Commentary Magazine


What Federalism Will and Won’t Do in Iraq

My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

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My old boss Les Gelb makes a good case for breaking up Iraq, more or less, into three autonomous areas: Sunni, Kurdish, and Shiite. I used to be skeptical that this was either practical or desirable and I still don’t think it can stand alone as the solution to Iraq’s deep problems. But I am increasingly drawn to the conclusion that such a proposal should be part of the ultimate solution.

This does not mean creating three new states. That won’t work for many reasons including the fact that cities like Baghdad and Mosul contain a mixed population, that the Sunni areas of Iraq lack much oil revenue, and Sunnis have an emotional attachment to Baghdad and the Iraqi state. But it is looking increasingly unlikely that Iraq can be put together as a strongly centralized state without a larger commitment of U.S. troops than is likely in the future.

The Kurdish region is already de facto autonomous; in fact it’s almost an independent country but one that still has representation in Baghdad and gets a share of the country’s oil revenues. We need to think strongly about whether opposing de jure Kurdish independence is even in our interest anymore–would it be so bad if the Kurds realized their age-old dream to have their own state? In theory a new Kurdistan could emerge as America’s second-strongest ally in the region (after Israel with which the Kurds would likely establish ties), one that would be happy to host U.S. troops and aircraft.

Whatever happens with the Kurds, I think that it now makes sense to offer Sunnis an autonomous region of their own in return for fighting against ISIS. Indeed it may be the only way to get them to take up arms since they have no desire to be subordinate to Shiite sectarians in Baghdad who still control the government even if Nouri al-Maliki is no longer prime minister. (The appointment of a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-backed militia, as interior minister is evidence of that.)

But while important, federalism is not by itself the solution to Iraq’s woes. Whether the Sunnis have autonomy or not, they will still need to be trained and armed and motivated to fight against ISIS–and that won’t be easy to do no matter what political arrangements are promised since they have felt betrayed in the past by the U.S. and the Baghdad government. So the onus is still on the Obama administration to ramp up its anti-ISIS efforts which, despite some recent gains in Kobani, seem on the whole to be rather anemic. But the incentive of federalism can be one of the carrots dangled before Sunnis to get them to participate in a larger counterinsurgency campaign should one ever develop.

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Obama Hypocrisy of Avoiding Congress on Iran Deal

The New York Times is reporting that President Obama envisions an Iran deal which could avoid the need for congressional approval:

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The New York Times is reporting that President Obama envisions an Iran deal which could avoid the need for congressional approval:

No one knows if the Obama administration will manage in the next five weeks to strike what many in the White House consider the most important foreign policy deal of his presidency: an accord with Iran that would forestall its ability to make a nuclear weapon. But the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.

Let’s put aside the notion that no one in Congress seeks permanent enmity with Tehran: What they see is a solution that addresses American security concerns and, absent that, they might criticize any deal that comes before them. That the administration has so little confidence in its own negotiating team that it fears congressional buy-in says a lot about the weakness of Obama and his team’s way of negotiating. Simply put, for Obama it seems, increasingly, that a bad deal trumps no deal.

The real hypocrisy is this, however: While the Obama administration explained its decision to withdraw completely from Iraq on the fact that the Iraqi government wouldn’t give American forces remaining in the country immunity, this isn’t fully accurate. According to Iraqis, the American negotiating team working out the details simply wouldn’t take yes for an answer for a continued American presence: Prime Minister Maliki offered immunity, but the Obama administration insisted that he get parliamentary approval for any immunity component of the deal. That was politically impossible—as the American team knew it would be—and so Obama had an excuse to walk away.

How ironic it is, then, that the Obama White House insisted that the Iraqi parliament approve such deals, but then turns around and seeks to diminish the role of the U.S. Congress in a decision that is just as momentous for U.S. national security. Obama is no stranger to hypocrisy. In this case, however, it seems that Obama’s attitude toward legislatures is much less guided by law or principle than by his own political ambitions at any given time.

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The Western Enablers of Abbas’s Incitement

It was not a quiet holiday weekend in Jerusalem, though all things considered the violence and anti-Semitism against Jews in their eternal home and capital was not as vicious as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have hoped. Abbas, Israel’s supposed “peace partner” and raving anti-Semite, echoed some of the ugliest moments in the modern history of the land when he explicitly attempted to incite violence against Jews seeking to enter the Temple Mount and resorted to the kind of fear mongering over Jerusalem that has long been a prelude to anti-Jewish rioting.

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It was not a quiet holiday weekend in Jerusalem, though all things considered the violence and anti-Semitism against Jews in their eternal home and capital was not as vicious as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas might have hoped. Abbas, Israel’s supposed “peace partner” and raving anti-Semite, echoed some of the ugliest moments in the modern history of the land when he explicitly attempted to incite violence against Jews seeking to enter the Temple Mount and resorted to the kind of fear mongering over Jerusalem that has long been a prelude to anti-Jewish rioting.

And yet the revolting persona Abbas has adopted more publicly of late is an indictment of the international community as well. Here is a brief rundown of Abbas’s Jew hate over the weekend:

Abbas said it was not enough for Palestinians to say that “settlers” have come to the Temple Mount.

“We should all remain present at the Noble Sanctuary [Temple Mount],” he added.

“We must prevent them from entering the Noble Sanctuary in any way. This is our Al-Aksa and our church. They have no right to enter and desecrate them. We must confront them and defend our holy sites.”

Abbas said Palestinians must be united to defend Jerusalem.

“Jerusalem has a special flavor and taste not only in our hearts, but also in the hearts of all Arabs and Muslims and Christians,” he said. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Palestinian state and without it there will be no state.”

What Abbas wants is to enforce by terror and rioting a full-fledged ethnic and religious apartheid against Jews on the Jewish holy site. He won’t be the target of “apartheid weeks” the way Israel is on college campuses because most young leftists are ignorant hypocrites, and their defense of “human rights” in the Middle East has always had precisely zero to do with human rights. But Abbas would be a good candidate for such opprobrium, were the Western left to at any point develop a degree of intellectual integrity.

Avigdor Lieberman responded to Abbas:

Later on Saturday, Lieberman said that Abbas had again revealed his true face as a “Holocaust denier who speaks about a Palestinian state free of Jews.” The foreign minister added that Abbas was and remains an anti-Semite.

“Behind the suit and the pleasantries aimed at the international community, he is raising the level of incitement against Israel and the Jews and is calling for a religious war,” Lieberman said.

That is correct. And it continued: graffiti comparing the Jews to Nazis was painted at the Temple Mount. But the return of Abbas the Pogromist is not happening in a vacuum. The previous weekend, the Gaza reconstruction racket commenced in earnest, with a donor conference pledging billions in new cash for the terrorist-controlled Gaza Strip after Hamas’s war against Israel over the summer. The most risible, yet predictable, aspect of the AP’s story on that donor conference was this:

Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende, who co-chaired the one-day meeting with Egypt, said pledges of $5.4 billion have been made, but that only half of that money would be “dedicated” to the reconstruction of the coastal strip.

Brende did not say what the other half of the funds would be spent on. Other delegates have spoken of budgetary support, boosting economic activity, emergency relief and other projects.

It’s a toss-up as to which part is more ridiculous: the fact that they wouldn’t even say where half of the money goes or that they pretended half the cash would go toward reconstruction. In all likelihood, half will be earmarked for rockets and the other half for terror tunnels, though it’s always unclear how much money the terrorist funders of Qatar will seek to add to the pot above and beyond their conference pledge.

What does this have to do with Abbas’s incitement? Quite a bit, actually. The competition between Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah/PA is generally a race to the bottom. Until there is a sea change in the culture of the Palestinian polity, appealing to the Palestinian public’s attraction to “resistance” against Israel will always be a key battleground between the two governing factions.

Hamas may have lost its summer war against Israel, but it scored a few key victories. Chief among those victories was the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary flight ban imposed on Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. Ben-Gurion is the country’s gateway to the outside world, and banning flights to it isolates Israel physically from the international community (not to mention the global Jewish community). For that ban to have come from the United States was especially dispiriting.

And why was that ban enacted? Because of a Hamas rocket that escaped Israeli missile defense systems and landed about a mile outside of the airport. Hamas showed the Palestinians that all of Abbas’s bad-faith negotiating is basically a delaying tactic that enables the further deterioration of Israeli-European relations but amounts to a slow bleed of public opinion. Meanwhile Hamas, the resisters, can shut down the Israeli economy and its contact with the outside world with a few rockets.

Hamas gets results, in other words, though they may come at a high price. Abbas does not spill enough Jewish blood and he does not put enough fear into the hearts of Israeli civilians to compare favorably to the genocidal murderers of Hamas. Therefore, he has to step up his game. If the international community were to do the right thing and isolate Hamas while refusing to fund the next war on Israel, Abbas could plausibly have the space to do something other than incite holy war. But they won’t do the right thing, and Abbas predictably resorts to terror and incitement. I hope the humanitarians of Washington and Brussels are proud of themselves.

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America’s Anxious Mood and What it Means for Republicans

Every political and presidential election takes place within a context and environment. And while it’s impossible to know what things will look like two Novembers from now, the overall mood of the nation then is bound to have some similarities to the mood of the nation now.

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Every political and presidential election takes place within a context and environment. And while it’s impossible to know what things will look like two Novembers from now, the overall mood of the nation then is bound to have some similarities to the mood of the nation now.

So what is the mood at this moment? The predominant feeling of Americans, according to polling data, is deeply unsettled and anxious, the product in large part of the multiplying failures of the Obama administration.

Think of the list from just the last year, from the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov to the VA scandal, the flood of immigrants (many of them children) crossing the southern border, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, Islamist advances in Libya, the colossal misjudgment about ISIS and the half-hearted air campaign the president is waging against it, and now the string of mistakes by the CDC in dealing with the Ebola virus.

Beyond this is the sluggishness of the economy, which has lasted the entire Obama presidency. Despite some encouraging recent jobs reports, overall the situation remains quite problematic: a drop in median household income even after the recession officially ended, the unusually low workforce participation rate (the lowest in 36 years), the broader failures of the Affordable Care Act, the rise in income inequality (nearing its highest levels of the last 100 years) and poverty (the poverty rate has stood at 15 percent for three consecutive years, the first time that has happened since the mid-1960s), the record number of people on food stamps and the fact that this year China overtook the United States as the world’s largest economy, the first time America has been in second place since 1872. It’s little wonder, then, that only around a quarter of Americans believe the country is on the right track.

In addition to all this, there are longer-term trends, such as middle-class Americans working longer hours than they did since 1979 while median net worth is lower, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 1989. Trust in government is at all-time lows. Disdain for the political class (especially Congress and the media) is sky-high. Americans are less trusting of our public institutions and of one another. More and more of us are living in “ideological silos”. Two-thirds of Americans think it is harder to reach the American Dream today than it was for their parents, and three quarters believe it will be harder for their children and grandchildren to succeed. Americans are pessimistic, feeling unusually vulnerable and polarized. (Political polarization is “the defining feature of early 21st century American politics,” according to the Pew Research Center.)

Given all of this, and assuming that in two years the political environment and psychological state of Americans is roughly what it is now, it’s interesting to contemplate some of the qualities they may be looking for in a GOP nominee.

My guess: A conservative who radiates competence, steadiness, and reassurance; who is perceived as principled, reform-minded, and reality-based; and who’s comfortably associated with a middle-class governing agenda. “Our main task is not to see that people of great wealth add to it but that those without much money have a greater chance to earn some,” is how former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels put it in 2011, and his critique still holds. This can be done while also focusing needed attention on those living in the shadows of society.

In the aftermath of the Obama era, Americans will be a good deal more skeptical of empty, extravagant rhetoric. The public can also do without political figures comparing themselves to Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Jesus (all of whom Obama or his closest aides have compared Mr. Obama to). A modesty about what government can accomplish would be most welcomed; so would distrust of those who cling to ideology even when facts argue the contrary.

Voters are likely to trust individuals who have demonstrated a mastery of governing and can identify with, and have something to say about, the challenges facing many Americans. (One example is soaring higher education costs, a subject very few Republicans talk about and even fewer Republicans have solutions for.) The Republican Party’s standard-bearer certainly needs to be perceived as modern, future-oriented, and understanding the ways the world is changing.

A GOP nominee will also have to speak more to people’s aspirations than to their fears. A campaign that could be symbolized by an angry, clenched fist won’t work. Demonstrating touches of grace and winsomeness probably will. And because Republicans are on a long-term losing streak at the presidential level, including having lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections, they’ll need to find someone who is able to do more than rally the faithful. They’ll have to win over a significant number of people who are not now voting Republican but are persuadable. Which means Republicans might want to look to someone characterized by intellectual depth and calm purpose rather than stridency. In a recent speech, Tony Blair said, “In the end parties can please themselves or please the people.” He contrasted those who have the character of a governing party with those who seem like the shriekers at the gates outside. That’s a distinction worth bearing in mind.

To be sure, no single individual will embody all these qualities, and someone may well come along who personifies other characteristics in a way that is highly appealing. In addition, of course, politics is never static. But my guess is that given the mood and attitudes of Americans right now, some combination of the traits I’ve sketched out will be needed if Republicans hope to win.

While I fully expect Republicans to do quite well in the mid-term elections 15 days from now, it’s worth recalling that Republicans did historically well in 2010 (adding 63 seats in the House and six seats in the Senate) yet lost the presidency and House and Senate seats in 2012. And like it or not, we’re in a period when the Republican Party’s image has reached a historic low; when a majority of Americans said last year that the GOP is out of touch (62 percent), not open to change (56 percent), and too extreme (52 percent); and when, at the presidential level at least, the GOP faces an uphill climb.

President Obama’s cascading failures will make things easier for Republicans in 2016, but it still won’t be easy.

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Ebola, Politics, and Life’s Unfairness

Polls are telling us that Americans think their government is incompetent and that President Obama has lost their confidence. That’s the upshot of the new Politico poll that shows Obama is now regarded as a worse manager than George W. Bush, whose administration was widely derided as a mess by most people in its last years. That this trend has been exacerbated by the Ebola crisis is unquestioned. And that has some liberals crying foul. But all this means is that Democrats are learning something that was brought home to Republicans after Hurricane Katrina: life is unfair.

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Polls are telling us that Americans think their government is incompetent and that President Obama has lost their confidence. That’s the upshot of the new Politico poll that shows Obama is now regarded as a worse manager than George W. Bush, whose administration was widely derided as a mess by most people in its last years. That this trend has been exacerbated by the Ebola crisis is unquestioned. And that has some liberals crying foul. But all this means is that Democrats are learning something that was brought home to Republicans after Hurricane Katrina: life is unfair.

The embrace of the Ebola story by the mainstream media and especially the cable news networks is infuriating many on the left. As Eric Boehlert whined on Media Matters’ website on Friday, by going whole hog on Ebola and thus heightening the fear many Americans understandably fear about it, “the press is doing the GOP’s Ebola bidding.” Boehlert speaks for many liberals when he complained that by stoking fear rather than concentrating on educating us about a disease that, at worst, only few Americans will probably contract, the media is strengthening the critique of the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis. Along with the worries about the rise of ISIS terrorists in the Middle East, the federal government’s initial fumbling and sometimes mistaken response to the virus has reinforced the notion that President Obama isn’t capable of protecting the American people.

If this strikes Democrats as unfair, they are not entirely wrong. While the emergence of ISIS can be blamed in no small measure on a president who pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq and refused to intervene in Syria without worrying about the consequences, no reasonable person should think that his decisions could be linked to the spread of a disease in West Africa. Nor can the errors of the Center for Disease Control or those made by the Dallas hospital that treated the first Ebola victim in the U.S. be seriously argued as having flowed from President Obama’s desk.

But these failures do fit in with a narrative that has been building throughout the president’s second term in which government has been associated more with scandals (the VA, the IRS, spying on the press, Benghazi) and incompetence (the ObamaCare rollout) than anything else. So it is hardly surprising that many view the administration’s halting response to Ebola as merely confirming an existing diagnosis that Obama hasn’t the capacity or the will to govern effectively or, more importantly, carrying out government’s first obligation: protect the people.

Much like the way the government’s failures during Hurricane Katrina fed an existing Democratic narrative about Bush’s incompetence and the mess in Iraq, so, too, does the news about Ebola bolster Republican carping about Obama. Bush was no more responsible for bad weather in the Gulf of Mexico, the collapse of the levees, and the dereliction of duty on the part of local first responders in New Orleans than Obama is for the fool who told a nurse infected with Ebola to get on a plane to Cleveland.

Yet just as presidents are allowed to take credit for actions undertaken by the government to which their contribution has been minimal, so, too, must they take the blame for failures in which their role was equally small. All of which reminds us that sometimes life isn’t fair. People are often wrongly put down as failures because of circumstances they didn’t create. But when you are president of the United States, you have to take the good with the bad.

But if that was true for Bush, who was not only wrongly blamed for the devastation in New Orleans but also maliciously branded as a racist for the initial failures of first responders, it is even more so for Obama. It was he, after all, who ran for president not so much as a problem fixer but as a would-be messiah of hope and change who would turn back the oceans as well as sweep Washington clean. It was Obama who championed the idea that we must give more power to government so it could both help and protect us. So when government is seen to fail to the point where the president is now forced to appoint a veteran political spin master to be the new “czar” to manage its response to Ebola, he and his fans are in no position to complain about the public’s unrealistic expectations or its willingness to blame the administration for a climate of fear that arose from its failure to take steps that might restore confidence.

But there is more going on here than poetic justice. In and of itself Ebola isn’t a good reason to vote for the Republicans in 2014 any more than a hurricane was to vote for Democrats in 2006. But politics is about perceptions, not fairness. Americans deserve a government they can trust. If President Obama has lost it, he can curse the fates or blame the press but the person he should be holding responsible for this breakdown of trust is the one staring back at him in the mirror.

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De Blasio to Central Park: Your Money or Your Life

Imagine if New York City’s mayor ordered the Metropolitan Museum to turn over 20 percent of its income to other museums that he would designate. That’s exactly what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had in mind with park conservancies. “During his campaign,” the New York Times reported, “Mr. de Blasio endorsed a plan to force the private groups that raise money for the city’s richest parks to hand over as much as a fifth of their budgets to needier parks.” He’s backed off from that, perhaps because it is blatantly unconstitutional, but, as the New York Post editorializes, “The public sector is putting our money where our mouth is,” de Blasio said. “We will…also turn to the major parks conservancies…[and] expect to get some real important contributions from the conservancies, as part of these processes.” Or, as the muggers who used to abound in Central Park would say, “Your money or your life.”

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Imagine if New York City’s mayor ordered the Metropolitan Museum to turn over 20 percent of its income to other museums that he would designate. That’s exactly what New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had in mind with park conservancies. “During his campaign,” the New York Times reported, “Mr. de Blasio endorsed a plan to force the private groups that raise money for the city’s richest parks to hand over as much as a fifth of their budgets to needier parks.” He’s backed off from that, perhaps because it is blatantly unconstitutional, but, as the New York Post editorializes, “The public sector is putting our money where our mouth is,” de Blasio said. “We will…also turn to the major parks conservancies…[and] expect to get some real important contributions from the conservancies, as part of these processes.” Or, as the muggers who used to abound in Central Park would say, “Your money or your life.”

Back in the bad old days of the 1970s, New York City’s Parks Department more or less collapsed. The system’s crown jewel, Central Park, was a graffiti- and crime-ridden mess. Half the benches couldn’t be sat on because they were in such disrepair. Vast stretches of the Sheep Meadow, the East Meadow, and the Great Lawn were barren dirt. Litter was everywhere. No water flowed in Bethesda Fountain and its great Angel of the Waters statue stared down at mud and worse.

But in 1980, the Central Park Conservancy was formed to take over maintenance of the park with contributions from surrounding buildings and their residents, foundations, and others. About $700 million and 34 years later, Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvin Vaux can rest easy. Their masterpiece, Central Park, one of the supreme artistic achievements of the 19th century in this country, is once again as it should be. The park is clean and safe, the lawns green. In spring vast drifts of daffodils can be seen “fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” The 9,000 benches have been restored, thanks to the Conservancy’s adopt-a-bench program. The many bridges (no two are alike) and other structures have been restored. Forty million visitors a year testify to the park’s magnificence.

The Conservancy supplies 75 percent of Central Park’s budget, freeing city funds for other parks. Its experts train Parks Department employees in best practices. It has restored, at its own expense, four small parks in Harlem. But, as the Post writes,  “Apparently it’s not enough for Bill de Blasio for people to be generous and make up for the city’s incompetence. He also wants the right to take your donations and spend them on what he wants.”

No wonder he and his wife honeymooned in Castro’s Cuba. Kleptocracy is Bill de Blasio’s preferred form of government.

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The Issue is Kerry’s Incompetence, Not Israeli Manners

On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.

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On Friday, the U.S. State Department rejected criticisms from Israeli Economic Minister Naftali Bennett that Secretary of State John Kerry had sought to blame the rise of ISIS on Israel. Spokesperson Marie Harf said Kerry’s remarks a day earlier were “taken out of context” for “political reasons” by Bennett and other Israelis who cried foul. That in turn set off criticisms of Bennett by his Cabinet colleague and rival, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said the Jewish Home Party leader should keep his mouth shut about the United States. But while most observers seemed to focus on the Israeli political dimension of the controversy or the chances that the spat would worsen the already shaky relations between Israel and the U.S., what escaped notice was the fact that in claiming that the failure to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians was helping ISIS, Kerry was actually contradicting President Obama.

On September 24, in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Obama said the following:

Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace. The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long; it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home. And the violence engulfing the region today has made too many Israelis ready to abandon the hard work of peace.

Leaving aside Obama’s willingness to blame Israel for not working for peace when, in fact, all they are reacting to is the consistent refusal of their supposed Palestinian peace partners to accept repeated offers of independence and peace, this statement represented genuine progress in the president’s thinking. Obama had in the past repeatedly embraced the notion that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict would solve all the problems in the region but the rise of ISIS had sobered him up a bit. The willingness of many Arab regimes to make common cause with Israel against both ISIS and radical Islamists such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood illustrated the obvious fact that conflict within the Arab world is a function of the division among Muslims, not discontent about Israel’s existence or the failure of peace negotiations.

This was a remarkable departure for a president who had spoken of Western and Israeli guilt for Muslim grievances in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, seemingly having finally woken up to the fact that no amount of apologizing or engagement will make radical Islam go away. But for some reason Kerry is still sticking to the old playbook in which Israelis can be scapegoated for the existence of bloody conflicts in which Jews play no part.

Kerry was, no doubt, playing to his audience of Muslims when he told a State Department ceremony honoring the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha that resentment about the Arab-Israeli conflict was fueling recruitment for ISIS. Since Kerry has consistently and wrongly blamed Israel for the collapse of his peace initiative, it didn’t take much imagination to see that what he was doing was blaming the Jewish state for the fact that ISIS terrorists have overrun much of Syria and Iraq while beheading Westerners. But while the Arab leaders he cited may pay lip service to anti-Israel sentiment by referencing the alleged “humiliation and denial and lack of human dignity” suffered by the Palestinians, ISIS’s popularity is based on promoting hatred of all Westerners and non-Muslims, not just Israelis. Which is to say that Bennett wasn’t off target or taking things out of context when he said, “When a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew.”

Yet while Obama called on Muslims to unite against ISIS and to recognize their responsibility to combat radical Islamists, Kerry is still using the same tired clichés about Israel and the Palestinians that even many Arabs are shelving and then looking to pick a fight with Israelis over their umbrage about his lack of perspective.

Israel’s government is probably better off not making much of an issue about Kerry’s latest vile assertion, but there should be no illusions about the attitudes his comments illustrated. If even after the outbreak of a war in Syria in which Muslims have slaughtered Muslims without a mention of Israelis Kerry is capable of sticking to the notion that the grievances of Palestinians who have repeatedly refused to make peace is the reason for ISIS, then his intellectual bankruptcy could not be more obvious.

The point here isn’t that Kerry is foolishly picking quarrels with Israel but that he has demonstrated his unfitness for office at a time when the United States is once again engaging in a conflict with a dangerous Islamist foe. President Obama has allowed Kerry to embark on a futile effort to revive the dead-in-the-water peace process thinking that there would be few consequences for another failure. But Kerry’s incapacity to focus on the ISIS threat presents a bigger problem for the president. If he is truly serious about building a coalition against ISIS, the president needs to stop letting his administration pick pointless fights with Israel. Kerry needs to be fired.

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“It’s Called the Department of Justice. It’s Not Called the Department of Revenue.”

In 2007, a huge forest fire burned 65,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada in California and neighboring states. The Justice Department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) went after Sierra Pacific, the largest landowner in California, claiming its logging operations had caused the fire when a bulldozer hit a rock and struck a spark. Knuckling under to the enormous leverage government has in even civil litigation, Sierra Pacific, which claimed it was innocent, settled for $55 million and 22,500 acres of forest land, which was to be deeded over to the federal government.

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In 2007, a huge forest fire burned 65,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada in California and neighboring states. The Justice Department and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) went after Sierra Pacific, the largest landowner in California, claiming its logging operations had caused the fire when a bulldozer hit a rock and struck a spark. Knuckling under to the enormous leverage government has in even civil litigation, Sierra Pacific, which claimed it was innocent, settled for $55 million and 22,500 acres of forest land, which was to be deeded over to the federal government.

But in an almost unprecedented action this month, the chief judge of the eastern district of California, Morrison C. England, Jr., has ordered all federal judges in the district to recuse themselves from the case and has asked the chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal to appoint an outside judge, stating the possibility of a fraud upon the court by the Justice Department. A fraud upon the court happens when one party deliberately misleads the court in order to win a case. The chief judge, Alex Kozinski, is likely to oblige, as he has been seriously alarmed by what he calls an “epidemic” of prosecutorial misconduct in recent years.

Sierra Pacific claims that,

The United States presented false evidence to the Defendants and the Court; advanced arguments to the Court premised on that false evidence; or, for which material evidence had been withheld, and obtaining court rulings based thereon; prepared key Moonlight Fire [as this fire was called] investigators for depositions, and allowed them to repeatedly give false testimony about the most important aspects of their investigation; and failed to disclose the facts and circumstances associated with the Moonlight Fire lead investigator’s direct financial interest in the outcome of the investigation arising from an illegal bank account that has since been exposed and terminated.

Their evidence is the sworn testimony of two assistant U.S. attorneys, one of whom was fired from the case for raising ethical considerations and another who quit in disgust as it became plain to him that the Justice Department’s actions in this case were not to find justice but to extract a lucrative settlement, saying,“It’s called the Department of Justice. It’s not called the Department of Revenue.”

The state case against Sierra Pacific has also fallen apart. The state judge not only decided against the state’s case for lack of sufficient evidence, but also ordered it to pay $30 million in attorney’s fees. He wrote in his decision that, “the misconduct is so pervasive that it would serve no purpose for the Court to attempt to recite it all here.” But he recites enough: “CalFire failed to comply with discovery orders and directives, destroyed critical evidence, failed to produce documents it should have produced months earlier, and engaged in a systematic campaign of misdirection with the purpose of recovering money from the defendants.”

The Justice Department under Eric Holder is not only using its power for illicit reasons, it is divvying up the money with its favored pals. The stench of corruption at Justice is becoming overpowering. If this had come out prior to January 20th, 2009, it would be a front-page-above-the-fold story.

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The Root of Middle East’s Economic Woes

I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

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I admit, I’m a bit late getting to this in my read pile, but Dalibor Rohac’s CATO Institute essay, “The Dead Hand of Socialism: State Ownership in the Arab World,” is a must-read for anyone who truly cares about stability in the Middle East or who goes beyond the usual “autocracy vs. theocracy” arguments in the Middle East to look at why both extremes tend to do so poorly in practice.

Indeed, whereas a couple decades ago, the Middle East was on par with most Asian economies and well above sub-Saharan Africa, now Arab economies trail well beyond their East Asian counterparts, and may soon find themselves in the basement as stable economic development takes root in sub-Saharan Africa, fears of Ebola in West Africa notwithstanding.

Rohac argues clearly and with much evidence that “extensive government ownership in the economy is a source of inefficiency and a barrier to economic development.” Indeed, it’s not uncommon in some Arab countries for the government to control half the GDP.

Not all Arab countries are the same, of course. As Rohac demonstrates, some countries (Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt) have undertaken large-scale and serious privatization over the last two decades while Lebanon has never had large government ownership of the economy. Government enterprise continues to dominate Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Egypt, despite the latter’s Mubarak-era reforms. The issue isn’t simply the gas and oil industries, but also utilities, banks, and, in some cases, broader manufacturing.

Rohac goes further, however, and discusses various case studies and methods of privatization, recognizing that one size does not fit all and the devil is often in the details. Certainly, after all, part of the problem with Egypt’s privatization was that while it spurred growth, it also retrenched its kleptocracy as political and military connections trumped competence and further convinced the broader Egyptian public that government was accountable and responsible to only the few.

That said, I’d go even further than Rohac in one aspect which is crucial to opportunity and building a stable middle class beyond simply the issue of state-owned enterprises: In too many Arab countries, whether monarchies or republics and regardless of whether oil-rich or oil-poor, there are franchise and sector monopolies that discourage competition. For example, Mercedes or McDonalds or any other big-name Western company may grant contracts to partners and work exclusively with one business. While in the United States, there are dozens of franchisees for big chain restaurants and hundreds for automobile dealerships, this is a rarity in the Middle East. One person will gain the contract for “McBurger King Hut,” for example, and will never have to face competition in the country for which the license was granted. This, in turn, means that international companies most often will deal exclusively with a country’s top and most politically-connected businessmen. In Kurdistan, for example, forget working with anyone who’s not connected to the Barzani family or former President Jalal Talabani’s wife Hero Khan. And, in Bahrain, any businessman worth even a thousandth of his income will partner with an al-Khalifa. (I’ve already written about the problem of the Middle East’s first sons, here.)

For the soft drink companies, fast food joints, car manufacturers, or any large company, it’s often easier to deal with a single businessman. But so long as various country’s legislatures in the Arab world allow such concessionaire monopolies, they will be undermining the growth of their middle class and constraining opportunity which ultimately would contribute to greater stability.

Democracy needn’t be a lost cause in the Middle East. But, demanding radical political change without catalyzing growth and opening economic opportunity to grow the middle class is to repeat the mistakes of the last three years. It’s time to get serious about Arab economic reform.

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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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