Commentary Magazine


Will Bridgegate Vindication Revive Christie’s 2016 Hopes?

The leak of the news that the Justice Department probe in to Bridgegate has found that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had no role in the scandal is very good news for those who want him to run for president in 2016. But even if this is truly the end of efforts to lay responsibility for that mess on the governor—and there is no guarantee that this is so given Justice’s refusal to formally announce their findings in the investigation—nothing said now can take us back to the moment at the end of 2013 when Christie seemed to have a leg up for the Republican nomination.

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The leak of the news that the Justice Department probe in to Bridgegate has found that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had no role in the scandal is very good news for those who want him to run for president in 2016. But even if this is truly the end of efforts to lay responsibility for that mess on the governor—and there is no guarantee that this is so given Justice’s refusal to formally announce their findings in the investigation—nothing said now can take us back to the moment at the end of 2013 when Christie seemed to have a leg up for the Republican nomination.

As I wrote earlier today, the fact that we had to learn about this crucial piece of information from a leak raises serious questions about whether the Justice Department is slow-walking the investigation in order to damage the GOP star or if it is seeking to gin up an indictment of someone in his administration on some wholly unrelated charge. But even if they publicly vindicate him sometime soon or had done so months ago, Bridgegate forever altered his image. That can’t be undone. And given that Christie was always going to have trouble with major elements of the GOP base, any optimism about 2016 in his camp ought to be tempered with the realization that it will be, at best, a hard slog that will have to depend on a lot of good luck for him to win.

As frustrating as this may be for Christie, that moment in history when he was the darling of the Republican establishment as well as of much of the mainstream media was over the moment the story about his staff orchestrating days of traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge broke. For a few weeks, Bridgegate became the No. 1 news story and gave the liberal media a golden opportunity to destroy the governor’s carefully crafted image of a blunt, truth-telling, can-do politician. They made the most of it with coverage that dwarfed the attention given to Obama administration scandals concerning the Veterans Administration, the IRS, Benghazi, as well as Justice Department spying on the press. As Seth wrote earlier today, it gave Republicans a clear idea of the obstacles they face going forward toward 2016 when the Democrats’ press allies can play a crucial role in undermining their candidates while essentially defending both President Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But there is more to the question of Christie’s 2016 viability than media bias or what is motivating the delay of the announcement of the federal probers’ findings. Christie’s problem is, in a way, much more serious than the one Texas Governor Rick Perry faces over his indictment on a bizarre charge involving the use of his veto power. Perry’s predicament is legal but not political because everyone, including the denizens of the far left who continue to try to justify the indictment, knows it is a phony, politically inspired charge. If it is allowed by the courts to proceed it will be a huge distraction and an obstacle to his presidential hopes. But no one thinks it says anything about his character or qualifications for the presidency.

By contrast, the really damaging aspect of Bridgegate was not the false charges laid at his feet but the distinct impression that the affair reflected something unpleasant about the character of his administration that even his defenders couldn’t credibly deny. Christie, after all, rose to national prominence with performances (captured on YouTube) where he rode roughshod over opponents and even citizens with the temerity to question his views or decisions. The attractive side of all this straight talking was that he came across as the opposite of a political phony. But when looked at another way, he could also be seen as a bully who brooked no opposition and was always focused on crushing and humiliating his opponents.

Thus while he was riding high nine months ago after a uniquely successful first term in office during which he had defied the unions and then won a landslide reelection as a moderate conservative Republican in an extremely blue state, the seeds of future problems had already been sowed. It was never clear whether his abrasive character would play as well on the national stage as it did in New Jersey. Nor was there any way of knowing whether this remarkably thin-skinned politician could hold up under the scrutiny the national press gives presidential candidates in the heat of the campaign.

But Bridgegate short-circuited that inevitable vetting process and illustrated exactly what Christie’s detractors and even some friends had always known would be his weakness. Though the governor had nothing to do with an insane and profoundly stupid plot by some on his staff to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, New Jersey for not endorsing Christie, it was not a reach to claim that this sort of behavior reflected the dark side of a very hardnosed and unforgiving politician. It might have taken months on the campaign trail for some gaffe by the governor to raise these issues or it might never have happened. But now that it has, there’s no going back.

It is true that the public has the attention span of a toddler and that we have no idea what issues will be at the top of the national agenda when the nomination fight begins in earnest. The unfair treatment of Christie will also endear him to Republican primary voters who despise the media in much the same way that Perry’s troubles at the hands of his liberal tormentors have made him a hero to many on the right.

But Christie can’t wish away the damage that has already been done to him. Moreover, the problem with his candidacy is that even before Bridgegate, the notion that he had a straight path to the nomination was already a myth. Christie is, by New Jersey standards, a conservative Republican. But he forfeited the affection of many on the right when he embraced President Obama in the last days of the 2012 presidential campaign after Hurricane Sandy hit his state. Despite his pro-life views and attempt to edge further to the right, such as his refusal to involve New Jersey in a regional cap-and-trade emissions program, he was never going to be able to compete for the votes of evangelicals or Tea Partiers in the primaries. His hopes for the nomination rested on a plan that would repeat Mitt Romney’s trick in hanging around and letting all his more conservative opponents knock each other off. It might have worked, but Christie will be facing a much stronger field than Romney. And now that the glow is off his image after Bridgegate that scenario, while not impossible, is more unlikely than could have been imagined a year ago.

The end of Bridgegate, if that is what has happened, will help Christie, whose interest in the presidency never flagged even at the height of the scandal. But if he was a frontrunner nine months ago, today he must considered as, at best, a very long shot to win the nomination.

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Why Did We Learn About Christie’s Innocence From a Leak?

The news that the federal investigation of Bridgegate will absolve New Jersey Governor Chris Christie of any involvement in the bizarre scandal is the most important development in a story that has lingered since the beginning of 2014. But the fact that we learned about it from a leak, rather than a formal announcement of some sort, should raise some eyebrows and raises as many questions as it provides answers to those interested in the story.

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The news that the federal investigation of Bridgegate will absolve New Jersey Governor Chris Christie of any involvement in the bizarre scandal is the most important development in a story that has lingered since the beginning of 2014. But the fact that we learned about it from a leak, rather than a formal announcement of some sort, should raise some eyebrows and raises as many questions as it provides answers to those interested in the story.

If, after nine months of digging into a scandal that, as far as we know, involves no dead bodies, stolen money, or bribery, the Justice Department is still puttering around the affairs of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, it’s worth asking what’s taking so long and what are the motives of those sitting on the findings that are apparently conclusive.

But it should also be remembered that what is being investigated here isn’t all that mysterious. With the vast resources of the government at their disposal, it’s hard to imagine exactly what it is about the traffic jam that is taking so long to figure out.

Even WNBC’s sources, which are, we are assured, government officials and not connected to the Christie camp in any way, say the federal probe of Bridgegate is not concluded. This is an interesting fact in and of itself since it shows that, as is their practice in all too many of their cases, having found that the intended object of their investigation is innocent, the Justice Department investigators are desperately searching for a way to indict someone for something, even if it has nothing to do with the bridge.

In other words, the effort to find out who it was that decided to close lanes on the bridge and set off days of traffic jams that inconvenienced many thousands of citizens has probably turned into a fishing expedition in which the FBI may be looking for something that can be called a crime even if the original scandal is not one.

That prospect is bad enough because it demonstrates again the power of the feds to nail anyone who gets in their cross hairs, even if they have to invent a new crime to justify their waste of time and money on an investigation that had run into a dead-end. But the length of the investigation and the refusal of the Justice Department to wind up a matter that is not, as far as anyone knows, actually about anything more serious than a wacky revenge plot involving a local New Jersey political feud between the governor’s office in Trenton and the mayor of Fort Lee is curious.

Yet the decision of some on the inside of the probe to leak the principal findings of their work is even more curious. Why did they do it?

The first reason that comes to mind is the possibility that higher-ups in the Justice Department are deliberately slow-walking the investigation or stalling the release of its findings. The most likely motive for such shenanigans is obvious. The longer the investigation continues, the more damage is done to Christie, a Republican that many in the administration rightly fear as a dangerous opponent for the Democrats in 2016.

Is that an unreasonable suspicion? No doubt Attorney General Eric Holder’s defenders will insist that it is outrageous to even suspect him of doing anything like that. But the highly political way Holder has conducted the affairs of the Justice Department, including its involvement in voter ID cases in which it has taken up the partisan talking points of the Democratic Party, makes it clear that politics is always at the top of the agenda at Justice these days. A slow-walking of the probe also allows Democrats in the New Jersey State Legislature to continue their own lengthy and predictably pointless and inconclusive dive into the Bridgegate mess whose only purpose is to embarrass and/or damage the governor.

That may not be true. But there is also no reason for the Department to be sitting on the main results of any Bridgegate investigation. If the leaks are correct and Christie has been found to be innocent in the scandal then that needs to be formally announced and not kept under wraps for a moment longer. If investigators are now trying to lay some other crime, real or imagined, at the feet of someone else in his administration, that needs to be put on the table immediately as well.

The unnecessary traffic jams caused by some political mischief makers was an outrageous abuse of power but no matter who did it, it has never been exactly clear that it was a crime as opposed to something that is merely outrageous rather than illegal. It shouldn’t take this long to answer that question or the one about the authors of the bridge decision. The longer the Justice Department continues their part in this farce, the more it is becoming clear that in this affair, it may be that the investigation is a bigger scandal than the traffic jams.

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Obama’s Not a Closer

The headline in today’s Washington Post says it all: “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State.” Here’s the problem. The military wants to fight ISIS and Barack Obama wants to fight George W. Bush; and you can’t do both. Defeating the former demands action, defeating the latter demands inaction. Crushing ISIS means countenancing “boots on the ground,” but if Obama considers boots on the ground in Iraq his case against his warmongering predecessor falls apart. Or so he thinks. So we’re stuck in another contradictory Obama shadow show of bold proclamations, pussyfooting disclaimers, and substance-free press briefings.

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The headline in today’s Washington Post says it all: “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State.” Here’s the problem. The military wants to fight ISIS and Barack Obama wants to fight George W. Bush; and you can’t do both. Defeating the former demands action, defeating the latter demands inaction. Crushing ISIS means countenancing “boots on the ground,” but if Obama considers boots on the ground in Iraq his case against his warmongering predecessor falls apart. Or so he thinks. So we’re stuck in another contradictory Obama shadow show of bold proclamations, pussyfooting disclaimers, and substance-free press briefings.

This is the way with our president. Always, there is the real-world task at hand (be it halting Iranian nuclear aspirations, stopping a revanchist Russia, or destroying an advancing army of jihadists) and then there is his eternal ideological challenge—how to institute the anti-Bush paradigm of non-aggression and national humility. Invariably, ideology wins out and the world is the worse for it.

Not only is our military wise to the pattern, but the rest of the planet knows the score as well.  No one quite understands who our partners are in the fight against ISIS or what these partners would actually do. The Hill reports: “[Secretary of Defense Chuck] Hagel listed a number of countries with which U.S. officials have held discussions, and said that some have pledged military support, but most of the contributors and what the contributions could be have not yet been made clear.”

Obama forms coalitions the same way he fights wars, ends wars, draws red lines, and seals deals. He pretends. He pretended that Libya was a brilliant example of the international community working in concert. Then anarchy bloomed, Americans were killed, and U.S. diplomats left altogether. He pretended that we staged a responsible exit from Iraq—before we were replaced by the greatest threat to the civilized world. He pretended that Bashar al-Assad would be punished for violating international norms and committing mass atrocities. The pretend punishment: guaranteed extension of Assad’s rule via a Russian-led WMD removal deal. He pretends there’s progress in nuclear negotiations with Iran, while Ali Khamenei boasts that the West has come to heel before the Islamic Republic. If anyone bothered to ask Obama about closing Guantanamo Bay today he’d undoubtedly talk about the progress he’s making toward that goal too.

Obama’s not a closer. He’s a prolonger. In press conferences and on talk shows everything is forever moving steadily ahead, but in the unscripted realms beyond his dwindling support network things are palpably collapsing. And yet, Obama’s two-front war, against real threats and against George W. Bush, continues apace. In Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf writes, “Obama seems steadfast in his resistance both to learning from his past errors and to managing his team so that future errors are prevented. It is hard to think of a recent president who has grown so little in office.”

The damage that’s been done is not only broad, but also deep. This week Senator Marco Rubio gave an important speech on the future of American power and, in criticizing Obama, got to something vital: “Worst of all,” he said, “the president’s foreign policy has let down the American people. It has done more than leave them vulnerable – it has dented their faith in the promise and power of the American ideal. The pride they once took in our global leadership has withered into uncertainty.”

He’s right. Our national uncertainty is Barack Obama’s fundamental ambivalence writ large. America needs a closer.

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Bridgegate, the Media, and Lessons for 2016

The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

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The apparent exoneration by federal investigators of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the scandal over the lane closures on a bridge last year may be good news for Christie, but other prospective 2016 GOP candidates should take notice. The media’s unhinged obsession with hyping and trumping up the story in an effort to take down a presidential candidate was just a warm-up act. Far from chastened, the media is almost certainly just getting started.

That means that if Christie really is exonerated–which he has been insisting he would be for months–conservatives should expect the leftist press to choose a new target. Although the coverage of this scandal leaves the mainstream press looking utterly humiliated, they won’t be humbled. A good precedent is when the New York Times concocted false accusations against John McCain in 2008 intended to destroy not just his campaign but his family; after the story was called out for the unethical hit job it was, especially on the right, then-Times editor Bill Keller responded: “My first tendency when they do that is to find the toughest McCain story we’ve got and put it on the front page.”

Getting called out for bias only makes the media more likely to give in to its vindictive instincts. This is the press version of an in-kind contribution, and those contributions don’t go to Republican campaigns.

In January conservative media watchers were passing around the statistics that showed the lopsided coverage the media was giving “Bridgegate” vs. the IRS scandal. One of the charts, which showed dedicated coverage over a fixed period of time, bothered reporters. In one of the unconvincing “defenses” of his fellow journalists, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza objected:

The comparison made in this chart in terms of coverage is not an apples to apples one.  The IRS story broke on May 10. That’s a full 52 days before the Media Research Center began counting the minutes of news coverage devoted to it. The Christie story, on the other hand, broke in the Bergen Record on Jan. 8, the same day that MRC began tracking its mentions in the media.

What Cillizza actually demonstrated, unintentionally, was a far worse aspect of the coverage that was tougher to quantify but jumps off the screen from Cillizza’s post. And that is the general lack of interest on the part of reporters in digging into the government’s shocking misconduct–you know, practicing journalism. The lack of curiosity has been astounding.

As our Pete Wehner wrote the other day, forget basic reporting: the press ignored a genuine piece of Benghazi-related news when it fell in their laps. That’s how the IRS developments happened too. The initial story was announced in the IRS’s attempt to get out in front of a report that had discovered the abuse of power and was going to detail its findings. The IRS decided to try to spin the news in advance to take control of the story.

And the recent revelations of the IRS’s ongoing strategy of destroying evidence during the investigation were brought to the public’s attention by the group Judicial Watch, which has been filing Freedom of Information Act requests for documents. The latest piece of news, that Attorney General Eric Holder’s office tried to coordinate a strategy with House Democrats to blunt the impact of future revelations about the IRS’s illegal targeting scheme, came to light because Holder’s office accidentally called Darrell Issa’s office instead of Democrat Elijah Cummings.

The difference in media coverage was only part of the story, then. The more serious part was that the media is just not doing their jobs when the target of the investigation is the Obama administration. That doesn’t mean all reporters, of course, or that they’re ignoring all stories. But the pattern is pretty clear: when we learn something about Obama administration misbehavior, it’s generally not from reporters, many of whom eventually get hired by the Obama administration.

The other aspect of the coverage gap is the type of story. Surely Cillizza thinks a staffer closing lanes on a bridge, however indefensible, is a different caliber of story than the IRS, at the encouragement of high-ranking Democrats, undertaking a targeting scheme to silence Obama’s critics in the lead-up to his reelection. Cillizza was right, in other words: conservatives weren’t comparing apples to apples. But he was wrong in thinking that stacked the deck in favor of conservatives’ conclusion; the opposite was the case.

We’ve already seen this with other prospective GOP 2016 candidates. When Wisconsin prosecutors initiated a wide-ranging “John Doe” investigation intended to silence conservative groups and voters in Wisconsin and level false allegations against Scott Walker, the media ran with the story. It turned out that the investigation was so unethical that those prosecutors now stand accused broad civil-rights violations. But the point of the coverage is to echo the false allegations against Walker, not to get the story right. So the media moved on.

And they moved on to Rick Perry, who was the target of an indictment so demented that only the most extreme liberals defended it. The point of the case, though, was to get headlines announcing Perry’s indictment. This one may have backfired because it was so insane that, aside from former Obama advisor Jim Messina, Rachel Maddow, and a couple writers for liberal magazines, the left tried to distance themselves from it. But the fact remains: Rick Perry is under indictment.

The criminalization of politics is part of the left’s broader lawfare strategy. This is the sort of thing repellent to democratic values and certainly should draw critical attention from the press. Instead, they’ve chosen to enable it.

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The UK Holds Together, but at What Cost?

Britain has averted further Balkanization. After a fraught referendum on Scottish independence, the preservation of the United Kingdom is undoubtedly a welcomed outcome, yet it is far from a happy one. Even with Scotland voting to remain in the union, the longer-term impact of this vote remains uncertain. There is no escaping the bad feelings and old ghosts that this referendum has roused. Nor has the way been cleared for a strengthening of the union. In what appeared to many like a fit of panic and desperation, Britain’s prime minister promised Scots that even in the event of a “no” vote he would still transfer yet more powers from Westminster to Hollyrood. The campaign against independence championed the slogan “better together,” but in reality Scots and everyone else in the United Kingdom look set to get still further apart.

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Britain has averted further Balkanization. After a fraught referendum on Scottish independence, the preservation of the United Kingdom is undoubtedly a welcomed outcome, yet it is far from a happy one. Even with Scotland voting to remain in the union, the longer-term impact of this vote remains uncertain. There is no escaping the bad feelings and old ghosts that this referendum has roused. Nor has the way been cleared for a strengthening of the union. In what appeared to many like a fit of panic and desperation, Britain’s prime minister promised Scots that even in the event of a “no” vote he would still transfer yet more powers from Westminster to Hollyrood. The campaign against independence championed the slogan “better together,” but in reality Scots and everyone else in the United Kingdom look set to get still further apart.

The vote was always anticipated to be close. As it was 55 percent voted to stay and 45 percent chose secession. Whatever the outcome, there was either going to be a newly independent Scotland that was deeply divided against itself or, as is now the case, the preservation of a nation that many people in Scotland have made clear they don’t wish to be part of. That can’t go unnoticed, not least among the English. They perhaps can be forgiven for feeling somewhat disgruntled that considerable numbers of their compatriots wanted out; many with a passion. Accordingly, there were even signs of a contrarian splinter movement emerging—mostly among conservative pundits—who claimed to welcome a Scotland-free UK. They insisted that parting with so many Labor voters and economically depressed areas would only be cause for celebration.

The referendum also reminded the vast majority of citizens that they get a raw deal out of devolution, and that it’s only going to get rawer. Not only do Scots get their own separate government and parliament, but the representatives they send to Westminster are permitted to vote on laws even when they only pertain to England. And in addition to this double representation, Brits living elsewhere in the union must envy that their taxes go toward subsidizing free university education for all Scots, higher pensions, and higher levels of healthcare spending that they themselves don’t get to enjoy south of the border.

While a small clique of conservatives wanted to see the Scots go, far more will be furious that Cameron has promised to devolve yet more powers to Scotland in what looked like a rather unbecoming act of bribery. One can’t help but wonder if this whole problem might be eased by having a little less devolution, not more. After all, had devolution never been instituted at the end of the 1990s, it is hard to imagine that the appetite for independence ever would have grown nearly as strong as it is today.

There is no getting around the fact that having devolution to some parts of the United Kingdom but not others creates a rather topsy-turvy, and indeed unjust, constitutional reality. And although the British may claim to be proud of their uncodified and ever-evolving constitution, the current arrangement can hardly be regarded as satisfactory. In all probability devolution won’t be undone. Not only would many in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland resent handing back powers, but devolution necessitated the formation of several new political classes serving in the additional parliaments and civil services. And third rate as these regional elites no doubt are, they are in no rush to abdicate those well salaried positions. Indeed, during the recent push for independence, you could see them eying the prospect of ambassadorships the world over.

Perhaps eventually the English will demand a parliament of their own too and the UK will formerly embrace federalism. Some have speculated that Englishness has experienced a boost from the rampant petty nationalisms flourishing in Scotland and Wales. On the other hand, the British may just learn to live with this constitutional dissonance. They already have plenty; a farcically overcrowded House of Commons, a still unelected but now essentially powerless House of Lords, and a Monarch who presides over—and yet has no say over—a national church that most citizens don’t belong to or believe in. One wonders if even James Madison could untangle this little lot. But if Scotland is going to stay, then some solutions will need to be found, because right now there’s plenty of bad feeling, and few obvious ways in which to manage any of it.

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Obama vs. the Generals

I have been writing in recent days that President Obama’s halfhearted strategy to battle ISIS–authorizing only a few air strikes and ruling out “boots on the ground”–may degrade the group but will not destroy it. A more robust effort is needed, I believe, to confront this cancer growing in the Middle East.

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I have been writing in recent days that President Obama’s halfhearted strategy to battle ISIS–authorizing only a few air strikes and ruling out “boots on the ground”–may degrade the group but will not destroy it. A more robust effort is needed, I believe, to confront this cancer growing in the Middle East.

But don’t take my word for it. That’s also the view of retired Marine General Jim Mattis, a former commander of Central Command and one of the most respected generals of his generation. Mattis is known as a straight-talker and he certainly pulled no punches in his testimony on Thursday before the House Intelligence Committee. The whole thing is worth reading. Here are a couple of the highlights that, one hopes, will get Obama’s attention:

If this threat to our nation is determined to be as significant as I believe it is, we may not wish to reassure out enemies in advance that they will not see American “boots on the ground.” If a brigade of our paratroopers or a battalion landing team of our marines could strengthen our allies at a key juncture and create havoc/humiliation for our adversaries, then we should do what is necessary with our forces that exist for that very purpose. The U.S. military is not war weary, our military draws strength from confronting our enemies when clear policy objectives are set and we are fully resourced for the fight. …

Half‐hearted or tentative efforts, or air strikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foe’s credibility, reinforcing his recruiting efforts which are already strong. I do not necessarily advocate American ground forces at this point, but we should never reassure our enemy that our commander‐in‐chief would not commit them at the time and place of his choosing. When we act it should be unequivocal, designed to end the fight as swiftly as possible. While no one is more reluctant to see us again in combat than those of us who have signed letters to the next of kin of our fallen, if something is worth fighting for we must bring full strength to bear.

These views, I should add, are not Mattis’s alone. It is clear they are shared by his successor at Centcom, Gen. Lloyd Austin, as well as by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff. Once upon a time President Bush was widely castigated for ignoring what was supposedly the consensus of the military to send more troops to Iraq (in fact Gen. Tommy Franks was complicit in not sending enough, but that’s another story). Will President Obama now be held to account for ignoring the best military advice of our top generals?

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Will ISIS Votes Haunt 2016 Contenders?

The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

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The country seems firmly behind President Obama’s belated decision to use force against ISIS terrorists and to arm some of the Syrian rebels who will oppose them on the ground. But this seeming consensus isn’t affecting the votes of some Republican presidential contenders. Though even a libertarian neo-isolationist like Senator Rand Paul now says he favors carrying the fight to ISIS, he and some others will be voting no on the Syrian component of the president’s plan. That appears to be the safest course for anyone who fears being tarred with support of an Obama initiative or what may prove to be another unpopular war in a future Republican presidential primary. That will make today’s vote an interesting test of character for those 2016 contenders who may have serious qualms about the president’s strategy but know that advocating standing aside would be a dereliction of duty.

That’s the quandary for Senator Marco Rubio, who stands second to none in the Senate as a critic of the president’s foreign policy. Rubio has rightly denounced the president’s failures in the Middle East and, in particular, his abandonment of Iraq and dithering on Syria that allowed ISIS to become a dominant force in both countries on Obama’s watch. Like other conservatives as well as a not insignificant number of liberal senators, he’s also rightly worried that the president’s plans for this conflict are woefully inadequate to the situation. More than that, along with many Republicans, he believes the president is wrong not to seek an explicit authorization from Congress to fight ISIS rather than to merely pretend, as the administration wrongly contends, that the 2001 vote granting President Bush the right to use troops against al-Qaeda also applies to the rival, and now more powerful, group.

But Rubio has indicated that he will vote yes for the authorization on Syria. The question now is whether this will haunt him or anyone else planning on running for higher office or reelection.

Rand Paul seemed to be saying as much when he said yesterday that members of Congress were petrified by a possible vote to authorize force. Senator Ted Cruz, whose views on foreign policy are a lot closer to those of Rubio than they are to Paul, seems to agree. Cruz said he would oppose arming the Syrian rebels because the administration doesn’t really have a clue as to which groups opposing the regime of Bashar Assad are “good guys” and which are “bad.”

It’s difficult to argue too strenuously with those qualms. The president’s adamant refusal to act on the growing catastrophe in Syria not only enabled ISIS to fill the void but also undermined the chances that genuine moderates might be able to replace the despotic Assad regime and its Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Moreover, there are, as the New York Times noted today, ominous precedents for senators who swallow hard and vote to authorize the use of force but later have that decision thrown in their face by primary opponents. Hillary Clinton, who voted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq while in the Senate, found herself outflanked on the left by Barack Obama in 2008. The question facing Rubio and the rest of the Senate is one that juxtaposes the certainty that voting for an expanded conflict will be viewed by many voters as a mistake against the certainty that the failure to act will allow ISIS to prevail in the fighting.

As I noted yesterday, as the U.S. prepares to step up the fight against ISIS, the country’s main problem is not the lack of a strategy but the seeming inability of the president to play the part of a wartime leader. Supporting operations in the Middle East under such circumstances is a perilous undertaking. So, too, is any effort to finally aid those Syrian forces that are not linked to Islamists or Assad and the Iranians.

But Rubio is right to worry more about the danger of inaction than any possible political repercussions. Were the U.S. to stand aside in Syria, especially with the president foolishly taking the threat of a direct intervention on the ground off the table, the consequences would be grave. If, as most Americans rightly now understand, ISIS is a serious threat to U.S. security, any counterattack undertaken now, whether well led or not, is bound to improve the situation. More to the point, the failure to act would be a potential catastrophe and might make all the difference in the ultimate outcome of a conflict in which U.S. success is not assured, notwithstanding the braggadocio being heard to that effect in Washington these days.

There is no way of knowing today whether votes on Syria or Iraq will be major liabilities in the winter or spring of 2016 or, indeed, if the ISIS threat will still be an issue at that time. The year and a half between now and the presidential primaries is a lifetime in politics. But Paul and Cruz are probably right in reckoning that any vote that can be construed as insufficiently anti-Obama is a safe bet and that those who vote yes are giving up a valuable hostage to fortune, whether or not they run for president.

Just as it is simple to second guess those who voted for war in Iraq without thinking what dangers would have resulted from doing nothing, it will be easy to take pot shots at those who vote yes today. But Rubio is still in the right here. The costs of doing nothing in war are usually higher than those of boldness. Even with an inadequate leader who is not prepared to do everything to achieve victory, the situation will be better off if the U.S. finally starts to do something to alter the correlation of forces in Syria and Iraq against both Assad and the terrorists. Voting no may eventually be popular, but it won’t be the right thing to do.

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Clinton’s Leftist Critics: Still Irrelevant

Imagine the following scenario. The Democratic Party continues to push Hillary Clinton as its nominee for 2016. The women of the party who could challenge her, like Elizabeth Warren, continue showing deference and bowing to reality by staying on the sidelines and supporting Hillary, knowing their turn may yet come. But then, word gets to Warren that an activist with Occupy Wall Street is put off by Clinton’s cozy connections to Wall Street, and wants someone like Warren to challenge her, to be the conscience of the party. Game changer, right?

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Imagine the following scenario. The Democratic Party continues to push Hillary Clinton as its nominee for 2016. The women of the party who could challenge her, like Elizabeth Warren, continue showing deference and bowing to reality by staying on the sidelines and supporting Hillary, knowing their turn may yet come. But then, word gets to Warren that an activist with Occupy Wall Street is put off by Clinton’s cozy connections to Wall Street, and wants someone like Warren to challenge her, to be the conscience of the party. Game changer, right?

Of course not. Elizabeth Warren is not going to take her career advice from pseudoanarchist trustfunders who defecate on police cars and shield rapists from legal trouble. Neither is Hillary Clinton, or anyone running the Democratic Party. And so it is in that light that we read about the latest anti-Hillary grumbling from the economically illiterate perpetual freshmen on the populist left. According to The Hill, there is an email group called “Gamechanger Salon,” consisting of about 1,500 liberal journalists, activists, and campaign strategists. Someone leaked the contents of the emails to The Hill. The “Gamechangers” are, of course, reveling in blissful unawareness of their own irrelevance to the 2016 presidential election:

“[A] Clinton presidency undos [sic] all our progress and returns the financial interests to even more prominence than they currently have,” Melissa Byrne, an activist with the Occupy Wall Street movement, said in a November 2013 email.

The progressives expressed an appetite for an alternative to Clinton to teach her — and those from the centrist wing of the party — a lesson.

Liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has repeatedly said she won’t run for president, but some on the left aren’t convinced.

“The establishment Dems need to be punished, and the best way for that to happen is for Warren to beat Hillary in the primary on a populist message,” Carl Gibson, a progressive activist and writer for Occupy.com, wrote in one email.

Even though months have passed since the emails were sent, the sentiment remains.

Mike Lux, a prominent strategist and an active member of the group, told The Hill that the concerns haven’t changed and operatives “are probably more worried at this point rather than less.”

Well sure, naturally they’d be more worried now than less, since Hillary Clinton is closer to her party’s nomination. She’s not just incredibly wealthy herself, with help from her Wall Street speaking clients, but she’s even asking them to help shape her talking points on economic inequality, as the New York Times reported last week:

Fledgling efforts to develop a message are quietly taking place, said the people close to Mrs. Clinton. Without discussing her 2016 plans, she has talked to friends and donors in business about how to tackle income inequality without alienating businesses or castigating the wealthy.

Certainly one can imagine why left-wingers aren’t thrilled to read that Hillary is outsourcing her policy and campaign communications to the people she’s asking for money. And they wouldn’t be alone in that uneasiness were Hillary a Republican. The ads would write themselves, as would the New York Times editorials. (Though to be fair, the Times editorials have already been written; they’d just be recycled with the name changed.)

Speaking of Republicans, what did Hillary’s benefactors and influence seekers tell her to say about economic policy? This might sound familiar:

That message would likely be less populist and more pro-growth, less about inversions and more about corporate tax reform, less about raising the minimum wage and more long-term job creation, said two people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions.

She’s running as Mitt Romney, in other words, but with less management experience and greater dependence on her donors. You can imagine why leftists are just thrilled.

Part of the story, according to The Hill, is lingering discontent over Clinton’s vote in favor of the Iraq war. She has since apologized, seeking proper absolution. But all is not forgiven. One activist told The Hill he wants to see people like Clinton “punished at the ballot box” over the war. But didn’t that already happen? Hillary did, after all, lose in 2008 to Barack Obama, whose campaign really did get a lift from his opposition to the Iraq war.

On the other hand, you can see where these activists are coming from, since Clinton was a more interventionist and hawkish proponent of force in Obama’s Cabinet. The presumption on the part of these activists is that Clinton’s regret over the Iraq war vote is disingenuous to the extent that it hasn’t altered her worldview or her faith in American firepower. They don’t care as much that she regrets the last Iraq war because they think she’d jump right into the next one.

And maybe that’s true. But again, it doesn’t really matter. The “Gamechangers” are anything but. There is still no serious opposition to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party, and there does not appear to be any on the horizon. And a progressive email list isn’t going to change that.

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White House Wages War on One Woman

For the past three years, Democrats have been talking a lot about a supposed war on women being waged by Republicans. But while that charge has been partisan fear mongering, one particular woman has good reason to complain about the war that is being waged on her. As anyone who reads today’s story in Politico knows, the woman is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the folks attacking her are fellow Democrats and, in particular, the White House, which is looking for a convenient scapegoat for an anticipated Democrat defeat this year.

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For the past three years, Democrats have been talking a lot about a supposed war on women being waged by Republicans. But while that charge has been partisan fear mongering, one particular woman has good reason to complain about the war that is being waged on her. As anyone who reads today’s story in Politico knows, the woman is Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the folks attacking her are fellow Democrats and, in particular, the White House, which is looking for a convenient scapegoat for an anticipated Democrat defeat this year.

The Politico feature comes on the heels of a similar piece  just published in Buzzfeed that is also highly critical of the chair of the Democratic National Committee. Both articles appear to be the result of a calculated campaign of leaks from DWS critics in the White House and senior levels of the Democratic Party. She is accused of being a lousy DNC chair, of getting the party into needless controversies, of being hyper-ambitious and solely interested in feathering her own nest (a shocking accusation about any politician), and even—shades of Sarah Palin—buying expensive clothes and then trying to get the party to pay the bill.

I am no fan of Wasserman Schultz, who is, in my opinion, one of the most repellent figures in contemporary politics. But no matter what you think of her, this orchestrated attack on her position by people she has served ably and loyally is Washington politics at its worst and a rather obvious illustration of the misogyny that is part of the culture of this White House. Rather than reminding us of her numerous faults, it is a cowardly attack that tells us far more about the vile nature of her associates and allies than anything about DWS.

It’s impossible to read either story without walking away thinking that DWS is deeply disliked in the highest echelons of her party. But, of course, this isn’t news to anyone who’s followed Washington politics in recent years. The same people who dished on her to Politico and Buzzfeed have been doing the same thing since 2012 when most people assumed President Obama would can her at the DNC. But unlike that election year, which brought victory to the Democrats, this midterm is shaping up to be a disaster for the president’s party. If there is any national factor that can be blamed for this, the most obvious candidate is the president. Obama’s job approval ratings are now down to George W. Bush levels and his calamitous handling of foreign affairs and indecisive war leadership, as well as his handling of a lackluster economy and immigration, are helping to sink Democrats. But rather than admit that his second-term blues are, unsurprisingly hurting the party in power, the White House is looking to put the goat’s horns on Wassermann Schultz.

This is, to put it mildly, more than a bit unfair. DWS took over the DNC in the spring of 2011 in the wake of the Democrats’ shellacking in the 2010 midterms. Since then her handling of the two major tasks any party chair must do—fundraising and being the party’s attack dog—has been nothing short of brilliant. The DNC has flourished under her leadership as Democrats have matched or exceeded their Republican counterparts in fundraising throughout the last two election cycles. Just as importantly, DWS has been a ubiquitous partisan battler, regularly engaging in the most outrageous and often mendacious attacks on the GOP.

But almost from the start of her term at the DNC, it’s been clear that she isn’t exactly the president’s cup of tea. While Republicans have good reason to despise her, the snark thrown in her direction in the last three years has been just as likely to come from Democrats as it has from her partisan antagonists. Indeed, the personal nature of the jibes, including derogatory remarks about her personal appearance and voice (both perhaps too New York and too Jewish-sounding for the tastes of some highly placed Democrats) speaks more about a clash of individual tastes than the ideological divide between DWS and her Republican opponents.

How has she managed to stay on so long in a job where she serves at the pleasure of the president? It mostly has to do with that war on women Democrats are always yapping about. Having campaigned so hard on the issue of the mistreatment of women, it was difficult for the president to take down one of the most highly placed women in Washington for what appears to be nothing more than the sin of being an obnoxious partisan. That’s especially true since, as we know, this is a White House where women are scarce in top positions and are paid far less on average, than men. Though DWS appears to be the bête noire of the boys club in the West Wing, they were sufficiently cognizant of the bad optics of firing her after so much partisan blather about women being treated unfairly, so she survived.

But with an election defeat looming, the knives are out and it appears that the DNC chair is being set up for the fall. To do that, the West Wing boys club is pulling out all the stops, including circulating the story about Wasserman Schultz spending months trying to get the party to pay for the fancy clothing she wore to its 2012 convention and then the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner. According to Politico, numerous sources attest to the truth of the allegations despite DWS’s denials.

Let me confess that, without any direct knowledge of the matter myself, I’d bet that DWS is not telling the truth. After all, she has a well-earned reputation for being an adept barefaced liar. But does anyone really think such practices are unique to Wasserman Schultz? And, like the similarly unscrupulous leaks attacking Sarah Palin for the same offense, would anyone leak embarrassing stories to this effect if the object of the leaks were not someone the White House was setting up to take the fall for the midterms?

The same applies to stories being recycled now about DWS turning her coat during the 2008 primaries and embracing Obama after being a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton. There truly is no honor among thieves in the Democratic Party.

DWS is tough to take. She is an aggressive, nasty partisan brawler who will say or do anything to get her way or to further her career. But while Republicans should be forgiven for disliking the DNC chair for her outrageous attacks on them and her success at their expense, the only reasons Democrats have to hate her are strictly personal. Though it is difficult to sympathize with Wasserman Schultz, it is impossible not to feel her allies are treating her unfairly. This is a genuine war on a woman who deserved better from her party. They ought to be ashamed.

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Biden’s Apologists Do Him No Favors

Joe Biden got into some trouble over the last few days, as he tends to do, by making inappropriate or offensive comments. Because Biden has a long career of gaffes marked with seemingly racist pronunciations, this can lose some of its news value. So when Biden used an anti-Semitic term to refer to bankers on Tuesday, it was generally passed off as Joe being Joe. Yet while this disturbs the offended parties, the way Biden is treated by the media should really bother the vice president most of all.

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Joe Biden got into some trouble over the last few days, as he tends to do, by making inappropriate or offensive comments. Because Biden has a long career of gaffes marked with seemingly racist pronunciations, this can lose some of its news value. So when Biden used an anti-Semitic term to refer to bankers on Tuesday, it was generally passed off as Joe being Joe. Yet while this disturbs the offended parties, the way Biden is treated by the media should really bother the vice president most of all.

To recap, Biden called predatory bankers “Shylocks” in a speech. He then called former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew “the wisest man in the Orient,” confirming both that Biden rarely has any idea what he’s talking about and that he’s several hundred years old. According to the Washington Post, Biden made a third gaffe yesterday, contradicting President Obama on the possibility of additional ground troops in Iraq. That last gaffe, being interpreted as neither racist nor anti-Semitic, flew under the radar, but to those who care about actual defense policy it should still be worth considering.

The reaction from the groups offended by Biden’s casual use of terms considered both racist and anti-Semitic were, in my opinion, also wide of the mark. The use of “Shylock” does deserve pushback, since Biden was using it in a derogatory way and of course it refers to Jews–though it’s doubtful Biden was truly familiar with the word’s original use since it was in a work of classic literature and not a Bugs Bunny cartoon. He surely didn’t mean to insult Yew, though I suppose he should have known better anyway. Either way, the RNC’s reaction that “His comment is not only disrespectful but also uses unacceptable imperialist undertones” is just bizarre.

But the criticism of Biden played into the same stereotype of Joe being Joe as did those who brushed aside or ignored the controversy. Here’s the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman:

When someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden, uses the term “Shylocked” to describe unscrupulous moneylenders dealing with service men and women, we see once again how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is in society.

So it’s society’s fault Biden makes offensive comments? I’m sorry, but he’s the vice president of the United States, and I don’t think “society” needs to take the blame for this one. After Biden called to apologize, Foxman followed it up with this:

There is no truer friend of the Jewish people than Joe Biden. Not only has he been a stalwart against anti-Semitism and bigotry, but he has the courage and forthrightness to admit a mistake and use it as an opportunity to learn and to teach others about the harmful effects of stereotypes. He has turned a rhetorical gaffe into a teachable moment.

“Teach others.” The only lesson Biden taught anybody here is the same one we’ve been learning for years: if you’re a prominent Democrat, you can say basically whatever you want.

That’s a lesson Biden may think works to his advantage. Certainly many conservatives feel that way. But they’re wrong. The media’s decision to treat Biden not as a latent logorrheic bigot but as a dimwitted ward of the state has virtually assured he will never be elected president.

When Biden was running for president earlier in his career, it was revealed he was a plagiarist. That truly was a “teachable moment.” Biden stopped–to my knowledge, at least–plagiarizing. Had Biden’s propensity toward cultural insensitivity been similarly addressed, he certainly would have gotten a second (and third, no doubt) chance to refine his ability to hide his apparent disregard for ethnic minorities.

Now, it’s possible this would have made no difference. Perhaps Biden is unfixable. But Americans consider the thought of Joe Biden being president to be ridiculous. This does not speak well of Barack Obama, who nominated him to be a heartbeat away, or the electorate who put him there. And it does not speak well of the media who constantly gave him a free pass, allowing him to be a jovial sidekick or a mascot when the American government probably needs someone with more gravitas than Mr. Met playing understudy to the president.

But in the end, this works against Biden getting elected president. Having turned Biden into the crazy but loveable uncle, the press forever doomed him to be a walking punch line. What he needed were his own teachable moments. He never learned how to be a serious political figure thanks to the kid-gloves treatment he received. He was able to ride that wave all the way to the vice presidency–and that’s pretty impressive. But as far as the national electorate is concerned, that’s where it ends.

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The Vietnamization of the War on ISIS?

Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

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Shades of LBJ. The comparison may be unfair, but it is also inevitable when one reads that “the U.S. military campaign against Islamist militants in Syria is being designed to allow President Barack Obama to exert a high degree of personal control, going so far as to require that the military obtain presidential signoff for strikes in Syrian territory.”

This is reminiscent of the way that Lyndon Johnson controlled air strikes on North Vietnam from the Oval Office in what has come to be seen as classic example of how trying to carefully ratchet up the use of force to “send a message” to adversaries doesn’t work in the real world. At least Johnson had good reason to limit air strikes in North Vietnam–he was worried about drawing China into the war as had occurred during the Korean War. In the case of Syria, it’s hard to see a similar imperative to limit air strikes on ISIS. If Obama is worried that the Assad regime will take advantage of U.S. attacks on ISIS, the obvious solution would be to bomb Assad’s forces too–in short, more air attacks, not fewer. But that clearly is not what the president contemplates; he seems to envision a few pinprick air strikes in Syria and a few more in Iraq.

How this is supposed to succeed in his ambitious goal of first degrading and then destroying ISIS is hard to see. His own top generals–Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff–have warned in recent days that it may be necessary to send at least a limited number of U.S. troops to work alongside friendly forces in order to enhance their combat effectiveness. Yet Obama keeps insists this will not happen. At Central Command on Wednesday, he said: “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission. I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq.”

It’s possible that Obama can wiggle out of his seemingly firm commitment as David Ignatius suggests: by reflagging Special Operations Forces under Title 50 covert-action authority and sending them to work alongside indigenous forces under CIA command. It would be easier and more effective not to go through this subterfuge, however, so as to commit the full resources of the U.S. military to support advisers and air controllers in harm’s way.

Comparisons have been drawn to the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 but in that case a large number of Special Forces teams operated openly alongside more covert officers from the CIA. That’s a good model to replicate in Iraq and Syria. But whatever the legal niceties, it is vitally important, as his own generals are signaling, for Obama to put at least a limited force of U.S. personnel on the ground where they can work alongside indigenous forces and accompany them into battle, as occurred in Afghanistan. It is important also to step up air strikes on ISIS beyond what is currently contemplated because the projected, low-level of strikes will not be enough to break the back of the most powerful terrorist movement in the world. It may in fact simply result in ISIS being able to claim a victory by posturing as the jihadists who withstood an American offensive. That would be pretty much the worst scenario imaginable–yet with his commitment to gradualism in warfare Obama is making it more likely.

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Blame Braveheart and Bonnie Prince Charlie

Tomorrow Scots will vote on independence from the United Kingdom in a historic referendum that looks right now as if it may actually lead to the division of Britain. The reasons for this have been debated ad nauseam in recent days, but though the critics of the independence movement have the far stronger arguments in terms of the interests of both Scotland and the UK, they seem, if polls are to be believed, to be failing to convince a majority of Scots to vote against independence. But the focus on economic arguments, however cogent, on the part of the measure’s opponents seems to miss the point about why the unthinkable may be about to happen.

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Tomorrow Scots will vote on independence from the United Kingdom in a historic referendum that looks right now as if it may actually lead to the division of Britain. The reasons for this have been debated ad nauseam in recent days, but though the critics of the independence movement have the far stronger arguments in terms of the interests of both Scotland and the UK, they seem, if polls are to be believed, to be failing to convince a majority of Scots to vote against independence. But the focus on economic arguments, however cogent, on the part of the measure’s opponents seems to miss the point about why the unthinkable may be about to happen.

Our Tom Wilson described independence as an idea that is “almost insane” in a recent piece. This movement similarly baffles historian Niall Ferguson. Writing earlier this week in the New York Times, Ferguson debunks the notion that Scotland is England’s last colony. The 1707 Act of Union was, he rightly notes, a merger of equals, not an act of English aggression. If anything, he says, the accession of James I (James VI of Scotland) as the successor of England’s Elizabeth I in 1603 can be seen as Scotland acquiring England, a transaction that was made formal a century later during the reign of his great-granddaughter Queen Anne. Lest anyone think that formulation became outdated when Anne was followed by the succession of Hanover (now Windsor) kings and queens, it should also be pointed out that 11 of the prime ministers of the UK have been Scots.

Scotland has benefited enormously from being part of the country that became Great Britain under the Scottish Stuart dynasty. Indeed, as Ferguson notes, the fact that he and liberal economist Paul Krugman both agree about the disastrous impact of independence amply illustrates the consensus across the political spectrum about its implications.

So why are they on the verge of doing it? Ferguson puts it down to an outbreak of petty nationalism that ought to be beneath the nation that produced a slew of enlightenment philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith. Tom Wilson blames it largely on the ideology of the left. The left has eroded British identity and sought to break down a once great nation, as Tom notes, in which all too many of its citizens no longer believe. By contrast, British writer Tom Devine writes in the Guardian to blame it on Margaret Thatcher and the end of heavy manufacturing that is wrongly blamed on her government.

But these explanations don’t really answer the question of why a rational people would embrace such a mad leap in the dark. Thucydides diagnosed the reasons for waging war as being rooted in fear, honor, and interest. But those who argue against Scottish independence by only citing the fear that Scots should have of the consequences of going it alone and their obvious interest in remaining in a country that largely subsidizes them make a mistake by dismissing or ignoring the fact that the independence movement is largely rooted in a sense of national honor. Identity and the myths that build up around it will always be more powerful than the pound sterling or any other financial currency.

Though Ferguson is right to say that Scots have been, almost from the beginning of the union, net winners in their relationship with England, that has never been how most of his countrymen perceived the relationship. The romantic myths enshrined in music and literature about the 18th century Jacobite rebellions against the Hanover dynasty helped forge modern Scottish identity as being a separate people from the oppressive English even, as Tom notes, as their distinctive Celtic language died out. That is ancient history that is not even cited by the giddiest and least sensible of independence advocates—such as actor Alan Cummings who writes in today’s New York Times about the condescension of Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister David Cameron as being good reasons to leave the UK. But to act as if the brutal suppression of the Highland clans and other English indignities, let alone the struggles of earlier generations of Scots immortalized in Mel Gibson’s hyperbolic Braveheart film, were not factors still rattling around the Scottish attic waiting to be brought out is myopic.

The point isn’t that modern Scots are oppressed or looked down upon by English masters, as Cummings seems to think. Though it was, at best, a mixed blessing for Scots in the 18th century, the Act of Union was the best thing that could have happened to their 20th and 21st century descendants. But though Marxists continue to believe that money can explain everything, that was proved false a long time ago. Whether it is true or not, a great many Scots believe themselves to have been oppressed by the English and to have had their nation stolen from them. They may not be mad enough to wish to bring back a descendant of the Stuarts, but the longing for the return of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the last Stuart Pretender who led the Scots to disaster at Culloden in 1746 and then was forced to flee to European exile, left its mark on the country’s national consciousness. That fueled the romance of a separate Scots identity that was never entirely extinguished even during the heyday of Scottish involvement in the enterprise of the British Empire. So long as these myths are influential and can be buttressed by modern grievances, however insubstantial, independence will always have a constituency that will consider it worth a great deal of inconvenience if not hardship.

Friends of Britain may look on this with dismay and hope that in the end the “no” forces prevail. But as any student of the Greek historians could tell you, honor will trump interest every time.

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The Ever-Expanding 2016 GOP Field

The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

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The nature of the GOP’s nominating race for 2016 is such that good polls for some potential candidates are also tempting for others not yet included in the polls. For example, the most recent polling on Iowa, which Jonathan wrote about last week, showed Mike Huckabee with a healthy lead. Early polls are about name recognition, so they can only be taken so far. Nonetheless, candidates who have already built name recognition by running in the past can’t help but notice the value of such recognition when some of their strongest competitors are, theoretically, relative unknowns nationwide.

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Other than those two, the potential candidates who had run presidential campaigns in the past tended to score higher than those who haven’t yet run–a quite logical finding. If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). Walker was involved in a high-stakes national issue: the fight over public unions. And thanks to that, he was subject to a recall election that saw national press and mobilized national liberal groups. Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

And that poll didn’t even include Mitt Romney, who shows up leading New Hampshire polls for the same reason Huckabee polls well in Iowa. And while a Romney candidacy would certainly have its cheerleaders, Huckabee is talking openly about testing those polls:

The Republican told a group of reporters on Monday over coffee at a restaurant just outside of D.C. that he learned from his failed 2008 bid that he can’t take money and fundraising for granted, even though he is leading in GOP early primary state polls.

Huckabee says he will make a decision early next year about another presidential run but noted he’s in a “different place than I was eight years ago,” due to a lucrative career as a Fox News and radio show host.

That career has also opened the door to meetings with donors he said he wouldn’t have gotten in 2008. Then, they’d say, “Who are you? How do you spell your name?”

In fact, Huckabee said he’s in talks with donors, and, “with a lot of people, it’s [going] pretty good.” He pointed to the nonprofit, America Takes Action, which he recently set up that, he says, has already raised seven figures.

“Not a single person I’ve asked [to contribute to the group] has said no,” he told reporters.

Huckabee had a decent run for an underdog in 2008 and he has a natural constituency, as well as an amiability that translates into votes. The same cannot be said for another retread who is the subject of speculation: former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman has a few things going for him: he’s got gubernatorial experience as well as foreign-policy chops from his time as ambassador to China, and he has considerable financial resources at his disposal. But unlike Huckabee, outside of the media Huntsman has no natural base (and the reporters who love him will vote for Hillary anyway in the general). And also unlike Huckabee, Huntsman is almost shockingly unlikeable for a politician.

Huntsman has a general disposition that is about as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard. He does not like Republican voters, and he does not want them to think otherwise. The feeling is mutual: Huntsman’s numbers from 2012 suggest the pool of Huntsman voters is made up entirely of people who are either named Huntsman or owe him money.

And then there is Jindal, a smart, wonky conservative with executive experience and a strong command of the issues. Jindal’s name recognition is so low that he’s forced to be less coy than others about his possible presidential ambitions:

“There’s no reason to be coy,” Jindal said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “I am thinking, I am praying about whether I’ll run in 2016. I said I won’t make that decision until after November.”

Jindal has certain strengths: he’s as smart as Huntsman pretends he is, for starters. And he’s far from insufferable about it: he doesn’t project arrogance, just competence. He’s been twice elected governor of Louisiana, so he has experience on the campaign trail. He’s proved himself in a crisis. And he seems to genuinely like interacting with voters.

But his competition would include another impressive, reformist conservative governor in Scott Walker; other young conservatives with poise and presence, like Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and possibly Ted Cruz; and more experienced social conservatives such as, potentially, Huckabee, Rick Perry, and perhaps Mike Pence. The question, then, is whether Jindal could find some way to stand out from the pack. And with polls like those we’ve seen so far, that roster of rivals is likely to keep expanding.

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The Problem with Obama and His Generals

One of the key narratives of the American Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln’s long search for a general who could fight and win battles and put a war-winning strategy into action. But when historians look back on the country’s current conflicts in the Middle East, that formula may be reversed. Instead of lacking generals who wish to engage the enemy and defeat them, what the nation may need more is a president who is as committed to victory as his soldiers. That’s the conclusion many observers are drawn to after listening to the testimony of General Martin Dempsey yesterday when he told a Senate committee that he may yet recommend the use of U.S. ground forces against ISIS even though that is something that President Obama has explicitly rejected.

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One of the key narratives of the American Civil War was President Abraham Lincoln’s long search for a general who could fight and win battles and put a war-winning strategy into action. But when historians look back on the country’s current conflicts in the Middle East, that formula may be reversed. Instead of lacking generals who wish to engage the enemy and defeat them, what the nation may need more is a president who is as committed to victory as his soldiers. That’s the conclusion many observers are drawn to after listening to the testimony of General Martin Dempsey yesterday when he told a Senate committee that he may yet recommend the use of U.S. ground forces against ISIS even though that is something that President Obama has explicitly rejected.

The president repeated his vow that American troops would not fight the terrorists on the ground today when he spoke to an audience of soldiers at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. While trying, not always successfully, to sound appropriately belligerent, the president made it abundantly clear that that his vow to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is conditional on finding local proxies to fight the war he has been dragged into by circumstance and the shifting tides of public opinion. The purpose of the speech and, indeed, a rare all-out lobbying push in Congress by a normally diffident White House, was to convince the country of the need to fund American participation in the conflict. But the contrast between the recommendations he has reportedly been getting from his military advisors and his adamant refusal to even leave the door open to U.S. action on the ground makes it hard to believe that he is really serious about winning this war.

As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin report today in the Daily Beast, Dempsey’s statement is not the only instance of military men urging the president to keep an open mind about how best to win the war. Other advisers, including General John Allen, who has been appointed to lead the anti-ISIS effort, not only criticized the administration for its foolish decision to abandon Iraq that gave ISIS the opening it needed but has been calling for a “robust” effort against ISIS for months.

Some may interpret this disconnect as a standoff between trigger-happy generals and a thoughtful president who thinks carefully before acting (Obama’s cherished self-evaluation of his leadership style that he never tires of extolling). But that is both inaccurate as well as misleading. Generals and admirals are always the last ones to wish to see their cherished institutions and infrastructure hauled into a fight whose outcome is always uncertain. Rather, it is the fact that having found themselves tasked with the winning of a war against a terrorist threat that the American people now rightly think essential, the military understands that this requires a war-winning strategy.

The president embarrassed himself earlier this month when he said that he was still searching for a strategy to defeat ISIS, a position he reversed last week when he announced his order for the campaign. But by setting absolute limits on the willingness of the United States to actually fight and win the conflict, he sent ISIS a signal that he was not as committed to battle as they were.

The point here isn’t necessarily to advocate that the use of American troops in Iraq or Syria is a good or necessary thing. It is to note, as General Dempsey did in a rare moment of complete candor in congressional testimony, that it is not possible to rule their use out if the U.S. actually wants to win rather than merely manage the conflict. You don’t have to be another Lincoln, let alone a Napoleon or Alexander, to understand that when a political leader telegraphs the enemy that his country won’t commit to fighting them on the ground, it will encourage that foe to hang on. If the fight with ISIS is as vital to U.S. security as Obama now says it is—and he’s right about that—it’s fair to ask why he isn’t willing to keep all options on the table.

Pretending that the U.S. can beat ISIS by leading from behind with foreign proxies doing the hard slog on the ground is a formula for stalemate at best and possibly defeat. U.S. air power can influence the outcome of the battle and even do serious damage to ISIS. But such wars are won with troops on the ground pursuing counterinsurgency tactics.

President Obama is burdened with serious political constraints in a war-weary country and untrustworthy and often unsavory allies who are also opposed to ISIS. But even as we make allowances for the handicaps that he is laboring under, there is no disguising his lack of enthusiasm for the task as well as his lack of commitment to victory. What America lacks is not a strategy but a president who is ready to lead the country to victory. That will have to change if U.S. forces are to have any hope of success.

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Dem Senate Comeback May Be Fool’s Gold

Just last week, pundits and prognosticators were starting to speculate about whether the clear Republican advantage in this year’s midterm election would result in a true wave that would be comparable to past GOP landslides in 2010 and 1994. But a few polls later, it appears the Democrats’ stock is going up with some claiming that November looks more like a tossup with the odds now making a Democrat-controlled Senate in 2015 seem more likely. But before President Obama’s party starts celebrating, a close analysis of the various battleground races shouldn’t give them much comfort. And no matter what happens, the fluctuations of the polls should end the discussion about waves.

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Just last week, pundits and prognosticators were starting to speculate about whether the clear Republican advantage in this year’s midterm election would result in a true wave that would be comparable to past GOP landslides in 2010 and 1994. But a few polls later, it appears the Democrats’ stock is going up with some claiming that November looks more like a tossup with the odds now making a Democrat-controlled Senate in 2015 seem more likely. But before President Obama’s party starts celebrating, a close analysis of the various battleground races shouldn’t give them much comfort. And no matter what happens, the fluctuations of the polls should end the discussion about waves.

The need to frame the midterms in terms of a wave is understandable. Journalists love a story that they can wrap up in a neat unifying package that explains everything. That’s why so many political pundits are so eager to try to interpret any national election—even a congressional midterm which is really dozens if not hundreds of separate races piled together—through a single lens. The problem is that even when such elections produce a big victory for either party, the reason for all these results often is more the product of a host of local factors rather than a national tide sweeping the nation.

That’s an important lesson for pundits to remember in 2014. Within the last couple of days, the New York Times’s Upshot, the Washington Post’s The Fix, and Nate Silver’s Five-Thirty-Eight all reversed their previous findings showing the GOP as the big favorite to take the Senate and now say it is a tossup. They didn’t agree as to the reason for this momentum swing. Silver believes the decisive factor is a Democratic edge in campaign fundraising with liberal and Democratic Super PACs outspending conservative and Republican ones. He may be right about that. Now that the campaign has begun in earnest, Democrats are using their considerable resources, with the aid of their reliable cheering section in the mainstream press, to paint GOP opponents as either extremists (as they are trying to do to Joni Ernst in Iowa) or sexist fools (as they seem to have done with Thom Tillis in North Carolina who is still dealing with the “mansplaining” charge lodged against him).

Moreover, the more you break down the 2014 races, the more apparent that national trends can be irrelevant to Senate races. That’s certainly true in deep-red Kansas where incumbent GOP Senator Pat Roberts finds himself in deep trouble because he is considered out of touch with a state that he doesn’t live in much anymore. The willingness of his Democratic opponent to pull out of the state in favor of a Democrat-leaning independent has transformed Kansas from a GOP lock to a possible loss.

Indeed, as much as money, political pragmatism seems to be the best weapon in the Democrat arsenal this year. Wherever Democrats are doing better or holding their own, it is largely because they are seeking to distance themselves from both President Obama and the national Democratic Party. Both North Carolina incumbent Kay Hagan and Georgia challenger Michelle Nunn have been adept in fleeing the president’s embrace. Viewed in isolation, these races not only confound any thought of a Republican midterm wave but also remind us that elections are principally decided on the basis of the ability of the candidates more than the party labels they wear.

But even if we concede that the last week has provided a great deal of comfort for Democrats, they shouldn’t get too cocky. As the party in charge of the White House, they are still laboring under tremendous disadvantages this fall that provide their GOP opponents with a safety net that could cushion the impact of any surge in Democrat fundraising as a result of these new more favorable predictions. National surveys, such as the latest New York Times/CBS Poll, show President Obama’s job approval ratings still heading south. Just as important, Republicans are gaining crucial advantages with the public on the economy, foreign policy, terrorism, and immigration.

While those who would extrapolate from these numbers the seeds of a genuine Republican wave are probably exaggerating the impact of national polls on local races, the Democrats are still dealing with some very unfavorable electoral math. In order to hold the Senate, they need to take one or two Republican seats (Kansas and Georgia representing their best chances), preserve the seats of one or two of their endangered red-state incumbents (North Carolina’s Hagan being their best chance of that), win some of the tossup states like Iowa, while also avoiding losing any of the seats that they thought were not endangered like that of New Hampshire’s Jean Shaheen.

Is that doable? Yes. Is it likely? The answer here is still no.

As much as the outlook has brightened for Democrats, Stuart Rothenberg’s prediction last week that Republicans will win at least 7 seats and possible more is still the more reasonable conclusion about an electoral map and a national political atmosphere that is heavily slanted toward the GOP. Democrats may be able to stop the bleeding and stay competitive by constantly reminding voters that their name isn’t Barack Obama. But doing so also reminds the electorate why midterms trend against the party in power.

Even more to the point, unlike in the past when Republicans came up short in efforts to win back the Senate, this time they don’t appear to be burdened with a roster of terrible candidates. Weak incumbents like Mary Landrieu in Louisiana, Mark Begich in Alaska, and Mark Prior in Arkansas might have survived against equally weak challengers but they didn’t get that lucky. And strong GOP candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire have put seats in play that many thought to be safe for the Democrats.

So while the pundits should forget about waves, the notion of a big Democrat comeback may be more a case of them finding fool’s gold than a real path to victory in November.

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Rand Paul Wants to Know Why All These Straw Men Are So Mean to Him

Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

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Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

Indeed, interventionists have reason to cheer Paul’s about-face: he will drag anti-interventionists, kicking and screaming if necessary, along with him because there is no more libertarian first-tier GOP candidate than Paul. But for those who have paid attention to Paul over these last few years, it’s actually quite easy to understand why he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt more often, and why, specifically, Paul’s previous opposition to intervention was treated as an ideological marker. It’s because Paul has always chosen to present his views in starkly ideological terms while being thoroughly dishonest, repeatedly and unapologetically, about those with whom he disagrees.

In fairness to Paul, here’s his side of the Syria story from an interview he gave to the Federalist:

The thing that I in some ways laugh at, because nobody seems to get this, is that I spent the past five years in public life telling everyone that “hey, I’m not an isolationist” … and when they find out I’m not, they say I’ve switched positions, because I’m not the position they were saying I was. You know what I mean? So for five years they’ve been accusing me of being something that I say I’m not. And then when they find out I’m really not, they say I’ve changed my position. You can see how it’s a little bit frustrating for me.

In the same interview, he also explains his support for striking ISIS as a defense not only of American interests but primarily of America itself:

With ISIS, they’re beheading American citizens, they’ve actively said that if they can, and when they can, they’ll come to New York. They’re within, I think a day’s march or a day’s drive of Erbil and the consulate there. I think that they probably would be repelled in Baghdad, but they could be a threat to Baghdad. I think ultimately if left to their own devices, they could organize the same way Al-Qaeda organized in Afghanistan, and if given a safe haven that they could be a real threat to us at home.

All fair enough, though if anything Paul understates the case for intervention here. But there was an earlier line in his answer that caught my attention. He said: “In general, if you look throughout the Middle East, you’ll find it’s a complicated area with complicated movements on all sides ….” Ah, complexity. Now we’re getting somewhere.

It is complexity that has been absent from the way Paul so often describes his colleagues and ideological opponents. Paul is perhaps the one Republican who can compete with Barack Obama for the obsessive use of straw men. Paul is an intelligent man, but he has written some ostentatiously unintelligent things. Here is how he opens a piece he wrote for National Review Online defending his foreign-policy outlook:

The knives are out for conservatives who dare question unlimited involvement in foreign wars.

In one sentence, Paul deploys the warmongering straw man and displays a petulant sense of victimhood. But it actually gets worse. Here’s the next sentence:

Foreign policy, the interventionist critics claim, has no place for nuance or realism. You are either for us or against us. No middle ground is acceptable. The Wilsonian ideologues must have democracy worldwide now and damn all obstacles to that utopia. I say sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.

Holy moly, that’s some sandwich-board sloganeering right there, sliding into the redemptive politics of messianic paranoia. If only that were the rare outlier. Unfortunately, it’s not. Even after coming around to the fact that the interventionists are right about ISIS, Paul offers this childish dig at those who were right before he realized it:

There’s no point in taking military action just for the sake of it, something Washington leaders can’t seem to understand.

Yes, Rand Paul wants to take military action against ISIS. Many of his colleagues in the Senate want to do exactly the same thing. But Rand Paul, alone among them, has good reasons for it. Everyone else simply likes to bomb things because of how much they love war. Only Rand Paul has a reasonable justification for the war he and his colleagues want. Even when he agrees with other Republicans, Paul just can’t avoid assuming the worst intentions on the part of his colleagues.

He’s also shown a tendency toward indefensibly credulous thinking. At times, this just shows poor judgment, such as the fact that he apparently still buys into a completely debunked rumor about John McCain and ISIS. Other times, it’s conventional anti-interventionist groupthink about what “neocons” are doing with “your money.”

If Rand Paul has begun opening up his worldview to embrace the complexity of global politics, all the better. It might one day prevent him from sanctimoniously attributing the worst intentions even to those he agrees with while maniacally setting fire to fields of straw men. Until that day arrives, his wounded victim act will remain utterly unconvincing.

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Ally with Assad Against ISIS? Not So Fast

In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

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In yesterday’s New York Times, Palestinian academic Ahmad Samih Khalidi argued that to defeat ISIS in Syria, the U.S. should ally not with “moderate” opposition groups–whom he claims are nonexistent–but with the Bashar Assad regime and its Iranian patrons. This is a popular argument and has a certain “enemy of my enemy” logic to it. There are only two minor problems with this proposal. First, it won’t work. Second, if it does work, it would produce a catastrophe.

The strongest part of Khalidi’s argument is the assertion that in Syria “the most effective forces on the ground today–and for the foreseeable future–are decidedly nonmoderate.” That’s true, in large part I would argue (contrary to his view) because the West did let down the more moderate Free Syrian Army. Having failed to arm and train it three years ago, as some of us advocated at the time, we have watched the more nationalist resistance be sidelined by jihadists. Now it will be much more difficult than in the past to try to create an effective opposition that will fight both the jihadists (of ISIS and Al Nusra, primarily) and the Assad regime.

But allying with the Assad regime, however alluring, is not an effective alternative. In the first place Assad has shown minimal interest in fighting ISIS. There is, in fact, plentiful evidence that Assad has tacitly cooperated with ISIS in order to buttress his argument that all of his opponents are Salafist fanatics. Even if Assad were truly interested in fighting ISIS, the U.S. should have nothing to do with his way of warfare which involves dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas on innocent civilians and leveling entire neighborhoods with artillery and airpower. This is a monstrous way of fighting which has driven the death toll above 200,000.

Aside from its immorality, Assad’s way of war–conducted with advice and support from the Iranians and their Lebanese proxies in Hezbollah–is not effective. For all of Assad’s brutality, he has not succeeded in defeating the opposition, because his indiscriminate attacks only drive more Sunnis into opposition against his minority Alawite regime.

A similar situation exists in Iraq, another place where many argue the U.S. should ally with Shiite extremists under Iran’s direction. There, too, Shiite atrocities only reinforce ISIS’s appeal among Sunnis as their defenders. The way to beat ISIS in both Syria and Iraq is to ally with the Sunni tribes: if they flip against ISIS the group will be defeated in short order, as its predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated in Anbar Province during the Awakening in 2007-2008.

But let’s say I’m wrong. Let’s suppose that Assad can in fact kill enough people to regain control of all of Syria’s territory and to defeat ISIS. And let’s say the Shiite militias in Iraq are equally successful. What would be the upshot? The result would be Iranian domination of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon–at a minimum. Let’s recall that Iran is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world–a regime that has been waging war through terrorism against the U.S. from the days of the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 to the days of Iranian-supplied EFPs (explosively formed projectiles) in Iraq as recently as 2011.

Khalidi claims that Iran is preferable to ISIS: “It bears noting that neither Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite movement based in Lebanon,” he writes, “nor Iran has declared a global war on the West and non-Muslims, unlike Saudi-inspired salafists and their jihadist brethren.” You could have fooled me. Certainly Iran and Hezbollah have been responsible for heinous acts of terrorism abroad such as the 1992 and 1992 bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish community center in Argentina, the 2012 bus bombing in Bulgaria which killed five Israeli citizens, and numerous other attacks, actual and attempted. All such attacks have undoubtedly had a large element of Quds Force involvement. The Quds Force has also carried out other attacks on its own, such as the attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador in Washington in 2011.

In short the U.S. would be foolhardy in the extreme if it were to take actions that would result in expanding the Iranian sphere of influence. That would simply be promoting one group of anti-American terrorists at the expense of another group of anti-American terrorists. Because we must avoid that outcome, we have to tread carefully in Iraq and Syria, mobilizing more moderate Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites against the extremists of both sides–both the Quds Force and ISIS. That may not be easy to do but there is no realistic alternative.

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The Only Refugees in the World Denied the Right of Resettlement

The news that hundreds of Palestinians from Gaza drowned last week when the boats in which they were trying to reach Europe sank once again highlights the hypocrisy of the world’s attitude toward the Palestinians. After all, the “international community” has designated two-thirds of all Gaza residents as bona fide refugees, even though the vast majority of them were born in Gaza and have lived there all their lives. And as bona fide refugees, they shouldn’t have had to board rickety smugglers’ boats in a desperate attempt to reach Europe; they should have been able to apply to the UN for orderly resettlement right from their refugee camps, just as thousands of other refugees do every year. But they can’t, because Palestinians are the only refugees in the world who are denied the basic right of resettlement.

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The news that hundreds of Palestinians from Gaza drowned last week when the boats in which they were trying to reach Europe sank once again highlights the hypocrisy of the world’s attitude toward the Palestinians. After all, the “international community” has designated two-thirds of all Gaza residents as bona fide refugees, even though the vast majority of them were born in Gaza and have lived there all their lives. And as bona fide refugees, they shouldn’t have had to board rickety smugglers’ boats in a desperate attempt to reach Europe; they should have been able to apply to the UN for orderly resettlement right from their refugee camps, just as thousands of other refugees do every year. But they can’t, because Palestinians are the only refugees in the world who are denied the basic right of resettlement.

Granted, they are also the only “refugees” in the world for whom refugeehood is an inheritable status that can be passed down to one’s descendants in perpetuity, generation after generation. Under the definition used by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which deals with all the world’s refugees except Palestinians, only a few thousand elderly Gazans who were personally displaced in 1948 would be considered refugees today, rather than the 1.2 million actually on UN rolls. So if the “international community” were to argue that Gazans don’t deserve a right to resettlement because they aren’t really refugees, that would be perfectly legitimate.

But it doesn’t. In fact, not only has the world adopted the unique definition of refugeehood promulgated by the Palestinians’ personal refugee agency, UNRWA, but it actively supports this definition by funding UNRWA’s ever-expanding budget to keep pace with its ever-expanding number of “refugees.” And once having accepted the claim that these born-and-bred Gazans are actually refugees from an Israel they’ve never seen, the international community is morally obligated to ensure that they enjoy the same rights as all other refugees.

Instead, Palestinians are the only refugees in the world who are denied the right of resettlement. Whereas UNHCR resettles tens of thousands of refugees every year, UNRWA hasn’t resettled a single refugee in its 65 years of existence. On the contrary, the schools it runs for Palestinian refugees indoctrinate them from kindergarten on that there is one, and only one, way for them to end their refugee status: by “returning” to the towns or villages in Israel that their ancestors fled–which most of them have never seen, and some of which no longer even exist. In short, since Israel would never voluntarily accept all five million “refugees” on UNRWA’s rolls, it’s telling them that the only solution to their refugeehood is Israel’s destruction.

According to a poll taken in late August, a whopping 43 percent of Gazans would like to emigrate. Many of these would-be emigrants are presumably among the two-thirds of Gazans registered as refugees, meaning they ought to be entitled to resettlement aid. So here’s a modest proposal: Western countries, which are UNRWA’s main donors, should take a big chunk of the over $1 billion a year they give UNRWA and spend it instead on resettling those Gazans who want to leave. Not only would that help the Gazan refugees themselves, but it would save money in the long run by significantly reducing the number of refugees under UNRWA’s care.

Alternatively, they could tell UNRWA they’re no longer willing to go along with the fiction that its five million “refugees” are really refugees, and from now on will provide funds only for those refugees who actually meet UNHCR’s definition. The remaining money would go to the governments under which most of UNRWA’s registered refugees live–primarily Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon–to help them provide the services UNRWA now provides.

But to continue defining Palestinians as refugees while denying them the basic right to resettlement is unconscionable. And all those Westerners who claim to be so concerned over Palestinian rights should be the first to protest this hypocritical and discriminatory practice.

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Miracle at Philadelphia

On this day in 1787, delegates to the Federal Convention voted to approve a new Constitution, which was submitted to the states for ratification (which occurred on June 21, 1788).

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On this day in 1787, delegates to the Federal Convention voted to approve a new Constitution, which was submitted to the states for ratification (which occurred on June 21, 1788).

How this event came to pass is among the most extraordinary stories in human history. “It appears to me, then, little short of a miracle,” Washington wrote to Lafayette on February 7, 1788, “that the Delegates from so many different States (which States you know are also different from each other), in their manners, circumstances, and prejudices, should unite in forming a system of national Government, so little liable to well founded objections.”

Catherine Drinker Bowen’s 1966 book Miracle at Philadelphia is among the best accounts of what occurred. She captures the drama and suspense, the intense arguments and the despair, and the moments of high purpose and nobility. She also captures superbly well the voices of the delegates–including some of the most notable names in American history (Washington, Madison, Hamilton, Franklin, Dickinson, Wilson, and Morris)–who gathered in secret sessions from May through September, not to revise the Articles of Confederation, which was the stated purpose, but to write a new constitution. “The situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth,” is how 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin described it.

And what a political truth they found. The governing charter they created has become the oldest written national constitution in the world and among the greatest political achievements ever.

But it was not just human intellect that carried the day in Philadelphia; it was the product of a certain kind of human character. Ms. Bowen describes it this way:

The Federal Convention, viewed from the records, is startlingly fresh and “new.” The spirit behind it was the spirit of compromise, seemingly no very noble flag to rally round. Compromise can be an ugly word, signifying a pact with the devil, a chipping off of the best to suit the worst. Yet in the Constitutional Convention the spirit of compromise reigned in grace and glory; as Washington presided, it sat on his shoulder like the dove. Men rise to speak and one sees them struggle with the bias of birthright, locality, statehood – South against North, East against West, merchant against planter. One sees them change their minds, fight against pride, and when the moment comes, admit their error. If the story is old, the feelings behind it are new as Monday morning. “If all the tales are told, retell them, Brother. If few attend, let those who listen feel.”

The Founders were imperfect men and the Constitution an imperfect document. But all things considered what happened at Independence Hall was little short of a miracle. And for a group of fiercely proud and independent individuals to rise above such deep difference for the sake of the public good, to comprise in order to advance justice and human dignity, was a rare and wonderful thing. It’s something worth aspiring to in our time, when excellence and high-mindedness in public life seem to be hidden away on distant hills.

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The NFL and the Sum of our Sins

It’s open season on the National Football League this week as politicians, pundits, activists, and celebrities are venting their outrage about the misdeeds of some of its athletes. All of this anger about the behavior of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson is justified. But as this wave of indignation flows over the NFL and its embattled commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s worth pondering just how much good will come of an effort to pin responsibility for all the evils of society on a sports business that is being excoriated all over the dial for only wishing to make money rather than doing good. But as much as the sport deserves a good beating, this is a moment when cooler heads might do well to observe that the sudden willingness to see football as synonymous with domestic violence makes no more sense than the league’s pretense to stand for all that’s good in American culture.

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It’s open season on the National Football League this week as politicians, pundits, activists, and celebrities are venting their outrage about the misdeeds of some of its athletes. All of this anger about the behavior of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson is justified. But as this wave of indignation flows over the NFL and its embattled commissioner Roger Goodell, it’s worth pondering just how much good will come of an effort to pin responsibility for all the evils of society on a sports business that is being excoriated all over the dial for only wishing to make money rather than doing good. But as much as the sport deserves a good beating, this is a moment when cooler heads might do well to observe that the sudden willingness to see football as synonymous with domestic violence makes no more sense than the league’s pretense to stand for all that’s good in American culture.

Let me confess that I find the NFL’s present discomfiture somewhat amusing. As much as I like to watch football (and have wasted countless hours every autumn of my adolescence and adult life being disappointed and infuriated by the New York Jets, a team that can always be counted on to invent new ways to humiliate itself and its faithful fans) the league’s smug, corporate conceit of itself as “America’s Game” is insufferable. The elevation of the Super Bowl to an endless and boring secular rite of winter that all of us, even those of us that despise the teams that are playing in the championship, feel compelled to watch so as to be able to comment on the commercials lest we appear out of touch with the zeitgeist, is similarly obnoxious.

The NFL surpassed baseball in terms of television ratings and general popularity (as opposed to actual attendance) largely on the basis of the fact that it is the perfect sport to watch on television (as the small minority of fans who attend games can attest, you can actually see more of the game at home than at the stadium) and the popularity of the largely illegal gambling on the point spreads on each week’s schedule of games. That has given the league and its teams an income stream that has allowed it to do pretty much anything it liked.

The conundrum about the NFL is that the more violent the game has become and the more atrocious the injuries that are inflicted on a regular basis on its players (a function in part of the fact that those who now play in the NFL are far bigger, stronger, and faster than those who strapped on leather helmets in the sport’s pre-World War Two ice age), the more the league has tried to present itself as the embodiment of community service do-gooding. The league’s ubiquitous United Way commercials were just the tip of an iceberg of public-relations baloney intended to portray a game predicated on, in George Will’s memorable quip, “violence punctuated by committee meetings,” as something more public spirited if not elevated.

The point is, you can love football without buying into the NFL’s conception of itself. But having foisted this airbrushed NFL Films image on the country, neither Goodell nor any of its teams are in any position to ask that their players be judged by the same standards as anyone else. If you ask people to treat you as gods, you can’t complain when they find out you have feet of clay and start talking about tearing down the altars where false deities are worshipped.

But even though there’s something slightly satisfying about watching NFL owners squirm, the notion that this league is uniquely responsible for domestic violence or abuse of children is a bit much.

Goodell opened himself up to this sort of treatment when he gave Rice a mere slap on the wrist with a team game suspension after he was found to have knocked his then fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. When the surveillance tape of the events was publicized months later, the world got to see just how tough the Ravens running back could be when facing up against a defenseless woman. Goodell’s problems grew when it became clear he might not have told the truth when he claimed not to have seen the video before his initial ruling.

That was made even worse when news broke about Peterson’s indictment for child abuse in Texas after he was observed beating and injuring his son with a tree branch. Peterson was held out of this past Sunday’s game but, since he is innocent until proven guilty, will apparently be allowed to play until his case his decided. The same is true for some other football players accused or found guilty of a violent crime. Like the initial lenient treatment accorded Rice, this is all seen as further evidence of the NFL’s whitewashing of a record of violence for which it should be held accountable and justification for pontifications about how the violence of the game is somehow responsible for the private behavior of its players.

But though it’s hard to sympathize with Goodell or any of the other rich people that arrogantly preside over the sport, the rage against the league is as disproportionate as the league’s swaggering image. Like other industries, including other forms of popular entertainment, the NFL employs its share of thugs. But contrary to the pop psychology being spouted on the networks about football and domestic violence, this might be a good moment to point out that criminal louts were beating their wives, girlfriends, and children, long before Yale’s Walter Camp sketched out some of the key rules that differentiated American football from rugby and Princeton played the sport’s first college game against Rutgers.

I’m entirely sympathetic to the notion that an entertainment business should not employ or help glorify criminals. No one, and especially not someone who has become notorious for violent behavior, has a right to play professional football so if Rice, Peterson, and anyone else labeled as a bad actor never play again, so much the better. And it sends a good message to the nation that such behavior is disqualifying for inclusion in the country’s top sports TV shows. But banning them or firing Goodell won’t fix this country’s social pathologies to which football has only the most tenuous connection. Nor will any amount of soul searching by the game’s leaders or hearings at which members of Congress might grandstand on the issue (the next, almost inevitable step). Football is, after all, a game, albeit a rough one, and not, contrary to the invocations of countless coaches, a metaphor for life, the embodiment of the American way, or any other such superannuated nonsense. The NFL is not the sum of our sins any more than it is the embodiment of our virtues as a nation.

The intense focus on the NFL is just another symptom of the 24/7 news cycle which will move on to something else once there are no more developments or something else comes along. But as much as that shouldn’t mean less attention should be paid to domestic violence, no one should be under the illusion that the current anger at Goodell or any of his players is anything more elevated than any other pop culture feeding frenzies.

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