Commentary Magazine


Karbala, the New Iraq

Iraqi Kurdistan is booming. It adopted a motto “the new Iraq” to differentiate itself from the rest of country, which many people—not without reason—associate with instability and violence. This past week I spent in Karbala and, if it’s any indication, Karbala is now giving Kurdistan a run for its money.

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Iraqi Kurdistan is booming. It adopted a motto “the new Iraq” to differentiate itself from the rest of country, which many people—not without reason—associate with instability and violence. This past week I spent in Karbala and, if it’s any indication, Karbala is now giving Kurdistan a run for its money.

I visit Iraq three or four times per year, going to different areas each time. Earlier this year, for example, I have visited Kirkuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani in Iraqi Kurdistan; Tikrit, Beiji, and Mosul in Iraq’s Sunni Arab belt; and, of course, Baghdad. This was my first time flying into Najaf, and the longest I’ve spent in nearby Karbala and Hindiya in a decade.

Karbala is booming. Certainly, there are signs of the ongoing fighting in Iraq: Billboards dot roads and traffic circles urging Iraqis to fight ISIS together. Displaced persons from areas of fighting also abound. Here, however, the Western news media has failed by omission: there are numerous press reports about Iraqi Kurdistan’s admirable work to house and feed those displaced by ISIS, efforts for which the Kurdistan Regional Government seeks money. But Karbala is now home to more than 11,000 displaced families—between 40,000 and 50,000 people. For all Americans picture Iraq as polarized among ethnic and sectarian factions, it is telling that so many Sunnis from Fallujah and Ramadi find safety in Karbala and Najaf. The many Hosseiniyehs [Shi’ite congregation halls] and mosques along the road between Najaf and Karbala now house refugees, with the religious authorities of both cities each taking responsibility for the food and shelter for half. The story of southern Iraq’s outreach toward those displaced by ISIS is seldom heard in the West simply because Western journalists seldom visit; that is unfortunate, and undercuts broader understandings with the sin of omission.

At any rate, I stayed across from Karbala University in Imam Hussein City, a multipurpose complex with apartments, a communal dining hall, mosque, medical clinic, and event hall, which is now both a transit point for hundreds of Sunni refugees and a dormitory and training complex for Shi‘ite volunteers undertaking a month-long regimen before heading off to fight ISIS. Every morning, I would see school kids—both boys and girls—from Ramadi, Fallujah, and even Tel Afar head off to school.

Meanwhile, Karbala is largely safe, about as secure as Iraqi Kurdistan. Back in 2007, it was the site of the kidnapping and murder of five U.S. servicemen with the connivance of Iran and the militias it supports. But the situation had changed a good deal in eight years. Certainly there remains an air of uncertainty regarding future stability, but the same is true in Iraqi Kurdistan, which recently suffered a tragic car bombing. I made my first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan about 15 years ago, when few Americans visited there. As Americans laud the promise of Kurdistan today, they forget that back in 2000, it was unsafe to venture outside Duhok, Erbil, or Sulaymani at night because of fear of terrorist attacks in the villages or along the roads connecting the cities. Thankfully, no one in Washington wrote off Kurdistan the way so many seem prepared to write off southern Iraq.

Some may believe that Karbala is unsafe because of Iranian influence. Certainly Iran is the predominant influence. The Najaf airport is predominantly served by flights from Iran (though also from Qatar, Turkey, Dubai, Bahrain, and Syria) but this makes sense since Karbala is, alongside nearby Najaf, the major center for religious pilgrimage. There is nothing wrong with capitalizing on this industry; indeed, it is contributes well to Karbala’s development since it supports a burgeoning service industry and keeps Karbala not solely dependent on the central government or oil. So too does competition. I came away from Karbala believing that being governor of Karbala would be the toughest job in Iraq. The reason is because the Atabat–the governance of the holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala–is independent of government, organized, productive, and efficient in its sponsorship of economic development and civil projects.

Most provincial governments blame Baghdad for their own failings or simply take a slow path to development knowing that the are the only show in town. In Karbala, however, the government must constantly try to keep up; the Atabat can achieve things the the government cannot. Simply put, the government does not fare well in such comparisons. For what it’s worth, when I first started visiting Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish intellectuals and even some politicians acknowledged that the silver lining to the internecine struggle between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is that both struggled to outdo the other and so provided more for their people. Competition is good, but too often lacks inside Iraq.

Regardless, justifying American neglect in supposed Iranian influence not only cedes ground to Iran, but it misunderstands both Iraqi Shi‘ites and Iraqi Kurds. As my colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I outlined in our recent monograph about Shi‘ite communities outside Iran, the Iraqi Shi‘ite community remains quite distinct from Iran, and seeks to be engaged on its own merits rather than as a subject of Iran. And, as for Iraqi Kurdistan, the atmosphere may be less religious than in Iraq’s Shi‘ite south, but the Iranian presence and political influence remains just as strong in Sulaymani and Erbil as in Baghdad and Karbala.

Iraq has serious problems, economic, political, and military. But as tragic as recent events have been, there are also significant pockets of success—not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, where much of the American press and NGOs operating in Iraq now sit—but also in southern Iraq: Basra, Najaf, and Karbala. After so much sacrifice, let us hope that the United States will not snatch defeat from the jaws of opportunity.

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Why Won’t Iran Take a Favorable Deal?

The mullahs are saving us from ourselves. Or more specifically Ayatollah Khamenei is saving us from President Obama’s desperation to achieve a nuclear deal.

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The mullahs are saving us from ourselves. Or more specifically Ayatollah Khamenei is saving us from President Obama’s desperation to achieve a nuclear deal.

Obama’s desperation is evident to all–he needs some foreign-policy achievement–to balance against the whole litany of failures (Iraq, Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, Yemen, Libya, Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, etc.) that are dragging his foreign policy into Carteresque realms–or possibly even beyond that into hitherto unknown realms of foreign-policy failure. That is why he has been willing to grant Iran a nuclear deal on such generous terms and why, even though Iran won’t take those generous terms, he is willing to keep extending the deadline for talks time after time.

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times helpfully explicated: “The United States long ago dropped the goal of eliminating Iran’s enrichment ability, a demand that Israel has long insisted was the surest way to guarantee Iran did not maintain an option to pursue the development of nuclear arms.” The more modest goal American negotiations sought to achieve was an agreement that would “slow the Iranian nuclear program enough that it would take Iran at least a year to make enough material for a nuclear bomb if it decided to ignore the accord.”

It would surely be in Iran’s interests to sign such a deal in which the mullahs would pledge to stop operating some of their 19,000 centrifuges (10,000 of them are currently operational) and in return they would receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief that would save the Iranian economy from ruin–and save Iran’s theocratic dictators from being overthrown by their increasingly disgruntled people. And then, having signed the accord, Iran could proceed quietly and secretly to cheat, perhaps by building a plutonium-based bomb enabled by their new heavy water facility at Arak.

That is pretty much what North Korea did after signing the 1994 Agreed Framework. The Bush administration, which wasn’t as wedded to the Agreed Framework as Bill Clinton, confronted North Korea with evidence of its cheating in 2002. North Korea then pulled out all the stops and tested a nuclear weapon in 2006. By then it was too late for the U.S. to do anything about it.

Iran has had a full year to conclude such a favorable deal and yet it refuses to close the deal. Why not? And what will change in the next seven months?

My theory–and I admit it’s only a theory–is that Ayatollah Khamenei simply can’t swallow doing any deal with the Great Satan, no matter how favorable, because to do so would undercut the revolutionary legitimacy of his regime. Ever since the Iran Hostage Crisis of 1979, Iran’s theocratic regime has defined itself in opposition to the United States. Thanks in no small measure to Obama’s lack of response, Tehran is closer than ever to realizing its ambitions to dominate the entire region stretching to the Mediterranean–including Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Oh, and Iran is also advancing in Yemen. Perhaps Khamenei simply can’t stomach the thought of reaching any kind of accommodation with the United States because it would hobble Iran’s offensive abroad and undermine his own claim to rule at home.

In short, Khamenei may be even more dedicated to his destructive ideology than Obama is to his. And that may be the only thing saving us from a catastrophically bad Iran deal–although not from having the negotiations dragged out endlessly.

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Why Chuck Hagel Became Expendable

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

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Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s time at the Pentagon is, counterintuitively, a poor guide to why he’s been thrown under the bus by a flailing, blinkered president growing even more suspicious of outsiders as his second term disintegrates. To understand why Hagel is being shoved out the door, you have to go back to why he was hired in the first place. Additionally, the question of why exactly he’s being let go now can only be fully answered once his successor is chosen.

Hagel was brought on because the media was still falling for the “team of rivals” narrative on the Obama administration. To recap: Obama brought into his administration Cabinet officials who had a high enough profile that they could have made trouble for his agenda outside the administration. He wanted to coopt their credibility and silence their dissent. Hillary Clinton, a senator who could have impacted Obama’s ability to get legislation through Congress, and Samantha Power, a loose cannon who likes to publicly accuse others of being terrible people, were prime examples of this.

Obama wanted Republicans too, so he kept Bob Gates on at Defense and eventually brought in Hagel there as well. The media bizarrely saw in this transparent ploy what they wanted to see: Obama the postpartisan hero, the modern Lincoln. It was not the press’s finest moment.

Hagel was a particularly interesting gamble for Obama. On the one hand, he is a decorated war veteran and Republican who had the credibility to carry out Obama’s sullen retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other, his ineptitude and intellectual limitations matched those of the White House he was joining, so it was clear from day one that nothing about the administration’s crumbling foreign policy would improve.

Obama wanted a yes-man in Hagel, and thought he was getting one. He and his increasingly insular inner circle, which at some point soon will be just the president and Valerie Jarrett, make policy, as Max noted earlier. He didn’t want different opinions, and he didn’t want a range of options. He wanted a droid. And unfortunately for him, as the New York Times points out, this was not the droid he was looking for:

He raised the ire of the White House in August as the administration was ramping up its strategy to fight the Islamic State, directly contradicting the president, who months before had likened the Sunni militant group to a junior varsity basketball squad. Mr. Hagel, facing reporters in his now-familiar role next to General Dempsey, called the Islamic State an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful, although the administration still appears to be struggling to define just how large is the threat posed by the Islamic State.

That last sentence is key. Not only was Hagel–yes, Chuck Hagel–too hawkish for Obama on ISIS, but it was the administration still “struggling to define” the threat. You can say Hagel was a slow learner all you want; he was a faster learner than the president he served.

And some of the picture will be filled in when Hagel’s successor is determined. Here’s the Times on the rumors of Hagel’s replacement:

Even before the announcement of Mr. Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michèle Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense; Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton B. Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

Reed is reportedly out. But Flournoy’s inclusion on this list is notable. When the president was last seeking a defense secretary, Flournoy’s name was floated repeatedly. She would be a “historic” choice, satisfying the administration’s obsession with identity politics. And she was highly respected all around. Plus, she was already working in the administration. So why wasn’t she chosen?

That question seemed to have been answered with the publication of the memoirs of Leon Panetta, Hagel’s predecessor at Defense. Panetta’s memoirs made a splash when part of the book was adapted for an early October TIME magazine piece criticizing Obama’s handling of the transition in Iraq. Some, including Panetta, told the president he should leave a residual force behind. Panetta writes:

Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy did her best to press that position, which reflected not just my views but also those of the military commanders in the region and the Joint Chiefs. But the President’s team at the White House pushed back, and the differences occasionally became heated. Flournoy argued our case, and those on our side viewed the White House as so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.

If Flournoy was willing to be named publicly as someone who not only disagreed with Obama’s handling of Iraq but also essentially accused the president of acting against American interests, it’s easier to understand why she was not given the nod at Defense. If she’s named secretary of defense now, it casts some doubt on the Times’s speculation that Hagel’s disagreement with Obama on ISIS played as much a role in his ouster as is being reported.

The “team of rivals” narrative was debunked long ago. Hagel was there so his credibility on a particular policy could be coopted. After that, he was always expendable. The question now is whose credibility does the president need to coopt next?

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Congress Must Rescue Administration Held Hostage by Iran

This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

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This morning’s announcement that the West has formally agreed to extend its nuclear talks with Iran for another seven months confirms something that we already knew about Obama administration attitudes on the issue: it is far more afraid of disrupting any chance for détente with the Islamist regime than in sticking to its principles or its promises about halting the threat posed by Tehran’s program. But while sending the talks into a second overtime period allows Iran to keep moving ahead with its nuclear program and lets Secretary of State John Kerry and his negotiators to relax a bit, this decision should wake up Congress. The failure of the administration to escape the trap that it has set for itself by letting the next stage of the talks drag on endlessly should re-energize the existing bipartisan coalition in favor of toughening sanctions on Iran to get back to work and pass a new bill.

It should be remembered that a year ago in the aftermath of the signing of a weak interim deal with Iran, the administration successfully fended off efforts to increase sanctions on the Islamist regime by claiming that doing so would disrupt the negotiations. President Obama and Kerry both promised that the next round of talks would have a limited time frame that would prevent Iran from continuing the same game that it has played with the West for the last decade.

Tehran has been trying to run out the clock on the nuclear issue since George W. Bush’s first term in the White House. It has easily exploited two administrations’ efforts at engagement and diplomacy during this time frame and has gotten far closer to its goal of a bomb as a result. Even more importantly, with each round of negotiations it has forced Obama and America’s allies to retreat on its demands. Last year its tough stance forced Kerry to give up and ultimately agree to tacit Western acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium.

In the last year, it has also successfully gotten the U.S. to retreat on issues such as the number of centrifuges it is allowed to operate and the future of its stockpile of nuclear fuel, and kept other issues such as the need to divulge the extent of its nuclear military research, the future of its plutonium plant at Arak, its ballistic missile program, and support for international terrorism off the agenda. Proposed Western concessions have grown to the point of the absurd, such as the suggestion about disconnecting the pipes between the centrifuges. At the same time Iran has also stonewalled the International Atomic Energy Agency on demands for more inspections and transparency.

After last year’s interim deal was signed, the administration easily fended off congressional efforts to toughen sanctions by saying they weren’t needed to strengthen the hands of Western negotiators and openly talked of the danger of demonstrating ill will toward Tehran that would scuttle the talks. The president and his foreign-policy team also labeled skeptics about this deal and advocates of more sanctions as warmongers.

But a year later it’s clear that the skeptics were right and everything the administration promised about the next round of talks was either mistaken or an outright lie. Though Kerry claimed that the interim deal had achieved its goal of halting Iran’s progress, the truth is that nothing it accomplished can be easily reversed. In exchange for dubious progress, the U.S. sacrificed its considerable economic leverage in the form of loosening sanctions. Iran now believes with good reason that it can end the sanctions without giving up its nuclear ambition.

By turning the promised six months of talks to pressure Iran into a year plus seven months, the president and Kerry have broken their word to Congress and played right into the hands of the ayatollahs. It’s possible that seven more months of ineffectual pressure on Iran will yield another weak deal that will ensure it will soon become a threshold nuclear power while at the same time allowing Obama to announce a much-needed foreign-policy success and the fulfillment of his campaign pledges on the issue. But given the promises that were made about the previous two deadlines, what confidence can anyone have in America’s willingness to draw conclusions about the talks if Iran doesn’t yield?

Even if we are operating under the dubious assumption that any deal reached under these circumstances could be enforced or achieve its goal, the failure of the president to enforce the current deadline telegraphs to Iran that it needn’t worry about any other threats from the West. If the U.S. wouldn’t feel empowered to push Iran hard now with oil prices in decline and the current sanctions (which Obama opposed in the first place) having some impact on the regime’s economy, why would anyone in Tehran take seriously the idea that there will be consequences if they don’t make concessions or sign even another weak deal? Though Kerry talked about building trust with Iran, the only thing that can be trusted about this process is that the Islamists have played him and his boss for fools.

That is why Congress must step in now and immediately revive the bipartisan bill proposed by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Senator Mark Kirk that would tighten the noose around Iran’s still-lucrative oil trade. Just as the current sanctions that Obama and Kerry brag about were forced upon them, the only way this administration will negotiate a viable deal with Iran is to tie its hands by passing a new sanctions bill.

It should also be pointed out that the alternative to Kerry’s appeasement of Iran is not the use of force. Tougher sanctions that will return the situation to the point where it was last year before Kerry caved on the interim deal provide the only chance to stop Iran by means short of war.

It may be that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will block a sanctions bill in the lame duck session just as he did last year despite the support of an overwhelming majority of members from both parties. But if he does thwart action, the new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican majorities in both houses should act quickly to pass a bill that will impose real penalties on Iran.

The commitment of Obama and Kerry to détente with Iran has made them, in effect, hostages of the Islamist regime in these talks. The only way they can be rescued from their own folly is action by Congress.

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Deadlines, Red Lines, Whatever

As I’ve said before, Barack Obama’s not a closer. He’s a prolonger. So, instead of a deal on Iranian nukes, the administration is pushing to extend the deadline for negotiations with Tehran by seven months. What never ends, never ends badly.

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As I’ve said before, Barack Obama’s not a closer. He’s a prolonger. So, instead of a deal on Iranian nukes, the administration is pushing to extend the deadline for negotiations with Tehran by seven months. What never ends, never ends badly.

Why no deal? In the Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon and Laurence Norman report: “The major stumbling blocks to an agreement remain the future capacity of Iran to produce nuclear fuel and the pace at which Western sanctions will be removed, according to U.S., European and Iranian officials.”

Not really. If you buy into this whole thing as a genuine potential breakthrough in American-Iran relations, then, sure, those are the problems. But if you’re skeptical of a country that prays for your death while negotiations are underway, the snag is the Iranian regime itself, a regime that exists to get a nuclear bomb and challenge the West.

To the extent that Obama’s Iran outreach has got us talking seriously about the technicalities of “future capacity” and the pace of sanctions removal, this non-deal has already achieved something dangerous and depressing: it’s redefined a suicidal exterminationist theocracy as a stubborn but persuadable power. But there’s no evidence of persuasion. According to reports, the U.S. was willing to let Iran slide on (a) revealing its past illicit weapons work, (b) thoroughly dismantling enrichment facilities, and (c) permanently abiding by the conditions proposed. It was a deal like Bill Cosby’s Ph.D. is a Ph.D. And still, the mullahs said no.

The sad part, then, is that we’re lucky there was no deal. Better farce than tragedy. We’d be luckier still if we had an administration that took our enemies at their word. For now, however, we hang our hopes on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Not that he’ll come around, but that his fanaticism will continue to blind him to our weakness.

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Is a National-Security Shakeup Coming?

So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

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So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

It is easy to see why Hagel has been jettisoned: the administration needs a scapegoat for the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy since the Carter administration. With ISIS and Putin on the march, while U.S. military capabilities deteriorate due to budget cuts, it has been pretty obvious for some time that the national-security team needed a dramatic overhaul. But firing Hagel is not going to fix the problems–not by a longshot. In fact the very reason he was so expendable was because he had so little influence: Unlike Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, or Valerie Jarrett, he was not a White House insider.

Instead Hagel (like General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was the good soldier, plodding ahead to carry out the president’s orders without question–no matter how little sense those orders made. As the New York Times noted: Hagel “spent his time on the job largely carrying out Mr. Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back American troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback.”

Indeed one of the few times that Hagel dared in public (or probably in private) to talk back to the president, he earned the ire of Obama and his loyalists for telling the truth. While Obama earlier this year was denigrating ISIS as the “JV team,” Hagel was calling them an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and saying “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” As the Times drily notes, “White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful”–Washington code words for the fact that Obama’s top aides were infuriated by Hagel’s truth-telling.

The immediate question is whether Obama will be able to stomach a stronger personality in the secretary of defense job–someone like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta. If so, Michele Flournoy or Ash Carter, both of whom served at the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration, could fill the job description. But if Obama were truly intent on a radical break with some of his failed policies he would opt for a true outsider like Joe Lieberman or David Petraeus or John Lehman.

Regardless of who fills the job at the Pentagon–or for that matter at State–the reality remains that in this administration all critical decisions are made in the White House by the president with a handful of loyalists who have little independent standing, knowledge, or credibility in national-security affairs. This has been a problem ever since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the point at which Obama stopped listening to independent advice and started acting on his own ideological worldview predicated on downsizing the American armed forces and retreating from the world.

If this were a parliamentary system, Obama would long ago have lost a vote of “no confidence” and been forced to step down. But because it’s a presidential system he will remain in power two more years. The firing of Hagel will be a positive step forward only if it signals a complete rethink of the president’s foreign policy a la Carter’s conversion to become a born-again hawk after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

The test of that will be to see how Obama deals with Iran now that nuclear talks have reached an impasse after a year. Will Obama allow the mullahs to drag out negotiations indefinitely while continuing to enjoy sanctions relief? Or will he clamp down with extra-tough sanctions and implement a plan to roll back Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen? My bet is that not much has changed in the president’s thinking beyond his desire to see a new, more credible face at the Pentagon, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

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Iran Wins if Obama Extends Nuclear Talks

President Obama showed a bit of spine today when he said on ABC’s This Week that he would not roll back all the sanctions on Iran immediately if it signed a nuclear agreement with the West. But outside of that one sensible statement, the president’s comments should only strengthen Iran’s belief that they are winning any negotiation and getting closer to becoming a threshold nuclear power. Obama was otherwise all carrots and no sticks about the threat in keeping with the other news coming out of the talks. While Iran was not budging on any important issue, Western negotiators have indicated that they will not insist on Tehran divulging information about its military nuclear research program and were also saying they might extend the talks beyond Monday’s deadline. If true, either option would mark a signal victory for Iran and a blow to any hopes of stopping them from eventually going nuclear.

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President Obama showed a bit of spine today when he said on ABC’s This Week that he would not roll back all the sanctions on Iran immediately if it signed a nuclear agreement with the West. But outside of that one sensible statement, the president’s comments should only strengthen Iran’s belief that they are winning any negotiation and getting closer to becoming a threshold nuclear power. Obama was otherwise all carrots and no sticks about the threat in keeping with the other news coming out of the talks. While Iran was not budging on any important issue, Western negotiators have indicated that they will not insist on Tehran divulging information about its military nuclear research program and were also saying they might extend the talks beyond Monday’s deadline. If true, either option would mark a signal victory for Iran and a blow to any hopes of stopping them from eventually going nuclear.

The significance of the concession about full disclosure of Iran’s past research isn’t merely a matter of historical interest. Without a complete accounting of everything the Iranians have or are currently working on with respect to military applications for its nuclear program, there is simply no way of knowing how close they are to a bomb or whether there is any chance of preventing a “break out” or a “sneak out” to a bomb.

A breakout would involve the Iranians reconverting their stockpile of enriched uranium to a form that could be employed for a bomb. The U.S. strategy in the talks, which abandoned President Obama’s previous promises to dismantle Iran’s program and United Nations resolutions that demanded it halt enrichment, is to plea for terms that would lengthen a breakout period to one that would give the West time to react to stop a bomb from being produced. But without full knowledge of what Iran has been doing, all estimates about breakout time are completely unreliable, leaving open the very real possibility that a deal will not only fail to halt the Iranian project but set it up for success without a viable Western response.

Iran’s successful effort to wring this concession about non-disclosure dovetails with its continued and equally successful stonewalling of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts to gain access to their entire nuclear infrastructure including those places where it is suspected of conducting military research. As the New York Times makes clear in a front-page article in today’s edition, the danger of a covert nuclear program is just as great, if not greater, than that emanating from its known facilities where the West has already failed to keep their efforts in check.

Just as dangerous is the chance that rather than take Iran’s refusal to say yes to what appears to be another weak Western offer, such as the interim deal signed a year ago, President Obama appears open to another extension of the talks.

The justification for sending the negotiations into what would amount to a second overtime period after the expiration of a previous deadline over the summer would grant Iran even more time to push closer to its nuclear ambition with not even the flimsiest of Western checks on its ability to advance its goals. Moreover, last year’s deal has not been scrupulously observed by Iran and, contrary to the president’s assurances, has neither stopped their program nor provided anything more than a flimsy obstacle to a break out or a sneak out.

The problem is not just that the U.S. seems to lack the will to get Iran to take seriously the consequences of a refusal. It’s that the president is still far more eager to inaugurate a new period of détente with Tehran than to take the sort of minimal actions required for making the Iranians see reason. Again today, Obama reiterated his desire for starting a new relationship with the Islamist regime while refusing to state his willingness to increase sanctions to end its continuing flow of oil revenue that keep the regime afloat. That’s exactly the kind of rhetoric inclined to reconfirm the Iranian leadership’s evaluation of the president as a weak leader who lacks the stomach for the kind of confrontations that they relish. With Western diplomats openly speculating about another 6-12 months being allowed for more negotiations, that not only makes the Iranians less inclined to yield but also should increase their covert activity while keeping the IAEA out of crucial sites.

While Iran sticks to its positions that protect its nuclear option, President Obama continues to show the world that his zeal for a deal far exceeds his intention to stop the Islamists from achieving their nuclear goal. Barring a last-minute change of heart on the part of the president, it appears that no matter whether they sign the weak deal offered or continue to hold out for an even weaker one at some point in the future, Iran wins and the security of the West and allies like Israel and moderate Arab states lose.

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Erdoğan’s Historical Truthiness

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.

Erdoğan, for his part, doubled down on his claim, demanding that his theory now be taught as reality in Turkey’s schools.

While Western officials might shrug and chuckle at Erdoğan’s declaration, it’s important to realize it’s no outlier for the Turkish president. A Turkish interlocutor (evidently paraphrasing this column by Yılmaz Özdil) noted how historians in Turkey have long chafed at Erdoğan’s theories:

In Antalya, Erdoğan explained how “the word Olympics takes its name from a mountain near Antalya, Mt. Olympus.” The mountain is in northern Greece, and nowhere near Antalya.

It’s not just geography that confuses Mr. Erdoğan. When discussing the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE, a battle in which the Muslim Seljuqs defeated the larger Byzantine army and captured the Byzantine emperor, Erdoğan declared, “Seljuq soldiers fought with their swords against the iron balls of the Byzantine artillery, raining on their heads.” Artillery and gunpowder didn’t come to the region for another three centuries. Oops.

Then, again, this wasn’t the only time he was publicly confused about the Seljuqs. In one speech, he described Ankara as “the capital of the Seljuqs.” In reality, though, Konya was the Seljuq capital. Ankara, at the time, was little more than a small town or large village.

Fast forward about 500 years, to the reign of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Back in 2011, Erdoğan went on a rant about a popular Turkish serial depicting his life and times, complaining that it concentrated too much on his lavish life in the harem. Erdoğan explained that Suleiman had in reality spent 30 of his 46 years on the throne on horseback, running from battle to battle. During Suleiman’s reign, however, the Ottomans were at war for just ten years, and so were at peace for 36.

He has repeatedly become exacerbated by the constraints of facts. When some historians began using old documents and records, and historical artifacts to research old Istanbul churches, Erdoğan grew annoyed that anyone would record or discuss Istanbul’s pre-Islamic past. He chided, “They don’t know Istanbul’s history. They go around with magnifying glass in their hand like [the Byzantine Emperor] Romanus Diogenes.” He apparently confused Romanus IV with Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived more than a millennium before, and who went around with a lantern, not a magnifying glass. Philosophers, however, have not been his thing. After all, he once said, “If the Germans have Goethe and if the Spaniards have Socrates….”

Now, it’s perfectly true that other world leaders can occasionally get history wrong. George H.W. Bush once mistakenly commemorated the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day on September 7 rather than December 7. When mistakes happen, however, leaders acknowledge them. President Bush corrected himself; he didn’t order textbooks re-written to make his error the new norm.

Erdoğan may sound foolish, but the importance of his errors extends far beyond himself. Rather, they reflect the future of Turkey. Erdoğan is a product of an İmam Hatip education, the Turkish equivalent of a madrasa. Prior to Erdoğan’s rise, İmam Hatip graduates would primarily become mullahs or perhaps work in family businesses. Their lack of grounding in liberal arts and science disqualified them from most university programs and the government service which might follow. But Erdoğan has bolstered and promoted the İmam Hatips, so that their graduates now dominate Turkey’s bureaucracy. Erdoğan may be no historian, but he has become the rule rather than the exception for the Turkish government he leads. He has ensured that there are thousands if not tens of thousands of protégés marching in lockstep behind him, all of whom treat fact with disdain and embrace mindless revisionism. Welcome to the future of Turkey.

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Promise and Peril of Obama’s Triangulation

Bill Clinton was known as a master “triangulator” for his ability to come up with policies exactly equidistant between the extremes of left and right. Barack Obama has been pursuing a similar policy in foreign policy but with less success because national security is not a realm where half-measures tend to work. Yet that is what the president is constantly trying to do.

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Bill Clinton was known as a master “triangulator” for his ability to come up with policies exactly equidistant between the extremes of left and right. Barack Obama has been pursuing a similar policy in foreign policy but with less success because national security is not a realm where half-measures tend to work. Yet that is what the president is constantly trying to do.

He tripled the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan at the start of his administration, for example, but insisted on withdrawing surge troops within 18 months which undercut their effectiveness. He helped to topple Moammar Gaddafi but insisted on taking a backseat to the Europeans during the war and not doing anything to stabilize Libya afterward. More recently he has announced the dispatch of warplanes and 3,000 troops to Iraq to combat ISIS but the bombing campaign has been far more limited than previous U.S. air campaigns in Kosovo or Afghanistan and U.S. advisers have been prohibited from accompanying local troops into combat.

And now we see Obama triangulating in Afghanistan. Serious military analysts in and out of uniform thought we needed to leave at least 25,000-30,000 troops in Afghanistan past 2014, whereas Obama’s political advisers and his vice president argued for leaving at most a couple of thousand troops. Obama compromised by keeping slightly fewer than 10,000 troops after the end of the year but promising that he would withdraw them by the end of 2016.

There then ensued within the administration a debate over what authorities would be granted to those troops–could they target the Taliban or just al-Qaeda remnants? Could they provide close air support if needed to the Afghan security forces? According to a New York Times leak, Obama has settled the debate for now by granting the kind of expansive authorities requested by the military but opposed by his political advisers: “Mr. Obama’s order allows American forces to carry out missions against the Taliban and other militant groups threatening American troops or the Afghan government, a broader mission than the president described to the public earlier this year, according to several administration, military and congressional officials with knowledge of the decision. The new authorization also allows American jets, bombers and drones to support Afghan troops on combat missions.”

This is good news because the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other extremist elements are so intertwined that it makes no sense to target one without also targeting the others. But the actual combat operations carried out by U.S. forces will be highly limited–odds are that only a few Special Operations troops will come in direct contact with the enemy. Moreover, the number of U.S. troops left in Afghanistan is still going to be extremely small–the figure of under 10,000 troops was concocted by U.S. commanders to be palatable to the White House, not because they thought it was the optimal troop strength to accomplish the mission. And the withdrawal deadline of 2016 still looms even though there is no chance that the Pakistan-supported Taliban insurgency will be over by then.

We can only hope that Obama triangulates again to keep a substantial American troop contingent in Afghanistan past the end of his presidency–otherwise all that U.S. troops have sacrificed so much to achieve under his command risks being lost.

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Me and My MESA

Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

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Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

I well remember the 1998 Middle East studies association meeting held in the Chicago Hilton to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism. Said appeared on a platform that was packed with his supporters. Critics from the floor were shouted down. I can still see and hear Homi Bhabha on the platform contemptuously booming out “Who are you? Who are you?” to one hapless member of the audience who was trying to make a point from the floor.

That “hapless member” was me. Irwin is accurate, except that there weren’t any other “critics from the floor” aside from me. Said, knowing I was in the audience, specifically invited me to stand up and challenge him, as though he were interested in a debate. That turned out to be a set-up. (Homi Bhabha, Said’s chivalrous defender on that occasion, is now alleged by the keepers of Said’s flame to have betrayed him by criticizing the departed Said through “Zionist argumentation.” Bhabha furthermore stands accused of being “popular in some leftist Israeli academic circles.” A falling out among post-colonialism’s thieves.)

The next time I figured in a MESA plenary, I wasn’t even there. It was in San Francisco in 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the publication of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Franklin Foer went out to cover the conference for The New Republic, and in his report I read this: “There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference—it just wasn’t Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was Martin Kramer.” When my name was mentioned by someone in the plenary, “some in the audience actually hissed.” I suppose that was better than “Who are you?”

So now I’m back, not as a participant but as an observer. I’ve registered for the conference as a non-member, and that non-membership is principled. Its specific origin is the failure of MESA to overcome its political instincts and confer on Bernard Lewis the title of honorary fellow, reserved for a select few who’ve made exceptional contributions to the field. Whatever one thinks of Lewis’s politics, only an ignoramus or hack would deny his massive contribution to the field. Writing of Lewis, one former MESA president has testified to

the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.

Yet not only did MESA deign not to confer the honor upon Lewis, it bestowed it upon Edward Said, who brought Middle Eastern studies to the brink of ruin. Lewis never needed any honors from MESA: it was MESA that needed to honor him, and MESA’s failure to do so is evidence that it isn’t a scholarly association in the pure sense. So why join it?

That brings me to this year’s conference. MESA meets once every three years in Washington, to demonstrate its relevance to the powers that be. University-based Middle East centers feed at the taxpayers’ trough, and so it’s important to show up every few years at the doorstep of Congress, in an effort to prove that academe is “relevant” to the national interest. Some aspect of the program is pitched just for that purpose. (This year, it’s a panel on ISIS.)

The problem is that the radicals’ hormones are raging in the wake the Israel-Hamas war, and many of the rank-and-file would like to add MESA to the list of associations that have passed resolutions calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This isn’t such a smart thing to propose in Washington, and MESA’s president, Nathan Brown, has already reminded the members that MESA is “a non-political association.” But some MESA members think otherwise, and they’re always looking for ways to shove MESA even deeper into politics than it already is. In short, the conference is bound to be contentious.

In my next post, I’ll share my impressions of the triumphal reception accorded by MESAns to Steven Salaita, the anti-Israel tweet artist who got canned at the University of Illinois, and who’s become a jobless martyr.

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Forfeiting Hearts and Minds in Southern Iraq

I spent the last week in Karbala, Iraq, invited by local religious authorities to speak at a conference about the writings of Imam Sejjad. Karbala is easily the most vibrant city in Iraq, and one of the most important religiously. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, whom Shi‘ites venerate, and today home not only to the Shrine of Abbas, but also to the Shrine of Imam Hussein himself.

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I spent the last week in Karbala, Iraq, invited by local religious authorities to speak at a conference about the writings of Imam Sejjad. Karbala is easily the most vibrant city in Iraq, and one of the most important religiously. It was the site of the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, whom Shi‘ites venerate, and today home not only to the Shrine of Abbas, but also to the Shrine of Imam Hussein himself.

Needless to say, after Mecca, there is no place as important for Shi‘ite Muslims than Najaf and Karbala. It is a major center of pilgrimage. During the day and a half I spent in the Shrine of Imam Hussein itself, I saw delegations of pilgrims from Iran, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Bahrain, India, Lebanon, and Syria. Many had saved up for years to visit the shrine, just as Christians might make a trip to Bethlehem and Jerusalem and Diaspora Jews a visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Beyond the casket itself, inside the shrine is a small but very rich museum dedicated to the shrine and to Imam Hussein. It is accessible to all, unlike the trend begun by Salafis to deny access to holy sites, an unfortunate phenomenon that has spread outward from Saudi Arabia to the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and increasingly across the Sunni world. People can say what they will about Shi‘ites, but I have never been denied access to a Shi‘ite mosque, even in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The museum was excellent: it had Islamic and cultural artifacts dating back centuries, as well as photos of Saddam’s 1991 looting of the shrine, and material recovered in its aftermath. One recent display listed all the invading armies that pillaged and looted Karbala: Ottomans, Saudis, Saddam. Importantly, the United States was not listed. Some American policymakers may believe that Iraqi Shi‘ites are fools for Iran’s anti-American vitriol, but they readily see through the Islamic Republic’s propaganda and recognize the 2003 invasion for what it was: liberation.

I spoke with the museum director. He mentioned that the British ambassador had visited—“the British understand such things”—but the Americans ambassador and, indeed, the embassy has been absent. Karbala is a safe, secure city. Politicians wring their hands that the United States spent blood and treasure in Iraq, and the Iraqis don’t fully appreciate it. But, when American diplomats remain too often behind the blast walls of the American embassy, when the Islamic Republic opens a consulate in Karbala but the United States avoids the symbolic center of the Shi‘ite world, then the United States doesn’t lose hearts and minds, it forfeits them.

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Philosophers Behaving Badly: Brooklyn College BDS Edition

Steven Salaita, the professor whose University of Illinois job offer was rescinded earlier this year over his inflammatory comments about Israel, is now on a road show, talking about how people like him are not allowed to talk. So far, he has discussed this silencing at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, the New School, and Rutgers University. His determination to keep speaking until he is allowed to speak took him on Thursday night to Brooklyn College.

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Steven Salaita, the professor whose University of Illinois job offer was rescinded earlier this year over his inflammatory comments about Israel, is now on a road show, talking about how people like him are not allowed to talk. So far, he has discussed this silencing at, among other places, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Princeton, the New School, and Rutgers University. His determination to keep speaking until he is allowed to speak took him on Thursday night to Brooklyn College.

More than a year ago, Brooklyn College made news because its department of political science sponsored what amounted to a rally for the boycott, divestment, sanctions movement against Israel. So faculty members there have had a long time to reflect on the question of whether academic departments should sponsor anti-Israel activism. The philosophy department of Brooklyn College, presumably using the tools acquired in the course of many years of philosophic training and practice, recently delivered an answer: absolutely!

Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy at BC, has described the arguments that won over his colleagues. First, the event would be good for students. They’d get to hear a “debate” about academic freedom and other issues raised by the Salaita case. Salaita, after all, did not have the stage to himself, but shared it “with a law professor” and a moderator, a “political theorist” (who also teaches Constitutional Law).”

Chopra does not mention that the “law professor” in question, Katherine Franke, is a boycott advocate, a leader in the effort to reinstate Salaita, and an adviser to Salaita’s legal team. The political theorist and “moderator,” Corey Robin, has “turned his blog into a Salaita war room.” One Salaita advocate adds that “we’ve all looked to him as a central source of information about new developments.” That advocate’s name, by the way, is Katherine Franke. I am sure the debate over who loved whom more got heated.
Say what you want about Students for Justice in Palestine. At least they forthrightly admitted that students were being invited to witness a “conversation” about “the constant push by Zionists to silence academic discourse relating to the Palestinian struggle and criticisms of Israel.” It’s not strange that the SJP, which is engaged in a propaganda campaign against Israel, would try to draw as many people as possible to an event that would further their delegitimization efforts. But it’s remarkable—and suggests that their department possesses not only philosophical acumen but also pedagogical creativity—that the philosophers of Brooklyn College saw SJP’s event as a great learning opportunity, worthy of support.

Just in case his colleagues, being professional philosophers, were not floored by his first argument, Chopra made another. He “analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion of a reading on a class syllabus.” Now I am a long way from my philosophy degree. But although I was not surprised when a professor had us read excerpts from Mein Kampf in our class on Western Civilization, I would have been surprised had I learned that he voted to sponsor a panel of neo-Nazis. Yet the philosophers voted with Chopra. Perhaps they deferred to him because—drum roll please—he began his academic career as a logician.

In many academic free speech cases, we defend the principle and distance ourselves from the speaker. You would think that even those who believe Salaita’s speech was not grounds for withdrawing his job offer would take this stance about a man who said, in response to news of the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing,” especially in the face of evidence that this statement was not an outlier.

But Salaita’s sponsors, including the trained philosophers of Brooklyn College, aren’t distancing themselves. They’re holding Salaita close, quite as if they like what the man has to say.

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‘The Thing About Candied Yams’

If you’ll forgive me a personal post; some of you may recall an article I wrote for the July/August 2013 issue of COMMENTARY called “My Sister Rachel,” about the passing of a most extraordinary person. Rachel’s daughter Nani Beraha has just written a beautiful and angry memory piece about her mother, Thanksgiving, and trying to recover a part of a holiday that Rachel always celebrated in a raucous fashion with dozens around her Northern Virginia table. It’s called ‘The Thing About Candied Yams.” It’s the best thing you’ll read today, or this week, or maybe ever. (It has one rough use of language in it, fitting for the emotion it evokes.) You can find it here.

If you’ll forgive me a personal post; some of you may recall an article I wrote for the July/August 2013 issue of COMMENTARY called “My Sister Rachel,” about the passing of a most extraordinary person. Rachel’s daughter Nani Beraha has just written a beautiful and angry memory piece about her mother, Thanksgiving, and trying to recover a part of a holiday that Rachel always celebrated in a raucous fashion with dozens around her Northern Virginia table. It’s called ‘The Thing About Candied Yams.” It’s the best thing you’ll read today, or this week, or maybe ever. (It has one rough use of language in it, fitting for the emotion it evokes.) You can find it here.

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The Day After—for Obama and the Right

The president’s impending decision to act unilaterally to regularize the presence of 5 million illegals in the United States provoked several days of almost incredulous outrage on the Right, along with charges that these actions would basically provoke a Constitutional crisis.  Now that it’s happened, it’s become a political matter that will have profound political ramifications, and no one knows what those are going to be. Obama is flying blind. And so are Republicans and conservatives. We’re in a new political moment, and the fallout will take a long time to come clear. Read More

The president’s impending decision to act unilaterally to regularize the presence of 5 million illegals in the United States provoked several days of almost incredulous outrage on the Right, along with charges that these actions would basically provoke a Constitutional crisis.  Now that it’s happened, it’s become a political matter that will have profound political ramifications, and no one knows what those are going to be. Obama is flying blind. And so are Republicans and conservatives. We’re in a new political moment, and the fallout will take a long time to come clear. The truth is, though, that Obama has a history of comically misjudging just how much the American people are with him, and how angry they will get at his rivals for attempting to stymie him. He may be wrong again. The White House is banking on the fact that majorities in the polls support more open immigration policies than the Republican party does. But what’s interesting to me is that those polls suggest the American people believe in setting up a “path to citizenship.” This new policy is not that. Instead, it creates a new kind of status for people who have been here illegally for more than five years. The two are very far from the same thing, and there’s a very real question whether this new system will seem a fair process to the American people or rather an arbitrary act of line-drawing. Nor is there any real support for the president’s deep conviction that, in general, the public is with him, the source of his bizarre evident certainty that the two-thirds of the American voting population that did not vote is on his side. In fact, polling after the election suggests the American people want policy in general to be set by Congress rather than Obama, and it’s not even close; in Gallup, the pro-GOP margin is 17 points. He is sure to have his vanity assuaged over the next couple of weeks by the thrilled coverage of his action by the editorial pages he loves and the ideological reporters and bloggers he relies on. His bubble is very thick and it may not be penetrated by the news that ordinary Americans have been made uneasy by what he has done. That said,  it’s interesting to note that the day after the president’s speech, the Right feels unsure, unsteady, and even a little depressed. Perhaps that’s because, after three years of talking about it, Obama has essentially called his own bluff. He began with the “we can’t wait” and “I’ll act because Congress won’t” lines in the wake of the fiscal-cliff showdown in the summer of 2011, but it was mostly just talk until last night. I think people on the Right thought Obama was a paper tiger, and that he would be even more of one in the wake of his party’s swamping on election day. Obama has begun a victory lap, going to Las Vegas today to accept the thanks of a grateful Hispanic public. Again, he has a bad habit of thinking he’s winning when he’s actually losing. That is really not the GOP’s problem.

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Standing and Prosecutorial Discretion

There has been much talk of late, especially since President Obama’s speech last night, about how the new Republican congress can respond to his continual, indeed increasing, end runs around Congress’s power to make the laws. In almost so many words last night, he said to Congress, you didn’t reform immigration law so I will.

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There has been much talk of late, especially since President Obama’s speech last night, about how the new Republican congress can respond to his continual, indeed increasing, end runs around Congress’s power to make the laws. In almost so many words last night, he said to Congress, you didn’t reform immigration law so I will.

He used the common law principle of prosecutorial discretion—where the executive can choose what individual crimes to pursue and which to ignore—to do so. He was confident that the common law principle of standing—where an individual, corporation, or government body must have a personal or direct injury that he or it wants redressed in order to sue—would prevent the courts from interfering.

It’s clever lawyering if lousy politics.

The courts have long held that individual members of Congress cannot sue the president for ignoring the law.  It may get them a headline in tomorrow morning’s newspaper, which is what they are usually after anyway, but it won’t get them far in court.  Equally, prosecutorial discretion has always been used to allow prosecutors to choose strong cases to pursue, while letting weak ones go, or to prevent an injustice from occurring by pursuing the letter of the law.

But, as noted, both standing and prosecutorial discretion are largely common law principles, arising from centuries of court decisions on how justice should be done, guarded by the doctrine of stare decisis, which holds that settled principles of law should not be disturbed by the courts when deciding similar cases.

But statute trumps common law. It was common law that the age of majority was 21. But that didn’t prevent the states from making 18 the age at which, for instance, individuals could drink or marry without a parent’s permission or vote.  A constitutional amendment set the voting age at 18 nationwide.

So, while I am not a lawyer, I see no reason why the new Republican Congress could not pass a law granting itself standing to sue when it decides by majority vote that the President has trespassed on its power to make the law. Equally, it has the power to limit prosecutorial discretion to its traditional uses.

After all, President Obama was implicitly arguing in his speech last night that if Congress were to pass a law making, say, the transportation of widgets across a state line a felony, he would be free to order the Justice Department not to prosecute any cases under the Widget Law, effectively repealing it.

Defining standing and prosecutorial discretion by statute would prevent this usurpation of power.  Would President Obama veto such bills? Perhaps, but even with the mainstream media in look-a-squirrel overdrive, I think public pressure would force him to accept them.  If it didn’t, then a future president who thinks that James Madison is not just a dead white guy would.

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Conspiracy Theories and Palestinian Terror

Israel is not only still reeling from the horror of a Palestinian terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue earlier this week. Almost as shocking is the spectacle of hatred in Arab neighborhoods and cities in Jerusalem, the West Bank Gaza in which the two terrorists that hacked and shot four Jews praying and a Druze policeman are being treated as heroes. Yet the crime as well as the sometimes-violent demonstrations of glee and laudatory statements from Palestinian leaders about the murder of civilians has been largely treated in the Western media as just another unfortunate tit-for-tat between two warring peoples. Even worse, the motivation for terror attacks as well as the applause they generate is being represented as a function of Palestinian complaints about settlements, alleged discrimination or funding issues. But, as this report from the Times of Israel tracing the events of the last week shows, the explanations offered by the New York Times, to choose just the most egregious example of distorted coverage, are completely missing the madness that is driving the conflict.

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Israel is not only still reeling from the horror of a Palestinian terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue earlier this week. Almost as shocking is the spectacle of hatred in Arab neighborhoods and cities in Jerusalem, the West Bank Gaza in which the two terrorists that hacked and shot four Jews praying and a Druze policeman are being treated as heroes. Yet the crime as well as the sometimes-violent demonstrations of glee and laudatory statements from Palestinian leaders about the murder of civilians has been largely treated in the Western media as just another unfortunate tit-for-tat between two warring peoples. Even worse, the motivation for terror attacks as well as the applause they generate is being represented as a function of Palestinian complaints about settlements, alleged discrimination or funding issues. But, as this report from the Times of Israel tracing the events of the last week shows, the explanations offered by the New York Times, to choose just the most egregious example of distorted coverage, are completely missing the madness that is driving the conflict.

As the Times of Israel reports, the genesis of the synagogue attack and its violent aftermath may have been fueled in no small part by false reports about the murder of a Palestinian bus driver. The man was found hanged in his bus and both Israeli and Palestinian coroners ruled that the death was obviously a suicide. But in the hothouse Palestinian rumor mill in which conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish atrocities are the coin of the realm, this, along with wild claims about Israeli “violation of women at al-Aksa” was enough to send two men into a synagogue to murder and untold thousands of their compatriots into the streets to support their crime.

This is a significant fact because Western journalists, such as the New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, have been seeking to explain the atrocity and the support for it by linking it to critiques of Israeli policies about allowing Jews to move to parts of Jerusalem or municipal funding policies that may short change Arabs. I have already critiqued Rudoren’s reporting in terms of its misperceptions about what is negotiable in the conflict as well as her false claims of moral equivalence about attacks on houses of worship. Our Seth Mandel also touched on these issues as well as Rudoren’s claims that her critics are biased.

But the big picture here is not so much the poor performance of the Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief as it is the failure by her paper and most other mainstream publishing outlets to delve deeper into the real roots of Palestinian anger. By choosing to obsess over policy questions that dovetail with Obama administration complaints about Israel’s government, Rudoren ignored the mania of hate that seems to bubble up from the Palestinian street. That not only fails to explain what sends Palestinians out to slaughter Jews or to cheer such actions, it also demonstrates a lack of understanding as to why the conflict as a whole is so impervious to solutions.

If Palestinian leaders have consistently and repeatedly rejected Israeli peace offers throughout the last 15 years and, indeed, all chances at territorial compromise dating back to the 1930s, it is because their political culture is still driven by the same factors that led to the Har Nof massacre this week as well as the pogroms of 1929 and 1936 that were similarly motivated by false rumors about Jewish activity on the Temple Mount. It’s not just that Palestinians have had hatred for Jews driven into them by their leaders and media for a century, it’s that their view of the conflict is one that is rooted in belief that Jews are an enemy that must be driven from the land.

Israelis and their government are not perfect but the willingness of Palestinians to believe any tall tale about Jewish crimes has little to do with the Netanyahu government’s policies and everything to do with a variant of Jew hatred that has found a home in the Middle East in the last 100 years. While it is possible to talk about what Israel might do to appease their antagonists’ ambitions in order to promote peace, it is this virus of anti-Semitism that must be addressed if any Palestinian leader will ever have the courage to sign a peace deal with the Israelis that will recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders might be drawn.

The lunacy that leads to blood-soaked bodies lying on a synagogue floor begins with this hate and paranoia that has driven itself deep into the psyche of the Palestinian imagination. It is the same psychosis that allows Palestinian Authority media and officials to promote conspiracy theories and praise terrorists. So long as even a supposed moderate such as PA leader Mahmoud Abbas can call a terrorist murderer a “martyr” who went straight to heaven, why should we be surprised that Jerusalem and West Bank Arabs think the Jews are raping Muslims on the Temple Mount or murdering bus drivers, even though these are imaginary crimes?

So long as mainstream media outlets ignore the truth about Palestinian politics and terror, it is also no surprise that their coverage of the conflict tells us more about their biases than anything happening on the ground.

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Mark Levin’s Distortions of Reagan  

Mark Levin – a popular talk radio host and best-selling author — recently responded to a piece in which I was critical of him. I’ll take up two things Mr. Levin said, starting with the charge that I am “an adamant and flailing progressive.”

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Mark Levin – a popular talk radio host and best-selling author — recently responded to a piece in which I was critical of him. I’ll take up two things Mr. Levin said, starting with the charge that I am “an adamant and flailing progressive.”

Of course. I’m that rare adamant, flailing progressive who worked in the Reagan administration and considers Reagan to be among the greatest presidents in our history; who is a consistent, often harsh critic of President Obama; and who wrote a book offering a moral defense of democratic capitalism. I’m also that atypical adamant progressive who is pro-life, pro-school choice, and pro-Keystone XL pipeline; who has pushed for personal accounts in Social Security and a premium support system for Medicare; and who wants to reform the tax code by lowering the top rates and broadening the base. Then there’s the fact that I oppose drug legalization, was (and remain) an advocate for greater work requirements in welfare programs, and favor the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I also supported the “surge” in Iraq and spending more on the defense budget. I could go on, but you get the point. The last time I saw Mr. Levin in person, by the way, was at an infamous gathering of adamant and flailing progressives: Rush Limbaugh’s wedding in 2010.

Let me move to another point made by Levin. I wrote that if the absolutist mindset that characterizes some on the right, including Levin, were applied to Ronald Reagan’s record; their logic would compel them to label him a RINO (Republican In Name Only). I mentioned as but one example the fact the Reagan chose Richard Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee in 1976. And this is where Levin gets all tangled up. He writes:

Wehner only tells half the story about Dick Schweiker … I am reminded that Schweiker was pro-labor but also pro-life, anti-communist, pro-Second Amendment, pro-freeing the Captive-Nations. I was not a great Scweiker [sic] fan, but he was no crazed leftist. The same can be said of George H. W. Bush.

I never said that Senator Schweiker was a “crazed leftist.” What I did say (in this COMMENTARY essay I co-authored with Henry Olsen) is that Senator Schweiker was a liberal. If anything, we understated the case. As this document shows, the left-wing group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) gave Senator Schweiker an approval rating of 85% in 1974, which is the same rating the ADA gave to Senator George McGovern; and in 1975, the year before Reagan picked Schweiker to be his running mate, Senator Schweiker received an 89% rating. Senator Schweiker cosponsored a national health insurance bill introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy; was a primary sponsor of legislation (the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act) that created a massive federal jobs program; voted against an attempt to stop federal funds from paying for abortions; supported the Equal Rights Amendment; opposed the Vietnam War; and opposed funding key defense systems. Steven Hayward, in his wonderful book The Age of Reagan, wrote, “Schweiker was arguably as liberal as Jimmy Carter’s running mate, Sen. Walter Mondale.”

Anyone who listens to Mr. Levin knows he would excoriate any conservative today who named a liberal like Schweiker to be his vice presidential nominee, as Reagan did. And an honest reading of some parts of Reagan’s political record — when he was governor of California he liberalized abortion laws, and when he was president he signed into law record tax increases and he championed amnesty — means that he would fail the purity test that Levin applies to conservatives today.

Which gets to the heart of the matter. Mr. Levin appears less interested in learning from the real Reagan record than in using the Gipper as a battering ram against other conservatives, whom he routinely accuses of being RINOs, cowards, statists, leftists, phony pseudo-conservatives, and so forth. But the Reagan invoked by Levin is a figure of his own invention, a caricature of the real man and the great president. The purpose of the distortion is to advance Levin’s own ideology, which is increasingly more radical than conservative.

In any event, the real Reagan is far more impressive — politically, philosophically, and temperamentally — than the one summoned from Mark Levin’s imagination. One example: Reagan would admonish his staff, “Remember, we have no enemies, only opponents.” Yet Levin — who prides himself on being a true Reaganite, the Keeper of the Flame — treats almost everyone he disagrees with as an enemy. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism was not coursing with anger. He was an affable and optimistic populist — one who, as his biographer Edmund Morris put it, “represented the better temper of his times.”

As Henry Olsen and I argued, the Reagan legacy matters — to history, and to modern-day conservatives. Our fortieth president was a multi-dimensional and immensely interesting figure, and there is much that both the GOP “establishment” and Tea Party populists can learn from his life and his political record. But for that to happen, he needs to be rescued from those who distort history while claiming to be his heirs.

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The GOP Governors’ 2016 Derby

Chris Christie took a well-deserved victory lap this week at the annual meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association, basking in the glow of a midterm victory that capped off a highly successful year for him as chairman of the group. The New Jersey governor’s formidable fundraising skills played a significant role in the GOP’s victories around the country, including in blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. But, as Politico notes, Christie wasn’t getting much love, in terms of his 2016 prospects, from the candidates he helped. That’s not terribly surprising given the plethora of potential candidates, including a bevy of his fellow Republican governors. But the impressive lineup of would-be presidents in attendance at the RGA highlights a key problem for all of these hopefuls: the crowded field in which seemingly none of them has a political or even a geographical advantage renders the talk of the inevitability of a governor being the nominee a piece of useless conventional wisdom.

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Chris Christie took a well-deserved victory lap this week at the annual meeting of the Republican Governor’s Association, basking in the glow of a midterm victory that capped off a highly successful year for him as chairman of the group. The New Jersey governor’s formidable fundraising skills played a significant role in the GOP’s victories around the country, including in blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. But, as Politico notes, Christie wasn’t getting much love, in terms of his 2016 prospects, from the candidates he helped. That’s not terribly surprising given the plethora of potential candidates, including a bevy of his fellow Republican governors. But the impressive lineup of would-be presidents in attendance at the RGA highlights a key problem for all of these hopefuls: the crowded field in which seemingly none of them has a political or even a geographical advantage renders the talk of the inevitability of a governor being the nominee a piece of useless conventional wisdom.

As I noted last week, the assumption that governors make better presidents than, say, senators gets a mixed verdict from history. But the current crop of GOP governors do have a strong argument that their distance from Washington dysfunction and records of accomplishment stand them in good stead in any presidential race. The problem is not only that each of them also has their own set of liabilities but also that the sheer volume of contenders with a gubernatorial resume line makes it difficult for any one of them to credibly claim the mantle of the chief non-Washingtonian candidate of good governance.

Christie’s difficult path to the nomination is already well documented. While he may be in the process of putting the Bridgegate accusations behind him, the antipathy of the party’s conservative base for Christie is a formidable obstacle. So, too, is the difficulty of imagining someone with his irascible nature (“sit down and shut up”) and thin skin surviving on the stump amid the intense scrutiny of a presidential race.

But while doubts about the resurrection of Christie’s once high presidential expectations are well founded, the same skepticism ought to apply to the other governors preening for the national press this week. Chief among them is Ohio Governor John Kasich, who seems to be the flavor of the month after his huge reelection victory in perhaps the most crucial swing state in the country. But Kasich, with his equivocal stance on Medicare and ObamaCare as well his more moderate views on immigration is no more likely to be liked by the base than Christie, leaving him competing for establishment support with Christie and a flock of others.

Those others include Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who will have a stronger claim on the base while also being able to connect with moderates. Indiana’s Mike Pence is similarly situated, albeit without the folk hero status Walker earned among conservatives with his epic battles with unions and the unsuccessful liberal attempt to recall him. But as much as both men are veteran politicians, they are untested outside of their states leaving even their fans uncertain as to how they’d fare in a presidential campaign.

Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal is another smart Republican governor with conservative credentials, but his efforts to edge out onto the national stage haven’t been universally successful. Buying into the notion that an intellectual southern governor/social conservative with as little charisma as he demonstrates can make the leap to the first tier in the primaries requires more religious faith than political acumen.

As for others, we also need to realize that the overlap between these candidates is a big problem. Whether or not you think Texas Governor Rick Perry has a shot at doing better in his second try for the presidency (after a wince-inducing and disastrous 2012 campaign), he is up against the fact that he will be competing for support with another Texan, Senator Ted Cruz, who has much a better chance of exciting Tea Partiers and other conservatives than Mr. “Oops.” Walker, Kasich, and Pence will compete for the title of leading Midwest governor making it difficult for any of them to seize a niche and make it their own.

That’s why outsiders like Carly Fiorina and Dr. Ben Carson are spinning scenarios in their heads about a path to the nomination even if their claims are far more dubious than those of potential competitors. The same applies to would-be establishment standard bearers like Jeb Bush and Christie. Yet Bush would also face competition in Florida from Senator Marco Rubio and Walker must also deal with the possibility that Rep. Paul Ryan, a fellow Wisconsin resident, will run.

Only Senator Rand Paul seems to have a constituency locked up—the libertarian crowd he seems to have inherited from his outlier father Ron—but there is doubt as to whether they will follow him blindly if he continues to edge closer to mainstream views on foreign policy in order to be more presentable.

But Kasich’s recent boomlet should also remind us about what will be the key factor in winnowing this field down to those who have an actual chance: gaffes. Kasich has stayed at home in Columbus the past few years far away from national media centers and earned a reputation as a good governor. But his past as a fast-talking, albeit relatively moderate conservative congressman and then as a sometime replacement host on Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly show makes it more than probable that Kasich will eventually say something that will undermine a presidential campaign. The same is true of the rest of this crowd. If it’s hard to know what will happen in the next year during the run-up to the start of the 2016 primaries, it is because we don’t know which of the candidates will sink themselves with a stray remark.

Seen in that light the competition for the 2016 nomination isn’t so much a cattle call for a bunch of governors as it is a demolition derby that will probably determine the outcome via gaffes and self-destructive impulses. All these governors have a chance but the one that is best at avoiding mistakes is the one who will get a shot at winning.

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Jodi Rudoren and the Key Fallacy That Explains Media Ignorance

When I began my career as a young reporter straight out of college, it became immediately clear to me how much I didn’t know. That realization almost certainly saved my career because it taught me a lesson I later heard best expressed by Brit Hume: “Fairness is not an attitude. Fairness is a skill.” My editors took journalistic ethics seriously, and the reporters at our company took notice. When reporters in our newsroom got criticism over accusations of bias, they gave them appropriate consideration. They never would have worn them as a badge of honor. They never would have acted as unethically and unprofessionally, in other words, as Jodi Rudoren.

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When I began my career as a young reporter straight out of college, it became immediately clear to me how much I didn’t know. That realization almost certainly saved my career because it taught me a lesson I later heard best expressed by Brit Hume: “Fairness is not an attitude. Fairness is a skill.” My editors took journalistic ethics seriously, and the reporters at our company took notice. When reporters in our newsroom got criticism over accusations of bias, they gave them appropriate consideration. They never would have worn them as a badge of honor. They never would have acted as unethically and unprofessionally, in other words, as Jodi Rudoren.

The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief has established a record of not just inaccurate reporting but the kind of mistakes that should never get through layers of editors and fact checkers. This week on Twitter I criticized Rudoren’s latest batch of advocacy journalism for its many mistakes and also for how easily those mistakes could be prevented by going through the normal reporting process. Rudoren has responded to the Washington Examiner, and her reaction is quite telling. It boils down to: nothing will change, because she refuses to know what she doesn’t know.

The Examiner tried to reach out to me for comment, the request never came through, and so the article went up without it. It’s worth responding now, especially since Rudoren’s comments are so revealing and are themselves a thorough indictment of mainstream journalistic ethics. Here is the crux of her response to the Examiner:

“Broadly speaking, most of the criticism of our coverage, and it is immense, is not rooted in the values of mainstream journalism, but is done from the prism of advocacy. Frequently, these critics ignore the stories or parts of stories that don’t fit with their pre-determined conclusion of our bias (and we have pretty much equal accusations of biases on both sides),” New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren told the Washington Examiner.

“They often try to subject stories or sentences to some kind of scoring system — good for Israel, bad for Israel — which is problematic because the stories, and the subjects, are much more complex and nuanced than that,” Rudoren added.

It’s impossible not to notice that Rudoren’s comments prove the criticism of her to be completely correct. And she is making it clear she refuses to learn more, because she regards that learning process itself as a concession to her critics. Out of sheer pride, Rudoren will remain uninformed.

There are several critiques to unpack in her response, but the most important one is this: “we have pretty much equal accusations of biases on both sides.” Rudoren is a firm believer in the single most toxic fallacy that bad reporters believe in. Namely, the idea that if both sides of an issue hate your writing, you must be doing something right. In fact, it often means you are doing a great deal wrong.

That’s because both sides can be right in their criticism. Imagine another industry in which someone’s behavior receives howls of disapproval from all sides, and the person involved takes that to mean they must be doing their job well. It’s delusional, and we would say so. And so we should say so here. If there is a consensus that you’re terrible at your job, that consensus is not to be worn as a badge of honor. Rudoren, embarrassingly enough, believes it should be.

But there’s more to Rudoren’s statement, and it explains why she sees criticism of her as illegitimate. Pro-Israel readers who object to Rudoren’s reporting are considered by her to be uninterested in the truth and acting out of loyalty to Israel. It’s not surprising that a resident of the leftist bubble that is the Times would think this, but it’s rather amazing that she thinks it’s appropriate to say.

Later on in the article, she tells the Examiner that “People who are passionate about the issue and have a personal stake in it often struggle to see the full picture.” What she is saying is that people devoted to an issue–experts, for example–are to be dismissed. Rarely has a mainstream reporter embraced this kind of strident anti-intellectualism publicly, and even suggested that it forms the bedrock of their professional outlook.

And in addition to the anti-intellectualism, Rudoren says that her detractors are not “rooted in the values of mainstream journalism.” This is provably false. In fact, much of the criticism of her that prompted this exchange was based precisely in her own failure to adhere to basic journalistic ethics. I noted, for example, that she made statements about vandalism against mosques in Israel without providing numbers or even a citation. It turned out not to be true; she is just making up inflammatory “facts.” But in order to know that, you have to do the journalism that Rudoren refuses to do. You have to be her fact checker, in other words.

The ignorance of reporters about the subjects they cover is an ongoing problem, and it’s especially egregious when the subject turns to religion. Yet often when reporters take their base of knowledge of a subject and arrogantly assume it’s all they’ll ever need to know, they at least know something–anything, even basic information–about the issue. That’s not the case with Rudoren. Her mistakes include those that are disproved by merely looking at a map, for instance.

Somewhere along the line, liberal reporters and editors decided that the greater the depth and breadth of criticism of their work, the better they assumed it to be. This attitude has produced the work of Jodi Rudoren as its inevitable consequence. And it’s how, seemingly against all odds, coverage of Israel is still getting worse. The hope is that Rudoren represents the media hitting bottom, but I fear we’re not there yet.

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The Baleful Effects of the Obama Presidency

In his fine post on last night’s speech, Jonathan wrote, “But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.”

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In his fine post on last night’s speech, Jonathan wrote, “But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.”

This is not incidental damage to our republic.

There is such a thing as a nation’s political and civic culture. Ours is in some disrepair right now. This isn’t the only time that’s been the case, for sure. Politics in a free society–any free society–guarantees some amount of division and polarization. But beyond a certain point it’s not normative or healthy; and if there are large, difficult problems that need to be addressed, as is now the case, the political system has to work. Right now it’s not.

Why it’s not is a complicated matter. But there’s no question that President Obama bears a great deal of the responsibility for our political distemper. His announcement last night that he’s going to employ means that he himself deemed to be lawless and unconstitutional, in order to get his way on immigration, is guaranteed to further roil our politics. Indeed, it may well have been done in part to do just that. Whatever his motivations, Mr. Obama has taken an unprecedented step that will further split apart not just our two parties but our nation.

It’s worth reminding ourselves, then, that when he first ran for president, Mr. Obama not only promised to place greater limits on executive power; he also promised to “turn the page” on the “old politics” of division and anger. He would end a politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” He would help us to “rediscover our bonds to each other and … get out of this constant petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics.” His election, he informed us, was a sign we had “chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.”

“I will listen to you,” Obama said on a stage in Grant Park on the night of his election, “especially when we disagree.” And on the day of his inauguration he came to proclaim “an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”

Yet here we are, six years later, with a president who has caused greater division and conflict, who has deepened public cynicism, and who has chosen–eagerly and gleefully chosen–conflict and discord over unity of purpose. This may not be the worst sin of the Obama era, but it ranks quite high on the list.

Other presidents have made mistakes, and some have committed impeachable offenses. But I would be hard-pressed to name a president who has so selfishly and narcissistically injured our constitutional order and political culture. The baleful effects of the Obama presidency are now nearly incalculable.

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