Commentary Magazine


Topic: America

Celebrating American Governance

It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

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It is an odd experience to be abroad on the Fourth of July–especially in a place as remote as Nepal. No fireworks, no barbecues (except at the U.S. embassy, presumably), in fact no notice at all of what is to Americans one of the most important holidays on our calendar. It does, however, offer a good chance for some perspective on America, and in particular on the great mystery of American history: How did thirteen tiny colonies on the eastern seaboard expand in less than two centuries to become the richest and most powerful nation in the world?

There is, it must be admitted, an element of serendipity involved: the (primarily) British immigrants who created the United States of America had the good fortune to arrive in a land of abundant natural resources and little in the way of organized military opposition from other nation-states. As Indian tribes were defeated, the road to the West was opened and America could stretch from sea to shining sea. 

But geography is not destiny. Russia, after all, experienced a similar expansion, in its case to the Wild Wild East, taking control of Central Asia and Siberia. Today Russia has more land and arguably greater natural resources than the U.S., yet it is a nation in inexorable decline, its anemic economy propped up by oil prices, its population in long-term decline.

What made the difference in America’s case? Quite simply, good government. The relatively minimalist government created by the Founders unleashed the animal energies of newly arrived immigrants and set them free to build a mighty economic behemoth in ways that no central planner could possibly have envisioned much less brought into being. The reason other large countries have not enjoyed similar good fortune comes down to governance.

This was a point that was brought home to me during a week of travel in India prior to my arrival in Nepal. India is blessed with a large land area and a massive population of 1.2 billion. Its people are in no way intrinsically inferior to those of the United States–in fact Indian immigrants are some of the most successful people in America. 

And during a journey from Mumbai to New Delhi, most of it overland, I was constantly impressed by how hard Indians work for meager wages. Whether it was newspaper vendors getting up at the crack of dawn in Mumbai or a friendly taxi driver shuttling me all day in his beaten-up Ambassador sedan, the industriousness and intelligence of Indians was never in dispute. So why is it that India’s GDP per capita is $1,500 and America’s is $53,000?

Indians are free to blame the legacy of British colonial rule, yet the United States too was a progeny of the British Empire. Granted, Americans were able to rebel much earlier but that is in large part because of the American colonists’ greater unity as opposed to the divisions of India when the British arrived. Indeed British imperialists created the very concept of “India” which had never existed before, and left it with many valuable legacies from railroads to a civil service and a functioning democracy. You can still see the British legacy in cities such as Mumbai in crumbling buildings built in the early 20th century.

In any case India has been free of British rule for nearly 67 years—long enough for other once-impoverished nations such as South Korea to catapult into the ranks of the world’s wealthiest democracies. It is no secret why India has lagged behind: It has been the victim of terrible governance. For decades it adhered to fashionable socialist nostrums. More recently a succession of governments has tried to implement free-market reforms, only to be stymied by the inexorable bureaucracy. 

Not long ago, the Hong Kong-based Political and Risk Consultancy came out with a survey of bureaucracies in Asia. India ranked as by far the worst of the bunch. Worse than Vietnam. Worse than China. Worse than Indonesia. To say nothing of the top performers, Singapore and Hong Kong—both, coincidentally, also former British colonies. As the Wall Street Journal noted: “The report, which was based on over 2,000 surveys of employed residents and expatriates across Asia, blamed India’s poor infrastructure, widespread corruption and ‘fickle’ regulations for making business a ‘frustrating and expensive’ affair.”

I got a small taste for myself of what Indians have to endure when I applied for a visa at the Indian consulate in New York. The visa officer promised to have everything ready in four or five business days but those days came and went with no way to find out where matters stood—and my flight time drawing near. Only by talking to someone who knew someone was I able to get the visa in time. This is, I imagine, a universal experience in India where the bureaucracy functions so poorly that many people find themselves resorting to favoritism or corruption to get what they are legally entitled to get.

Goodness knows, American government bureaucracy is far from ideal. I get pretty frustrated when I deal with the Post Office. I can only imagine what people are going through trying to enroll in ObamaCare. But for all of the U.S. government’s myriad faults, it is considerably more responsive and accountable and less corrupt and inefficient than most other governments around the world.

So ultimately the story of America’s success comes down to the very thing we celebrate on July 4 but should more properly celebrate on September 17 (September 17, 1787, was the date the Constitution was signed): the genius of our Founding Fathers. They created a government which has made it possible for the people of the United States to prosper. Other countries around the world are starting to figure out our formula and in some case to better it, but no other nation has been as well ruled for so long. That is why the United States is still perched, however precariously, as the No. 1 power in the world.

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What’s in a Name? Pondering “Bibi”

Writing at the Atlantic, Michael Koplow observes that in the vice presidential debate last week, Joe Biden referenced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by nickname only—and presumed (correctly, one imagines) that most viewers knew exactly who he was talking about. Koplow also notes that “Bibi” was raised in a discussion about Iran, and that this tells us something about the prime minister’s familiarity with American voters and officials and the issue foremost in his mind during the course of that relationship. (Koplow doesn’t mention that the public’s proclivity, especially in Israel, to call the prime minister “Bibi” prevailed over Netanyahu’s initial objections, as recounted in Jonathan’s 1996 piece on the subject.)

Koplow writes that Biden may have referred to Netanyahu this way in part to demonstrate his foreign-policy chops against an opponent less experienced on the topic, but cautions that Bibi’s familiarity with the American public (and vice versa) carries with it some downside: Netanyahu, having warned of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East for so long, may have less credibility; the constant use of his nickname may make Netanyahu overly familiar here, and thus taken less seriously; and that it conflates Netanyahu’s position on Iran with that of his country when, if I may paraphrase Golda Meir, it is a country of eight million prime ministers. Yet it’s possible to discern which of these theories is window dressing and which tell us what we need to know about Netanyahu’s standing in America.

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Writing at the Atlantic, Michael Koplow observes that in the vice presidential debate last week, Joe Biden referenced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by nickname only—and presumed (correctly, one imagines) that most viewers knew exactly who he was talking about. Koplow also notes that “Bibi” was raised in a discussion about Iran, and that this tells us something about the prime minister’s familiarity with American voters and officials and the issue foremost in his mind during the course of that relationship. (Koplow doesn’t mention that the public’s proclivity, especially in Israel, to call the prime minister “Bibi” prevailed over Netanyahu’s initial objections, as recounted in Jonathan’s 1996 piece on the subject.)

Koplow writes that Biden may have referred to Netanyahu this way in part to demonstrate his foreign-policy chops against an opponent less experienced on the topic, but cautions that Bibi’s familiarity with the American public (and vice versa) carries with it some downside: Netanyahu, having warned of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East for so long, may have less credibility; the constant use of his nickname may make Netanyahu overly familiar here, and thus taken less seriously; and that it conflates Netanyahu’s position on Iran with that of his country when, if I may paraphrase Golda Meir, it is a country of eight million prime ministers. Yet it’s possible to discern which of these theories is window dressing and which tell us what we need to know about Netanyahu’s standing in America.

It’s doubtful that Biden was thinking all that through, and almost surely just wanted to display his experience. (Can you picture Paul Ryan introducing the topic by just saying “Bibi”?) Indeed, let’s remember that in Netanyahu’s address to a Joint Session of Congress last year, he began by turning halfway around to Biden, who was seated behind him, smiling, and saying: “Mr. Vice President, do you remember the time that we were the new kids in town?” The two then shook hands to applause, and Netanyahu continued: “And I do see a lot of old friends here.”

People think of Biden as having been in the Senate forever (he’s been there since 1973). Netanyahu was padding his own credibility by suggesting the two were “the new kids” in Washington together. Biden was doing the exact same thing in his debate with Ryan, as if to co-opt Netanyahu’s years and years of presumed seriousness on the subject.

And that, I think, answers the question about Netanyahu’s credibility—at least as the White House and Congress see it. The Obama administration talks about the Iranian threat in dire terms, and the American people, in poll after poll, seem to broadly agree. Biden, ever the populist and perhaps more in tune with public opinion than even his boss—to the extent that he would falsely deny voting for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan because he thinks that is what the public wishes he would have done—had to reach for a trump card in his debate with Ryan. He needed to display his toughness and expertise on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. And the best way to do that, he assumed, was to basically say “I’m with Bibi.”

That suggests a duel victory by Netanyahu: he has achieved something even more than first-name basis with the American people; he’s on a nickname basis with them. And this has raised the profile of the Iranian nuclear program and the threat it poses by focusing like a laser on the issue. Biden probably also realizes something else: that for as long as Netanyahu has warned abut the need for sanctions and other measures against Iran, journalists have been warning of a coming war with Iran. That is, Netanyahu hasn’t been threatening war; rather, reporters have been wrongly assuming that war was imminent, and they are the ones who look foolish after all these years. (Though, like a stopped clock, they may eventually be right, they have been wrong too many times to count.)

Netanyahu was right: Iran is developing a nuclear program that the majority of the population both here and in Israel believes represents a terrible threat to world peace and security. The media’s credibility, on the other hand, should have just about run dry at this point. Netanyahu’s knowledge of American politics extends to the public’s broad distrust of the media. The onus for that is on the press itself, not Netanyahu. That skepticism would have prevailed, Bibi or no Bibi.

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Poverty and Politics

According to a story in the Associated Press, “the ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century.” The story goes on to say that poverty, which is closely tied to joblessness, “is spreading at record levels across many groups.” (The most recent poverty rates are from 2010; Census figures for 2011 will be released this fall.)

According to demographers:

  • Poverty will remain above the pre-recession level of 12.5 percent for many more years. Several predicted that peak poverty levels — 15 percent to 16 percent — will last at least until 2014.
  • Suburban poverty, already at a record level of 11.8 percent, will increase again in 2011.
  • Part-time or underemployed workers, who saw a record 15 percent poverty in 2010, will rise to a new high.
  • Child poverty will increase from its 22 percent level in 2010.

As the election nears — it is now less than 100 days away — the issue of poverty in America will hopefully play a somewhat more central role. It’s perfectly appropriate for candidates of both parties, and at all levels, to focus on the plight of the middle class. But while the effects of the Great Recession, combined with the worst recovery on record, have taken their toll on every strata in American society, it is the poor who suffer disproportionately. (I understand that the definition of poor is subjective and that what qualifies as poor in America qualifies as extravagant wealth in, say, parts of Africa.)

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According to a story in the Associated Press, “the ranks of America’s poor are on track to climb to levels unseen in nearly half a century.” The story goes on to say that poverty, which is closely tied to joblessness, “is spreading at record levels across many groups.” (The most recent poverty rates are from 2010; Census figures for 2011 will be released this fall.)

According to demographers:

  • Poverty will remain above the pre-recession level of 12.5 percent for many more years. Several predicted that peak poverty levels — 15 percent to 16 percent — will last at least until 2014.
  • Suburban poverty, already at a record level of 11.8 percent, will increase again in 2011.
  • Part-time or underemployed workers, who saw a record 15 percent poverty in 2010, will rise to a new high.
  • Child poverty will increase from its 22 percent level in 2010.

As the election nears — it is now less than 100 days away — the issue of poverty in America will hopefully play a somewhat more central role. It’s perfectly appropriate for candidates of both parties, and at all levels, to focus on the plight of the middle class. But while the effects of the Great Recession, combined with the worst recovery on record, have taken their toll on every strata in American society, it is the poor who suffer disproportionately. (I understand that the definition of poor is subjective and that what qualifies as poor in America qualifies as extravagant wealth in, say, parts of Africa.)

When he was the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, William Bennett — in pointing out that illegal drugs inflicted more harm on the underclass than any other group — used an earthquake that shook California in 1989 to make this point. Few people knew that the earthquake that hit the Bay area was more powerful than the one that hit Mexico City a few years earlier. Why? Because the casualties were much higher and the overall damage was much worse in Mexico City. The reason, Bennett said, is that when the earth shakes, the devastation often depends less on the magnitude of the quake than on the stability of the structure on which you stand.

As a general matter, the wealthy have more stable structures than the middle class, and the middle class have more stable structures than the poor. I’m not arguing that the poor ought to occupy all or even most of the attention of the political class. But those in the shadows of society should become an object of all of our attention.

A decent society, including its political leadership, should be judged in part on how well we treat the weak and the disadvantaged. That isn’t the only criterion that should be used, but it ought to matter. And so as the election draws near, the American people should judge those running for public office based in some measure on who has the best plan to assist the poor in terms of their material well-being and in helping equip them to lead lives of independence, achievement, and dignity. I’m one of those who believe that conservative policies – in economics, education, welfare, crime, and heath care, as well as in strengthening civil society and our mediating institutions — offer the greatest hope and opportunity to those who are most marginalized.

Here’s the thing, though: conservatives have to make that case. No one else will.

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Freedom in Post-Democratic Europe

If America must shoulder the burden of global security because others will not or cannot, America also shoulders the burden of a global idealism always present, if dormant, that is now–20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union–again rearing its head on a massive scale throughout the Arab world (and in Iran and to some extent, Russia). Today, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wonders aloud why President Obama has remained so dismissive toward the outward expression of freedom for its own sake. Hiatt guesses that it’s a kind of post-nationalism:

But his stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the UN Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

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If America must shoulder the burden of global security because others will not or cannot, America also shoulders the burden of a global idealism always present, if dormant, that is now–20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union–again rearing its head on a massive scale throughout the Arab world (and in Iran and to some extent, Russia). Today, Washington Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt wonders aloud why President Obama has remained so dismissive toward the outward expression of freedom for its own sake. Hiatt guesses that it’s a kind of post-nationalism:

But his stance also reflects his own brand of idealism, which values international law and alliances more than the promotion of freedom. The democrats’ uprising in Iran threatened his hopes of negotiating a nuclear agreement with Iran’s rulers. Aid to Syria’s democrats requires approval from the UN Security Council, which is unattainable without Russian and Chinese acquiescence.

Hiatt thinks Obama sorely and mistakenly undervalues the practical uses of the so-called freedom agenda, to the detriment of his own stated policy goals. But there is another relevant facet to this debate. The trend in the rest of the West, notably Europe, is away from democracy. Who, then, will proclaim the virtues of freedom and self-rule if we don’t? The answer is: no one.

Daniel Hannan, writing in the magazine Standpoint, noted that the European Union is, on its face, manifestly undemocratic, as more and more of the continent’s policy is made by unelected committees, whose members are appointed by other unelected committees, in Brussels. The euro is the symbol of this union, and the union’s most powerful and influential state (though we have now begun using the term “state” loosely), within and probably without, is Germany. So what happens when you ask the most obvious question to the most relevant official? When you ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel why the euro should not be dissolved, what does she say? Hannan quotes her response:

Nobody should take for granted another 50 years of peace and prosperity in Europe, and that’s why I say, if the euro fails, Europe fails. We have a historical obligation: to protect by all means Europe’s unification process begun by our forefathers after centuries of hatred and bloodshed.

Hannan adds: “Put in those terms, of course, the issue is literally beyond argument. If you oppose the euro, Mrs Merkel suggests, you’re in favour of war.” Eurocrats are shown the door when they even glance at the hoi polloi. Hannan notes what happened when Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou proposed a referendum on the bailout package offered his country by Europe. Less than a week later, Papandreou had been forced out of office. Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian premier and no euroskeptic himself, expressed his ambivalence toward his country staying in the euro. At an EU summit, an official boasted they were about to be rid of Berlusconi. That was a promise, not a threat; five days later the deed was done.

Hannan then upends the conventional wisdom of the European Union:

People sometimes talk of the EU’s democratic deficit as if it were accidental. In fact, it is essential to the whole design. Having lived through the 1920s and 1930s, the founders had little faith in democracy — especially the plebiscitary democracy which they saw as a prelude to demagoguery and fascism. They were therefore unapologetic about vesting supreme power in the hands of appointed commissioners who were to be invulnerable to public opinion. They were disarmingly honest, too, about the fact that their dream of common European statehood would never be realised if successive transfers of power to Brussels had to be approved by the national electorates.

The euro was the culmination of their scheme.

The democracy deficit–in this case forcing the single-currency suicide pact on disapproving commoners–has led to increasing actual deficits. Those financial debts, in turn, have a corrosive effect on freedom abroad. For example, as Justin Vaïsse wrote in February, European governments promised “money, markets access, mobility” to emerging Arab states, especially Tunisia and Libya, during the Arab Spring. But the debt crisis at home resulted in modest, and disappointing, results–just as those countries needed it the most.

But more than cash, and certainly more than immigration opportunities, the awakening human spirit needs an atlas of ideas. Those North African countries may look across the Mediterranean and wonder what all the fuss is about. Where will the inspiration come from? Not Europe, which sticks its fingers in its ears when it hears the noise of the people. And certainly not the leader of the pack–Germany–slow to act against Iranian bank interests and offering diplomatic support to Vladimir Putin, a fraud and a thug who requests, and receives, Germany’s acquiescence in preventing the further enlargement of NATO, whose raison d’être is explicitly tied to promoting and protecting democracy.

No doubt Hiatt’s column will be derided by those on the left who delight in sounding the alarm of a creeping conservatism on the Post’s editorial page (if only!), and by those enlightened observers who scoff at the caveman barbarism of nationalism and identity. But if Europe’s leaders are indeed ready to put their experiment in democracy behind them, there will be one nation, and one office, left to carry the banner. As president of the United States, this is Barack Obama’s mission, whether or not he chooses to accept it.

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Author Speaks to America’s Resilience

Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution has written a short, thoughtful book, The World America Made, which he discussed in a recent interview with Charlie Rose.

Kagan argues that America remains–contrary to common perception–in very strong shape vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and he explains why. But he warns that we can “talk ourselves into decline” by indulging the misplaced perception that we are in decline. And if that were to happen, it would have very bad consequences for the world order America helped to create and has maintained, at an admittedly high cost.

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Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution has written a short, thoughtful book, The World America Made, which he discussed in a recent interview with Charlie Rose.

Kagan argues that America remains–contrary to common perception–in very strong shape vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and he explains why. But he warns that we can “talk ourselves into decline” by indulging the misplaced perception that we are in decline. And if that were to happen, it would have very bad consequences for the world order America helped to create and has maintained, at an admittedly high cost.

Kagan is no Pollyanna; he recognizes the crises we face (especially on the fiscal side of things). But he provides a nuanced perspective, reminding Rose of past challenges. (There is a tendency in every generation, I think, to assume the problems we confront are unprecedented and more difficult than anything that came before, which is for the most part sheer nonsense.) Kagan also speaks to America’s remarkable resilience and some of the unique advantages we still have (including the fact that we face no great power threat in our own hemisphere); the damage of deep defense cuts; the dangers and possibilities of the so-called Arab Spring; and why he considers the right sensibilities to be even more important than experience when it comes to selecting a president.

America is, and has always been, a conflicted, even schizophrenic, nation when it comes to its role in the world. The president, Kagan argues, needs to push back against the sentiments for withdrawal and isolation that periodically arise in the United States. We retain, after all, the capacity to shape the world and bend events in the direction of justice. That’s a heavy burden, but a noble one, too.

The World America Made is a useful antidote to talk of an inevitable American decline; and it’s a good reminder why Bob Kagan remains one of America’s finest foreign policy minds.

 

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More on the Freedom Agenda

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

I want to add several thought to John’s illuminating post on neoconservatism and democracy.

1. The most radical Islamic governments in the world — Iran, Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iraq under Saddam, Sudan, Syria, the PLO under Yasir Arafat, and others — did not come to power through elections. The Middle East, without democracy, is hardly a region characterized by tranquility and peace. And we have plenty of successful precedents of authoritarian/totalitarian regimes making a successful transition to democracy (in Central and Eastern Europe, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, South Africa, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, Iraq, and post–WWII Japan and Germany among them).

2. The fact that not every election goes as we might hope does not invalidate support for elections or the effort to promote liberty in other lands. Adolf Hitler came to power through elections in Germany in 1933. Should that election have undermined democracy as an idea?

3. Freedom has a remarkable historical track record, including in regions of the world once thought to be inimical to it. But it takes patience and commitment to see it through to success. The democratic evolution of Iraq, while certainly imperfect and fragile, is a source of encouragement. And among the best testimonies to how lethal liberty is to the aims of militant Islam is the energy and ruthlessness with which al-Qaeda and Iran tried to strangle freedom in Iraq.

4. If a healthy political culture is the sine qua non for self-government, then we are essentially telling every, or at least many, non-democratic societies that freedom is beyond their reach. It’s not. Still, strong liberal institutions will certainly assist freedom to take root. That’s why American policy should encourage democratic institution-building. Our influence in this area is often limited; but limited is not the same as nonexistent.

5. It’s not clear what the alternative is for the critics of democracy. The Egyptian revolution began in response to the oppression of the Mubarak regime, without American support. Given where we are, do critics of the freedom agenda believe we should support more repression in order to exert even greater control within Arab societies — repression that helped give rise to the resentments, violence, and toxic anti-Americanism that has characterized much of the Middle East?

In the Middle East, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this merely bought time as ideologies of violence took hold. As the events in Egypt demonstrate, the sand has just about run out of the hourglass.

This doesn’t mean that our policy should be indiscriminate. The goal isn’t for America to act as a scythe that decapitates every autocratic regime in the world. And it doesn’t mean that democratic-led revolutions can’t be hijacked.

Still, there’s no way other than democracy to fundamentally reform the Arab Middle East. Self-government and the accompanying rise in free institutions is the only route to a better world — and because the work is difficult, doesn’t mean it can be ignored.

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Ronald Reagan on Democracy

The unfolding revolution in Egypt has provoked a wider debate about what has been called the “freedom agenda.” At the heart of this debate is whether the United States should champion democratic ideals. Some people, including many conservatives, are deeply skeptical of the wisdom of promoting democracy, arguing that some nations (most especially in the Islamic and Arab world) are unprepared for freedom. Making democracy and human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy is therefore unwise and, in many cases, injurious to America’s national interests.

With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting the words of the most important conservative figure of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan. President Reagan said plenty about democracy — including during his June 8, 1982, Westminster Address. That speech is worth quoting extensively, since Reagan laid out his argument with intelligence and care.

“Democracy is not a fragile flower,” Reagan said. “Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.”

America’s 40th president went on to say this:

While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections. The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means. This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.

In practice, Reagan did not place talisman-like powers in democracy, and he wasn’t stupid in his application of the principles he enunciated. He didn’t favor destabilizing pro-American authoritarian regimes if they were going to be replaced by anti-American totalitarian ones. Statesmanship involves the prudential application of principles to particular situations and moments in time, something at which Reagan excelled. Read More

The unfolding revolution in Egypt has provoked a wider debate about what has been called the “freedom agenda.” At the heart of this debate is whether the United States should champion democratic ideals. Some people, including many conservatives, are deeply skeptical of the wisdom of promoting democracy, arguing that some nations (most especially in the Islamic and Arab world) are unprepared for freedom. Making democracy and human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy is therefore unwise and, in many cases, injurious to America’s national interests.

With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting the words of the most important conservative figure of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan. President Reagan said plenty about democracy — including during his June 8, 1982, Westminster Address. That speech is worth quoting extensively, since Reagan laid out his argument with intelligence and care.

“Democracy is not a fragile flower,” Reagan said. “Still it needs cultivating. If the rest of this century is to witness the gradual growth of freedom and democratic ideals, we must take actions to assist the campaign for democracy.”

America’s 40th president went on to say this:

While we must be cautious about forcing the pace of change, we must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few, but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. So states the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which, among other things, guarantees free elections. The objective I propose is quite simple to state: to foster the infrastructure of democracy, the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities, which allows a people to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means. This is not cultural imperialism, it is providing the means for genuine self-determination and protection for diversity. Democracy already flourishes in countries with very different cultures and historical experiences. It would be cultural condescension, or worse, to say that any people prefer dictatorship to democracy.

In practice, Reagan did not place talisman-like powers in democracy, and he wasn’t stupid in his application of the principles he enunciated. He didn’t favor destabilizing pro-American authoritarian regimes if they were going to be replaced by anti-American totalitarian ones. Statesmanship involves the prudential application of principles to particular situations and moments in time, something at which Reagan excelled.

Still, there is no denying the centrality that freedom and human rights played in American foreign policy during the Reagan years. And those who are consistently skeptical about proclaiming the inalienable and universal rights of all human beings — who when they speak about democracy promotion these days almost always do so in critical terms — are standing shoulder-to-shoulder not with Reagan but with Henry Kissinger.

Secretary Kissinger, after all, downplayed the role of morality in foreign policy. He believed that the United States should largely ignore the human-rights violations of other nations. Democracy promotion for him was a peripheral concern, and sometimes not even that.

Oh, and Dr. Kissinger was (in the 1976 primary challenge against Gerald Ford) Reagan’s bete noire, and the Reagan presidency in important respects a repudiation of Kissinger’s realpolitik.

I admire much about Henry Kissinger. But on this, as on so much else, Ronald Reagan was right.

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Neoconservatives and Democracy: A 30-Year Story

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent. Read More

So it comes as a shock to many people, evidently, that “neoconservative” American intellectuals are consistent in holding the opinion that the national interest is best served by offering moral, logistical, and rhetorical support to those who seek “regime change” in dictatorial societies.

The plain fact of the matter is that this has been the “neoconservative” view for nearly three decades now — since the decision was made during the effort to save El Salvador from Soviet- and Cuban-aligned guerrilla forces to simultaneously push for elections there. That was a controversial choice then; people on the liberal left considered the El Salvador democratization policy mere window dressing for alignment with right-wing thugs, and realist conservatives considered it a display of ludicrous sentimentality.

The 1982 election in El Salvador was a turning point, however, a moment when the people of that country made it clear that they wanted a way out of the binary choice of a junta or a Castro-ite state. It had been Jeane Kirkpatrick’s argument in her great 1979 COMMENTARY article that, when there is a binary choice between authoritarians and totalitarians, it is not only prudent but moral to choose the former, in part because authoritarian societies can change and evolve.

But what if there are choices that go beyond the binary? That was, in effect, what the democratization strategy was all about. It complemented Kirkpatrick’s argument in one sense because it was predicated on the notion that authoritarian regimes could be pushed toward change. But it also superseded it, since it suggested that the citizens of these nations could and would play a vital role not only in creating the change but also in implementing it.

This was not a developed philosophy at the time; indeed, the El Salvador policy was conceived in response to events on the ground and the need to build domestic support for anti-Communist efforts in Latin America. But over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, with lessons learned along the way, the democratization strategy became something more coherent.

For example, in the case of the anti-Communist efforts in Nicaragua, the CIA preferred working with the Contras, for whom its agents had essentially bought and paid, no matter their political coloration; officials at the State Department, however, thought that it was a mistake to align the United States with elements of the previous thug regime and that the U.S. should be promoting liberal forces within the Contra movement.

But probably the key year for the maturation of these ideas was 1986. It was a general axiom on the right, including among neoconservatives, that efforts to impose an economic embargo on South Africa were dangerous and naive because, though the apartheid regime might be unjust, it could be pushed to reform, and the sanctions might lead to a Soviet-aligned takeover of a strategically important country. When Congress voted for such sanctions, Ronald Reagan vetoed them. His veto was overridden.

And those of us who thought the sanctions would be disastrous were proved utterly mistaken. They turned out to be an effective strategy for crippling the regime without toppling it and forcing its end in a manner more pacific than anyone expected. (Not that South Africa post-apartheid is a wonderful model, but it was a gravely wounded civil society, and its healing will take a long time.) Part of the reason that sanctions have been a part of the American diplomatic toolbox ever since, and always with neoconservative support, is that they proved successful in South Africa.

The other thing that happened was an election in the Philippines, whose authoritarian junta regime was closely allied with the United States. The clear theft of the election by Ferdinand Marcos’s forces created a massive groundswell in the streets. At first, the White House did what Barack Obama did with the revolt in Egypt — it tried to stay out of it. Then-Secretary of State George Shultz, together with the later-notorious Paul Wolfowitz, who ran the State Department’s East Asia bureau, convinced Ronald Reagan to change policy, support those who said the election had been stolen, and eventually, with great efficiency, convince Marcos it was time for him to go.

And on it went, with South Korea and Taiwan and Chile and many other nations whose authoritarian regimes peacefully gave way to more liberal ones in part because of the encouragement of the United States.

It’s not a perfect strategy, by any means. No strategy is, and no strategy is applicable in every circumstance. The danger that Egypt might not follow in the path of the Philippines but rather in the path of revolutionary Iran is very real. But as the year of Carter-administration fecklessness on Iran that preceded Khomeini’s takeover in 1979 proved, a policy of passivity is not a way out for a president who does not know what to do.

America can’t not choose sides in such a struggle. Not choosing sides is, in effect, to choose sides. So it’s better to have a policy that offers a direction congruent with our values, and with a proven track record, than one that offers nothing but confusion.

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‘Spontaneous Eruption of Pro-Mubarak Sentiment’

Here’s America’s best satirist, Jon Stewart, on the “spontaneous eruption of pro-Mubarak sentiment from everyday Egyptians trained in the art of whip-based crowd control.”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Mess O’Slightly-to-the-Left O’Potamia – Pro-Mubarak Demonstrators
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

Here’s America’s best satirist, Jon Stewart, on the “spontaneous eruption of pro-Mubarak sentiment from everyday Egyptians trained in the art of whip-based crowd control.”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Mess O’Slightly-to-the-Left O’Potamia – Pro-Mubarak Demonstrators
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog</a> The Daily Show on Facebook

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In Egypt, We Cannot Afford to Repeat Past Mistakes

I fully understand the dangers of what is happening in Egypt. I am as apprehensive as anyone about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting current events to gain power. I am fully aware of how Hosni Mubarak has been a useful ally in many ways. Yet, when I watch pro-government thugs attacking peaceful protesters, I am rooting wholeheartedly for the protesters and against the thugs. I imagine most Americans are, indeed most people around the world — a few Realpolitikers excepted.

The attacks in downtown Cairo, which have left many bleeding and some no doubt dead, are the dying gasp of a discredited regime. This is no Tiananmen Square — this is not the army being unleashed to use decisive force to crush the demonstrations. Instead, it is a motley collection of thugs and mercenaries: many no doubt secret policemen or other government functionaries, others rented for the day for a few bucks. The army’s role seems to be limited to that of a bystander, which is alarming in and of itself. Previously, the army had appeared to be on the side of the people. Now, following Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek re-election in September — an announcement that did not preclude a Mubarak crony like Omar Suleiman or even the dictator’s son Gamal from running in a rigged vote — the army appears to be up for grabs. Earlier today an army spokesman called on the demonstrators to disperse, but troops are not enforcing that edict. No doubt the army generals are sniffing the wind to figure out which way to go now. Just as clearly, the people of Egypt are demanding an end to the Mubarak regime — now, not in the fall.

The United States, a nation born in a liberal revolution, has no choice but to stand with the people. In many ways, this is a continuation of the same battle fought in the streets of Europe in 1848 and 1989: the quest of a people yearning for freedom against the representatives of a corrupt and entrenched ruling oligarchy. America’s role, as the champion of liberty, should be to usher Mubarak out of power as quickly and painlessly as possible in order to avert further bloodshed and to make it harder for malign elements to take advantage of the disorder for their own nefarious purposes. We did not do enough to aid democrats in Russia in 1917 or in Iran in 1979; in both cases, we stuck with a discredited ancien regime until it was too late and reacted too slowly to revolutionary upheavals. Let us not repeat that mistake in Egypt.

I fully understand the dangers of what is happening in Egypt. I am as apprehensive as anyone about the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood exploiting current events to gain power. I am fully aware of how Hosni Mubarak has been a useful ally in many ways. Yet, when I watch pro-government thugs attacking peaceful protesters, I am rooting wholeheartedly for the protesters and against the thugs. I imagine most Americans are, indeed most people around the world — a few Realpolitikers excepted.

The attacks in downtown Cairo, which have left many bleeding and some no doubt dead, are the dying gasp of a discredited regime. This is no Tiananmen Square — this is not the army being unleashed to use decisive force to crush the demonstrations. Instead, it is a motley collection of thugs and mercenaries: many no doubt secret policemen or other government functionaries, others rented for the day for a few bucks. The army’s role seems to be limited to that of a bystander, which is alarming in and of itself. Previously, the army had appeared to be on the side of the people. Now, following Mubarak’s announcement that he would not seek re-election in September — an announcement that did not preclude a Mubarak crony like Omar Suleiman or even the dictator’s son Gamal from running in a rigged vote — the army appears to be up for grabs. Earlier today an army spokesman called on the demonstrators to disperse, but troops are not enforcing that edict. No doubt the army generals are sniffing the wind to figure out which way to go now. Just as clearly, the people of Egypt are demanding an end to the Mubarak regime — now, not in the fall.

The United States, a nation born in a liberal revolution, has no choice but to stand with the people. In many ways, this is a continuation of the same battle fought in the streets of Europe in 1848 and 1989: the quest of a people yearning for freedom against the representatives of a corrupt and entrenched ruling oligarchy. America’s role, as the champion of liberty, should be to usher Mubarak out of power as quickly and painlessly as possible in order to avert further bloodshed and to make it harder for malign elements to take advantage of the disorder for their own nefarious purposes. We did not do enough to aid democrats in Russia in 1917 or in Iran in 1979; in both cases, we stuck with a discredited ancien regime until it was too late and reacted too slowly to revolutionary upheavals. Let us not repeat that mistake in Egypt.

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Go Read Kirkpatrick. Again.

Now more than ever, Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships & Double Standards” essay deserves to be read and pondered. If this isn’t the greatest essay COMMENTARY has ever published, it’s certainly the most influential.

Amb. Kirkpatrick doesn’t tell us “what we should do” about Egypt, and it’s impossible to summarize such a brilliant piece. But she does make three relevant points: about freedom, revolution, and the American administration. First, as Peter has implied and as Abe has written, “The time to urge a dictator to grant his people freedoms is before he’s flitting between burning buildings”; in other words, if we want to encourage autocracies to move towards democracy, it cannot be a crisis response.

Second, in foreign policy as elsewhere, the best is often the enemy of the good — or at least the marginally tolerable. John Steele Gordon says that this may be 1848 in the Arab World, and he might be right. But that is an invidious comparison, for in the one country that really mattered on the continent — Germany — 1848 turned out in retrospect to mark liberalism’s decisive defeat. In light of 1914, never mind 1939, it might have been better if 1848 had never happened.

It would be nice if, as Peter says, “the driving force of events in Egypt [is] tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression.” But as my colleague Jim Phillips points out, this is far from a sure bet, and the poisonous legacy of the Egyptian educational system that Alana refers to sure doesn’t help matters.

Third, and finally, there is the contrast between the president’s claim as of last Tuesday that “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored” and Iran, where this administration sat on its hands as a viciously anti-American regime with a nuclear-weapons program slaughtered and raped protesters at will. And Honduras, where it moved heaven and earth to reinstate a pro-Chavez dictator in the making. And Egypt, where it is mincing about reform partnerships with Mubarak and the Egyptian people, a partnership that exists nowhere except in the Obama administration’s fevered desire to catch up with events that have relentlessly outpaced it.

So yes, as Kirkpatrick said of Carter, Obama is “especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.” Yes indeed.

Now more than ever, Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships & Double Standards” essay deserves to be read and pondered. If this isn’t the greatest essay COMMENTARY has ever published, it’s certainly the most influential.

Amb. Kirkpatrick doesn’t tell us “what we should do” about Egypt, and it’s impossible to summarize such a brilliant piece. But she does make three relevant points: about freedom, revolution, and the American administration. First, as Peter has implied and as Abe has written, “The time to urge a dictator to grant his people freedoms is before he’s flitting between burning buildings”; in other words, if we want to encourage autocracies to move towards democracy, it cannot be a crisis response.

Second, in foreign policy as elsewhere, the best is often the enemy of the good — or at least the marginally tolerable. John Steele Gordon says that this may be 1848 in the Arab World, and he might be right. But that is an invidious comparison, for in the one country that really mattered on the continent — Germany — 1848 turned out in retrospect to mark liberalism’s decisive defeat. In light of 1914, never mind 1939, it might have been better if 1848 had never happened.

It would be nice if, as Peter says, “the driving force of events in Egypt [is] tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression.” But as my colleague Jim Phillips points out, this is far from a sure bet, and the poisonous legacy of the Egyptian educational system that Alana refers to sure doesn’t help matters.

Third, and finally, there is the contrast between the president’s claim as of last Tuesday that “American leadership has been renewed and America’s standing has been restored” and Iran, where this administration sat on its hands as a viciously anti-American regime with a nuclear-weapons program slaughtered and raped protesters at will. And Honduras, where it moved heaven and earth to reinstate a pro-Chavez dictator in the making. And Egypt, where it is mincing about reform partnerships with Mubarak and the Egyptian people, a partnership that exists nowhere except in the Obama administration’s fevered desire to catch up with events that have relentlessly outpaced it.

So yes, as Kirkpatrick said of Carter, Obama is “especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.” Yes indeed.

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Sputnik, Egypt, and the Consensus

I do agree with Ted Bromund’s conclusion on the default mentality of the center-left: it’s both a symptom and a cause of our educational system. Ted puts it this way:

The consensus on the value of often-politicized expert opinion — a consensus that derives from the Progressive Era — is so strong that even when the Cold War ended, and the so-called experts were demonstrably proved to have been wrong about it, the consensus endured.  It’s not really a belief, per se. It’s a default mentality.

This is one reason I have sympathy and concern for the Obama administration as it tries to grapple with the problems piling up in 2011. Its highest hurdle may be the default mentality Ted refers to: a mentality that has a reflexive way of seeing everything but admits little audit from reality.

The divorce between the conventional-left consensus and reality has been startlingly clear over the past few weeks. Confronted with reality, the consensus — or the Consensus — is out of ideas. To drum up enthusiasm for new deficit spending, a 20th-century Consensus remedy with the track record of 16th-century medical procedures, President Obama reached backward past decades of left-wing “debunking” to invoke Sputnik. Soon he’ll be rallying us with the cry of “Better dead than Red!” The Consensus knows only that the spending must be done; selling it need not be accomplished with thematic consistency.

Faced now with the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama is simply silent. It’s as if he and his advisers are waiting for a new consensus to form. The old, reliable Consensus would tell them only that popular unrest is noble and positive, and the American government invariably does the wrong thing about it when it erupts abroad. These can be satisfying conclusions in an academic or editorial environment, but they offer no useful framework for official policy.

There is still great inertia behind the Consensus. It has been proclaimed dead often throughout the last 30 years, but the continuation of the Pax Americana — with everything that means at home and abroad — has just as often rescued it. Coexistence with an often antithetical reality has been possible because, for the most part, the Consensus has thrived as a self-appointed dissenting opposition, in a stasis maintained on the principles of others.

As the Consensus would have it, Team Obama is now on the hook for choosing the “wrong” thing America does about Egypt. That intellectual limitation certainly poses a challenge to policy. We’ll see in the coming days if the administration can transcend it. Alana Goodman notes that Obama has invited Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams to participate in his deliberations, which is a good start. Obama has sometimes proposed to listen to conventional, “neoconservative,” or hawkish voices in foreign-policy matters, rather than hear solely from an ideologically unified core of advisers. But the Consensus long ago adopted the views of Marxism on the meaning and utility of national responses, traditional diplomacy, alliances, and the defense of national interests. Having seen these concepts devalued for decades, those schooled in the Consensus are likely to find the learning curve steep.

I do agree with Ted Bromund’s conclusion on the default mentality of the center-left: it’s both a symptom and a cause of our educational system. Ted puts it this way:

The consensus on the value of often-politicized expert opinion — a consensus that derives from the Progressive Era — is so strong that even when the Cold War ended, and the so-called experts were demonstrably proved to have been wrong about it, the consensus endured.  It’s not really a belief, per se. It’s a default mentality.

This is one reason I have sympathy and concern for the Obama administration as it tries to grapple with the problems piling up in 2011. Its highest hurdle may be the default mentality Ted refers to: a mentality that has a reflexive way of seeing everything but admits little audit from reality.

The divorce between the conventional-left consensus and reality has been startlingly clear over the past few weeks. Confronted with reality, the consensus — or the Consensus — is out of ideas. To drum up enthusiasm for new deficit spending, a 20th-century Consensus remedy with the track record of 16th-century medical procedures, President Obama reached backward past decades of left-wing “debunking” to invoke Sputnik. Soon he’ll be rallying us with the cry of “Better dead than Red!” The Consensus knows only that the spending must be done; selling it need not be accomplished with thematic consistency.

Faced now with the Hezbollah coup in Lebanon and the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Obama is simply silent. It’s as if he and his advisers are waiting for a new consensus to form. The old, reliable Consensus would tell them only that popular unrest is noble and positive, and the American government invariably does the wrong thing about it when it erupts abroad. These can be satisfying conclusions in an academic or editorial environment, but they offer no useful framework for official policy.

There is still great inertia behind the Consensus. It has been proclaimed dead often throughout the last 30 years, but the continuation of the Pax Americana — with everything that means at home and abroad — has just as often rescued it. Coexistence with an often antithetical reality has been possible because, for the most part, the Consensus has thrived as a self-appointed dissenting opposition, in a stasis maintained on the principles of others.

As the Consensus would have it, Team Obama is now on the hook for choosing the “wrong” thing America does about Egypt. That intellectual limitation certainly poses a challenge to policy. We’ll see in the coming days if the administration can transcend it. Alana Goodman notes that Obama has invited Robert Kagan and Elliott Abrams to participate in his deliberations, which is a good start. Obama has sometimes proposed to listen to conventional, “neoconservative,” or hawkish voices in foreign-policy matters, rather than hear solely from an ideologically unified core of advisers. But the Consensus long ago adopted the views of Marxism on the meaning and utility of national responses, traditional diplomacy, alliances, and the defense of national interests. Having seen these concepts devalued for decades, those schooled in the Consensus are likely to find the learning curve steep.

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Some Unfashionable Thoughts About Egypt

Few moments in recent history have put political conservatism to the test like the ongoing uprising taking place in Egypt today. There are, after all, two different approaches to foreign policy that can be called “conservative”: one points to the spread of democracy as an expression of American greatness and seeks to sweep aside dictatorial rulers in order to promote democratic values, institutions, and elections wherever possible. The other is more strictly power-based: if America’s the good guy, then first we have to make sure that America’s allies are strong and its enemies are weak. Both approaches will point to Ronald Reagan as the ultimate example: the former for his unflinching fight against Soviet totalitarianism; the latter for his willingness to sometimes support less-than-democratic allies when the alternative was the further expansion of Soviet political and military dominance.

So what are we to make of Egypt? On the one hand, if the U.S. abandons Mubarak, it embraces democracy but loses heavily in the power calculus. By showing itself to be a fickle friend in times of need, America further erodes the confidence of all the other authoritarian allies in the Arab world who are forever fearful of the Iranian threat and who need to believe that the U.S. will really stand behind them.

At the same time, if America stands with Mubarak until the end, it risks (a) looking hypocritical in the face of what looks like a genuinely democratic (i.e., popular, spontaneous) uprising, and (b) repeating the mistakes made during the Iranian revolution, when the U.S. bet on the wrong horse, alienating the Iranian people by supporting the Shah, thus setting the stage for a whole generation of militant anti-American hostility in the Islamic Republic that emerged. Americans don’t want to make that mistake again.

Here in Israel, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm about the potential overthrow of Mubarak. Nobody has any illusions about his regime. And yet, the alternatives appear far worse. It’s true that there’s no single organized leadership behind the revolt. Both the more liberal and the Islamist oppositions were taken totally by surprise. The revolution is first of all about bread and jobs, much less about democratic ideals. In terms of ideas guiding it, there are very few other than “throw the bums out.” And this is exactly the problem. Read More

Few moments in recent history have put political conservatism to the test like the ongoing uprising taking place in Egypt today. There are, after all, two different approaches to foreign policy that can be called “conservative”: one points to the spread of democracy as an expression of American greatness and seeks to sweep aside dictatorial rulers in order to promote democratic values, institutions, and elections wherever possible. The other is more strictly power-based: if America’s the good guy, then first we have to make sure that America’s allies are strong and its enemies are weak. Both approaches will point to Ronald Reagan as the ultimate example: the former for his unflinching fight against Soviet totalitarianism; the latter for his willingness to sometimes support less-than-democratic allies when the alternative was the further expansion of Soviet political and military dominance.

So what are we to make of Egypt? On the one hand, if the U.S. abandons Mubarak, it embraces democracy but loses heavily in the power calculus. By showing itself to be a fickle friend in times of need, America further erodes the confidence of all the other authoritarian allies in the Arab world who are forever fearful of the Iranian threat and who need to believe that the U.S. will really stand behind them.

At the same time, if America stands with Mubarak until the end, it risks (a) looking hypocritical in the face of what looks like a genuinely democratic (i.e., popular, spontaneous) uprising, and (b) repeating the mistakes made during the Iranian revolution, when the U.S. bet on the wrong horse, alienating the Iranian people by supporting the Shah, thus setting the stage for a whole generation of militant anti-American hostility in the Islamic Republic that emerged. Americans don’t want to make that mistake again.

Here in Israel, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of enthusiasm about the potential overthrow of Mubarak. Nobody has any illusions about his regime. And yet, the alternatives appear far worse. It’s true that there’s no single organized leadership behind the revolt. Both the more liberal and the Islamist oppositions were taken totally by surprise. The revolution is first of all about bread and jobs, much less about democratic ideals. In terms of ideas guiding it, there are very few other than “throw the bums out.” And this is exactly the problem.

Leadership abhors a vacuum, and in the past 24 hours, we’ve seen that vacuum filled by Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize–winning former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who’s taken to the streets insisting that Mubarak pack up before he’s ridden through Cairo on a rail. He’s recently allied himself with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist militant organization closely allied with Hamas and up till now the leading opposition party to Mubarak. ElBaradei has repeatedly referred to Israel as the “number one threat to the Middle East” and has supported Hamas violence against Israel, saying that “the Israeli occupation only understands the language of violence.” As head of the IAEA, he’s been accused of doing more than anyone else to facilitate Iran’s nuclear efforts. And as Andrew McCarthy has pointed out, in the grand battle between American and Iranian influence in the region, a coalition of ElBaradei and the Muslim Brotherhood looks grim indeed.

It’s impossible to predict the future, not just what will happen a year from now, when Egypt could well go through a second revolution (as did Iran, indeed as did Russia way back when), but even whether Mubarak’s regime is in fact over. For now, the army is holding tight. Mubarak’s appointment of Omar Suleiman as the country’s first-ever vice president, and heir-apparent, was tailored to maintain support of the military for the regime. Nobody should be counting Mubarak out just yet.

Both the strength and weakness of political ideals is that they push heavily toward optimism. They allow us to see possibilities when everything looks grim. But they can also lead us to delusions about what can happen in the face of all evidence to the contrary. The fact is that Egypt doesn’t have much of a democratic tradition. Less so even than Lebanon, postwar Iraq, or the Palestinian Authority. If I had to make a guess about what will happen if Mubarak falls, I think it’s foolish to assume that a real democratic regime will emerge there, as opposed to a new dictatorship that is far less amenable to American interests. And if he doesn’t fall, the U.S. will have egg on its face for not backing him. That, too, will strengthen Iran.

None of the options looks terribly pleasing to Western eyes. But then again, Egypt isn’t a Western country, is it?

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Are We All Neocons Now?

Ministers being forced to resign. The army in the streets. Bloody clashes in major cities. The ruling party headquarters in ashes.

Events in Egypt have moved beyond the demonstration stage. This is a revolution in progress. Whether it is a successful revolution or not remains to be seen. From 1848 to 1989, there have been no end of uprisings that have been successfully repressed. Hosni Mubarak may still succeed in hanging on to power, although that’s looking less likely with every passing hour of street clashes.

But whatever happens, one thing is already clear: as Pete Wehner has already noted, President Bush was right in pushing his “freedom agenda” for the Middle East.

When he pushed for democratic change in the region, legions of know-it-all skeptics — including Barack Obama — scoffed. What business was it of America to comment on, much less try to change, other countries’ internal affairs? Why meddle with reliable allies? Wasn’t it the height of neocon folly to imagine a more democratic future for places like Iraq or Egypt?

Turns out that Bush knew a thing or two. He may not have been all that sophisticated by some standards, but like Ronald Reagan, he grasped basic truths that eluded the intellectuals. Reagan, recall, earned endless scorn for suggesting that the “evil empire” might soon be consigned to the “ash heap of history.” But he understood that basic human desires for freedom could not be repressed forever. Bush understood precisely the same thing, and like Reagan he also realized that the U.S. had to get on the right side of history by championing freedom rather than by cutting disreputable deals with dictators.

Too bad he didn’t have more success in pushing the “freedom agenda.” If he had — if, for example, he had been willing to hold back American aid to force Egypt to make liberal reforms — the U.S. might possibly have averted the explosion currently seen on the streets of Egypt by engineering a more orderly transition to democracy. But in his second term, humbled by setbacks in Iraq, Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, charted a different course. They did little or nothing while Mubarak locked up liberal dissident Ayman Nour. Instead, they concentrated their energies on the vaunted Middle East peace process, which ended in a predictable failure.

Obama has essentially continued this policy, which he — and legions of like-minded thinkers — sees as the height of “realism.” But what’s so realistic about endorsing a sclerotic status quo? The answer is being delivered in the streets of Egypt. So having already endorsed the essentials of the Bush war on terror, Obama is now belatedly embracing the freedom agenda too. Does that mean we’re all neocons now?

Ministers being forced to resign. The army in the streets. Bloody clashes in major cities. The ruling party headquarters in ashes.

Events in Egypt have moved beyond the demonstration stage. This is a revolution in progress. Whether it is a successful revolution or not remains to be seen. From 1848 to 1989, there have been no end of uprisings that have been successfully repressed. Hosni Mubarak may still succeed in hanging on to power, although that’s looking less likely with every passing hour of street clashes.

But whatever happens, one thing is already clear: as Pete Wehner has already noted, President Bush was right in pushing his “freedom agenda” for the Middle East.

When he pushed for democratic change in the region, legions of know-it-all skeptics — including Barack Obama — scoffed. What business was it of America to comment on, much less try to change, other countries’ internal affairs? Why meddle with reliable allies? Wasn’t it the height of neocon folly to imagine a more democratic future for places like Iraq or Egypt?

Turns out that Bush knew a thing or two. He may not have been all that sophisticated by some standards, but like Ronald Reagan, he grasped basic truths that eluded the intellectuals. Reagan, recall, earned endless scorn for suggesting that the “evil empire” might soon be consigned to the “ash heap of history.” But he understood that basic human desires for freedom could not be repressed forever. Bush understood precisely the same thing, and like Reagan he also realized that the U.S. had to get on the right side of history by championing freedom rather than by cutting disreputable deals with dictators.

Too bad he didn’t have more success in pushing the “freedom agenda.” If he had — if, for example, he had been willing to hold back American aid to force Egypt to make liberal reforms — the U.S. might possibly have averted the explosion currently seen on the streets of Egypt by engineering a more orderly transition to democracy. But in his second term, humbled by setbacks in Iraq, Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, charted a different course. They did little or nothing while Mubarak locked up liberal dissident Ayman Nour. Instead, they concentrated their energies on the vaunted Middle East peace process, which ended in a predictable failure.

Obama has essentially continued this policy, which he — and legions of like-minded thinkers — sees as the height of “realism.” But what’s so realistic about endorsing a sclerotic status quo? The answer is being delivered in the streets of Egypt. So having already endorsed the essentials of the Bush war on terror, Obama is now belatedly embracing the freedom agenda too. Does that mean we’re all neocons now?

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Uprising Goes Straight for the Canal

Navies and merchant fleets the world over are watching the riots in Egypt with concern. Friday’s news that protesters have attacked the main police station in the city of Suez is a grim development: it transforms the threat to the Suez Canal from a distant consideration to an immediate possibility. The port city of Suez overlooks the southern entrance to the canal; it hosts — along with Port Said, at the northern entrance on the Mediterranean side — Egypt’s security, administrative, and maritime-service forces. Ships queue up daily outside Port Suez to await the north-bound convoy through the canal, which leaves as soon as the south-bound convoy has finished its transit. Egypt provides security along the canal’s 120-mile length, a swath of desert abutting the 200-foot waterway on either side. Veterans of Suez transits know that nothing but armed vigilance will hinder enterprising terrorists or insurgents operating from the banks.

There can be no doubt that the uprising in Egypt, like the one in Tunisia, is fueled by popular sentiment. Ordinary Egyptians have many reasons to want to change their government. But reporting about the riots, in Suez and elsewhere, contains indications that the popular protests are being exploited by more organized groups. The police station in Suez was not stormed by a wave of bodies: it was firebombed by “protesters” wearing surgical masks. In a rural area of the northern Sinai, “protesters” fired RPGs at a police station from nearby rooftops, while several hundred Bedouins exchanged small-arms fire with police.

These are the not the typical actions of frustrated citizens. Mass protests, flag-waving, chanting, impromptu speeches, perhaps the burning of tires and garbage, as in Lebanon this week: these are the things angry citizens do, and the Egyptians have been doing them. But both Hamas and Hezbollah have recent histories of operating in the Sinai; the organized attacks on police are characteristic of their methods and weaponry. Egypt has been gravely concerned about the influence of their principal backer, Iran, for several years — and the organized attack on the main police station in the port city of Suez, situated on one of the world’s major choke points, bears the hallmark of Iranian strategic thinking.

As with Tunisia, the unrest in Egypt is erupting for good reasons and appears spontaneous. But self-appointed revolutionaries have long honed the art of exploiting popular unrest. We can expect Egypt to be beset by organized cells — some undoubtedly backed by Iran — in the coming days. The security of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean is at risk. No outcome is predestined, but this uprising is attended by the same kinds of predators who have sought their fortunes in the uprisings of desperate peoples since 1789.

We are taking a detour back into history, if by a new route — and the same thing is true that has been true since the end of World War II: no nation other than the United States is capable of addressing this emerging problem with an equal concern for freedom and security. Other nations will have to form coalitions to take it on, if Obama’s America sits on the sidelines. We won’t like the outcome if it is handled that way.

Navies and merchant fleets the world over are watching the riots in Egypt with concern. Friday’s news that protesters have attacked the main police station in the city of Suez is a grim development: it transforms the threat to the Suez Canal from a distant consideration to an immediate possibility. The port city of Suez overlooks the southern entrance to the canal; it hosts — along with Port Said, at the northern entrance on the Mediterranean side — Egypt’s security, administrative, and maritime-service forces. Ships queue up daily outside Port Suez to await the north-bound convoy through the canal, which leaves as soon as the south-bound convoy has finished its transit. Egypt provides security along the canal’s 120-mile length, a swath of desert abutting the 200-foot waterway on either side. Veterans of Suez transits know that nothing but armed vigilance will hinder enterprising terrorists or insurgents operating from the banks.

There can be no doubt that the uprising in Egypt, like the one in Tunisia, is fueled by popular sentiment. Ordinary Egyptians have many reasons to want to change their government. But reporting about the riots, in Suez and elsewhere, contains indications that the popular protests are being exploited by more organized groups. The police station in Suez was not stormed by a wave of bodies: it was firebombed by “protesters” wearing surgical masks. In a rural area of the northern Sinai, “protesters” fired RPGs at a police station from nearby rooftops, while several hundred Bedouins exchanged small-arms fire with police.

These are the not the typical actions of frustrated citizens. Mass protests, flag-waving, chanting, impromptu speeches, perhaps the burning of tires and garbage, as in Lebanon this week: these are the things angry citizens do, and the Egyptians have been doing them. But both Hamas and Hezbollah have recent histories of operating in the Sinai; the organized attacks on police are characteristic of their methods and weaponry. Egypt has been gravely concerned about the influence of their principal backer, Iran, for several years — and the organized attack on the main police station in the port city of Suez, situated on one of the world’s major choke points, bears the hallmark of Iranian strategic thinking.

As with Tunisia, the unrest in Egypt is erupting for good reasons and appears spontaneous. But self-appointed revolutionaries have long honed the art of exploiting popular unrest. We can expect Egypt to be beset by organized cells — some undoubtedly backed by Iran — in the coming days. The security of the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and the eastern Mediterranean is at risk. No outcome is predestined, but this uprising is attended by the same kinds of predators who have sought their fortunes in the uprisings of desperate peoples since 1789.

We are taking a detour back into history, if by a new route — and the same thing is true that has been true since the end of World War II: no nation other than the United States is capable of addressing this emerging problem with an equal concern for freedom and security. Other nations will have to form coalitions to take it on, if Obama’s America sits on the sidelines. We won’t like the outcome if it is handled that way.

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Vindication for Bush’s Freedom Agenda

As popular unrest sweeps the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunisia to Yemen to Egypt, it’s worth recalling the words and warning of President George W. Bush – in this case, his November 19, 2003, address at Whitehall Palace in London, where Bush said this:

We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. …

As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.

Now we’re pursuing a different course, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. We will consistently challenge the enemies of reform and confront the allies of terror. We will expect a higher standard from our friends in the region, and we will meet our responsibilities in Afghanistan and in Iraq by finishing the work of democracy we have begun.

During the course of the Bush presidency, his “freedom agenda” was criticized from several different quarters, including foreign-policy “realists” who believed that the bargain Bush spoke about — tolerating oppression for the sake of “stability” — was worth it.

It wasn’t. The core argument Bush made, which is that America must stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity — the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice, and religious tolerance — was right. No people on earth long to live in oppression and servitude, as slaves instead of free people, to be kept in chains or experience the lash of the whip.

How this conviction should play itself out in the real world is not self-evident; the success of such a policy depends on the wisdom and prudence of statesmen. Implementing a policy is a good deal harder than proclaiming one. Still, it seems to be that events are vindicating the freedom agenda as a strategy and a moral insight, as even the Obama administration is coming to learn.

As popular unrest sweeps the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunisia to Yemen to Egypt, it’s worth recalling the words and warning of President George W. Bush – in this case, his November 19, 2003, address at Whitehall Palace in London, where Bush said this:

We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East. Your nation and mine, in the past, have been willing to make a bargain, to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. …

As recent history has shown, we cannot turn a blind eye to oppression just because the oppression is not in our own backyard. No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims, and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.

Now we’re pursuing a different course, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. We will consistently challenge the enemies of reform and confront the allies of terror. We will expect a higher standard from our friends in the region, and we will meet our responsibilities in Afghanistan and in Iraq by finishing the work of democracy we have begun.

During the course of the Bush presidency, his “freedom agenda” was criticized from several different quarters, including foreign-policy “realists” who believed that the bargain Bush spoke about — tolerating oppression for the sake of “stability” — was worth it.

It wasn’t. The core argument Bush made, which is that America must stand firm for the non-negotiable demands of human dignity — the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women, private property, free speech, equal justice, and religious tolerance — was right. No people on earth long to live in oppression and servitude, as slaves instead of free people, to be kept in chains or experience the lash of the whip.

How this conviction should play itself out in the real world is not self-evident; the success of such a policy depends on the wisdom and prudence of statesmen. Implementing a policy is a good deal harder than proclaiming one. Still, it seems to be that events are vindicating the freedom agenda as a strategy and a moral insight, as even the Obama administration is coming to learn.

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Note to Bill O’Reilly, RE: Jon Stewart — Quit While You’re Behind

Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart is engaged in a television duel with Bill O’Reilly. It started with Stewart taking Fox News, including Bill O’Reilly, to task for periodically invoking the Nazi analogy. O’Reilly fired back, saying Stewart had taken O’Reilly’s comments out of context. Last night Stewart answered O’Reilly.

Out of this back and forth emerge a few things. First, let’s agree to do away with Nazi analogies unless extraordinary circumstances (like, say, genocide) demand it. Using it as often as people do is offensive and weakens rather than strengthens an argument. Second, don’t use anonymous (and disgusting) Web comments to make broad, sweeping characterizations. And third, don’t debate Jon Stewart unless you have a really strong argument on your side.

Though he’s a political liberal, I enjoy Jon Stewart. On a nightly basis, he demonstrates that he’s America’s best satirist, smart, well-informed, and formidable. If Bill O’Reilly is wise, he’ll quit while he’s behind. (h/t: Mediaite.com)

Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart is engaged in a television duel with Bill O’Reilly. It started with Stewart taking Fox News, including Bill O’Reilly, to task for periodically invoking the Nazi analogy. O’Reilly fired back, saying Stewart had taken O’Reilly’s comments out of context. Last night Stewart answered O’Reilly.

Out of this back and forth emerge a few things. First, let’s agree to do away with Nazi analogies unless extraordinary circumstances (like, say, genocide) demand it. Using it as often as people do is offensive and weakens rather than strengthens an argument. Second, don’t use anonymous (and disgusting) Web comments to make broad, sweeping characterizations. And third, don’t debate Jon Stewart unless you have a really strong argument on your side.

Though he’s a political liberal, I enjoy Jon Stewart. On a nightly basis, he demonstrates that he’s America’s best satirist, smart, well-informed, and formidable. If Bill O’Reilly is wise, he’ll quit while he’s behind. (h/t: Mediaite.com)

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RE: Oh, Man, Not Another Sputnik Moment…

Ted Bromund’s reaction to the new Obama theme is much like mine. The only serious connection between America’s original “Sputnik moment” and President Obama’s SOTU analogy is the touting of a pretext for spending public money.

But there is another, more ironic aspect of Obama’s Sputnik theme. Perhaps you had to be in college when I was — a little more than 20 years after Sputnik — to pick up on it automatically. The late 1970s and early 1980s were years when academia was beginning to proclaim the Cold War “over.” The argument was ongoing, but for more and more academic analysts, it was received wisdom that American leaders had exaggerated the threat represented by the Soviet Union. The central symbol of that career of exaggeration was Sputnik.

I must have had at least half a dozen professors who argued that the Sputnik dynamic was a big irony, because it gave us both the moon-shot program and the unwarranted fear of a Soviet “missile gap.” The Sputnik-missile gap theme has been flogged relentlessly in academic studies (extended excerpt; full access requires a fee) and the opinion pages of popular media for the past 20 years or more. Plug “Sputnik” and “overblown fear” into any search engine and you will instantly be presented with hundreds of websites — including the left’s flagship new-media outlets — where it is argued that the WMD-intelligence debacle, or America’s supposed overreaction to 9/11, was our new “Sputnik moment.” The message has been quite clear: the space program was good, but beware presidents demanding urgent national responses on the Sputnik model.

Obama is of my vintage; we grew up hearing it argued that the U.S. had overreacted to Sputnik — partly because the act of arguing the point seemed at the time like a blow against the establishment. But there is a generation of adults behind us that grew up learning about this “overreaction” to Sputnik as simple fact. The people who were here to incarnate “Sputnik, the Original Terror Theme” are now in their 70s, at the very least. The demographic for which the word Sputnik sounds an unqualified alarm has been shrinking for decades.

Obama’s off-target Sputnik allusion seems symptomatic of his peculiar disengagement from American mainstream culture. This Chicago pol who once spoke of “Kaminsky Field” has often seemed to be invoking wholesale the alien battle cries of the 1960s-era radical left. And the flip side of that is that he still invokes, for modern purposes, the shibboleths of the culture the old leftists railed against — as if those shibboleths have not long since been tarnished, defaced, or completely torn down.

Ted Bromund’s reaction to the new Obama theme is much like mine. The only serious connection between America’s original “Sputnik moment” and President Obama’s SOTU analogy is the touting of a pretext for spending public money.

But there is another, more ironic aspect of Obama’s Sputnik theme. Perhaps you had to be in college when I was — a little more than 20 years after Sputnik — to pick up on it automatically. The late 1970s and early 1980s were years when academia was beginning to proclaim the Cold War “over.” The argument was ongoing, but for more and more academic analysts, it was received wisdom that American leaders had exaggerated the threat represented by the Soviet Union. The central symbol of that career of exaggeration was Sputnik.

I must have had at least half a dozen professors who argued that the Sputnik dynamic was a big irony, because it gave us both the moon-shot program and the unwarranted fear of a Soviet “missile gap.” The Sputnik-missile gap theme has been flogged relentlessly in academic studies (extended excerpt; full access requires a fee) and the opinion pages of popular media for the past 20 years or more. Plug “Sputnik” and “overblown fear” into any search engine and you will instantly be presented with hundreds of websites — including the left’s flagship new-media outlets — where it is argued that the WMD-intelligence debacle, or America’s supposed overreaction to 9/11, was our new “Sputnik moment.” The message has been quite clear: the space program was good, but beware presidents demanding urgent national responses on the Sputnik model.

Obama is of my vintage; we grew up hearing it argued that the U.S. had overreacted to Sputnik — partly because the act of arguing the point seemed at the time like a blow against the establishment. But there is a generation of adults behind us that grew up learning about this “overreaction” to Sputnik as simple fact. The people who were here to incarnate “Sputnik, the Original Terror Theme” are now in their 70s, at the very least. The demographic for which the word Sputnik sounds an unqualified alarm has been shrinking for decades.

Obama’s off-target Sputnik allusion seems symptomatic of his peculiar disengagement from American mainstream culture. This Chicago pol who once spoke of “Kaminsky Field” has often seemed to be invoking wholesale the alien battle cries of the 1960s-era radical left. And the flip side of that is that he still invokes, for modern purposes, the shibboleths of the culture the old leftists railed against — as if those shibboleths have not long since been tarnished, defaced, or completely torn down.

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The Peepless SOTU Address

Judith Levy at Ricochet is surprised Obama said not a peep about the peace process (“I could have sworn it was a fairly high priority for the administration”). She understands the lack of a peep about Egypt (“Hey, it’s fresh; it’s complicated. Cut the guy some slack.”). But she is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot incredulous about the peepless issue of Lebanon:

How do you not mention Lebanon after what happened this week? A US-friendly prime minister — a guy you just hosted in the Oval Office two weeks ago, Mr. President; remember him? — was overthrown by an Iran- and Syria-backed terrorist organization that assassinated his pro-Western father and has handpicked his successor. Hello?

In last year’s SOTU address, Obama extolled America’s “engagement” around the world:

As we have for over 60 years, America takes these actions because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores.  But we also do it because it is right. … That’s why we stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan; why we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran; why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea. For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. (Applause.) Always. (Applause.)

Last night, the only peeps on this subject were his praise for the vote in south Sudan and “that same desire to be free in Tunisia.” At least Tunisia got the coveted let-me-be-clear moment, in a sentence that perhaps technically also covered Egypt and Lebanon:

And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people. (Applause.)

Judith Levy at Ricochet is surprised Obama said not a peep about the peace process (“I could have sworn it was a fairly high priority for the administration”). She understands the lack of a peep about Egypt (“Hey, it’s fresh; it’s complicated. Cut the guy some slack.”). But she is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot incredulous about the peepless issue of Lebanon:

How do you not mention Lebanon after what happened this week? A US-friendly prime minister — a guy you just hosted in the Oval Office two weeks ago, Mr. President; remember him? — was overthrown by an Iran- and Syria-backed terrorist organization that assassinated his pro-Western father and has handpicked his successor. Hello?

In last year’s SOTU address, Obama extolled America’s “engagement” around the world:

As we have for over 60 years, America takes these actions because our destiny is connected to those beyond our shores.  But we also do it because it is right. … That’s why we stand with the girl who yearns to go to school in Afghanistan; why we support the human rights of the women marching through the streets of Iran; why we advocate for the young man denied a job by corruption in Guinea. For America must always stand on the side of freedom and human dignity. (Applause.) Always. (Applause.)

Last night, the only peeps on this subject were his praise for the vote in south Sudan and “that same desire to be free in Tunisia.” At least Tunisia got the coveted let-me-be-clear moment, in a sentence that perhaps technically also covered Egypt and Lebanon:

And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people. (Applause.)

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The President’s Speech: An Irresponsible Performance

State of the Union speeches are typically unimpressive and unmemorable. Last night’s address by President Obama was in that tradition. While his delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre — flat, undisciplined and unfocused, at times pedestrian and banal, with goals seemingly pulled out of thin air (e.g., by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources).

The speech was also oddly uncreative, with Obama dusting off slogans and ideas from past State of the Union speeches. For example, on the campaign trail in 2008 and during the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama portrayed himself as the great enemy of earmarks. Perhaps the reason he has to keep reminding us of his antipathy for earmarks is because he has repeatedly signed into law legislation that contained thousands of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting the president’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment we’re in.

The State of the Union address reaffirmed that Barack Obama remains a man of the left. He spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs, explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of the federal government.

It was as if the president were awakening Leviathan from a two-year slumber rather than two years of hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, Obama spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe — one where a $14 trillion debt and trillion dollar a year deficit don’t exist; where our entitlement programs are basically solvent and sound, in need of, at most, tweaking around the margins; and where the 2010 midterm election wasn’t a repudiation of the president’s progressive agenda.

The president dealt with our fiscal crisis as if it were a triviality, its importance on par with the need for more solar panels and high-speed rails.

Mr. Obama, I think, is misreading the public mood. Many Americans are unnerved by our fiscal imbalance, which helps explain the rise of the Tea Party movement. But whether or not Obama is out of touch with the public is, in one respect, irrelevant. Facts are stubborn things — and the fact is that we’re facing a crushing entitlement crisis that is getting worse literally by the hour. If we don’t come to grips with it soon, we are likely to experience something similar to the social unrest that is sweeping Europe.

More than mediocre, then, I found the president’s speech to be irresponsible. As the elected leader of the nation — and as one of the architects of our fiscal crisis — Obama has an obligation to address it in a serious, systematic, and intellectually honest manner. Instead, he is eschewing his governing duties. He is living in a world of his own imagination. That might be fine for writers of fiction and fairy tales. But for the president of the United States, it is quite a bad thing indeed.

State of the Union speeches are typically unimpressive and unmemorable. Last night’s address by President Obama was in that tradition. While his delivery was fine, the speech itself was mediocre — flat, undisciplined and unfocused, at times pedestrian and banal, with goals seemingly pulled out of thin air (e.g., by 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean-energy sources).

The speech was also oddly uncreative, with Obama dusting off slogans and ideas from past State of the Union speeches. For example, on the campaign trail in 2008 and during the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama portrayed himself as the great enemy of earmarks. Perhaps the reason he has to keep reminding us of his antipathy for earmarks is because he has repeatedly signed into law legislation that contained thousands of them.

Still, this doesn’t mean the speech was unimportant. It was, in fact, quite significant in terms of highlighting the president’s cast of mind and how he understands, or fails to understand, the moment we’re in.

The State of the Union address reaffirmed that Barack Obama remains a man of the left. He spent most of the speech championing an array of new programs, explaining why he believes we need to expand the size, reach, scope, and cost of the federal government.

It was as if the president were awakening Leviathan from a two-year slumber rather than two years of hyperactivity.

Beyond that, though, Obama spoke as if he were living in an alternate universe — one where a $14 trillion debt and trillion dollar a year deficit don’t exist; where our entitlement programs are basically solvent and sound, in need of, at most, tweaking around the margins; and where the 2010 midterm election wasn’t a repudiation of the president’s progressive agenda.

The president dealt with our fiscal crisis as if it were a triviality, its importance on par with the need for more solar panels and high-speed rails.

Mr. Obama, I think, is misreading the public mood. Many Americans are unnerved by our fiscal imbalance, which helps explain the rise of the Tea Party movement. But whether or not Obama is out of touch with the public is, in one respect, irrelevant. Facts are stubborn things — and the fact is that we’re facing a crushing entitlement crisis that is getting worse literally by the hour. If we don’t come to grips with it soon, we are likely to experience something similar to the social unrest that is sweeping Europe.

More than mediocre, then, I found the president’s speech to be irresponsible. As the elected leader of the nation — and as one of the architects of our fiscal crisis — Obama has an obligation to address it in a serious, systematic, and intellectually honest manner. Instead, he is eschewing his governing duties. He is living in a world of his own imagination. That might be fine for writers of fiction and fairy tales. But for the president of the United States, it is quite a bad thing indeed.

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