ego stroked, as he abandoned democracy.

But, however corrupt he appears, Erdoğan isn’t simply a megalomaniac motivated by greed: He is an ideologue. “We will raise a religious generation,” he declared. He is an unabashed Islamist, intent on imposing his interpretation and embrace of his religion upon others. Muslims—or at least Sunni Muslims—can do no wrong in his fevered mind. That is why he sought to exculpate Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s genocidal campaign in Darfur, and why he has embraced and defended Hamas and even those associated with al-Qaeda. For Erdoğan, there simply is no such thing as terrorism if the terrorist is a Muslim and the victim is not.

The latest example shows that if Erdoğan has a choice between law-and-order and religious solidarity, he’ll choose the latter.

Back in 2013, a young Danish citizen of Lebanese background attempted to murder Lars Hedegaard, a newspaper columnist who had been very critical of Islam. He subsequently fled Denmark for Syria, but was arrested in Turkey six months ago. Denmark had been seeking his return to face charges. Now, it seems, he has “gone missing” in Turkish custody. Rather than allow him to face charges in Denmark, it appears Erdoğan simply let him go, perhaps as part of the “prisoner swap” that Turkey pursued to win the release of Turks held by the Islamic State in Mosul. Here’s the story from Reuters. The British government has also indicated that Turkey has freed extremists wanted in the United Kingdom.

All of these extremists will kill again. Turkey’s apologists—or perhaps those who shift positions to maintain their access to Turkey—might say that Turkey was simply acting in its interests by making a prisoner exchange. This is nonsense: Turkey might have returned these extremists long before its hostages had been taken in the first place. For example, the man wanted for attempted murder in Denmark had been in Turkish custody for two months before the Islamic State seized the Turkish hostages in the first place. Erdoğan has, on several occasions, faced a choice—one without any cost to himself or Turkey: He could have upheld the rule of law or he could have shielded violent extremists bent on murder. He chose the latter. Turkey’s subordination of the law to a sectarian agenda should end forever the idea of the country as a member of the European Union.

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Venezuela’s Election to UN Security Council Can’t Hide Its Weakness

The good news is that Turkey didn’t manage to get itself elected to the UN Security Council. The bad news is that Venezuela did, as was expected. So come January, the chavista regime will have an unprecedented say in world affairs for a two-year term as one of the Security Council’s non-permanent members.

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The good news is that Turkey didn’t manage to get itself elected to the UN Security Council. The bad news is that Venezuela did, as was expected. So come January, the chavista regime will have an unprecedented say in world affairs for a two-year term as one of the Security Council’s non-permanent members.

This marks the fifth time in the UN’s brief history that Venezuela will serve on the Council. The last occasion was in 1992-93, when its representative was Ambassador Diego Arria, who distinguished himself by highlighting the genocide then raging in Bosnia, and by speaking out on behalf of human rights more generally. Two decades later, the situation has flipped entirely–the current crop of genocidaires, rogue states, and terrorists, particularly in the Middle East, will discover to their satisfaction that there are few friends more loyal than Venezuela’s present rulers.

As Arria himself pointed out in a recent Miami Herald op-ed, Venezuela’s presence on the Security Council couldn’t come at a worse time. The country retains close links with terrorist groups both in the neighborhood, such as the Colombian FARC, which receives logistical support and cooperation in its illicit narcotics trading, as well as those further abroad, like Hezbollah, which has benefited from banking facilities and Venezuelan passports. And there are few tyrants who haven’t been embraced by President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, among them various Iranian mullahs, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and the Syrian leader, Bashar al Assad.

Along with other Venezuelan democrats, Arria is scathing about the indifference and cowardice among the other Latin American states, none of whom voiced opposition to Venezuela’s nomination, thus allowing it to be the sole Security Council candidate from the Latin American and Caribbean region. Two points underlie this: First, many of these same countries, like Brazil, Argentina and Chile, themselves have recent experience of living under dictatorial regimes and should therefore be more sensitive to Venezuela’s predicament; second, the chavista state has been penetrated by the Cubans to such an extent that Venezuela is virtually a vassal of the communists in Havana. Consequently, it is as if Cuba itself had been elected to the Security Council.

Notably–though not surprisingly, given the overall thrust of the Obama administration’s foreign policy–the U.S. has not voiced any disquiet over the prospect of a close ally of Iran and Russia gaining a voice on the Council. Last week, a bipartisan group of six senators–Marco Rubio, Robert Menendez, Bill Nelson, Richard Durbin, John McCain, and Mark Kirk–urged Secretary of State John Kerry to actively lobby against Venezuela’s nomination. In addition to Venezuela’s global antics, such as its alliance with states like Belarus and Iran to block condemnation of Assad at the UN, the letter to Kerry cited critical considerations for the American hemisphere. It specifically noted Maduro’s undermining of “the democratic commitments of the Organization of American States” and his abuse of opposition figures at home. Yet, as AP reported, after the Venezuelan success was announced, the U.S. would not even disclose how it voted.

Still, anyone looking for a silver lining in all this might reflect that Venezuela’s participation in the Security Council will provide a much-needed reminder that its burning desire to confront the United States, Israel, and the West in general has not ebbed since the death of Chavez in March 2013. As NBC noted earlier:

One of the people representing the fervently anti-American administration of President Nicolas Maduro in the 15-member body will be Maria Gabriela Chavez, the daughter of the late Hugo Chavez, who, in a 2006 UN speech, famously referred to George W. Bush as “the devil.”

Despite no prior known work experience of any kind — unless you count maintaining a popular Instagram account featuring her father, her pet Pomeranian, and the occasional manicure shot — the 33-year-old socialite was recently appointed Venezuela’s deputy ambassador to the UN.

However fiery Ms. Chavez’s speeches at the UN may turn out to be, they will be voiced from a position of grave weakness. Venezuela is not like Qatar, an ultra-wealthy Gulf emirate that enjoys full American support while backing terrorist groups like Hamas. Indeed, in economic terms alone, Venezuela is rapidly developing the characteristics of a failed state. With oil prices now tumbling to their lowest point in four years, and OPEC  ignoring Venezuelan pleas for an emergency meeting to tackle the slump, the Maduro regime is going to find itself woefully short of the dollars it needs to pay off its external debt; its foreign currency reserves are at an 11-year low of $19.8 billion. As Alberto Ramos of Goldman Sachs pithily told Bloomberg: “They have to either adjust spending or print more money, and if they print more money that means their hyper-inflation gets even more hyper. Inflation is already running at a very high level and completely unanchored, so this is like a wildfire.”

Venezuela also faces a political crisis. The country is as radically polarized now as it was in April 2013, when Maduro defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles by a wafer-thin margin, during a presidential election widely regarded as flawed and corrupt. Seizing on the opposition’s reluctance to escalate post-election protests, Maduro arrested senior opposition figures Leopoldo Lopez, Enzo Scarano, and Daniel Ceballos earlier this year; all of them remain incarcerated.

Maduro also faces unrest within his ruling Socialist Party over the brutal murder of a young and popular Socialist deputy, Robert Serra, whose bound, beaten, and stabbed body was discovered at his residence in Caracas on October 1. Given his famous accusation that the CIA was behind the death of Chavez, it was predictable that Maduro would blame Serra’s murder on “hired killers” working for the opposition. Yet in a nation with one of the highest homicide rates in the world, such rhetoric falls on skeptical ears. Evidence continues to mount suggesting that Serra was killed by members of the colectivos, criminal gangs who work as enforcers for the government.

Over the next two years, we can expect the Venezuelan regime to leverage its new-found status at the UN as camouflage for its offenses at home. But the export of chavista propaganda will do nothing to prop up an economy that stands a 75 percent chance of defaulting on its external debt within five years. And with the possibility of conflict between the government and the colectivos looming as a result of Serra’s murder, it’s not fanciful to imagine that by the time Venezuela’s Security Council term ends, Maduro will have left the scene.

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Reform Conservatism: The Future of the Republican Party?

Earlier this month I appeared on a panel at Harvard’s University’s Kennedy School of Government/Institute of Politics. The topic was “Reform Conservatism: The Future of the Republican Party?”

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Earlier this month I appeared on a panel at Harvard’s University’s Kennedy School of Government/Institute of Politics. The topic was “Reform Conservatism: The Future of the Republican Party?”

The event was hosted by Kristen Soltis Anderson and featured Ramesh and April Ponnuru, all of whom were excellent and all of whom played a role in the publication of what’s been called the “manifesto” of the reform conservative movement, Room To Grow: Conservative reforms for a limited government and a thriving middle class.

During the discussion we covered a fair amount of ground, including substantive policies, the politics of reform conservatism, and the future of the GOP. For those who are interested, here’s the link.

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Selective Memory and the CIA

Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

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Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

At the request of the White House, in 2012 or 2013, the CIA did a review of the agency’s long history of supporting insurgencies abroad and found “that it rarely works.” Now, as Seth noted, the result has been leaked to the New York Times. Would it be cynical on my part to imagine that CIA analysts are telling the president what he already thinks–that the U.S. shouldn’t do much to back moderate Syrian rebels?

As a historian, I’m all for studying history. But let’s not cherry-pick historical examples to support a predetermined conclusion. Because based on the Times’s reporting of the CIA study (which needless to say I have not seen) the “dour” conclusions need a lot of qualification.

It’s true that in its early days the CIA failed in supporting would-be rebels in places like Poland, Albania, North Korea, and Tibet. But that’s because they were fighting against totalitarian police states that had great intelligence on U.S. plotting thanks to the information provided by traitors such as Kim Philby. The Bay of Pigs operation was similarly hare-brained and ill-fated.

But there have also been notable successes such as the U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s–one of the CIA’s biggest coups ever even if there was a lack of follow-up which allowed the Taliban to rise out of the succeeding vacuum of authority. The U.S. had just as much success backing the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 and, earlier, helping the KLA to overthrow Serbian authority in Kosovo, in both cases with American air support. Croatia also succeeded in rolling back a Serbian offensive in the early 1990s with informal American help. Let’s remember too that the U.S.-backed rebels in Libya succeeded in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi with NATO airpower. As in post-Soviet Afghanistan, there was nothing inevitable about the resulting chaos, which occurred because President Obama failed to support the governmental forces attempting to impose order.

The CIA’s support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s was also successful, contrary to the CIA report and despite the halting nature of the program (due to congressional opposition), because even though the contras didn’t seize power at gunpoint, they pressured the Sandinistas into holding elections, which they lost. U.S. support for anti-Communist rebels in Angola and Mozambique was less successful but at least tied down Cuban and other Soviet bloc forces in defending those regimes. During the Vietnam War, too, the CIA had considerable success supporting anti-Communist fighters in Laos who prevented for a decade a takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao at low cost to the U.S.

The U.S. has had even more success in supporting governments fighting communist insurgencies in countries such as Greece, the Philippines, El Salvador, and Colombia.

So the historical record of U.S.-backed insurgencies (to say nothing of counter-insurgencies) is certainly not one of unalloyed failure. But while it’s good to learn from history it’s also important to understand differences between historical examples and present-day dilemmas. And the situation in Syria today is nothing like the situation the U.S. confronted in the Communist bloc in the early Cold War days. The Free Syrian Army is not fighting a powerful totalitarian regime. It is fighting a multi-front struggle against a weak dictator (Bashar Assad) who has already lost control of two-thirds of his country and against Islamist insurgent groups, the Nusra Front and ISIS, which have filled some of the succeeding vacuum but are a long way removed from the Stalinist or Maoist states in their ability to control their terrain. In such circumstances U.S. backing for the Syrian rebels was–and is–the best available option for the U.S. even though the Free Syrian Amy’s odds of success decline the longer we refuse to provide them with serious backing such as American airpower to impose a no-fly zone and take away Assad’s murderous air force (Which even the CIA study seems to concede would raise the odds of success).

Ultimately responsible policymakers cannot retreat into inaction by citing studies of historical examples where support for insurgencies has failed, while seemingly ignoring contrary examples. The relevant question to ask in Syria or any other hard case is: What is the least bad option? Sure it’s possible that serious support for the moderate rebels would have failed–but what’s the alternative? Actually we’re seeing the alternative today: letting ISIS and Assad run wild, slaughtering tens of thousands of people and destabilizing neighboring countries. Obama made a horrible decision by taking a hands-off attitude toward Syria and he can’t take refuge in a slanted view of the historical record to justify his inaction.

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Historical Memory and the Rosenbergs

The belated announcement of the death of David Greenglass has renewed discussion of the notorious spy case in which he played a principal role. Greenglass was, of course, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg and it was his testimony that led in no small measure to the conviction and ultimately the execution of his sister and her husband Julius on charges of nuclear espionage against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. But even 61 years after their deaths and decades after even almost all of those who wrongly asserted their innocence have conceded that they were spies, Greenglass and not the masterminds of the Communist spy ring remains the villain of the story as far as most of the chattering classes are concerned. That was the upshot of Greenglass’s obituary in today’s New York Times. Though correcting the record on this point may seem a futile exercise, the willingness of liberals to carry on with the pretense that Greenglass’s evidence was somehow worse than the Rosenberg’s’ treason remains insufferable.

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The belated announcement of the death of David Greenglass has renewed discussion of the notorious spy case in which he played a principal role. Greenglass was, of course, the brother of Ethel Rosenberg and it was his testimony that led in no small measure to the conviction and ultimately the execution of his sister and her husband Julius on charges of nuclear espionage against the United States on behalf of the Soviet Union. But even 61 years after their deaths and decades after even almost all of those who wrongly asserted their innocence have conceded that they were spies, Greenglass and not the masterminds of the Communist spy ring remains the villain of the story as far as most of the chattering classes are concerned. That was the upshot of Greenglass’s obituary in today’s New York Times. Though correcting the record on this point may seem a futile exercise, the willingness of liberals to carry on with the pretense that Greenglass’s evidence was somehow worse than the Rosenberg’s’ treason remains insufferable.

Greenglass apparently died in July at 92 while living under an assumed name in a nursing home. But, as the Times points out, his willingness to cut a deal with prosecutors that enabled his wife to avoid incarceration in exchange for evidence about his sister and her husband, has become a symbol of family betrayal. But as historian Ron Radosh writes in his column in the New York Sun, the effort to treat Greenglass as beyond the pale stems from the lingering desire to diminish the guilt of the Rosenbergs if no longer to exonerate them.

The Times obituary did not recycle the old canards about the Rosenbergs’ innocence that were always transparent fictions but which were conclusively debunked by the publication of Soviet records after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the evil empire the spies served. But its main conceit was to harp on Greenglass’ post-trial statement that he was unsure whether it was his sister or his wife Ruth, another dedicated Communist, who typed the document sent to the Soviets containing the data he had stolen from the U.S. nuclear research facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico. This was treated in the piece as somehow evidence that Ethel, if not Julius, was actually innocent of espionage. Citing the ground breaking work of historian Ron Radosh, co-author along with Joyce Milton of the seminal The Rosenberg File, the Times attempts to bolster this bogus point as well as the claim that the material Greenglass and other members of the ring passed to Moscow was worthless.

But as Radosh writes today, these assumptions are completely false. Ethel Rosenberg was an integral member of the Soviet espionage operation who helped recruit her brother and sister-in-law to join her husband’s spy ring. Nor are there any grounds for assuming that the information they passed to Stalin’s henchmen was worthless. Greenglass’s description of the U.S. uranium bomb was highly useful to the Russians. So was the data about the lens mold of the bomb described at the Rosenberg trial and other material such as a detonator and a proximity fuse. The opprobrium directed at the Rosenbergs during their trial may have been in part a product of Cold War hysteria but there is no question of the depth of their betrayal and the damage they did to their country.

At the heart of all of these attempts to mitigate the justified anger of the American people at persons who spied for the Soviets is the lingering leftist illusion that what they did was a product of idealism. Though faith in the “socialist motherland” has long since faded, its vestigial elements still act to rationalize the actions of American communists who are thought to have been merely mistaken in their loyalties rather than having chosen to align themselves with evil against the cause of freedom. This attitude of tolerance toward communism is one that his still based not only on myths such as that of the Rosenberg’s innocence but also on the belief that those who backed Moscow’s cause did not irretrievably compromise themselves.

But even if this is among the last rounds to be fired in an old argument, these lies should still be refuted.

As Radosh writes, the Rosenbergs didn’t die because of McCarthyite intolerance or judicial misconduct but because they were, unlike Greenglass, dedicated communists who refused to cop a plea or even admit a modicum of guilt. They choose death so that they could be martyrs for the cause of the world’s greatest anti-Semitic power at the time and the homicidal maniac who ruled it. Doing so served Stalin’s cause and distracted the world from the anti-Semitic purge trials going on in Czechoslovakia even if it meant orphaning their children.

Greenglass may have been a villain to liberals like Woody Allen whose line about the spy in one of his movies closes the obits. But contrary to the conclusion of the Times, history shows that the real villains were all those, like the Rosenbergs, who served Stalin’s kingdom of death and oppression and those who sought to rationalize or lie about their crimes. To argue to the contrary is to dishonor the memory of the tens of millions murdered by the communists and the many brave people who resisted them during the course of a long and ultimately successful Cold War against evil.

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Euros Bet on Obama Appeasing Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry spent several hours yesterday closeted in a Vienna hotel room with Iranian negotiators as he sought to reach a new nuclear agreement. The Iranians are sticking to their insistence on retaining their right to enrich uranium as well as to keep the rest of their infrastructure while Kerry seems to be focused on face saving measures that will allow President Obama to claim that he kept his pledge to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But while there is still a chance that the U.S. won’t cave in to Iran, a conference of European business figures meeting in London was betting heavily on the Americans continuing on their path to appeasement.

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Secretary of State John Kerry spent several hours yesterday closeted in a Vienna hotel room with Iranian negotiators as he sought to reach a new nuclear agreement. The Iranians are sticking to their insistence on retaining their right to enrich uranium as well as to keep the rest of their infrastructure while Kerry seems to be focused on face saving measures that will allow President Obama to claim that he kept his pledge to stop Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. But while there is still a chance that the U.S. won’t cave in to Iran, a conference of European business figures meeting in London was betting heavily on the Americans continuing on their path to appeasement.

What was billed as the “1st Europe-Iran Forum” convened Wednesday morning and was touted in breathless fashion on the website of The Iran Project, a leading American advocate of appeasement of the Islamist regime as a way for European businesses to get the latest information about Iran. But the purpose of the event, which was officially endorsed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and various members of the European foreign policy establishment was two fold.

On the one hand it is an effort to help prepare Western enterprises for a return to the Iranian market after international sanctions on Iran are lifted in the event of a new nuclear agreement. But it is actually more than just a prudent bet on appeasement. The point of the conference is also to help manufacture more pressure on the Americans to back down from their initially strong positions demanding the dismantling of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure that would ensure that it would never be able to build a bomb. With Europe already chafing at the existing sanctions, the push to weaken the restrictions on economic activity with Iran is removing what little leverage Kerry has left in the talks.

The conference is but the latest effort touted by Iran appeasement advocates to ease the way toward reintegrating Iran into the global economy. The assumption behind the blithe talk about doing business in Iran is that the loosening of the sanctions that took place last year in the interim deal signed by Kerry began an inevitable process that will end with their complete unraveling.

The push for appeasement has gained strength in recent months as Iran’s equivocal role in the fight against ISIS terrorists in Iraq and Syria has both diverted the administration from the nuclear issue and also caused it to believe that détente with Tehran offers a solution to all of the West’s problems.

Of course, Iran’s fight with ISIS stems from its desire to prop up its ally Bashar Assad in Syria and on maintaining the power of its Shiite allies in Iraq not a desire to protect the world against the group’s Islamist beliefs. Its disagreement with ISIS is not about Islamism or terrorism but which Islamist terrorists should dominate the Middle East.

The push to dismantle sanctions treats the nuclear threat from Iran as a theoretical problem that need not trouble the West much. That’s why the administration appears willing to agree to measures that at best delay the nuclear quest but do nothing to actually prevent Iran from achieving its dangerous ambitions.

The discussion of the post sanctions environment encourages Iran to refuse to budge not only on enrichment but also on a whole range of issues including inspections of research sites like Parchin and its construction of ballistic missiles. Nor is Kerry even bothering to push Iran to end its support of international terrorism.

The only pressure on Kerry appears to come from the November deadline set for negotiating with Iran that is actually an extension of the earlier time frame that was extended over the summer. Continuing to negotiate in perpetuity would give critics of this appeasement process more ammunition to push for renewed and stronger sanctions on Iran. Last winter the administration was able to brand advocates of tough diplomacy as “warmongers” and, with the help of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid head off measures that would have strengthened Kerry’s hand in the talks. President Obama and his team preferred not to offend the Iranians with increased sanctions but what they have learned is that in doing so they stripped themselves of the only tool that might have produced an acceptable agreement. Iran’s position in the negotiations is now so strong that Kerry has been reduced to offering to allow them to keep their centrifuges for uranium enrichment while asking them to disconnect them.

Under the circumstances, its hard to argue with Europeans and others who believe it is only a matter of time before Washington surrenders to Iran and effectively end sanctions without getting anything more than unenforceable nuclear promises in exchange. Barring a last minute change of heart on the president’s part or a renewed drive for sanctions if the Senate changes hands, the drift toward appeasement appears inexorable.

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NY Times Partially Vindicates Bush on WMD

The New York Times has just published a story by C.J. Chivers that makes some explosive claims about chemical weapons found in Iraq between 2004 and 2011. It’s a complicated article that sets out to do several things:   Read More

The New York Times has just published a story by C.J. Chivers that makes some explosive claims about chemical weapons found in Iraq between 2004 and 2011. It’s a complicated article that sets out to do several things:  

1. reveal that “American troops secretly reported finding roughly 5,000 chemical warheads, shells or aviation bombs” in Iraq during this period;

2. document the six American injuries that resulted from dealing with these weapons;

3. make the case that because these were “old chemical munitions,”  and not new ones, they reveal the pre-war intelligence failures and false claims of the George W. Bush administration;

4. expose a Bush administration cover-up that led to the mishandling of found weapons and to insufficient care for the American troops exposed.

What to make of all this? First, the report neither broadly vindicates nor broadly refutes Bush’s WMD arguments for invading Iraq. Yes, many of Saddam Hussein’s old undeclared chemical weapons were found (as has been public knowledge for about a decade). No, the U.S. did not uncover active WMD programs (which has also been squarely acknowledged throughout this period).

The article does, however, vindicate some administration claims. Chivers goes bizarrely wrong in writing, “The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale.” In truth, Saddam’s old chemical weapons were always cited as a danger in the run-up to the war. Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 UN speech making the case against Saddam is explicit on this point. Powell said:

If we consider just one category of missing weaponry–6,500 bombs from the Iran-Iraq war–UNMOVIC says the amount of chemical agent in them would be in the order of 1,000 tons. These quantities of chemical weapons are now unaccounted for. Dr. [Hans] Blix has quipped that, quote, ‘Mustard gas is not (inaudible) You are supposed to know what you did with it.’ We believe Saddam Hussein knows what he did with it, and he has not come clean with the international community. We have evidence these weapons existed. What we don’t have is evidence from Iraq that they have been destroyed or where they are. That is what we are still waiting for.

The Iran-Iraq War ended in 1988. Colin Powell was obviously talking about the danger of old weapons.

What Chivers fails to relay is that it was the antiwar side of the debate that downplayed Saddam’s old weapons as any kind of problem. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, one of the most outspoken anti-invasion voices at the time, had said, “Even if Iraq had somehow managed to hide this vast number of [chemical] weapons from inspectors, what they are now storing is nothing more than useless, harmless goo.” In the years immediately following the invasion, antiwar figures and media outlets continued to dismiss found chemical weapons as pathetic war trophies.

This makes it hard to credit Chivers’s claim of the Bush administration’s embarrassment. The 5,000 undeclared chemical weapons constitute one of the administration’s few intelligence victories in Iraq. Why, then, the secrecy? Perhaps because Iraq was a leaderless country swarming with jihadists and roiled by civil war, and advertising the amounts and whereabouts of chemical weapons would have made things much worse.

As for the injured Americans, they are first owed our bottomless gratitude. If there is reason to believe that they were unnecessarily exposed to chemical agents or insufficiently treated for that exposure, there should be an investigation and, if necessary, restitution. But six non-fatal injuries in the course of handling 5,000 chemical weapons doesn’t immediately strike me as evidence of gross leadership incompetence.

Here’s what does: Barack Obama withdrew all American troops from Iraq knowing that degraded but dangerous chemical weapons would be left behind. If recent reports are accurate, ISIS has stumbled upon them. Yet Obama’s name appears nowhere in the 10,000-word article.

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Separationists Run Amok in Milwaukee

Americans are rightly afraid of radical Islamists who seek to subjugate, behead, and enslave non-believers in the Middle East in the name of their faith. Ours, however, is a country where religious freedom is at the core of our identity as a nation. But many of us are so obsessed with separating religion from the state that we are prepared to go to any lengths to make it harder for individuals to practice their beliefs even when doing so threatens neither our liberties nor interferes with the rights of others. A classic example of this separationism run amok is to be found in Milwaukee where, of all things, the Jewish Federation supported the effort to prevent Jewish students at a local public high school from erecting a sukkah where they hoped to eat their lunch so as to comply with religious law about observance of the Feast of Tabernacles. In doing so, these liberal extremists taught us a lesson about how fear of religion can be almost as destructive of liberty as religious extremism.

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Americans are rightly afraid of radical Islamists who seek to subjugate, behead, and enslave non-believers in the Middle East in the name of their faith. Ours, however, is a country where religious freedom is at the core of our identity as a nation. But many of us are so obsessed with separating religion from the state that we are prepared to go to any lengths to make it harder for individuals to practice their beliefs even when doing so threatens neither our liberties nor interferes with the rights of others. A classic example of this separationism run amok is to be found in Milwaukee where, of all things, the Jewish Federation supported the effort to prevent Jewish students at a local public high school from erecting a sukkah where they hoped to eat their lunch so as to comply with religious law about observance of the Feast of Tabernacles. In doing so, these liberal extremists taught us a lesson about how fear of religion can be almost as destructive of liberty as religious extremism.

The eight-day festival of Sukkot is one in which Jews are instructed by the Torah to eat their meals in temporary huts called sukkahs in commemoration of those used by their ancestors wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt. Such small structures are, as Tablet magazine points out in their piece about this story, to be found at the corporate headquarters of Google as well as at places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But the small Sukkah erected at Milwaukee’s Nicolet High School that had existed in previous years was forced off campus in no small measure because the local Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council considered it a violation of the separation between church and state.

The reasoning behind this seeming example of cognitive dissonance is that liberal true believers see any accommodation of belief on public property or in a public education setting as the thin edge of the wedge of theocracy. To their thinking, the mythical wall of separation must be erected so high that government institutions should exhibit no hint of faith. While the Founding Fathers intended the First Amendment to ensure that there would never be a state religion in the United States, modern-day liberals have distorted this sensible restriction. Instead of the constitutional prohibition of government favoring one religion over another, contemporary liberals have sought to redefine the Constitution as being hostile to the expression of religious faith in public settings.

This misguided sentiment stems from some real concerns that were dealt with in the past. State-run schools ought not to be promoting religion in the classroom as they used to do, especially when that usually was done at the expense of marginalizing religious minorities. But that justified opposition to state prayers at schools has morphed into an obsessive desire to ban Christmas trees or carols. Rather than seek to ban discrimination against their faith, many liberal Jews wish to marginalize all faiths, a divisive effort that undermines the good communal relations they purport to support as well as creating a naked public square with respect to faith that does far more harm than good. Their fear of faith leads them to invent restrictions against its expression instead of protecting religious freedom.

That is the twisted logic that led the Milwaukee Federation to push for the elimination of the Jewish students’ inoffensive sukkah.

That a group that pretends to represent all Jews would seek to prevent Jews from practicing their faith is more than ironic. It is a travesty. That travesty is only exacerbated when the person responsible for this outrage happens to be Hannah Rosenthal, whose last job before joining the federation was as the Obama State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Rosenthal was the person that Americans would have looked to for leadership and outrage were sukkahs banned by some foreign government. But instead of being an advocate for more religious freedom, in her new guise as communal leader Rosenthal has adopted the liberal separationist faith as her new Torah and led the charge to expunge even the most harmless expression of Jewish practice at a local high school.

Sadly, one Jewish student interviewed by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said she felt “a little awkward” because if Christians “put up a Christmas tree or a crèche, we’d feel uncomfortable with that, so why put up a sukkah?”

That, in a nutshell, tells you not only what’s wrong with separationism but also with a Jewish community that is raising its children to fear other religions and to “feel awkward” when they see other Jews practicing their faith in a manner that does no harm to others.

This is, in part, a legacy of a past in which Jews did feel threatened and marginalized by the majority. But at a time when Jews are free to not only express their identity in any place or profession in the United States but to actually practice their faith unhindered by prejudice, such attitudes are not only outdated; they are highly destructive.

The problem here is that liberal Jews fear conservative Christians far more than they do ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, or the Taliban (as Tablet points out, it is unlikely that the federation would have opposed accommodations of Muslim practices). And they are so paranoid about it that they are ready to restrict examples of Jewish faith in the public square in order to forestall any manifestation of Christian faith there.

Hard as it may be for many liberal Jews to accept, Christians don’t threaten Jewish life in this country. But such extreme separationism is a symptom of the indifference to faith and Jewish identity that has created the demographic disaster that does threaten the Jewish future in the U.S. that was revealed by last year’s Portrait of Jewish Americans produced by the Pew Research Center. While some may have hoped that Jewish Federations would provide the leadership to help the community respond to the survey’s results, we find in Milwaukee that they are part of the problem, not the solution.

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Harvard Law Pushes Back

Last summer Harvard University adopted a new policy for how to handle charges of sexual harassment, following the demands of the U.S. Department of Education. As at most schools, the new policy is grotesquely slanted in favor of accusers and against the accused. That is not surprising. With the government using the club of possible loss of federal funding, most schools feel they have no choice but to knuckle under. And, of course, on many, perhaps most, college campuses uber-feminist misandry is as thick as fog.

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Last summer Harvard University adopted a new policy for how to handle charges of sexual harassment, following the demands of the U.S. Department of Education. As at most schools, the new policy is grotesquely slanted in favor of accusers and against the accused. That is not surprising. With the government using the club of possible loss of federal funding, most schools feel they have no choice but to knuckle under. And, of course, on many, perhaps most, college campuses uber-feminist misandry is as thick as fog.

But a strange thing has happened at Harvard. It seems that 28 members of the faculty at the Harvard Law School think that due process and basic fairness have a place in academia after all.

They have published an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe: “As members of the faculty of Harvard Law School, we write to voice our strong objections to the Sexual Harassment Policy and Procedures imposed by the central university administration and the Corporation on all parts of the university, including the law school.” Among their objections are:

Harvard has adopted procedures for deciding cases of alleged sexual misconduct which lack the most basic elements of fairness and due process, are overwhelmingly stacked against the accused, and are in no way required by Title IX law or regulation. Here our concerns include but are not limited to the following:

■ The absence of any adequate opportunity to discover the facts charged and to confront witnesses and present a defense at an adversary hearing.

■ The lodging of the functions of investigation, prosecution, fact-finding, and appellate review in one office, and the fact that that office is itself a Title IX compliance office rather than an entity that could be considered structurally impartial.

■ The failure to ensure adequate representation for the accused, particularly for students unable to afford representation.

They also fault “Adopting rules governing sexual conduct between students both of whom are impaired or incapacitated, rules which are starkly one-sided as between complainants and respondents, …” In other words, they’re both drunk, but she gets a pass and he gets hanged

It will be most interesting to see how this plays out. My guess is that the powers-that-be at Harvard, such as President Drew Faust, will respond with “thanks for your input,” and drop the subject.

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Syria: What Might Have Been

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

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The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

The story in the Times recaps a classified report from the CIA to the president analyzing the success rate of arming rebels in past conflicts. The report, according to the story, greatly contributed to Obama’s reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But there are two problems with this approach. The first, and obvious, one is that Obama has already given the green light to arming the rebels the administration considers sufficiently moderate. If the CIA report was the reason not to arm them sooner, what’s the reason to arm them now?

The answer to that appears to be: Obama wants to fight ISIS more seriously than he wanted to defeat Bashar al-Assad–though that still doesn’t account for the fact that the president believes it’s a policy with very low odds of succeeding. Indeed, the story itself eventually points out that Obama nonetheless chose the least effective method of helping the rebels:

The C.I.A. review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

So this arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But the other aspect of this is about the dishonesty with which the administration seeks to push back on its critics, especially those who recently left the administration–Leon Panetta most prominently, but also Hillary Clinton, Michele Flournoy, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times mentions Clinton, Panetta, and David Petraeus:

The debate over whether Mr. Obama acted too slowly to support the Syrian rebellion has been renewed after both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in recent books that they had supported a plan presented in the summer of 2012 by David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, to arm and train small groups of rebels in Jordan.

But the tone and nature of this argument coming from the administration is just a repeat of a classic Obama tactic: setting up a straw man and then knocking him down. The administration wants to paint Syria intervention as simply a gunrunning operation, with some foreign training. But the idea that it was either CIA gunrunning or nothing is what the president, were he on the receiving end of this argument, would call a false choice. And it goes to the heart of why Obama’s foreign policy has been so unnerving: he doesn’t seem to really understand the issues at play.

Arming and training the Syrian rebels was indeed a key part of interventionists’ early argument. But it wasn’t the whole argument. A more comprehensive intervention that still stopped shy of an American ground war included territorial carve-outs to secure parts of the country in the hands of certain rebels; a no-fly zone (or more than one) to enforce the boundaries of the new carve-outs; large on-site training programs; and humanitarian corridors to those territories from neighboring friendly countries, like Jordan and perhaps Kurdish positions in Iraq and Turkey.

This would also allow intelligence from Israel to be better coordinated and utilized, at least for air support and the tracking of enemy forces, and would improve and streamline recruitment efforts. And it would protect segments of the disappearing borders of these countries, to make it more difficult (though far from impossible) for Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of porous borders, especially between Iraq and Syria. It would also go some way toward protecting at-risk minorities from groups like ISIS, and it would force ISIS to either defend more territory (instead of almost always being on offense) or leave forces behind in territory through which it marches virtually unopposed to hold that territory, spreading its resources thinner and disrupting its communications and supply lines.

Obama seems to think that the fragmented nature of the Syrian rebels and the weakness of the Syrian state and the Iraqi army vindicate his reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But the opposite is the case. There were better options available to the president than simply gunrunning in Syria. Had he taken those options, it’s likely the situation would be better today than it is. But that would require the president to first admit that those options even exist.

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The Settlements Dodge

Responding to Monday’s Palestinian statehood vote in Britain’s parliament, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz penned an op-ed provocatively titled “It’s the Settlements, Stupid.” Horovitz argues that the erosion of Israel’s diplomatic standing that made Monday’s vote possible has in large part been on account of Israel’s settlement policy. If true, then we live in strange times, where building homes for Jews can cause more outrage than Hamas stockpiling rockets and Iran developing nuclear weapons with which to murder those same Jews. And yet the following day, Sir Alan Duncan, Britain’s envoy to Yemen and Oman, gave a shocking speech asserting that those endorsing settlements should be considered on par with racists and hounded from Britain’s public life. The reality is, it is not the settlements that have eroded Israel’s standing, but rather the completely warped narrative that now surrounds them. And what’s worse, many Israelis have in no small part helped to create that narrative.

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Responding to Monday’s Palestinian statehood vote in Britain’s parliament, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz penned an op-ed provocatively titled “It’s the Settlements, Stupid.” Horovitz argues that the erosion of Israel’s diplomatic standing that made Monday’s vote possible has in large part been on account of Israel’s settlement policy. If true, then we live in strange times, where building homes for Jews can cause more outrage than Hamas stockpiling rockets and Iran developing nuclear weapons with which to murder those same Jews. And yet the following day, Sir Alan Duncan, Britain’s envoy to Yemen and Oman, gave a shocking speech asserting that those endorsing settlements should be considered on par with racists and hounded from Britain’s public life. The reality is, it is not the settlements that have eroded Israel’s standing, but rather the completely warped narrative that now surrounds them. And what’s worse, many Israelis have in no small part helped to create that narrative.

As Horovitz points out, settlement building was referenced some 40 times during the Westminster debate. That is certainly testament to the extent to which this issue has been turned into the weapon of choice for those looking to pour scorn on Israel. Horovitz also gives examples of the kind of talk about settlements that he’s referring to. One Conservative MP, who began by professing his deep friendship for Israel, went on to say that the recent “annexation” by Israel of 950 acres of West Bank land had outraged him more than anything else in his entire political life. He explained that, given all his support for Israel in the past, this move had made him appear the fool. But the truth is, many people had been fooled by the way that this event was willfully misrepresented, first by the Israeli left, and then by the international media. For as Eugene Kontorovich pointed out here at the time, there had in reality been no annexation whatsoever. Israel had simply come to a factual administrative finding about the status of the land in question (much of it purchased by Jews before Israel’s founding), but the world was encouraged to imagine privately owned Palestinian property being appropriated for colonization.

This sense of alien colonization of Palestinian land sits at the core of what many feel about the settlements. That was certainly the notion promoted in the other statement referenced by Horovitz, this time from Labor’s Andy Slaughter. “Who can defend settlement building — the colonization of another country? We are talking about 600,000 Israeli settlers planted on Palestinian soil,” declared Slaughter. But this is pretty astounding stuff. Would Slaughter describe an Arab living in Israel as “planted on Jewish soil”? Indeed, he’d cause a minor crisis within British politics if he started describing Pakistani immigrants to Britain as colonizers “planted on English soil.” Presumably, Slaughter’s belief that the very soil of the West Bank is somehow intrinsically and exclusively Palestinian stems from his equally misguided view that the West Bank is a foreign country.

There is of course an argument for turning the West Bank into a Palestinian state one day, but like the misbelief that the green line holds some sacrosanct status under international law, it is hard to understand why the territory seized and occupied by Jordan for just 19 years represents the precise boundaries for any future Palestinian state. Besides, long before anyone starts trying to determine exactly which areas should constitute a Palestinian state, someone has to come up with a model for making the land-for-peace transaction workable. So far this exchange has proved catastrophic. Gaza is the most obvious example, although there are several others. But in Gaza the Israeli experience has been one of removing settlements and getting a security nightmare in return.

If British parliamentarians are going to make an issue of settlements, then they at least owe it to Israelis to explain what they think would happen to Israel’s security if it reversed its settlement policy and evacuated the West Bank just as it did Gaza. But then the prevailing narrative on this subject, as conveyed by the international media, is supplied by Israelis themselves. For years large parts of the Israeli establishment have dismissed the realities of Palestinian intransigence and convinced themselves that ending the conflict is within Israel’s grasp, if only it can rein in Netanyahu and the settlements. By ignoring the need for–and indeed lack of–genuine Palestinian moderation, these Israelis inhabit a far more comforting paradigm, in which Israel can solve everything just as soon as it chooses. So tenaciously do some cling to this view that we recently saw how the far-left Peace Now group was even willing to manufacture a mini diplomatic crisis in U.S.-Israel relations just as Netanyahu was about to meet with Obama, inducing the media and state department into condemnation of a new settlement announcement … that wasn’t a new settlement, and had actually already been announced months previously.

Writing about the Westminster vote, Jonathan Tobin questioned what kind of Palestinian state British lawmakers imagine they are supporting. This is where the popular narrative about settlements really becomes twisted. Any Palestinian state worthy of being brought into existence, and that could be trusted to live peacefully alongside Israel, would be capable of tolerating a Jewish minority, just as Israel safeguards its Arab minority. If that was the Palestinian state the world was aiming for then settlements would hardly present an obstacle. But if that’s not the state being aimed for, well then peacemakers face a far greater headache than settlements.

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Academia’s Islands of Authoritarianism

As a history professor, Doron Ben-Atar might have had some frame of reference for the creepy and alarming campaign of censorship and intimidation waged against him by fellow faculty at Fordham University. But those historical parallels would only have made the episode all the more disturbing.

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As a history professor, Doron Ben-Atar might have had some frame of reference for the creepy and alarming campaign of censorship and intimidation waged against him by fellow faculty at Fordham University. But those historical parallels would only have made the episode all the more disturbing.

Ben-Atar told his story yesterday in Tablet magazine. It’s worth reading the whole story, but the essential facts are these: Ben-Atar was, as most right-thinking people were, staunchly opposed to the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israel, which the group voted on last December. He joined a steering committee to fight the boycott and, as a member of Fordham’s American Studies executive committee, pushed to cut ties with the ASA until it rescinded the boycott. Here’s what happened next:

It was this stand that led Fordham’s Title IX officer to launch the proceedings. During an emotional meeting convened to discuss the appropriate response to the measure, I stated that should Fordham’s program fail to distance itself from the boycott, I will resign from the program and fight against it until it took a firm stand against bigotry. The program’s director, Michelle McGee, in turn filed a complaint against me with the Title IX office, charging that I threatened to destroy the program. (As if I could? And what does this have to do with Title IX?) This spurious complaint (the meeting’s minutes demonstrated that I did not make such a threat) ushered me into a bruising summer that taught me much about my colleagues, the university, and the price I must be willing to pay for taking on the rising tide of anti-Zionism on American campuses.

The following Monday, Coleman appeared in my office to conduct her investigation. Alas, she refused to explain what I was accused of specifically or how what I supposedly did amounted to a Title IX violation. Remaining vague, she hinted that others, including perhaps Fordham College’s dean, who chaired the fateful meeting, supported the complaint. Who are the others, I asked? Is there anything beyond that supposed one sentence? She would not disclose. I told Coleman that I took the complaint very seriously, but at the advice of my attorney I needed to think things through. Coleman told me she’d be in touch with my attorney, and we parted ways.

He was cooperative, though he was treated as hostile. He was eventually cleared of the absurd charge of religious discrimination–for opposing religious discrimination!–and learned a hard lesson about the place of Jews in American higher education in 2014:

Administrators and colleagues failed to protect my First Amendment rights, and fed the assault on my character. A person utterly unqualified to understand anti-Semitism sat in judgment of a scholar who publishes on and teaches the subject. A report has been issued without letting me even defend myself. My choice to have legal representation has been cited as proof of my guilt. Most painful was realizing that my commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, so central to who I am, has been used against me in a most unethical manner not only by the member of the faculty who filed the baseless charge, but also by the office of the University Counsel.

Ben-Atar was merely expressing his opposition to bigotry against his own people, and for that he found himself trapped in a Yuri Dombrovsky novel within a prestigious university in the city with the largest number of Jews outside of Tel Aviv. Aside from the obvious presence of anti-Semitism among the American universities in charge of shaping the minds of the next generation, there are a couple of important lessons here.

The first is that the academic boycotts of Israel are not about Israel. Most of us know this, of course, and those leading the boycotts almost certainly know it. But they have been able to claim limited targets, and thus try and dispute the accusations of anti-Semitism. They are boycotting Israel, they say, a sovereign state. And they are doing so because of the state’s policies, they say.

What Ben-Atar’s case exposes to the light of day is that these boycotts are not simply about preventing collaboration with academics in Israel. They are about regulating and restricting the speech and the behavior of Americans, and specifically Jews in America. Ben-Atar endured not just character assassination but the threat of the kinds of charges that could follow him throughout his academic career. It was a warning shot, and not a subtle one.

The other lesson is that there is a burgeoning crisis in higher education in which universities are roping themselves off from the basic right of due process. In September, KC Johnson explored the “crusade against due process for college students accused of sexual assault” in COMMENTARY. That crusade has only continued, with colleges removing due process from the accused and, in California, a law inserting the government into the bedrooms of college students and which critics fear will criminalize much sexual contact. (Encouragingly, the crusade has its vocal critics on the left as well.)

The larger picture, then, is one in which American universities, issue by issue, are walling themselves off from American constitutional rights and general principles of law and order in order to create islands of authoritarianism and institutions of enforced groupthink. That groupthink is no longer an emptyheaded anticapitalism. It now includes the threat of torpedoing careers for opposing anti-Semitism and bureaucratizing human contact. That there is a crisis brewing can no longer be denied. The question is, what will American academia do about it?

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GOP’s Hawkish Turn Rewarded in the Polls

Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

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Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

That swing in public opinion could well deliver the Senate into GOP hands–and it will likely make the next presidential election anything but a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. But before gloating too much, Republicans should reflect that this swing in public opinion actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about President Obama’s mistakes, which are monumental. Naturally, as ISIS and Vladimir Putin run wild, the public has lost confidence in him and his party. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP is worthy of respect or that the newfound popularity of the Republicans will last long.

Happy Republicans should reflect on how decisively they lost their traditional edge, in particular, on national security issues during the bungled years of President Bush’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Luckily for both Bush and the country, he managed to oversee an impressive recovery in Iraq in 2007-2008 whose gains, unfortunately, have been dissipated by Obama’s pullout–for which the president is now paying a price in the polls.

To sustain public confidence in their national-security credentials it would be helpful for Republicans to have a unified line as they mostly did during the Cold War, at least since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft (the standard bearer of Midwestern isolationism) in 1952. That kind of unity has been in large part lacking since the Iraq War turned south, with some in the GOP advocating a more interventionist foreign policy while others preached non-interventionism.

The rise of ISIS has temporarily inspired a return to more hawkish attitudes even among neo-isolationists like Rand Paul. But it remains to be seen if this is a passing fad or whether leading Republicans are finally getting serious about embracing their Teddy Roosevelt-Ronald Reagan heritage of global leadership. If Republicans succumb once again to the non-interventionist temptation, as President Obama did, their newfound popularity will not last long. Because if the latest polls show anything, it is that the public demands strong leadership on national security even if it is uncertain about the particulars of this or that policy.

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