Commentary Magazine


At War with the English Language

The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

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The Obama administration is far from the first to do violence to the English language, but there is something particularly galling about the way Susan Rice is describing our newest war/non-war fusion against ISIS. The president doesn’t want to go to Congress for authorization for war, and Congress doesn’t seem to want him to ask. But going to war without authorization violates a very old American document on which the president pretended to be an expert. So we’re not calling it a war. Unless you want to.

That’s the takeaway from this interview Rice did on CNN. Apparently, whether or not we call this a war is up to you, the public. The administration isn’t really sure, so they’re going to crowdsource it, Wikipedia-style. Here’s Rice telling Wolf Blitzer that what’s important is not whether you call a war a war but that you just follow your heart, man:

I don’t know whether you want to call it a war or sustained counterterrorism campaign. I think, frankly, this is a counterterrorism operation that will take time. It will be sustained. We will not have American combat forces on the ground fighting as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan which is what I think the American people think of when they think of a war. So I think this is very different from that. But nonetheless, we’ll be dealing with the significant threat to this region, to American personnel in the region and potentially also to Europe and the United States. And we’ll be doing it with partners. We’ll not be fighting ourselves on the ground but using American air power as we have been over the last several weeks as necessary.

Now, it should be noted that Rice’s opinion is consistent with some but not all such statements by current American officials, because a coherent vision has not and will not be forthcoming from the White House. Here’s John Kerry, saying it’s not a war:

The U.S. is not at war with ISIS, Secretary of State John Kerry insisted today, describing the military campaign outlined by President Obama as “a counterterrorism operation of a significant order.”

And yet at today’s White House briefing, press secretary Josh Earnest changed tune:

And the Pentagon:

How the administration sees this war is important not only for the constitutional implications, which are serious enough. It’s also because the way officials are describing it gives us an indication of their overarching strategy. There’s no question ISIS is a terrorist group, and thus the administration certainly isn’t wrong in saying that combating ISIS will require elements of counterterrorism.

But ISIS is also more than just a terrorist group. It may not be a state, as the president said in his speech. But that doesn’t mean it’s without state-like characteristics, and that matters for how the U.S. military will approach rolling it back and ultimately defeating it.

As I wrote last week, ISIS’s declarations of statehood may just be bluster, but they indicate something else: that ISIS is operating as if Iraq, Syria, and its other targets are not states either. Most of the terrorist groups the West has fought in the global war on terror were either state-like and static–think the Taliban, Hezbollah, or Hamas–or fluid and less interested in collapsing existing states and declaring their own, like the al-Qaeda groups and affiliates that try to hit American and Western targets.

With ISIS, although there is concern they could try to attack the homeland, the primary threat does not appear to be random suicide bombers or even training grounds for wannabe jihadis. (Though the number of European passport holders flocking to ISIS territory raises that threat as well.) What ISIS has done is essentially put together a kind of standing army that seeks to capture and hold strategic territory. As the terrorism scholar William McCants told the site ThinkProgress earlier this week with regard to an influential 2004 jihadist manifesto and its similarities with ISIS tactics:

“The key idea in the book is that you need to carry out attacks on a local government and sensitive infrastructure — tourism and energy in particular,” McCants said. “That causes a local government to pull in security resources to protect that infrastructure that will open up pockets where there is no government — a security vacuum.”

ISIS has operated similarly in Iraq and Syria…

There’s an actual strategy here, and it’s not just about causing mayhem and it’s not just about targeting symbols of the West. Principles of counterterrorism can be very helpful in fighting ISIS, but an army on the march demands more than that. Which is why the language from the commander in chief on down is so important.

Perhaps they’re getting it right. Today’s briefings seem to mark a shift toward admitting we’re at war. But that will also require dropping the silly word games meant to deride ISIS, as if taunting them will bring victory or minimizing the threat will attract more global support for the war. The president needs to get the terminology right, and then get the strategy right. At the moment, officials are giving off the impression that they’re not quite sure what they’ve gotten us into.

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Deep Bench? None in GOP Stand Out for ’16

Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

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Paying attention to presidential polls two years in advance can be something of a sucker’s game. We are a long way from intense campaigning, let alone voting, which means such polls tend to be more about name recognition than anything else. Yet the latest poll of Iowa Republicans about 2016 makes it hard to avoid some hard conclusions about the nature of the race and the roster of possible candidates. While Democrats still appear to be ready to coronate Hillary Clinton as their nominee, the Republican race really is wide open. For the first time in recent memory, there really will be no one who can be considered a frontrunner.

The Iowa poll confirms the cliché about name recognition since the runaway leader in the survey of possible GOP presidential candidates is Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor has been a favorite in the Hawkeye State since winning the caucus there in 2008. But it’s been several years since the talk show was active politically and there is no indication that he will run. If we eliminate him we see that the leader is Rep. Paul Ryan with only 12 percent supporting him. The rest of the field is in single digits with none of the big names, such as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, or Rick Perry making much of an impact. Nor has Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012 in a huge upset after months of beating the bushes in rural counties, retained much support as he comes in as the preference of only three percent.

There’s good news and bad news for Republicans in these poll figures.

The good news is that 2016 shapes up to be a competitive and interesting race. No imposing frontrunner with deep pockets will be there to scare off talented candidates who want to test the waters. The GOP has to hope that in contrast to the chaos of 2012, with a more rational debate and primary schedule this time, the party will be able to run a competitive race that will produce a presidential candidate with the political moxie to effectively challenge Hillary Clinton.

The bad news is that although Republicans have spent much of the last two years bragging about their deep political bench, the roster of GOP presidential wannabes may not be as bright as they thought. By this time, somebody in the field should have been capable of impressing early state voters and caucus-goers as a potential keeper. But so far, none seems to stand out in contrast to the others.

Each would-be candidate has had his ups and downs. Christie might have been in a very strong position by now but Bridgegate derailed his potential juggernaut. Paul remains a strong candidate but ISIS and various other global crises have made his neo-isolationism a lot less attractive to the GOP mainstream. Rubio had a bad 2013 and the conservative base may never forgive him for backing an immigration reform bill. The others haven’t broken through yet and even old familiar names like Jeb Bush don’t seem to be attracting more than token support.

While this is good news for journalists who love a close horse race, it needs to be emphasized that this is really unexplored territory for Republicans who have a historical tradition of liking front-runners, especially those who have run and lost before. You have to go back to 1940 when dark horse Wendell Wilkie edged New York District Attorney Thomas Dewey to get the right to oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s bid for a third term to find a GOP presidential race that was as wide open as the one we will witness in 2016. In every presidential contest since then, there has been at least one or two genuine frontrunner types or former candidates who dominate the race. That means that whoever does emerge from this battle will almost certainly at least start the 2016 general-election campaign as a heavy underdog to Clinton.

It is possible that one or two of the current bunch scrambling for attention will break through in 2015 and enter the primary season as something resembling a frontrunner. But for now, it appears to be a struggle in which none have anything that looks like a clear advantage. Since even the best of them have little experience on the national stage, questions about whether this deep bench is equal to the task of running for president are entirely legitimate.

That’s why the buzz about Mitt Romney returning to the fray seems to be about more than buyer’s remorse about President Obama’s dismal second term or guilt on the part of conservatives that trashed their 2012 nominee but now realize the former Massachusetts governor wasn’t so bad after all. In a race where none of the contenders have a real political or financial advantage, a candidate with the name recognition and the fundraising prowess of Romney might sweep the field again as he did last time.

This isn’t an argument for Romney running again. A third trip to the well might not yield any better results for him than the previous one. He’s right to say, as he continues to insist, that it’s time for some one else to step up and take their turn. But it must be conceded that in a race this open, anything can happen. Instead of celebrating the diversity of riches in their candidate roster, Republicans need to be wondering which, if any of them, can step up and show they’re ready to tangle with Clinton. Right now, the sports cliché about all prospects being suspects seems to apply to the GOP field.

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Ted Cruz, IDC, and the Politics of Solidarity

Yesterday, as the controversy over Ted Cruz getting booed off stage at an In Defense of Christians event for his focus on Israel was picking up steam, the nation’s largest Christian pro-Israel organization stepped in to defend Cruz and Israel. They did not mince words. And my initial reaction, as I tweeted last night, was: the Jews need to be in the middle of this intramural food fight like we need a hole in the head. But I’ve since reconsidered somewhat, having seen some productive things come out of this controversy.

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Yesterday, as the controversy over Ted Cruz getting booed off stage at an In Defense of Christians event for his focus on Israel was picking up steam, the nation’s largest Christian pro-Israel organization stepped in to defend Cruz and Israel. They did not mince words. And my initial reaction, as I tweeted last night, was: the Jews need to be in the middle of this intramural food fight like we need a hole in the head. But I’ve since reconsidered somewhat, having seen some productive things come out of this controversy.

My instinctive response was based on the fact that Jews really don’t love being the reason Christians are angry with each other. And that remains true. But the fact that the Jewish state was in the middle of this has revealed some common ground that usually flies under the radar, and deserves more attention.

First, there is the issue of Cruz telling the crowd, which was there to support the oppressed Christians of the Middle East, that Israel was their best friend. Over at the Federalist, Mollie Hemingway takes issue with Cruz’s focus on Israel and David Harsanyi defends it, noting that Israel is the one country in the region where Christians can live safely and practice their faith, and are therefore thriving.

I would only add to Harsanyi’s point that not only is Israel a safe destination for Christians, but Israel is currently actively involved in saving Christians in the region. It is simply a fact that for the oppressed Christians of ISIS strongholds like Syria, Israel is their ally–in practice, not only in theory. It’s not particularly well known, thanks to the tangled politics of Christian Arab groups being supported by Israel. But it’s quite clear now that since this controversy broached the subject, it must be pointed out that Cruz was not merely engaging in hyperbole.

Second, while this issue has become extremely divisive, there might be a silver lining in terms of common ground between Christians and Jews. I have no desire–and more importantly, nothing approaching the knowledge level–to get involved in the intramural theological disputes here. (Though it’s clear that many of those understandably defending their fellow Christians are quite plainly unfamiliar with IDC.)

But one reason Jews have been such steadfast allies to the beleaguered Christians is that they understand exactly what Syrian, Iraqi, and other Christians are going through. And they also understand the need for interfaith help. To Jews, the concept of hakarat hatov is important; the term represents the need to display proper gratitude. And so earlier in the week, the Jerusalem Post reported on the wealthy Canadian Jewish philanthropist who has been dubbed the “Jewish Schindler.” His name is Yank Barry, and he “last week surpassed his goal of helping 1,200 Middle Eastern refugees, Muslim, Christian and Yazidi, from war-torn and oppressive countries, helping them rebuild their lives in Bulgaria.”

He took the number 1,200 from the number of Jews Oskar Schindler saved during the Holocaust. Think of this as the Jewish version of “Lafayette, we are here!” Jews don’t forget those who helped them, of whatever faith. And we have been commanded “you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Don’t forget where you come from or what you’ve been through, in other words.

And there is also something encouraging in the way Christians (on the right, anyway) have responded in fellowship and solidarity with their oppressed brothers and sisters elsewhere, with Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry even calling on American Christians to rethink casting a vote for Cruz. Many of these Christian thinkers and writers are reliably pro-Israel and certainly consistent in their philosophical, political, and ideological outlook. (Gobry is a contributor to COMMENTARY.)

But for some of them this is far more interesting. One clearinghouse of pro-IDC anti-Cruz reaction has been the American Conservative magazine’s website. That’s appropriate, and it’s been quite heartening to watch the magazine’s writers call for putting Christian unity above American politics and to prioritize the fate of Christians in the Middle East.

I say it’s heartening because the magazine’s website has also been an easy place to find accusations of dual loyalty against Jews who express their displeasure with an American politician because of that politician’s perceived lack of understanding and sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the Middle East. Here is the charge leveled against Sheldon Adelson, for example, with the added bonus of saying he purchased Newt Gingrich’s candidacy to turn the Republican presidential candidate into an agent of the Israelis. Here is the site speculating about whether Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, lost his election because he was “Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman.” And of course, the magazine’s founder, Pat Buchanan, is famously of the opinion that pro-Israel Jewish Americans are an Israeli “Fifth Column” in America.

So the discovery that faithful solidarity and American loyalty are not mutually exclusive is a revelation (no pun intended) of common ground to some writers. The controversy surrounding Cruz’s speech might be divisive, but it’s also a reminder that Christian Americans and Jewish Americans are on the same side here.

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Tell Turkey: Counterterror Goes Both Ways

The Turkish government has decided that it will not allow its airbases to be used to support military action against ISIS. Turkey explained its decision, which surprised no one but perhaps Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, in the fact that ISIS holds more than 40 Turks hostage in Mosul.

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The Turkish government has decided that it will not allow its airbases to be used to support military action against ISIS. Turkey explained its decision, which surprised no one but perhaps Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry, and President Barack Obama, in the fact that ISIS holds more than 40 Turks hostage in Mosul.

Some Turks may be held hostage, although if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu were truly worried about ISIS terrorism, they likely would not have forbidden the Turkish press from reporting on it nor would they have encouraged ISIS in the first place nor would they have opened their borders to provide medical treatment for ISIS leaders.

The problem with American diplomacy today is, when it comes to important issues, there is no consequence for those who would thumb their nose at American priorities. In the wake of Hagel’s visit to Ankara, Hürriyet Daily News interviewed Derek Chollet, an assistant secretary for defense. Despite the Turkish refusal, Chollet’s talk was full of the usual platitudes:

  • “The U.S. and Turkey see very much the same threats in this region and have a shared perspective.” (Really? So we share Turkey’s views on Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and al-Qaeda?)
  • “Secretary Hagel wanted to come to Turkey because Turkey is an indispensable ally of the United States on many challenges we face in the world, whether it be the threat from ISIL or broader regional issues happening in the Middle East.” (Never mind that Turkey just slapped the United States down on ISIS.)
  • “One of the conversations we had was about how we can work together to help strengthen border security. That’s not a unique conversation between the U.S. and Turkey at all; it’s something we have talked about with many partners around the world.” (Yet it is a unique problem when it comes to Turkey, as the Turkish border is the main mechanism of ingress for foreign jihadis joining ISIS.)

His last one was the real whopper, however. According to the Hürriyet Daily News:

Another concern that Turkey has is that weapons to be provided to the groups fighting ISIL may end up in the wrong hands, such as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Chollet said this worry was also being taken seriously “because it is the last thing we want.”

Why should arms leaking to Syrian Kurdistan be “the last thing we want?” The Syrian Kurds are the only group to have defeated both the Syrian regime and ISIS. They have established a secular, autonomous region and given shelter and protection to hundreds of thousands regardless of their religion or ethnicity. When I went to “Rojava” earlier this year, girls walked to school unescorted and without fear of violence, municipalities collected trash on regular schedules, and women and men worked and shopped together in the markets. The weaponry of the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish peshmerga, did not leak to Turkey.

The United States has long supported Turkey’s fight against the PKK. Whatever one’s views regarding the PKK and whether or not they are a terrorist group (here are three views, including my own, ranging across the spectrum arguing that the PKK should be de-listed as a terrorist group), it’s long past time the United States embrace reciprocity. Fighting terrorism is never easy. It’s always inconvenient, and there can always be complications. Rightly or wrongly, America (and Israel) bent over backwards to support the Turkish fight against the PKK because Turkey was an aspiring democracy and because it took terrorism seriously. But today Turkey does not reciprocate counter-terrorism assistance; indeed, more often than not, whether with regard to Iran, Hamas, or Hezbollah, it undercuts it. There should be absolutely zero assistance to Turkey in what it perceives as its counter-terror fight until such a time that Turkey realizes that alliances go both ways.

Indeed, just as the United States should support India and Afghanistan without apology in their war against terrorism and ensure India, at least, receives a qualitative military edge over terror-sponsors like Pakistan, it would be just as wise to support actively Syrian Kurds and perhaps even the PKK so long as they continue to take their fight to ISIS. Turkey has chosen its side; let it face the consequence of its decision. Perhaps it’s time to recognize that, given Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s actions and position, Turkey was the past and, for the United States, Kurdistan is the future.

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Iran Promotes 9/11 Conspiracy on Anniversary

A basis for President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran has been the supposed changes inside Iran that the White House and State Department interpreted as signs that Iran really was changing and was interested in diplomacy. In reality, the idea that President Hassan Rouhani’s election signifies any change in Iran is more fiction than reality. Far from being a reformer, Rouhani was the first Iranian official to call Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “Imam.” In the aftermath of his tenure as nuclear negotiator, Rouhani bragged repeatedly that he had advanced Iran’s nuclear program by taking advantage of Western desperation to negotiate. And while Rouhani has removed many of the Revolutionary Guards veterans from the cabinet, he has replaced them not with representatives of civil society or the Iranian people, but with veterans of Iran’s notorious intelligence service.

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A basis for President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran has been the supposed changes inside Iran that the White House and State Department interpreted as signs that Iran really was changing and was interested in diplomacy. In reality, the idea that President Hassan Rouhani’s election signifies any change in Iran is more fiction than reality. Far from being a reformer, Rouhani was the first Iranian official to call Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “Imam.” In the aftermath of his tenure as nuclear negotiator, Rouhani bragged repeatedly that he had advanced Iran’s nuclear program by taking advantage of Western desperation to negotiate. And while Rouhani has removed many of the Revolutionary Guards veterans from the cabinet, he has replaced them not with representatives of civil society or the Iranian people, but with veterans of Iran’s notorious intelligence service.

Now it seems that Rouhani’s Iran is doubling down on noxious. On yesterday’s anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—attacks that the Islamic Republic facilitated by allowing the hijackers transit to and from their Afghanistan training camps—the state-controlled, official Iranian media went full-blown conspiracy, blaming 9/11 on Jews led by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger:

…It was on September 11th that he committed two of his most memorable outrages: The murder of Chilean President Salvador Allende and installation of the torture-loving Pinochet junta in 1973; and the explosive demolition of the World Trade Center, and massacre of nearly 3,000 people in New York and Washington in 2001…

Kissinger’s close association with the fanatically pro-Israel, anti-Iran neoconservatives since September 11th, 2001 has surprised some observers, who traditionally viewed the former National Security Advisor as a realist rather than an ideologue.

Why did Kissinger turn neocon? Some speculate that as his mind deteriorates he is rediscovering his tribal roots and experiencing a Zionist second childhood. Evidence supporting this view includes his petulant statement to the New York Post that “In ten years there will be no more Israel.” Apparently Kissinger has fallen victim to the kind of Zionist existential anguish that lies at the root of the radicalism of such neocons as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Scooter Libby, Douglas Feith, Dov Zakheim, and others of that ilk.

But there may be another reason for Kissinger’s succumbing to what Gilad Atzmon calls Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder. That reason, in a nutshell, is Kissinger’s complicity in the neoconservative coup d’état of September 11th, 2001. By helping design the 9/11 shock-and-awe psychological warfare operation, Kissinger appears to have indelibly wedded his own fate to that of the neoconservative September criminals.

How do we know Kissinger was involved in the 9/11-anthrax operation? Because President Bush, acting under orders of Dick Cheney and the 9/11 perpetrator cabal, appointed Kissinger to head the 9/11 Coverup Commission. Only a person with intimate knowledge of what needed to be covered up, as well as a strong grasp on the crumbling “19 hijackers led by a dying man in a cave” cover story, could have been entrusted to head the Commission.

Obama and Kerry may believe Iran has changed, but the Islamic Republic—increasingly cocky against the backdrop of America’s weakness—seems intent on demonstrating that it is not. Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei take pleasure in humiliating the United States. How ironic it is that so many proponents of outreach to Iran suggest that the Islamic Republic expressed its revulsion about the 9/11 attacks. This, of course, is nonsense. While the Iranian people mourned, Iran’s leaders gloated. Mehdi Karrubi, a reformist politician, blamed “Zionists in Israel” for the attacks, and the state-controlled press promoted wild conspiracy theories. According to Kayhan, a paper which serves as the voice of the supreme leader, “The super-terrorist had a taste of its own bitter medicine.”

When I debated Ambassador Tom Pickering, a leading proponent of striking a deal with Iran, last April at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Pickering quipped in the face of so many Iranian statements suggesting past insincerity something to the effect of, “That was then, this is now.” It seems that the Iranian regime hasn’t changed its spots, however. Any government that celebrates 9/11 should never be entrusted with nuclear power, nor should any regime which 13 years after that horrendous act still promotes the most noxious conspiracy theories. Then again, why should they not seek to humiliate and insult the United States and the victims of 9/11 when Obama and Kerry project such desperation?

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Obama’s Immigration Stall Fooling No One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Palestinian Elections Postponed, Obviously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Defining Islam and the Islamophobia Myth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cuomo Agonistes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jeers for Cruz and the Reality of Jew Hatred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Constitution and the War on ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That makes some sense but ironies abound.

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

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

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

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

The reasons for his choice are obvious.

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

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

But both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are wrong.

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

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

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

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Israel’s Predetermined Guilt and the Irrelevant Left

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Repudiates His Own Past Strategy and Statements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On What Is and Is Not Islamic

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

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

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

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

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

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Allowing Others to Carry Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poll Driven War May Not Scare ISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tough on ISIS? Iran Senses U.S. Weakness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is Eric Holder Trying to Protect the IRS?

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

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

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

Here’s Jonathan Strong at Breitbart:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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