Commentary Magazine


Warren’s Cromnibus Chaos and Hillary’s Nightmare Scenario

It is fitting that “Cromnibus”–the name given to the spending medley passed by the House yesterday to keep the government running–sounds like a Creature from the Bureaucratic Lagoon, because the chaos it unleashed will haunt Hillary Clinton. Populists on both left and right found things to hate in this spending bill, but the most populist energy was unleashed by Democratic-led opposition to a reform of the Dodd-Frank regulatory scheme. That reform has passed Congress overwhelmingly in the past. But that was before Elizabeth Warren brought a level of anti-Wall Street demagoguery to Congress that is not going away.

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It is fitting that “Cromnibus”–the name given to the spending medley passed by the House yesterday to keep the government running–sounds like a Creature from the Bureaucratic Lagoon, because the chaos it unleashed will haunt Hillary Clinton. Populists on both left and right found things to hate in this spending bill, but the most populist energy was unleashed by Democratic-led opposition to a reform of the Dodd-Frank regulatory scheme. That reform has passed Congress overwhelmingly in the past. But that was before Elizabeth Warren brought a level of anti-Wall Street demagoguery to Congress that is not going away.

Ultimately, Cromnibus passed the House, even after Warren whipped up Democratic opposition. But it was close, and it required the intervention of President Obama to prevail upon his party not to shut down the government and make him look like the world’s biggest hypocrite in the process. That Warren could sow such discord in the House from her perch in the Senate shows she’s been modeling her career on that of Ted Cruz, her conservative counterpart across the aisle. Though she is not nearly the rhetorical talent that Cruz is, she mimicked Cruz’s tactics and strategy to such a degree as to leave one with the impression Cruz is her (unwitting) mentor, if not her (unacknowledged) hero.

So Warren was a big winner last night. Republicans were too. The bill passed the GOP-controlled House despite the revolt. But even if it hadn’t passed, the GOP still benefited. They would have put up a clean continuing resolution to fund the government for another month, at which point they would take over the Senate and Democrats’ influence would be greatly weakened in crafting the next omnibus bill.

The big losers from last night are Obama and Hillary. The president, to borrow Bill Clinton’s quote, may still be relevant here, but not very. Obama had to use his office and his influence and his spokesmen and his advisors just to beat back a freshman senator from his own party, and just barely. Democrats, as Dave Weigel notes in an excellent tick-tock on last night’s mess, “proudly told reporters that calls from the White House — especially calls from Citigroup’s Jamie Dimon — did nothing to move them.”

Obama has dragged his party down enough. The midterms were the end of Obama as the leader of the Democratic Party, because even Democrats now understand they can win by separating themselves from Obama’s toxic legacy. And what about Obama’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton? The Cromnibus chaos was a nightmare for her.

What the Democrats proved last night was that there exists a significant and restive segment of the base. Being Democrats, they still need someone to fall in line behind; unlike the Tea Party, these restive Democrats prefer to take orders from someone. They just would like to take orders from a different brand of statist. Elizabeth Warren is the one they’ve been waiting for.

Warren’s populism is very different from that of the Tea Party. Conservative grassroots value liberty; Warren argues for increasing state power over its citizens and is not above abusing that authority when she has the opportunity. What Warren wants is power concentrated in her hands. What Hillary’s supporters should fear is the possibility that Warren will pursue her quest for power to its logical conclusion and run for president.

She still seems far from making that leap. But ironically what works against Hillary here is not her own age but Warren’s. If Warren passes on running for president in 2016, she is most likely passing on ever running. If Hillary wins two terms, Warren would be 75 for the 2024 election. She’s not running for president at 75. It’s a stretch even to think she’d challenge a sitting Republican president, if that’s who wins in 2016, after that Republican’s first term, though that’s at least a more realistic scenario.

Additionally, the Clintons are infamous for their lust for political revenge. They hold grudges, and that fact is going to help clear the field of prospective candidates who can bide their time. If Warren chooses to challenge Hillary and loses, the Clintons will retaliate. But Warren is not at the beginning of her career (even though she’s a freshman senator); how much does she really have to lose?

There is also another factor: if Warren runs, she is unlikely to lose. Hillary is a terrible candidate who believes in nothing. What Warren proved yesterday is that she can mobilize and inspire support on a large scale, and that there are far more Democrats who prefer Warren’s statism to the creepy there’s-no-such-thing-as-other-people’s-children statism of Hillary.

American leftists are an angry bunch. Elizabeth Warren matches their anger. And they don’t know the issues well enough to know that Warren isn’t telling them the truth–a fact that the Democratic establishment has tried to point out. Hillary doesn’t exemplify anger; she exemplifies entrenched privilege. In 2008, Democratic primary voters chose anger over privilege. The nightmare scenario for Hillary would come to pass if they have the chance to do so again in 2016.

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Can Herzog and Livni Topple Netanyahu?

The agreement between the Israeli Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form a joint list for the Knesset has, at least for the moment, seemed to change the dynamic of the election campaign. The first poll taken immediately after the merger shows Labor-Hatnua winning one more seat than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Theoretically that would place Herzog in position to be tapped to lead the next government provided he could put together a coalition of parties. But while this survey has to set the hearts of the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s many critics racing, it is probably a mistake for them to jump to the conclusion that the PM’s days are truly numbered. While the possibility of a genuine alternative to the present government is generating some good numbers for Herzog, the math of Israeli coalition politics and the dynamic of an election in which the notion of two major parties may be revived may cut short his dreams of victory.

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The agreement between the Israeli Labor Party led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua to form a joint list for the Knesset has, at least for the moment, seemed to change the dynamic of the election campaign. The first poll taken immediately after the merger shows Labor-Hatnua winning one more seat than Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Theoretically that would place Herzog in position to be tapped to lead the next government provided he could put together a coalition of parties. But while this survey has to set the hearts of the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s many critics racing, it is probably a mistake for them to jump to the conclusion that the PM’s days are truly numbered. While the possibility of a genuine alternative to the present government is generating some good numbers for Herzog, the math of Israeli coalition politics and the dynamic of an election in which the notion of two major parties may be revived may cut short his dreams of victory.

Prior to the announcement of early elections, Labor seemed to be continuing on its historical arc from once dominant party of government to irrelevant minor party. The first polls indicated Labor would be losing seats. As for Livni’s party, every poll showed it would be wiped out leaving the former foreign minister out of the Knesset. Ever the pragmatic opportunist, Livni drew the correct conclusion from the data and began marketing herself to the other larger parties for a merger. Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid wanted her badly but Livni rightly saw that her arrival wouldn’t do much to halt its slide with polls showing it losing close to half of its seats. Nor did Livni feel comfortable sharing a platform with Lapid. Those two big egos were not going to work well together.

Labor was a much better fit in that the mild-mannered Herzog seems more like a team player and that choice would enable Livni to approach the elections by campaigning on her hopes to strike a peace deal with the Palestinians that Netanyahu wouldn’t make. Adding Livni and her followers to the Labor list also provides a jolt of energy to a party led by a man who is well regarded but seems to have the charisma of a soggy potato.

Though Lapid aspires to be the leader of a center bloc that could beat the Likud, Labor-Hatnua also gives the appearance of a real alternative to Netanyahu to Israelis who are understandably tired of the prime minister after six years of him at the top. That factor along with resentment at Netanyahu for pushing for an election that most Israelis think is unnecessary could be the reason for the fact that Herzog and Livni are doing far better as a couple than they would have done separately.

But before Herzog starts trying to piece together a coalition, there are some factors that may ultimately undo his momentary advantage.

The first is the very one that seems to have invigorated Labor. So long as there was no real alternative to Netanyahu as prime minister, it was possible for voters who generally support the parties of the center right or the right to vote for alternatives to Likud. Since it is almost certain that Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home will never join a coalition led by the left, voters were free to vote for them rather than Netanyahu’s Likud. It was that factor that led to Likud finishing behind Livni’s Kadima by one seat in the 2009 elections even though the parties of the right combined for more than those of the left leading to Netanyahu becoming prime minister. The same thing diminished Netanyahu’s results in 2013.

But if Israelis are returning to the old paradigm in which Likud and Labor dominate the Knesset, then we should expect the former to start gaining strength at the expense of their potential partners too.

Even more to the point, if the results will hinge on the public’s view of the peace process rather than domestic issues, as was the case the last time Israel voted, that, too, works in Netanyahu’s favor.

Though his foreign critics blame Netanyahu for the ongoing standoff with the Palestinians, most Israelis, including many who are less than thrilled with the prickly prime minister, know that it is the Palestinians who continue to thwart peace, not their own government. An election fought on the idea of more concessions to the Palestinians is not one that will favor those advocating anything that smacks of a duplicating the Gaza experiment in the West Bank. That is especially true after that summer war with Hamas that left most Israelis scrambling for bomb shelters as rockets fired from the terrorist state on their doorsteps rained down on them. Nor is it credible for Livni to offer herself as a real alternative to Netanyahu’s policies since it was she who was negotiating with the Palestinians during the last year.

Equally dubious is the notion that Israelis will reject Netanyahu because they are worried about Israel becoming more isolated under his leadership. Israelis are aware of the fact that it is anti-Semitism, rather than genuine concern for the Palestinians, that motivate European attacks on their government. Nor are they likely to vote for Herzog and Livni because Barack Obama, a president that they rightly believe to be the most hostile American leader to their country in more than a generation, wants them to oust Netanyahu.

With the new Kulanu party led by former Likud Cabinet member Moshe Kahlon entering the contest and other parties rising (Bennett’s Jewish Home) as others fall (Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu and Lapid’s Yesh Atid), it’s too early to predict the outcome with any certainty. There is the possibility that Bennett will join with Likud and create a far larger merged entity than Likud-Hatnua. Meanwhile, the theme of “anybody but Bibi” as Netanyahu vies for a fourth term that could lead to him being the longest serving prime minister in the country’s history may be one that will be hard for Likud to overcome. But if the country is moving back to two big parties that will fight it out over the peace process, it’s hard to call Netanyahu anything but still the favorite to prevail in March.

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Another Palestinian Sacrificed to Conflict

The death of Ziad Abu Ein is more than another statistic in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A member of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Cabinet, Abu Ein died after leading a demonstration that sought to break into land claimed by an Israeli settlement. The 55-year-old died in the aftermath of a clash he initiated with soldiers guarding the site. That was bad enough but, as is par for the course in this situation, the team of doctors who performed an autopsy on him split along national lines. A Palestinian doctor says he died from the blows he got from the soldiers. The Israeli doctors say he had heart disease and died from the stress caused by the incident. Predictably, the U.S. is calling for an inquiry into the incident but rather than get caught up in the question of which doctor is telling the truth, the real answer as to what killed Abu Ein is the commitment of his Fatah Party to perpetuating the conflict rather than accepting a compromise that would end it.

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The death of Ziad Abu Ein is more than another statistic in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A member of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s Cabinet, Abu Ein died after leading a demonstration that sought to break into land claimed by an Israeli settlement. The 55-year-old died in the aftermath of a clash he initiated with soldiers guarding the site. That was bad enough but, as is par for the course in this situation, the team of doctors who performed an autopsy on him split along national lines. A Palestinian doctor says he died from the blows he got from the soldiers. The Israeli doctors say he had heart disease and died from the stress caused by the incident. Predictably, the U.S. is calling for an inquiry into the incident but rather than get caught up in the question of which doctor is telling the truth, the real answer as to what killed Abu Ein is the commitment of his Fatah Party to perpetuating the conflict rather than accepting a compromise that would end it.

The big picture about the peace process tends to get lost whenever the rights and wrongs of specific incidents become the issue. In this case, the truth is not complicated but is still open to interpretation.

The Palestinian position is that Abu Ein died as result of brutality inflicted on him during the demonstration. Abu Ein and the demonstrators he led into a line of armed soldiers clearly invited a forceful response. Whether he took a blow to the chest or was hit by a tear gas canister, there is no question that those involved in the scrum were likely roughed up. Israeli soldiers may have used too much force or it may be that Abu Ein simply expired because his heart disease made him vulnerable to collapse when he tried to break through a line of armed soldiers.

It should also be remembered that when we speak of him being a Cabinet minister, this was not some bureaucrat in charge of the Palestinian treasury or some other responsible officeholder. He was in fact the Cabinet member in charge of staging provocations against both settlements and checkpoints in the West Bank. A convicted terrorist who took part in a bomb plot that resulted in the murder of two Israeli teenagers, he was eventually released in a prisoner exchange before becoming a PA official. His goal was to create violent confrontations and to generate Palestinian casualties that could be paraded before the world as evidence of Israeli cruelty. The only difference between this and other such violent demonstrations is that Abu Ein was the statistic rather than some anonymous Palestinian.

But no matter what happened when he led the charge into a line of soldiers or what we might think of his job or his background, the real reason for Abu Ein’s death can be attributed to the core ideology of the Palestinian national movement that he served in various violent capacities during his life.

Four times in the last 15 years, the Palestinian Authority Abu Ein served was given a chance to negotiate a peace deal that might have given them independence and statehood. Twice under Yasir Arafat’s leadership they turned offers of sovereignty over almost all of the West Bank, a share of Jerusalem, as well as Gaza down flat. Once Abbas fled the negotiations after receiving an even more generous offer. In the past year, Abbas stonewalled the negotiations and then blew them up so as to prevent getting even close to an agreement.

It is in that context that the discussions about settlements and the behavior of Israeli soldiers must be understood. The PA has demonstrated time and again that it doesn’t want peace or a two-state solution. What it wants is to keep the conflict just hot enough to prevent Abbas from being cornered into agreeing to peace but not so hot as to stop the Israelis from protecting him against his Hamas rivals or to force the U.S. and the Europeans from cutting off the flow of cash that allows the PA kleptocracy to exist.

Like the Palestinian children who are encouraged to pick fights with soldiers by flinging gasoline bombs and rocks in the hope the army will fire back, Abu Ein was sacrificed on the altar of the unending Palestinian war against the existence of Israel. Instead of blaming the Israelis, Palestinians need to look inward and ponder the political culture they have created that makes it impossible for their leaders to consider peace on any terms but the destruction of Israel no matter where its borders are drawn. Until that changes, there will never be an end to such confrontations and the inevitable casualties that follow from them.

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Michael Medved: The Incomparable COMMENTARY

I first subscribed to COMMENTARY in 1973, as a recovering liberal who had invested four years of my young life in writing speeches for a constellation of McGovernite candidates and office-holders. Living in Berkeley at the time, I relished COMMENTARY as a guilty pleasure, feeling grateful that the magazine arrived each month discreetly disguised in a plain, brown wrapper that concealed its suspiciously neo-conservative content. In the militantly leftist community in which I functioned forty years ago, receiving regular monthly installments of the most degrading porn would have produced far less embarrassment than my growing devotion to the persuasive prose of Norman Podhoretz and Co.

Yes, my personal journey from left to right-center involved the usual biographical factors, including the three P’s: paychecks, parenthood, and prayer. Paychecks, because they arrived with shocking subtractions in the form of onerous and incomprehensible taxes; parenthood, because responsibility for a new generation forced a longer-term perspective; and prayer, because my own growing Jewish observance led to the conclusion that my “idealistic” ’60s generation, with all its narcissism and preening self-regard, might not provide life’s ultimate answers after all. Fortunately for me, reading COMMENTARY with near-religious regularity helped to organize my onrushing insights and experience into a more coherent world view. In a dark time in our nation’s history, while surviving (temporarily) in the most unhinged corner of the continent, this incomparable publication persuaded me that I wasn’t alone.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

I first subscribed to COMMENTARY in 1973, as a recovering liberal who had invested four years of my young life in writing speeches for a constellation of McGovernite candidates and office-holders. Living in Berkeley at the time, I relished COMMENTARY as a guilty pleasure, feeling grateful that the magazine arrived each month discreetly disguised in a plain, brown wrapper that concealed its suspiciously neo-conservative content. In the militantly leftist community in which I functioned forty years ago, receiving regular monthly installments of the most degrading porn would have produced far less embarrassment than my growing devotion to the persuasive prose of Norman Podhoretz and Co.

Yes, my personal journey from left to right-center involved the usual biographical factors, including the three P’s: paychecks, parenthood, and prayer. Paychecks, because they arrived with shocking subtractions in the form of onerous and incomprehensible taxes; parenthood, because responsibility for a new generation forced a longer-term perspective; and prayer, because my own growing Jewish observance led to the conclusion that my “idealistic” ’60s generation, with all its narcissism and preening self-regard, might not provide life’s ultimate answers after all. Fortunately for me, reading COMMENTARY with near-religious regularity helped to organize my onrushing insights and experience into a more coherent world view. In a dark time in our nation’s history, while surviving (temporarily) in the most unhinged corner of the continent, this incomparable publication persuaded me that I wasn’t alone.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Everything Wrong with Big Government in One IRS Quote

One of the most loathsome features of the administrative state is the way the taxpayers so often lose no matter which way certain disputes end up. This happens because the instruments of bureaucratic menace have too much power. That power costs taxpayers greatly, and if they elect a government to reduce that power, the affected bureaucracies have enough power left over to punish them for it. What’s worse, they know it. And, as the IRS’s comments to Politico today make clear, they don’t feel the need to veil their threats anymore.

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One of the most loathsome features of the administrative state is the way the taxpayers so often lose no matter which way certain disputes end up. This happens because the instruments of bureaucratic menace have too much power. That power costs taxpayers greatly, and if they elect a government to reduce that power, the affected bureaucracies have enough power left over to punish them for it. What’s worse, they know it. And, as the IRS’s comments to Politico today make clear, they don’t feel the need to veil their threats anymore.

The Politico story is on the Republican Party’s plans to rein in the regulatory state in the next Congress. Up to now, House Republicans have mostly centered their efforts at holding the government accountable on oversight, leaning heavily on hearings. Though the GOP already had much of the “power of the purse” through its House majority, having a majority in the Senate expands the party’s ability to actually pass certain spending priorities. And they appear intent on doing so.

The GOP put cuts in the IRS budget in the so-called “CRomnibus” spending bill being debated today. And the IRS is warning them not to come one step closer–or the taxpayer gets it:

IRS watchers warn that the agency is spiraling toward a rocky future that will rival some of its darkest days in its history, when whistleblowers blew the lid off IRS agents abusing power and thousands of tax returns were lost in the mail.

“Unless we are able to correct this, very bad things will happen to taxpayers,” said Nina Olson of the National Taxpayer Advocate, at a November tax preparer conference — over a month before the latest budget cuts even came to light.

Ahem: the National Taxpayer Advocate isn’t exactly an “IRS watcher”; it’s the IRS. That is some brazen sleight of hand from Politico. Now to be fair, the NTA is a sort of consumer advocate within the agency, a cross between an ombudsman and a customer service hotline. But this is actually a great example of how even aspects of the government that ostensibly exist to help the taxpayer really underline the problem with the system to begin with.

Why do we need a taxpayer advocate within the IRS? Well, two reasons. First because agencies with no oversight and the power to confiscate your money tend to abuse that authority–as we saw with the revelations about the IRS targeting scandal. And second, because the sheer size and complexity of tax law means even well meaning citizens will run afoul of the law.

What’s the solution to these two problems? The obvious, and sensible, one is to give the IRS less power and to reduce the tax burden and simplify the tax code. The regulatory state’s answer is to keep those problems unsolved but hire a couple thousand more employees to deal with it, at taxpayer expense. Heads they win, tails you lose.

The same holds true for the impending “crisis” for the IRS this tax season. Back to Politico:

Spending negotiators this week froze most agency budgets but reduced the IRS funds to $10.9 billion, a 3 percent cut over last year and $1.5 billion below the president’s request. Appropriators bragged in a release that the level is even lower than the IRS’s 2008 budget.

Those new cuts come atop more than a $1 billion reduction to the IRS budget since 2010, which has forced the tax-collecting agency to shed 13,000 employees while it serves an additional 7 million taxpayers, according to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Those reductions are about to manifest in what Olson is predicting will be the “worst filing season” in years. For the first time, the agency will be administering Obamacare and another massive international tax law.

So ObamaCare is costing families more in health insurance, and now it’s costing them more–at least if the IRS has its way–in associated implementation costs. And you just have to love the last part of that quote: “another massive international tax law.” Allow me to suggest that the agency enforcing “another massive international tax law” is not the victim here.

The IRS wastes money. That’s not the taxpayer’s fault, but now it’s the taxpayer’s problem. Welcome to the administrative state. And what is the IRS’s priority for next year? Cutting back? Nope: “The IRS early in 2015 is expected to release a draft rule to clarify how much political activity these 501(c)(4) groups can legally engage in while keeping their tax-exempt status.”

So it’s going to go after nonprofits again, and will spend its time and (your) money hassling and harassing citizens in order to curb their political speech. All this tells you Republicans are exactly right to go down this route, despite the sympathetic press the IRS will get in Politico and other Beltway outlets. The American people should not be blackmailed and treated as hostages by their own government. The agency’s response to the threat of budget cuts shows just how necessary it is to carry them out.

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CIA Must Learn the Lesson of Playing Politics

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s CIA “torture report” is a symbol of partisan venality. The old adage garbage-in, garbage-out holds true. One former CIA general counsel says the intelligence committee never asked him to testify and therefore did not consider his input, which countered Feinstein’s pre-ordained conclusions. Many former CIA directors dispute the report’s conclusions, and argue that “enhanced interrogation” did indeed lead to actionable intelligence which prevented terror attacks. Certainly, there is a tendency among bureaucrats to circle the wagon and protect the organization to which they have dedicated their life and from which they get their salaries, but that doesn’t mean that they also don’t truly believe what they argue or that they also don’t have very good evidence upon which to make their arguments. Outgoing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein seems less motivated by principle than by personal vendetta. And the collateral damage she causes, well, she appears to be fine with it.

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The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s CIA “torture report” is a symbol of partisan venality. The old adage garbage-in, garbage-out holds true. One former CIA general counsel says the intelligence committee never asked him to testify and therefore did not consider his input, which countered Feinstein’s pre-ordained conclusions. Many former CIA directors dispute the report’s conclusions, and argue that “enhanced interrogation” did indeed lead to actionable intelligence which prevented terror attacks. Certainly, there is a tendency among bureaucrats to circle the wagon and protect the organization to which they have dedicated their life and from which they get their salaries, but that doesn’t mean that they also don’t truly believe what they argue or that they also don’t have very good evidence upon which to make their arguments. Outgoing Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein seems less motivated by principle than by personal vendetta. And the collateral damage she causes, well, she appears to be fine with it.

But while it seems clear that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is sullying its reputation by being so overtly partisan and playing out personal grudges against the intelligence community, the CIA must also learn that when it plays politics, it opens a Pandora’s Box and ultimately will get burned. It is ironic—but also a good thing—that so many former Bush administration officials are standing up for the CIA.

Many might harbor personal grievance because they were targets of malicious and politically-motivated CIA leaks. In November 2005, W. Patrick Lang, former Defense Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, South Asia, and counter-terrorism, told the American Prospect of some CIA analysts’ efforts to hurt the White House prior to the 2004 presidential election. “Of course they were leaking,” he said. “They told me about it at the time. They thought it was funny. They’d say things like, ‘This last thing that came out, surely people will pay attention to that. They won’t re-elect this man [President Bush]’.”

As I chronicle in my recent book, that’s just one example of many: CIA interference in policy and politics dates back to the Johnson administration at least, and was a constant problem during the Cold War under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Intelligence officials leaking to affect policy should have been exposed and fired. Frequent and unplugged leaks may win the CIA analysts short-term policy battles, but such illegalities hemorrhage long-term trust and ultimately come back to bite the agency in a way that undermines both it and the American national security which it seeks to preserve. As the old adage goes, “You can’t be a little bit pregnant.” The CIA can’t dabble in politics a little bit and expect not to be burned. While Feinstein is treating the CIA unfairly—and breeding distrust that will continue for years in the process—it is long past time for the CIA to recognize that it is not always the victim, but often a full participant in unnecessary political games.

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GOP Establishment Should Fear Cruz Run

Yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz gave a major foreign-policy speech at the Heritage Foundation critiquing the disastrous nature of what he labeled as the “Obama-Clinton” approach to the subject. His desire to lay out his foreign-policy views in detail at such a venue as well as his focus on Clinton was a clear indication of something that is not exactly a secret: he’s planning on running for president in 2016. Members of his party’s establishment, which generally despises him as much as his fellow senators and the liberal media, do not take Cruz’s ambition too seriously. But as much as it seems unlikely that he will be taking the presidential oath at the Capitol in January 2017, that establishment should be a lot more afraid of Cruz than they seem to be. Anyone who thinks he will not be a formidable primary contender is paying more attention to the media caricature of Cruz than the facts.

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Yesterday, Senator Ted Cruz gave a major foreign-policy speech at the Heritage Foundation critiquing the disastrous nature of what he labeled as the “Obama-Clinton” approach to the subject. His desire to lay out his foreign-policy views in detail at such a venue as well as his focus on Clinton was a clear indication of something that is not exactly a secret: he’s planning on running for president in 2016. Members of his party’s establishment, which generally despises him as much as his fellow senators and the liberal media, do not take Cruz’s ambition too seriously. But as much as it seems unlikely that he will be taking the presidential oath at the Capitol in January 2017, that establishment should be a lot more afraid of Cruz than they seem to be. Anyone who thinks he will not be a formidable primary contender is paying more attention to the media caricature of Cruz than the facts.

Let’s start by conceding that Cruz’s well-earned image as a Senate bomb-thrower and his truculent public personality makes him a poor bet as a general-election candidate. Being a true believer is an asset in a primary but his uncompromising style won’t win many independent or crossover voters. Just as important, Cruz not only sounds ornery much of the time, he generally looks it too–and in the television era it’s far from clear that Americans will ever again elect someone who doesn’t strike them as being nice or personable. But let’s put those issues aside for a moment and consider Cruz’s chances of winning the Republican nomination in a context in which liberal media bias as well as the imperative of winning the center won’t be as decisive as they would be in a general election.

It should be understood that while many in the media and among the partisans of the so-called moderates in the putative GOP presidential field think Cruz is just another version of past Republican candidates that were more gadflies than serious contenders, he is nothing of the sort. Cruz is no Michele Bachmann, a candidate who quickly imploded because of her penchant for embracing crackpot causes (like her opposition to a vaccine against cervical cancer) after enjoying a couple of months in the summer of 2011 during which it seemed as if she might get as far as Rick Santorum eventually did during the 2012 primaries. Cruz is good at playing up the down-home charm, a brilliant debater (a former college champion), and a savvy political tactician with a strong command of the issues and policy options on both domestic and foreign policy. If you’re going to make comparisons to 2012 candidates, imagine someone with the folksiness of Rick Perry (albeit in a Cuban Texan version), the passion of Santorum on populist and social conservative issues, the debating skill of Newt Gingrich, and the wonkish grasp of details of a Mitt Romney and you have a fair idea of what Cruz brings to the table.

Cruz’s ability to rouse the Tea Party base should also not be underestimated. While that constituency has been widely derided in the last couple of years as the GOP establishment managed to fend off challenges to many incumbents from Tea Party types, the grassroots conservatives have not disappeared and will turn out to support someone who can inspire passion. Cruz can do that for the exact same reasons that he appalls the establishment. The Texan can approach every key conservative issue, whether it is ObamaCare or immigration, with a laser-like precision that more easygoing or moderate candidates can’t match.

Cruz won’t win votes from those who don’t like Washington dysfunction. Republican governors are likely to win those votes. But having never given an inch or compromised on anything during his first two years in the Senate, neither will it be possible to accuse him of selling his soul to get ahead as is the usual rap on House or Senate veterans.

As for being able to organize a serious campaign, Cruz will be no latecomer to the party. He’s been working toward this goal for some time and it’s not likely that he will be caught short on organization. It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party faithful can give him enough money to fight to the end in the absence of him becoming the cause of a major donor the way Sheldon Adelson bankrolled Gingrich or Foster Friess subsidized Santorum. But Cruz is not the sort to be outworked so those who think he can’t raise enough cash are probably making a mistake.

Will that be enough to help him fend off a large number of other conservatives vying for the same voters? We don’t know, but the way he parachuted into Washington in January 2013 and quickly became the darling of the right indicates that he must be considered a serious threat to edge out others before they even get started. More to the point, Cruz is probably ideally positioned to win early primary and caucus states and then rake in the cash that will follow those victories before he tries to best the other first-tier candidates in the contests that follow. At worst, barring a mishap, I think he should be slotted in as likely to be part of a large field’s first tier.

Is he a lock to be able to carry out that scenario? Not necessarily. There will also not be as many debates in 2016 as there were in 2012, meaning that he won’t have as many opportunities to display his bulldog style or to eviscerate opponents in public. And the later primary schedule that year will make it easier for establishment types to wait before joining the race.

But the point here is that while Cruz may be considered an outlier in the Senate chamber, he’s likely to play better on the hustings in Iowa and other early states than establishment types think. Cruz may shoot himself in the foot in the next year and find others supplanting him among Tea Partiers and the rest of the party. But any assumptions on the part of the establishment that he will crash and burn is a huge mistake. Cruz may not be president but his path to the Republican nomination is no pipe dream.

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Max Boot: Nothing Else Like COMMENTARY

There is more commentary in the world than ever before—whether in print, on the air, or on the Internet. But there is still a dearth of serious, informed commentary that reports, analyzes, and argues without ever stooping to name-calling or vitriol. If you further narrow down the segment of the commentariat that looks at the world from a conservative and Jewish perspective—well, you’re left with only one choice. The magazine you are now reading. COMMENTARY has changed over the years—for instance, it now publishes this blog—but one thing that has not changed is its steadfast commitment to providing the best analysis from the most informed writers of the most important ideas in the world, all written in clear prose that appeals to a general audience. There is nothing else like it. Never has been, never will be.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

There is more commentary in the world than ever before—whether in print, on the air, or on the Internet. But there is still a dearth of serious, informed commentary that reports, analyzes, and argues without ever stooping to name-calling or vitriol. If you further narrow down the segment of the commentariat that looks at the world from a conservative and Jewish perspective—well, you’re left with only one choice. The magazine you are now reading. COMMENTARY has changed over the years—for instance, it now publishes this blog—but one thing that has not changed is its steadfast commitment to providing the best analysis from the most informed writers of the most important ideas in the world, all written in clear prose that appeals to a general audience. There is nothing else like it. Never has been, never will be.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Is the United States Complicit with ISIS?

Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

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Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

That said, through negligence or disinterest, the United States has done much to create a situation which disadvantages ISIS’s foes. Last year, I visited Rojava, the confederation of cantons (of which Kobane is part) which Syrian Kurds have created in northeastern Syria. What the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has accomplished is admirable: Rojava has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Kurdish and Arab, Christian and Muslim. Freedom of religion and gender equality are respected. Beyond Kobane, within Rojava is security: men and women work, and go to the market; and children go to school and play in the streets unmolested.

But not all is well: Earlier today in Brussels, I had the opportunity to hear PYD co-president Salih Muslim speak and chat with him briefly. One point he raised is that Rojava still suffers under a complete embargo: Turkey, Iraq, and Syria all blockade it, and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq often tries to strong-arm Rojava, making access to Rojava difficult across Iraqi Kurdistan. International aid organizations and the United Nations won’t help because they only work through organizations recognized by states. Hence, the UN channels aid through Turkey and Syria, neither of whom allow their respective Red Crescents or other NGOs to work with Rojava and its NGOs.

The United States need not be constrained by such policies. It has provided some aid to Kurdish fighters battling ISIS, but it could just as easily provide much needed support and relief to Rojava, the only stable and generally functioning region inside Syria. Talk about an easy step to win hearts and minds and promote moderation at the same time. The Rojava social compact—its proto-constitution—also provides a great model for more federated, local government inside the rest of Syria.

It’s hard to reconcile a desire to bring peace, democracy, and stability to Syria with a refusal to recognize and support the progress being made in the only secular, tolerant, and stable portion of the country. Often, American policy seems on autopilot, wedded to policies of the past that were crafted under radically different circumstances. Perhaps it’s time for a fundamental re-think and an embrace of a model that neither privileges the regime nor the Islamic State, but which provides an alternative to both. While the White House and State Department reconsider, however, it is crucial to do what the United Nations will not, and provide food and supplies directly to those who need it most, rather than relying on the good graces of the Turkish government or Syrian regime to take care of Syria’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

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Elizabeth Warren’s Government Shutdown

The specter of a potential government shutdown is haunting Washington today. But it isn’t Ted Cruz and what the liberal mainstream media considers his gang of Tea Party obstructionists who are the principle threat to the passage of the so-called Cromnibus bill that will avert the possibility of a repeat of the 2013 standoff. Instead it is the darling of the liberal media, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking to derail the compromise forged by House Speaker John Boehner and Democrats. Warren is calling on liberals to vote against the deal because among its provisions are measures raising the limits on campaign contributions and scaling back some of the onerous regulations on banks and Wall Street firms in the Dodd-Frank bill that have caused such havoc. But don’t expect the same media that labeled Cruz an arsonist to speak ill of Warren’s efforts to thwart efforts to keep the government funded.

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The specter of a potential government shutdown is haunting Washington today. But it isn’t Ted Cruz and what the liberal mainstream media considers his gang of Tea Party obstructionists who are the principle threat to the passage of the so-called Cromnibus bill that will avert the possibility of a repeat of the 2013 standoff. Instead it is the darling of the liberal media, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is seeking to derail the compromise forged by House Speaker John Boehner and Democrats. Warren is calling on liberals to vote against the deal because among its provisions are measures raising the limits on campaign contributions and scaling back some of the onerous regulations on banks and Wall Street firms in the Dodd-Frank bill that have caused such havoc. But don’t expect the same media that labeled Cruz an arsonist to speak ill of Warren’s efforts to thwart efforts to keep the government funded.

Cruz has been loudly and frequently criticized both by liberals and some conservatives for deciding that his efforts to thwart the implementation of ObamaCare took precedence over the need to keep the government funded. Even those who sympathized him on the substance of this issue thought he was unreasonable in his insistence that voting for a compromise-funding bill made Republicans complicit with measures they opposed. The notion that principle ought to trump political reality and the necessity to avoid a standoff that could lead to a government shutdown (for which President Obama and his supporters were just as responsible as anything Cruz and the Tea Partiers did) was viewed as a disruptive approach that interfered with the responsibility of both parties to govern rather than to merely expound their views.

But the question today is why are those who were so quick to tag Cruz as a scourge of good government for his opposition to often messy yet necessary compromises to bills that require bipartisan support not putting the same label on Warren.

The reasons for this are fairly obvious. Most of the press clearly sympathizes with Warren’s rabble rousing on behalf of ineffective campaign-finance laws as well as a regulatory regime that has caused as much trouble as the problems it was supposed to solve. Warren’s rhetoric denouncing the rich and Wall Street is catnip for a press corps that shares her political point of view. By contrast, few in the media sympathized with Cruz’s last stand against ObamaCare, something that most in the president’s press cheering section viewed as a reactionary position that deserved the opprobrium they hurled at it.

Yet Warren’s attacks on the spending bill are no less extreme than anything Cruz was saying in 2013 or even now as he has ineffectively sought to rally conservatives to oppose the Cromnibus. Her claim that the Dodd-Frank changes were slipped into the bill in the middle of the night are false since they were negotiated with Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski, who is every bit the liberal that Warren claims to be. So is the notion that they are the product of a right-wing conspiracy is flatly false since, as the Washington Post notes, Democrats like Minority Whip Steny Hoyer and Rep. Nita Lowey voted for them in a stand-in alone vote last year.

But whatever one may think of these parts of the bill, the point about it is that getting something done in Washington requires both sides to hold their noses and accept that they can’t get their way on everything. The principle critique of conservative Republicans in recent years is that they are so besotted with ideology that they’ve forgotten that part of their duty as members of Congress is to ensure that the apparatus of government functions even if they are not getting their way on all issues. One can argue about whether there are times when such stands are required by the seriousness of the situation. But whether you agree with the Tea Party on ObamaCare or immigration or with Warren on Dodd-Frank, that critique applies just as easily to one as to the other.

Warren might not have the ability to rally enough liberals in the House to her side on this issue just as Cruz seems not to be able to stop Boehner’s deal. But if you think Cruz is an obstructionist, there is no distinction between him and Warren in this respect anymore. At least not unless you think it’s OK for liberals to shut down the government but not conservatives.

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Putting Lipstick on the BDS Pig

The BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement targeting Israel has had more success in the Kafkaesque confines of the modern American university than in the real world. Yet even in the academy, where both the rule of law and basic constitutional rights are heavily curtailed and anti-Semitism is tolerated if not fostered, it has begun to lose battles. That’s because a few principled American academics still support academic freedom, and make their argument convincingly. Yet now another group of leftist academics is offering a way to target Israel while maintaining a façade of academic integrity.

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The BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement targeting Israel has had more success in the Kafkaesque confines of the modern American university than in the real world. Yet even in the academy, where both the rule of law and basic constitutional rights are heavily curtailed and anti-Semitism is tolerated if not fostered, it has begun to lose battles. That’s because a few principled American academics still support academic freedom, and make their argument convincingly. Yet now another group of leftist academics is offering a way to target Israel while maintaining a façade of academic integrity.

The group is a leftist organization called the Third Narrative, which seeks to replace the prevailing anti-Israel narrative on the left with their own anti-Israel narrative, which they consider morally superior. It’s as though one Illinois governor is claiming to be less corrupt than one of his predecessors. Fine, but let’s remember just how relative your morality is here.

The Third Narrative’s mission statement criticizes the overheated anti-Israel rhetoric of the left, but still wants the left to take aim at Israel:

The Third Narrative initiative is our response to this situation. We hope to engage people on the left who suspect that it is wrong to lay all blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict at the feet of Israeli Jews…but aren’t sure how to respond to Israel’s most vitriolic critics. Some of what these critics say is true, some of their accusations are justified. Some of what Israel’s traditional defenders say is also accurate. When it comes to this conflict, the truth is rarely black or white; it resides in a gray area where advocates on either side typically don’t like to venture. That is where we try to go with The Third Narrative.

In theory, it sounds good. A less hateful left is still thoroughly intellectually dishonest, but still an improvement. (It’s a low bar.) Once fiercely opposed to BDS, the organization now seems to have been opposed to the form the mainstream BDS movement was taking, especially the anti-Semitic umbrella BDS organization. The Third Narrative apparently thinks there’s a third way between BDS and no BDS, as it explained in an open letter titled “A Time for Personal Sanctions”:

That response, we believe, should not take the form of generalized boycotts and other sanctions that indiscriminately target Israeli society and Israeli institutions. Such measures are both unjust and politically counterproductive. In particular, campaigns for boycotts and blacklists of Israeli academia attack the most basic principles of academic freedom and open intellectual exchange.

Moreover, a response to Israel’s settlement and annexation policies should not suggest that Israel bears exclusive responsibility for the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, or that, if pressured, Israel could solve it unilaterally. Achieving a just and durable negotiated solution requires constructive efforts by actors on all sides of the intertwined Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts. However, if the door is to be held open to the possibility of a just, workable, and peaceful solution, one requirement is to prevent actions that would sabotage it. For this reason, we propose targeted sanctions to focus on political actors engaged in such sabotage.

Although they single out four Israeli figures to sanction, the point is really to attack Naftali Bennett, the first politician on their blacklist and a rising star in Israeli politics, on the eve of a national election. (Uri Ariel, Moshe Feiglin, and Zeev Hever are the others.)

Signatories to the letter include Michael Walzer (Princeton), Todd Gitlin (Columbia), Alan Wolfe (Boston College), Michael Kazin (Georgetown), and Gershon Shafir (UC San Diego) among others. As you can see from the names, they are not only academics but also writers. And as you might expect from American academics and left-wing journalists, they have no idea what they’re talking about. A read-through of their open letter shows them to be ignorant of basic international law and deceitful about Israeli actions.

They want to sanction Israelis whose opinions they disagree with, but since those Israelis are not professors at Tel Aviv University they can convince themselves they are better than those other BDSniks. This is their version of a kosher BDS. It is nothing of the sort.

Since their concern about political figures getting in the way of the two-state solution is surely genuine, I eagerly await the follow-up open letter detailing the Palestinian figures they’re also sanctioning: figures who support or encourage terrorism, those involved in Palestinian media who fuel incitement; etc.

And why stop there? As they must know, the political figures who do the most to torpedo Israeli-Palestinian peace sit in Tehran. Which Iranian government officials–obviously President Rouhani, but there must be others–will Third Narrative advocate personal sanctions for?

What’s dangerous about the Third Narrative’s supposedly kosher BDS is that it offers the legions of thought police throughout academia an outlet for their anti-Israel fervor that also flatters their unearned sense of academic integrity. But they can put all the lipstick they want on this pig, it won’t make it kosher.

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Matthew Continetti: Why COMMENTARY Matters

Why does COMMENTARY matter? Since 1945, no other monthly magazine has so consistently published serious, provocative argument and analysis. No other monthly magazine has viewed America and the world through such a wide angle, encompassing economics, politics, society, culture, religion, and diplomacy. No other monthly magazine has published such a celebrated and wide-ranging list of editors and contributors. Cerebral, critical, and committed, the point of view found in its pages is as unique as it is formidable. And in a world of Iranian nukes, rising anti-Semitism, radical Islam, American disarmament, bipartisan neo-isolationism, and disintegrating institutions, reading COMMENTARY is more than a pleasure. It is a necessity.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

Why does COMMENTARY matter? Since 1945, no other monthly magazine has so consistently published serious, provocative argument and analysis. No other monthly magazine has viewed America and the world through such a wide angle, encompassing economics, politics, society, culture, religion, and diplomacy. No other monthly magazine has published such a celebrated and wide-ranging list of editors and contributors. Cerebral, critical, and committed, the point of view found in its pages is as unique as it is formidable. And in a world of Iranian nukes, rising anti-Semitism, radical Islam, American disarmament, bipartisan neo-isolationism, and disintegrating institutions, reading COMMENTARY is more than a pleasure. It is a necessity.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Torture Focus Is Poison Pill for Democrats

Liberal Democrats and their media allies are having a field day. The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture has allowed the political left to go back to its favorite pastime: bashing the Bush administration and their pet demon Vice President Dick Cheney. But as good as this feels to them, Democrats should be worried about the possibility that this issue will not only carry over into the new year but become part of the left’s standard foreign-policy talking points as we head into the 2016 presidential election cycle. Though anything that allows them to relive their glory days when hatred for all things Bush was their excuse for a political platform seems enticing, it’s actually a trap. The more the torture issue is allowed to play out as a partisan fight, the more trouble it will be for Democrats in the long run.

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Liberal Democrats and their media allies are having a field day. The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of torture has allowed the political left to go back to its favorite pastime: bashing the Bush administration and their pet demon Vice President Dick Cheney. But as good as this feels to them, Democrats should be worried about the possibility that this issue will not only carry over into the new year but become part of the left’s standard foreign-policy talking points as we head into the 2016 presidential election cycle. Though anything that allows them to relive their glory days when hatred for all things Bush was their excuse for a political platform seems enticing, it’s actually a trap. The more the torture issue is allowed to play out as a partisan fight, the more trouble it will be for Democrats in the long run.

It’s true that reigniting a debate about the use of torture on al-Qaeda prisoners enables liberals to go back to that happy time when they could concentrate all their energy attacking Bush and Cheney as lying, torturing warmongers. It also allows them to channel their 2006 and 2008 outrage about the GOP without having to acknowledge that the man they elected to reverse everything done by the 43rd president has, without the exception of enhanced interrogation, largely kept in place the policies they thought made the last GOP president and his team liable for either prosecution as unconstitutional law breakers or even war criminals.

But, like some isolationists on the right who might be deceived into thinking the discussion about torture will help undermine support within the Republican Party for an aggressive fight against Islamist terrorism, so, too, are Democrats wrong to think talking about this will do much to enhance their prospects in 2016. To the contrary, the more the left helps focus the country on the renewed war against a brutal Islamist foe, not only are they not playing to their party’s strength, but they are also failing to understand that the national mood is very different today from where it was when Bush and Cheney were popular piñatas for the left.

It needs to be understood that the reason why the Obama administration has undertaken the half-hearted offensive it launched against ISIS was that the terror group’s atrocities reminded Americans why they were pretty comfortable with the Bush-Cheney policies before the Iraq War soured. When they were rightly afraid of another 9/11, most people weren’t terribly interested in asking questions about how the intelligence community was acting to avert another atrocity. ISIS’s beheadings of American captives revived those fears and even if that group is currently more intent on asserting control of territory than in launching spectacular terror operations, the possibility that it or another group might strike Western targets is a possibility that can’t be safely discounted.

That’s why President Obama is trying to thread the political needle by disassociating himself from both the use of torture as well as attacks on the CIA and the calls for prosecution of Bush administration officials from his party’s political base. Though he has continued much of what Bush and Cheney started, the dependence on signal rather than human intelligence combined with an emphasis on assassinating terrorists rather than capturing them and getting them to talk has undermined confidence in the ability of the security apparatus to know what the enemy is thinking or planning.

All too many on the left approach these issues as if it is always September 10, 2001. So long as terror and a Middle East made more dangerous by Obama’s retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan are not issues, they can indulge in Bush-bashing to their heart’s content. But miring themselves in the politics of the Bush administration hurts the ability of Democrats to put themselves forward as a serious foreign-policy party at a time when terror is back on the national radar and likely to remain there for the next two years. It will also hamstring Hillary Clinton’s attempt to position herself again as a more responsible foreign-policy leader than Obama. The torture debate will bring to the fore exactly those figures in the Democratic Party who are most likely to make centrist voters think they shouldn’t be trusted with the country’s security. That’s good news for MSNBC and its dwindling band of viewers but bad for a party that needs to spend more time trying to appeal to white middle and working class independent voters rather than its left-wing core.

Just as important, Democrats gang tackling Republicans who are part of the nation’s past will mean less time spent trying to demonize the GOP figures they should be afraid of among the large field of credible presidential candidates. Those on the left that think that’s smart politics are setting their party up for a long, comfortable stay in opposition rather than winning in 2016.

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The NEA’s Racial Profiling Curriculum

Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

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Given the volatility and sensitivity of “racial profiling” these days, heightened by recent developments in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland and by brand new law-enforcement “guidelines” from the Justice Department, one could be tempted to thank the National Education Association for its recent effort, in league with a bunch of other organizations, to develop curricular materials by which schools and teachers can instruct their students on this issue.

One should, however, resist that temptation. It turns out that, once again, the NEA and its fellow travelers are presenting a one-sided, propagandistic view of an exceptionally complicated issue that elicits strong, conflicting views among adults; that carries competing values and subtleties beyond the ken of most school kids; and that probably doesn’t belong in the K–12 curriculum at all.

My mind immediately rolled back almost three decades, to the days when the Cold War was very much with us, when nuclear weapons were a passionate concern, when unilateral disarmament was earnestly propounded by some mostly well-meaning but deeply misguided Americans—and when the NEA plunged into the fray with appalling curricular guidance for U.S. schools.

Here’s part of what the late Joseph Adelson and I wrote in COMMENTARY magazine in April 1985:

[T]he much-publicized contribution of the National Education Association (NEA), to give but one example, looks blandly past any differences between the superpowers. Its one-page “fact sheet” on the USSR simply summarizes population, land area, and military resources. The geopolitical situation of the Soviet Union is captured in an extraordinary sentence: “The Soviet Union is bordered by many countries, including some unfriendly countries and others that are part of the Warsaw Pact, which includes countries that are friendly to the Soviet Union.” The beleaguered Soviets are tacitly compared to the United States, which is bordered (we are told) only by “friendly countries.” The youngster is thus plainly led to conclude that the Russians have rather more reason to be fearful than the Americans and that the relationship between Washington and Ottawa is indistinguishable from the ties between Moscow and “friendly” Warsaw or Kabul.

As one might expect, the student is told nothing by the NEA “fact sheet” about the two political systems—nothing about the Gulag or the KGB, nothing about internal passports or the control of emigration, nothing about Poland or Afghanistan…. Although it is an axiom of today’s educational ethos that on any remotely controversial topic, such as deviant sexuality, schools are to maintain a pose of exquisite neutrality, these curricula openly encourage children to engage in political action. In one instance it is recommended that letters be sent to elected officials and local newspapers; in another, teachers are urged to influence parents “by sharing what we as teachers have discovered about peace and peacemaking.” A New York City unit concludes with an “action collage” of bumper stickers, antiwar headlines, “peace walks,” and disarmament rallies. Another recommends seven separate projects, one of which is to write to Congressmen about nuclear-power plants in the community.

To sum up: nuclear curricula, presumably designed to ease a child’s anxiety, in fact introduce him to fears he has probably not entertained, and exacerbate any that he has. The child is provided with false or misleading political information which makes national policy seem capricious or malevolent or irrational. He is on the one hand taught the virtues of helplessness, on the other recruited to the propaganda purposes of the teacher.

In the years since, the NEA has developed curricular materials across an astonishing mishmash of topics, including just about every holiday and special-focus week or month that you never heard of. (Not only Black History Month, but also National Popcorn Month. Not just St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Earth Day, but also Groundhog Day and Brain Awareness Week.) Check out the website. Some of it’s worth having, and most of it’s harmless. But, as with the arms race of the 1980s, so with racial profiling: When they stray into hot-button adult controversies, let the user beware. And let those who worry about educators brainwashing their pupils beware, too.

How does today’s foray into racial profiling resemble the anti-nuclear curriculum of the 1980s? Consider, for example, this item, written by the Institute for Humane Education and excerpted from one of just three links supplied by the NEA to those who teach grades 3–5:

Human rights are inextricably connected to environmental and cultural issues. For example, the decline in potable water – due to causes such as intensive agricultural systems, pollution, corporate ownership of water rights, and global climate change – is an environmental, cultural, and a human rights issue. Rapid economic globalization – representing a cultural and political shift over the past half century – is resulting in increased slave and child labor. Some religions perpetuate human rights atrocities (e.g., female genital mutilation), making a cultural issue – religious freedom – a social justice issue as well.

Humans are oppressed by the same systems that exploit animals and the environment. Humane education gives us a lens to more clearly see the interconnectedness of these issues….

Balanced? Devoid of its own versions of “profiling”? Such issues arise every time schools are called upon to address a complicated contemporary issue that divides grownups and every time the materials offered to teachers are the work of single-cause organizations: When this topic reaches the fourth-grade classroom, are students going to get accurate, balanced information or the strong policy and political preferences of those who teach them (or who prepare materials that they foist upon teachers, the better to shape the minds of children in directions that the authors favor)?

How could there be any question of “balance,” you ask, when racial-profiling is the issue? Well, consider recent testimony by the Fraternal Order of Police noting that, in the Unabomber case, the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit deduced from available evidence that the likely suspect was a “white male” and observed, moreover, that “generally speaking, serial killers are much more likely to be white males than any other race or gender and investigations into serial killings generally begin with this presumption.”

Or see Heather Mac Donald’s revealing piece citing the Drug Enforcement Administration’s own data on which nationalities are most likely to engage in high-volume drug trafficking. Should police officers monitoring airfields and highways pretend they don’t know this?

Consider, too, not just the Byzantine complexity of the Justice Department’s new “guidance for federal law enforcement agencies,” but also the fact that those guarding U.S. borders against the entry of possible terrorists are specifically exempted from most of that guidance. Why? Because eight-year-olds from Iceland, elderly tourists from Ireland, and nuns from Brazil are extremely unlikely to be involved with terrorist plots against the United States, just as folks from other places and backgrounds are more likely to be so involved. It’s a mighty good thing for our safety that someone was able to persuade Messrs. Holder and Obama to allow for such exceptions. (My apologies to any surviving Byzantines for the impolitic profiling implicit in the first sentence of this paragraph.)

How many fifth graders are going to grasp all this? Why should they be expected to? But if you leave out the complexity, you end up with oversimplification, naiveté, and political correctness.

The other big question to be raised about the NEA’s latest dive into troubled waters: why this topic and not others? What (speaking of terrorists) about a “terrorism curriculum”? I can’t find one on the NEA website—though there’s plenty on “climate change.” What about an anti-Semitism curriculum? I can’t find that, either, though there’s plenty on immigration reform. Who makes these decisions, and based on what? How are teachers and schools supposed to sort through it?

And where does it end? How many contemporary issues of the sort that worry adults should be visited upon school children? At what ages and in which classes and instead of what? Because surely something must be omitted from the regular curriculum to make room for racial-profiling education, just as with lessons about the perils and risks of smoking, AIDS, obesity, drug abuse—and climate change and immigration reform, not to mention popcorn month. Do we skip phonics lessons? Two-digit multiplication? The Declaration of Independence? Isn’t it possible that a close reading of To Kill a Mockingbird might impart messages about racism, tolerance, kindness, and courage within a first-rate English language arts curriculum—instead of turning to one-sided didactic materials from single-issue organizations? Including, alas, America’s largest organization to whose members we entrust the education of our children and grandchildren.

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Israel Still Doing U.S. Dirty Work in Syria

Over the weekend, the Syrian government reported that Israeli airplanes struck targets outside Damascus. The Assad regime condemned the attack on its territory, a stance echoed by both their Iranian and Russian allies. In particular, Moscow demanded an explanation from Israel for its “aggressive” behavior. Why were the Russians so aggrieved about a few more bombs dropped on a country that is already ravaged by four years of war? The targets hit were apparently stockpiles of Russian weapons that were about to be transferred to Hezbollah. There is nothing that unusual about Israeli military action to forestall weapons being put into the hands of terrorists but what is interesting here is that once again Israel, the ally that the Obama administration most loves to hate, is doing America’s dirty work in Syria.

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Over the weekend, the Syrian government reported that Israeli airplanes struck targets outside Damascus. The Assad regime condemned the attack on its territory, a stance echoed by both their Iranian and Russian allies. In particular, Moscow demanded an explanation from Israel for its “aggressive” behavior. Why were the Russians so aggrieved about a few more bombs dropped on a country that is already ravaged by four years of war? The targets hit were apparently stockpiles of Russian weapons that were about to be transferred to Hezbollah. There is nothing that unusual about Israeli military action to forestall weapons being put into the hands of terrorists but what is interesting here is that once again Israel, the ally that the Obama administration most loves to hate, is doing America’s dirty work in Syria.

For years the U.S. has stood by and watched as the Russians have supplied arms to Assad to slaughter his own people. Even worse, as President Obama dithered about taking action to halt the killing of more than 200,000 persons, the crisis there worsened as, with the help of Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries, atrocities escalated and moderate alternatives to Assad were marginalized by radical groups including ISIS.

The result is that by the time the U.S. belatedly recognized the necessity of acting against ISIS, there were few good options left for resisting Assad and his allies. More to the point, much as was the case when I wrote about Israeli strikes on Syria in both January and May of 2013, it is Israel that has been forced to step into the vacuum created by the administration’s feckless policies.

Like those strikes, this past weekend’s attacks were primarily directed by Israel’s own security imperatives. Allowing Russia to transfer arms to terrorists, whether serving as mercenaries fighting to preserve a regime that is allied with the Shi’a group’s Iranian masters or deployed near Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah presents a dramatic and potent threat to Israel. But by acting decisively to keep Hezbollah from acquiring even more dangerous weapons than the ones it already possesses, Israel is also helping to keep the situation in Syria from becoming even more unmanageable.

The U.S. strikes on ISIS inside Syria have had some impact on the ability of the terror group to expand its control of much of that country as well as Iraq. But it is too weak a response to even begin the task of rolling back the extent of the so-called caliphate. The net effect of the administration’s effort both there and in Iraq is to expand Iran’s influence and to, in effect, allow Assad and his allied forces a free pass to go on committing atrocities.

Even as President Obama, who was once quite vocal about the necessity for Bashar Assad’s ouster, mulls sanctions against Israel while appeasing Iran and allowing it to run out the clock in nuclear talks, the Jewish state is guarding both its interests as well as those of the West by acting to restrain arms transfers in Syria. While the U.S. concentrates on an insufficient air offensive aimed at ISIS, Israel is effectively restraining any Syrian and/or Iranian adventurism in the region. Keeping Assad and Hezbollah in check is a vital American interest as the rest of the region looks on with horror as the Syrian regime and its friends continue to destabilize the region. Though it continues to be the Obama administration’s favorite whipping boy, Israel’s actions are once again proving the value of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Syrian Refugees Get Resettled But Not Palestinians

The civil war in Syria has produced more than 3.2 million refugees creating an intolerable burden for neighboring countries. With so many languishing in camps, the refugees are beginning to voice frustration with their plight with some seeking to flee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey and head to Europe as illegal immigrants. Stepping into the breach is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It is seeking to extract pledges from Western nations to accept some of the Syrians for resettlement. Its initial goal is to have these nations permanently take in at least 130,000 Syrians in the next two years. But what is missing from accounts of this effort is the obvious contrast with the other famous refugees in the region, the Palestinians. Unlike the Syrians they won’t be resettled.

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The civil war in Syria has produced more than 3.2 million refugees creating an intolerable burden for neighboring countries. With so many languishing in camps, the refugees are beginning to voice frustration with their plight with some seeking to flee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey and head to Europe as illegal immigrants. Stepping into the breach is the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. It is seeking to extract pledges from Western nations to accept some of the Syrians for resettlement. Its initial goal is to have these nations permanently take in at least 130,000 Syrians in the next two years. But what is missing from accounts of this effort is the obvious contrast with the other famous refugees in the region, the Palestinians. Unlike the Syrians they won’t be resettled.

That the UNHCR is seeking to find permanent new homes for as many Syrians as they can is unsurprising. That is what this agency has been doing for refugees since its inception in 1950 as it has helped tens of millions of people survive the ordeal of homelessness and then seeks to find new places for them to live and put down roots. While some Syrians are just waiting out the war hoping to return to what’s left of their homes after the fighting eventually stops, many are logically thinking that their best option is to look elsewhere for safety and sustenance. This is normal behavior for any refugee population, but as the world struggles to deal with the human tragedy that is the byproduct of the war that is being fought between the Assad regime, ISIS, and rebel groups, it’s worth comparing the halting and by no means sufficient efforts to help the Syrians with the utter lack of interest in resettling a single Palestinian during the same period that UNHCR has been operating.

Blame for this does not belong to UNHCR, the agency that is responsible for aiding all refugee populations in the world save one: the Palestinians. The Palestinians have their very own UN refugee agency to help them, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. But UNRWA doesn’t resettle anyone. Its purpose is not to solve the Palestinian refugee problem but to perpetuate it.

Though UNRWA operates as if it is a humanitarian agency, its purpose has always been primarily political. The population of Arab refugees from the former Mandate of Palestine was created by the war waged by those acting in the name of those Arabs to strangle the State of Israel at its birth. Rather than accepting the UN partition of the land into what were explicitly called Jewish and Arab states, the Arab and Muslim world chose to wage war to prevent the creation of any Jewish state, no matter how small its territory. With a few exceptions, several hundred thousand refugees fled because of the spread of the war as well as the explicit instructions from some Arab leaders that they flee in order to ease the path of invading Arab armies. When the War of Independence ended with the new Jewish state alive, albeit existing in truncated and unsafe borders, the tactics of Israel’s opponents shifted. From that point on, their efforts sought to highlight the plight of Arabs who had fled in order to promote a military or diplomatic attempt to continue the war. Indeed, even as Syrian refugees in camps in neighboring nations are allowed to resettle elsewhere, Palestinians still stuck in Syrian refugee camps remain in place unable and unwilling to budge from the site of their misery.

The result of this policy was not merely to render all efforts to make peace between Israel and the Arab world impossible; it also ensured that the Palestinians would live in misery in increasing numbers and growing squalor. At the same time, a nearly equal number of Jews were forced to flee their homes in the Arab world as pogroms and discrimination made their plight intolerable. But while UNRWA kept the Palestinians in place to suffer, Jewish groups ensured that their refugees would not suffer in this manner and all were resettled in Israel or the West.

This is a familiar story. The world ignores the legacy of the Jewish refugees who deserve compensation for their losses every bit as much as the descendants of those Arabs who were displaced in 1948. At the same time the Palestinian refugees remain an immovable obstacle to any peace settlement since they have been told endlessly that they will go back to their old homes (or those of their parents and grandparents) in what was once Palestine. Palestinian Authority Leader Mahmoud Abbas’s recent embrace of the right of return makes it clear that no Palestinian leader will dare make peace with Israel since they are wedded to a “right of return” which is synonymous with the destruction of a Jewish state.

While we wish good luck to the UNHCR in their gargantuan task of aiding and resettling Syrian refugees, the lesson here is that treating the Palestinians differently from other such populations has come at a perilously high price in suffering to those involved.

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The Medicaid Scam and ObamaCare Lies

Yesterday’s congressional oversight hearing on ObamaCare was, to those interested enough to watch, mostly about Jonathan Gruber, the ObamaCare architect who was caught on video repeatedly bragging to audiences about the level of dishonesty required to pass ObamaCare. Yet the hearing was also called for another reason: the Obama administration had been caught falsifying more enrollment numbers.

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Yesterday’s congressional oversight hearing on ObamaCare was, to those interested enough to watch, mostly about Jonathan Gruber, the ObamaCare architect who was caught on video repeatedly bragging to audiences about the level of dishonesty required to pass ObamaCare. Yet the hearing was also called for another reason: the Obama administration had been caught falsifying more enrollment numbers.

To that end Marilyn Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was also at the hearing to be questioned by the committee. When the enrollment numbers were not meeting their benchmark, the government simply fudged the stats by counting dental plans, thus boosting the numbers by hundreds of thousands of enrollees. There won’t be any real consequences for the government repeatedly lying to the people, and so it won’t stop: central planners cannot keep honest records and still convince the people they are on the right track. Never have, never will.

But Tavenner’s appearance coincided with another revelation that will give her heartburn. The New York Times reports that the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general has concluded his investigation into the availability of doctors for those covered under Medicaid–a major source of insurance coverage expansion under ObamaCare. What he found won’t shock you: enrollees are being lied to, again. The Times explains:

Large numbers of doctors who are listed as serving Medicaid patients are not available to treat them, federal investigators said in a new report.

“Half of providers could not offer appointments to enrollees,” the investigators said in the report, which will be issued on Tuesday.

Many of the doctors were not accepting new Medicaid patients or could not be found at their last known addresses, according to the report from the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services. The study raises questions about access to care for people gaining Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The health law is fueling rapid growth in Medicaid, with enrollment up by nine million people, or 16 percent, in the last year, the department said. Most of the new beneficiaries are enrolled in private health plans that use a network of doctors to manage their care.

Patients select doctors from a list of providers affiliated with each Medicaid health plan. The investigators, led by the inspector general, Daniel R. Levinson, called doctors’ offices and found that in many cases the doctors were unavailable or unable to make appointments.

It’s worth reading the whole story, because it’s just filled with such tidbits. Some are absurd, like the fact that “More than one-third of providers could not be found at the location listed by a Medicaid managed-care plan.” One-third of providers can’t even be found! The rest of the details, though, evince mostly outrage.

What is the result of the fact that Medicaid only pretends to offer health care? Well, the report, summarized by the Times and scheduled for release on Tuesday, offers the kind of brilliant insight we all have come to expect from a federal bureaucracy whose management would have to improve greatly just to be considered mediocre:

“When providers listed as participating in a plan cannot offer appointments, it may create a significant obstacle for an enrollee seeking care,” Mr. Levinson said. “Moreover, it raises questions about the adequacy of provider networks. It suggests that the actual size of provider networks may be considerably smaller than what is presented by Medicaid managed-care plans.”

Yes, when you can’t see your doctor, it “may”–may!–be an obstacle for you. The government apparently believes that Medicaid enrollees consider medical appointments roughly on par with social calls. It “may” be an obstacle to seeking care because, perhaps, the appointment with your doctor was to watch the game together, or some such. If you are actually seeking medical attention, however, the government’s disappearing doctor is always an obstacle.

And I’m not sure it “raises questions about the adequacy of provider networks” so much as it makes declaratory statements about the provider networks, such as: The networks are terrible.

Here’s another one: “a number of obstetricians had wait times of more than one month, and one had wait times of more than two months for an enrollee who was eight weeks pregnant. Such lengthy wait times could result in a pregnant enrollee receiving no prenatal care in the first trimester of pregnancy.” Completely unacceptable.

The Times, of course, gets a quote from Tavenner in response. Behold: “Inaccurate provider directory data may unnecessarily delay an enrollee from selecting a provider.” Tavenner is, just as a reminder, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. So enrollees are in great hands.

Medicaid is rife with such problems. The government is failing those who come to it for health care. So of course, under Obama, the government decided to put itself in charge of far more of the health sector. It is a general problem that the administration doesn’t know what it’s doing. When that incompetence is applied to health care, it becomes exponentially more dangerous for the citizens the government is supposed to be protecting. Heads should roll. They won’t, but they should.

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Joseph Epstein: I’d Be Lost Without COMMENTARY

Edward Shils noted that there are four means of education in the modern world: the classroom, bookstores (especially used-bookstores), the conversation of intelligent friends, and intellectual magazines. For me intellectual magazines were more important than any of the other three, and no magazine among them more so than COMMENTARY. I first happened on COMMENTARY as a student browsing in the University of Chicago Bookstore in 1957. I have not missed an issue since. The magazine spoke to my intellectual interests and passions, and still does. As a reader and as a writer, I should be lost without it.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

Edward Shils noted that there are four means of education in the modern world: the classroom, bookstores (especially used-bookstores), the conversation of intelligent friends, and intellectual magazines. For me intellectual magazines were more important than any of the other three, and no magazine among them more so than COMMENTARY. I first happened on COMMENTARY as a student browsing in the University of Chicago Bookstore in 1957. I have not missed an issue since. The magazine spoke to my intellectual interests and passions, and still does. As a reader and as a writer, I should be lost without it.

Help support COMMENTARY. Please click here to donate.

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Putting the “Torture Report” In Historical and Moral Context

When I worked in the Bush White House and revelations about enhanced interrogation techniques became public, I spoke with several people, both within and outside the administration, to discuss and grapple with its moral implications. (Because of my faith perspective, some of the conversations were placed in an explicitly theological context.) I was uncomfortable with what was done, as were virtually all of my colleagues, but understanding of it and at the time supportive of it. It was for us a complicated moral issue, weighing ends and means, and not, in my judgment, self-evidently defensible or self-evidently indefensible. Like so many issues confronting people in public life, there were competing arguments, upsides and downsides to each course of action. And for people serving in the White House and our intelligence agencies, it was not simply an abstract, academic debate. A lot depended on what we did, or what we failed to do.

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When I worked in the Bush White House and revelations about enhanced interrogation techniques became public, I spoke with several people, both within and outside the administration, to discuss and grapple with its moral implications. (Because of my faith perspective, some of the conversations were placed in an explicitly theological context.) I was uncomfortable with what was done, as were virtually all of my colleagues, but understanding of it and at the time supportive of it. It was for us a complicated moral issue, weighing ends and means, and not, in my judgment, self-evidently defensible or self-evidently indefensible. Like so many issues confronting people in public life, there were competing arguments, upsides and downsides to each course of action. And for people serving in the White House and our intelligence agencies, it was not simply an abstract, academic debate. A lot depended on what we did, or what we failed to do.

I understand now, as I did then, the argument of those who on principle opposed EITs; and I’m open to the case that in retrospect we should have pursued a different path. (The early implementation of the program was certainly flawed.) I must say, though, that the refusal of many critics of EITs to place this debate in a broader context–to treat it as simplistic Manichean drama, pitting the Children of Light against the Children of Darkness–is discouraging and counterproductive.

For one thing, they ignore the context of the times. By that I mean that many of them fail to take into account not only the widespread fear and pervasive panic that characterized the months after the 9/11 attacks, but they fail to take into account that (as this op-ed points out) the evidence we had that al-Qaeda was planning a second wave of attacks on the U.S.; that we knew Osama bin Laden had met with Pakistani nuclear scientists and wanted nuclear weapons; that there were reports that nuclear weapons were being smuggled into New York City; and that our intelligence agencies had hard evidence that al-Qaeda was trying to manufacture anthrax. In addition, we had very little information on al-Qaeda. We were scrambling to catch up, including not being sure of what we didn’t know. That needs to be taken into account.

So does the context of history. I know it’s fashionable to say that the EITs constitute a “dark chapter” for America. It’s therefore worth pointing out, perhaps, that our history is replete with actions during the “good war”–including the firebombing of Tokyo (which killed between 80,000-130,000 Japanese civilians) and Dresden (estimates vary from 25,000 to 135,000), dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (estimates are that roughly 150,000 people died), and Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in World War II–that certainly raise more morally problematic issues than an enhanced interrogation program that involved 119 detainees held in secret prisons, of which three were subjected to waterboarding. That doesn’t by itself justify the EIP; but it does put things in a more reasonable setting.

Many critics of the CIA’s interrogation program also ignore the here-and-now. As other commentators have pointed out, President Obama has overseen an expansion of a Predatory Drone program that targets and kills suspected terrorists without a trial–and in the process hundreds of innocent children in Pakistan and elsewhere have died. They are “collateral damage” of a program proudly championed by a liberal president who has sermonized repeatedly about the immorality of waterboarding three known, high-value terrorists. Are targeted, lethal attacks that kill many more innocent people, including many more innocent children, really that much of a moral improvement from what came before it? And a decade from now, will some of those who now defend drone strikes turn into their fiercest critics, which is what happened to Senator Dianne Feinstein on EITs? (Ms. Feinstein, along with other members of Congress, were briefed by the CIA on our interrogation program. According to three former CIA directors and three former deputy CIA directors, “The briefings were detailed and graphic and drew reactions that ranged from approval to no objection. The briefings held nothing back. The reactions from members of Congress ranged from approval to no objection.” And in 2002, Senator Feinstein said (my emphasis), “I have no question in my mind that had it not been for 9/11 — and I’d do anything if it hadn’t happened — that it would have been business as usual. It took that real attack, I think, to kind of shiver our timbers enough to let us know that the threat is profound, that we have to do some things that historically we have not wanted to do to protect ourselves.”)

It might elevate the public debate a bit if critics of enhanced interrogation techniques wrestled in an intellectually honest and fair-minded way with a set of questions they like to avoid, such as: If you knew using waterboarding against a known terrorist may well elicit information that could stop a massive attack on an American city, would you still insist it never be used? Do you oppose the use of waterboarding if it would save a thousand innocent lives? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? What exactly is the point, if any, at which you believe waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques might be justified? I simply don’t accept that those who answer “never” are taking a morally superior stand to those who answer “sometimes, in extremely rare circumstances and in very limited cases.”

“The true rule, in determining to embrace, or reject any thing, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good,” our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln, said. “There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two; so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”

That was true in the time of Lincoln, a man who struggled with the moral implications of his own actions as commander in chief. It’s true in our time, too. It would be a service to us all if, in the debate about the CIA’s interrogation programs from a decade ago, there was a little less moral preening and little more serious moral reflection.

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Torture and the Moral Ambiguity of War

The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

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The aftermath of the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation policies after 9/11 has set off a spasm of self-righteous condemnation of these procedures and the agency by most of the mainstream media. At the same time, the partisan nature of the report, which was rejected by the Republicans on the committee, has turned it into something of a political football. But as shocking as the details about the treatment dished out to captured terrorists may be to many citizens, the most damning piece of the report may be the allegation that the agency lied to the president and other political authorities. But that charge rests almost completely on the allegation that “at no time” did intelligence gleaned from such interrogations prevent a terror attack. This is thoroughly refuted by both the minority report and the statements of former CIA directors, and deputy directors who were shockingly never interviewed by the committee, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

Former CIA Directors George J. Tenet, Porter J. Goss, and Michael V. Hayden and former CIA Deputy Directors John E. McLaughlin, Albert M. Calland, and Stephen R. Kappes explain in their piece how the controversial interrogations provided information that disrupted terrorist plotting that made it difficult if not impossible for attacks to be planned or executed as well as leading to the capture of important terrorists. They also provided invaluable knowledge about how al-Qaeda worked.

How could the Democrats on the committee and their staff claim that the intelligence gleaned from these sessions was of no use?

First, they adopted a narrow definition of their utility by saying that they did not directly prevent a ticking bomb from going off. That may be true but there is more to a war against a brutal enemy that such an instance. The task the CIA was handed on September 12, 2001 was not merely to prevent a last-minute intervention against the next attack on the American homeland but to wage a campaign that would ensure that we never again came close to such a disaster. Their efforts largely ensured that there was never another 9/11.

Most critics of the report have rightly complained about the lack of context in these condemnations of tough treatment of al-Qaeda prisoners. Intelligence officers could not operate with the knowledge we may have now about the ultimate outcome of the battle with the group but only with what they knew at the time. However, as much as all those who are revolted by the details of the torture report should not judge these agents with hindsight, we also should judge them in terms of ultimate results. The conflict with al-Qaeda wasn’t a police investigation of a local, if horrific, crime but a war in which a crafty enemy determined to kill as many Americans as possible.

What we ought never to forget when discussing how the war on al-Qaeda was fought is that the ultimate judgment that the CIA worried about in 2001, 2002, and 2003 was not second-guessing by congressional partisans or moral preening by the New York Times editorial board. Rather, it was the possibility that they would fail, as they had failed prior to 9/11 and that al-Qaeda would not merely pull off another attack but that the group would be able to further entrench itself in the Middle East as a permanent factor destabilizing the region as well as using it as a base for future atrocities against the West. In short, once you realize that the methods were not ineffective, the talk about lies is exposed as partisan bunk.

We can’t know for certain exactly how much the torture of prisoners aided efforts to prevent that from happening but the assertion that it was of no utility is pure ideology, not derived from the facts. The spirit that permeates the Senate report is the notion that because torture is a wrong thing about which no one should feel happy or comfortable, it must perforce also be ineffective. To understand that it can be, at one and the same time, both immoral as well as effective and, in the context of a war for the survival of the West and democracy, essential, is to embrace a moral complexity that those writing the report or penning impassioned anti-CIA editorials are incapable of comprehending.

Just as important, the intelligence and operational failures of U.S. policy in the Middle East in the past few years gives the lie to bold assertions about it being safe enough now for Americans to think they don’t need human intelligence or to play rough with terrorists. The rise of ISIS, which now has achieved more on the ground in Iraq and Syria than its al-Qaeda rivals ever dreamed of, is impossible to imagine outside of the context of an American retreat from the region that is rooted in part by an unwillingness to go on fighting hard against the Islamist enemy.

Seen not only in the perspective of time but also from the understanding that talk of lies is sophistry, the report is particularly regrettable. Committee Chair Senator Dianne Feinstein’s desire for score settling with a CIA that had repeatedly clashed with her is obvious. So, too, is the political left’s passion to demonize the George W. Bush administration and to retroactively delegitimize the successful war it waged on al-Qaeda. But whatever one may think about torture, it is important to remember that there was no real political divide about what to do about al-Qaeda on 9/12/01. It may be that the general moral revulsion against torture is such that even those who understand, as even President Obama does, that the CIA was reacting to the needs of the moment, will insist that it never again be used. But those who think they can erase the moral ambiguity of war with a phrase or a self-righteous editorial are wrong. While we can pray that we never again find ourselves in such a situation, wise observers understand that if we do, the CIA will not be able to pretend that it can defeat the enemy with strictly moral methods.

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