Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

The Isolationist Declares War

Almost 73 years after the Day of Infamy plunged the United States into the maelstrom of World War Two, and after having fought several major wars since then without benefit of a congressional declaration, is it time for another one? Senator Rand Paul says yes and can deploy powerful arguments on behalf of his proposal for a declaration of war on ISIS instead of a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East to replace or supersede those passed in 2001 and 2002 to deal with the conflicts with al Qaeda and in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the questions we should be asking about this have as much to do with Paul’s efforts to recast his image as an isolationist as they are with the merits of a resolution that may restrict a military effort that is being carried out in a half-hearted way by an Obama administration that is no more interested in carrying the fight to the enemy than Paul may be.

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Almost 73 years after the Day of Infamy plunged the United States into the maelstrom of World War Two, and after having fought several major wars since then without benefit of a congressional declaration, is it time for another one? Senator Rand Paul says yes and can deploy powerful arguments on behalf of his proposal for a declaration of war on ISIS instead of a new authorization for the use of force in the Middle East to replace or supersede those passed in 2001 and 2002 to deal with the conflicts with al Qaeda and in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the questions we should be asking about this have as much to do with Paul’s efforts to recast his image as an isolationist as they are with the merits of a resolution that may restrict a military effort that is being carried out in a half-hearted way by an Obama administration that is no more interested in carrying the fight to the enemy than Paul may be.

In one way, Paul’s proposal makes a great deal of sense. For decades presidents have carried out military campaigns without a declaration of war, creating an imperial presidency that gives the executive more power than the Founders would have liked. A declaration would create, at least in theory, more accountability as well as restoring some needed constitutional balance to the way foreign and defense policy is carried out.

But as much as this makes some superficial sense, Paul’s intentions have more to do with both restricting the scope of the war against radical Islamist terrorist and posing as a responsible would-be commander in chief than it does with actually winning the war against ISIS and its allies in Iraq and Syria.

Paul’s proposed declaration, like some of the other potential new authorizations of force circulating in Congress, would preclude the use of ground troops against ISIS except in highly restricted circumstances. That actually dovetails nicely with President Obama’s stance on the war that has been carried out in a half-hearted way that makes it hard to envision the kind of rollback of ISIS gains in both Iraq and Syria that will be required for victory against the group.

Like Obama, Paul’s objective here is not military victory—the object of any real declaration of war—but giving the country the impression that the U.S. is doing something about a problem that has rightly scared the American public without actually fighting a war.

But unlike Obama, Paul’s goal is also to convince the majority of Republicans that he is not an isolationist. Since Paul began his planning for a presidential campaign after the conclusion of the 2012 campaign, the Kentucky senator’s goal has been to rebrand himself as an old-fashioned foreign-policy realist instead of being seen as the son of the leader of a rabid band of extremist libertarians. Rand is a smarter, slicker, and cooler version of his father Ron, a fire-breathing radical who lamented on Twitter the victory of his son’s party in the midterm elections because he envisaged that it would lead to “neocon wars” with “boots on the ground.”

The senator’s approach to foreign and defense policy doesn’t have the same feel as that of his father. Unlike Ron, Rand does not use rhetoric—or at least not anymore—that makes him seem to the left of Barack Obama and liberal Democrats on foreign policy. In that sense, a declaration of war is a twofer for Rand in that it enables him to look like someone serious about fighting terrorists that the public fears while also sounding some of the Constitutional arguments about presidential overreach that endeared him to conservatives last year when his drone filibuster galvanized the nation.

But the declaration is more a matter of posturing than a genuine foreign-policy alternative. In the unlikely event that it passed, it would serve to limit not just presidential abuses of power but take away the leeway that any president needs to defend the nation in an age where threats and enemies are very different from the ones Franklin Roosevelt’s America faced in 1941.

That’s why Senator James Inhofe’s idea of a new resolution authorizing force that would give the president “all necessary and appropriate force” to use against ISIS while requiring the White House to regularly report to Congress on the war makes far more sense than Paul’s declaration in terms of what is needed to actually win the conflict.

Thanks to ISIS and Obama’s disastrous Middle East policies, the libertarian moment that convulsed American politics in 2013 is over. In seeking to position himself as someone willing to fight wars, Paul has made progress toward becoming more of a mainstream political figure, something that is necessary if he is to have a chance at the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But what this discussion illustrates is that the real problem is not whether Congress passes a declaration of war or a new resolution authorizing the use of force but what kind of a commander in chief the country is saddled with. With an Obama or a Rand Paul, America will have someone who doesn’t want to be seen as weak but who is not interested in a serious effort to defeat threats to the country’s security. That is something Republicans who rightly take a dim view of the president’s policies should think about before they buy into Paul’s proposal or his bid for the nomination.

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Don’t Simply Complain About Qasem Soleimani in Iraq

Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, has been taking his show on the road for years, making public appearances first in Syria and most recently in Iraq. Today, new photos circulated on Twitter of Soleimani sharing lunch in the eastern Iraqi governorate of Diyala.

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Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force, has been taking his show on the road for years, making public appearances first in Syria and most recently in Iraq. Today, new photos circulated on Twitter of Soleimani sharing lunch in the eastern Iraqi governorate of Diyala.

Certainly, Iran wants to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS). It’s not simply propaganda to suggest that ISIS also threatens Iran. The Islamic Republic might officially be a Shi’ite state, but about ten percent of Iranians are Sunni. They are often bitter, discriminated against both on ethnic and sectarian grounds. In June, Iranian security announced the arrest of several dozen ISIS members operating inside Iran.

But just because Iran and the United States both have an interest in what happens to ISIS does not make Tehran and Washington natural allies. After all, arsonists and firefighters are both interested in what happens to fires, but they are clearly not on the same side.

The U.S. Treasury Department in 2007 designated the Qods Force as a terrorist group “for providing material support to the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.” While a bill formally labeling the Qods Force as a terrorist entity died in congressional committee (perhaps President Obama can consider executive action), the government of Canada was not so easily distracted, and two years ago labeled Qasem Soleimani’s unit to be terrorists.

Normally, the head of a shadowy organization like the Qods Force would avoid the limelight, but by taking such a public presence in Iraq, Soleimani is convincing Iraqis that it is Iran which has its back while simultaneously depicting the United States as at best hapless, and at worst complicit with ISIS. After all, Soleimani is among the Pentagon’s most wanted, and yet he runs around Iraq thumbing his nose at the United States. And, of course, he and the Iranian regime he serves are, alongside Russia, behind the rumors that the United States created and supported ISIS, never mind that it was the Assad regime supported by Soleimani that refused for years to use the Syrian air force to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, Syria; Soleimani and Assad preferred instead to target Syrian civilians. When it comes to killing ISIS, the United States does far more than Iran.

The idea that anyone in the United States would simply complain about Soleimani’s antics, however, is absurd. It’s about as effective as a kid complaining to an elementary school teacher that a bully is making faces at him.

If the United States is serious about the Qods Force and wishes to hold Qasem Soleimani to account for the deaths of Americans, it has two options: First, it can try to grab him in Iraq. There is precedent. The United States has previously snatched Iranian operatives in Iraq, but ultimately released them. There are rumors that the real goal of the raid was to catch Soleimani himself. Earlier efforts to grab Soleimani may have been betrayed when senior officials within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leaked word to him of impending action.

Then again, if Obama doesn’t have the stomach to grab Soleimani, it might simply try to kill him. Airstrikes might target all terrorists and extremists, not simply those from one sect. Soleimani is probably right to suspect that he has a free pass from Obama, so long as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continues to dangle a legacy-revising agreement in front of American negotiators.

Under such circumstances, then, Soleimani probably has another two years to flaunt himself in front of the cameras in Iraq without fear of consequence. Let us hope, however, that come January 20, 2017, any new president will understand no terrorists deserve a free pass and that it is never wise or sophisticated to allow them to humiliate the United States on the world stage. Credibility matters.

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How Iran Talks Hamper Fight Against ISIS

So what’s wrong with talking to Iran? That is the refrain heard a day after the administration decided to grant another seven-month extension of the nuclear negotiations, which have already been going on without success for a year. As is true with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” the administration seems convinced that success is always just around the corner, that failure is always a step forward. While it’s true that prolonging talks is better than accepting a bad deal, even prolonged talks carry a hefty price–some of it visible, some not.

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So what’s wrong with talking to Iran? That is the refrain heard a day after the administration decided to grant another seven-month extension of the nuclear negotiations, which have already been going on without success for a year. As is true with the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” the administration seems convinced that success is always just around the corner, that failure is always a step forward. While it’s true that prolonging talks is better than accepting a bad deal, even prolonged talks carry a hefty price–some of it visible, some not.

The most visible cost is the $700 million a month in sanctions relief that Iran receives while the negotiations continue. That is a lifeline to the regime of an extra $4.9 billion over seven months on top of the $7 billion it has already received: money that can be used to prop up a dictatorship and extend its influence to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and other nearby states. And those are conservative estimates from the administration; the actual benefits to Iran are probably greater.

But there is also a hidden cost to the ongoing talks that may be even more significant. Because as long as the U.S. is trying to reach a deal with Tehran, there is scant chance that President Obama will do anything to topple Iran’s ally in Damascus, Bashar Assad. Obama won’t even interfere with Assad’s reign of terror that has already claimed some 200,000 lives.

Although U.S. warplanes episodically bomb ISIS, they leave Assad and his forces alone. As a result Assad is free to continue the terror bombing of areas held by the Free Syrian Army even though Obama is counting on that force to fight ISIS. In reality there is scant chance of Sunnis in significant numbers taking up arms against ISIS as long as the alternative appears to be domination by Iranian proxies whether in Iraq or Syria.

Obama seems to be blind to this crippling problem at the heart of his ISIS strategy. Instead of trying to contest Iranian power, he is seeking an accommodation with Iran. He reportedly even sent Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a letter proposing cooperation between the U.S. and Iran to fight ISIS. Ironically this not only scares Sunnis–it also scares the ayatollahs because they cannot afford to be seen as compromising with the Grand Satan for fear of losing their revolutionary credibility.

This is a regime, after all, where the chant “Death to America” serves much the same purpose as “Heil Hitler” once did for Nazi Germany. Khamenei obviously has little interest in reaching a modus vivendi with us; indeed, after the latest failure of the nuclear talks, he crowed that “America and the colonial European countries to together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees but they could not do so–and they will not be able to do so.”

Far from trying to bring Iran to its knees, Obama is trying to reorient U.S. policy in a pro-Iranian direction. The attempt will fail, but as long as it continues it will also doom to failure the anti-ISIS campaign.

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How Big of a Problem Is Susan Rice?

Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

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Chuck Hagel’s unceremonious dismissal as secretary of defense has refocused attention, once again, on the insularity of President Obama’s inner circle, its suspicion of outside voices, and its distaste for dissent. But it has changed in one way: this time, the concerns about secrecy, enforced groupthink, and high school clique behavior don’t center on Valerie Jarrett. Instead, the name that keeps surfacing is that of National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

It’s true that this isn’t the first time we’re hearing of the toxic atmosphere and mismanagement at Rice’s National Security Council. But it’s striking how clearly the battle lines appear to be drawn in the steady stream of bitter leaks aimed at Hagel, designed to kick him while he’s down. The cruelty with which the Obama insiders are behaving right now is unsettling, to be sure. But more relevant to the formation of national-security policy is the question of whether Susan Rice’s incompetence and pride are playing a role in the constant stream of Obama foreign-policy failures.

About two weeks ago, Foreign Policy magazine CEO David Rothkopf, a former Clinton administration official, previewed his new book on American foreign policy in the age of Obama by sitting for an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Rothkopf has written a book on the history of the NSC, so Goldberg asked him about the NSC under Susan Rice. His opinion was pretty brutal.

Goldberg and Rothkopf discussed the mixed record of national security advisors over the last few decades, and Rothkopf summed it up this way: “If there are lessons to be drawn from this track record, they include the fact that it’s harder to be the first national security advisor of a president with little foreign-policy experience and, in the end, more broadly, the national security advisor is really only ever as good as his or her president enables him or her to be.”

That sounded like he was letting Rice off the hook a bit, but he returned to the topic to dispel any such impression. In fact, Obama and Rice seemed to reinforce each other’s weaknesses:

If Obama had any material management or foreign-policy experience prior to coming in to office or if he had the character of our stronger leaders on these issues—notably a more strategic than tactical orientation, more trust in his team, less risk aversion, etc.—she would be better off, as would we all. But his flaws are compounded by a system that lets him pick and empower those around him. So, if he chooses to surround himself with a small team of “true believers” who won’t challenge him as all leaders need to be challenged, if he picks campaign staffers that maintain campaign mode, if he over-empowers political advisors at the expense of those with national-security experience, that takes his weaknesses and multiplies them by those of the team around him.

And whatever Susan Rice’s many strengths are, she is ill-suited for the job she has. She is not seen as an honest broker. She has big gaps in her international experience and understanding—Asia. She is needlessly combative and has alienated key members of her staff, the cabinet, and overseas leaders. She is also not strategic and is reactive like her boss. So whereas the system does have the capability of offsetting the weaknesses of a president, if he is surrounded by strong advisors to whom he listens and who he empowers to do their jobs, it can also reinforce and exacerbate those weaknesses—as it is doing now.

And indeed, while Hagel was no superstar, Rice crops up in each account of his ouster. Politico reports that “Hagel’s main gripe, according to people close to him, was what he viewed as a disorganized National Security Council run by Ricea criticism shared by [White House chief of staff Denis] McDonough, according to a senior administration official.” Politico also points out that in this respect, Hagel was no outlier; his predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, shared this concern.

And according to the New York Times: “White House officials also expressed annoyance over a sharply critical two-page memo that Mr. Hagel sent to Ms. Rice last month, in which he warned that the administration’s Syria policy was in danger of unraveling because of its failure to clarify its intentions toward President Bashar al-Assad. Senior officials complained that Mr. Hagel had never made such a case in internal debates, suggesting that he was trying to position himself for history on a crucial issue as he was talking to Mr. Obama about leaving his job.”

It’s debatable what the worst part of that is. That the White House was bothered enough by one critical memo for it to appear in a story on the secretary of defense’s dismissal? That the secretary of defense and the national security advisor are communicating this through memos? That White House officials thought Hagel put his thoughts in writing out of borderline-disloyalty and the hope of abandoning a sinking ship?

I was among those singing Rice’s praises as a whipsmart advisor and a tough-as-nails negotiator, at least in the context of her candidacy to be secretary of state. Yet it’s become clear she feeds on conflict. It’s possible that instinct would be more beneficial were she at State and dealing with those shoving John Kerry around on the world stage. But Chuck Hagel is not Sergei Lavrov, and Rice’s conflation of all adversaries, personal and political, is tearing the White House’s national-security team apart.

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Obama Scapegoating Hagel

In describing why President Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, one senior official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “He wasn’t up to the job.”

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In describing why President Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, one senior official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “He wasn’t up to the job.”

I’m no fan of Mr. Hagel, but this comment is a bit much, don’t you think? After all, it wasn’t Mr. Hagel who referred to ISIS as the “jayvee team,” or erased the “red line” related to Syrian use of chemical weapons, or has been overmatched time and time again by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It wasn’t Mr. Hagel who failed to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, who failed to aid the Syrian Free Army when people like David Petraeus were urging that it be done, who sat on the sideline during the Iranian “Green Revolution” in Iran, who has so badly mishandled our relations with Egypt and Israel, and on whose watch Libya has collapsed. I could go on, but you get the point.

The problem with Mr. Obama’s national-security record is Mr. Obama, not Chuck Hagel. He is a chief executive of unrivaled incompetence; and for all of Chuck Hagel’s failings, he is virtually a Churchillian figure compared to the president he served.

Chuck Hagel is just the most recent in a long string of excuses and scapegoats offered up by Barack Obama and his courtiers. It’s always somebody else’s fault, never the president’s. Obama & Co. may believe Hagel wasn’t up to the job. But more and more of the nation recognizes that the real ineptitude is found in the former community-organizer-turned-commander-in-chief. Firing Chuck Hagel won’t change any of that.

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Why Won’t Iran Take a Favorable Deal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Chuck Hagel Became Expendable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Congress Must Rescue Administration Held Hostage by Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Deadlines, Red Lines, Whatever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is a National-Security Shakeup Coming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iran Wins if Obama Extends Nuclear Talks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Promise and Peril of Obama’s Triangulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Standing and Prosecutorial Discretion

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

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

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

It’s clever lawyering if lousy politics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Baleful Effects of the Obama Presidency

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

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

This is not incidental damage to our republic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Orders: Politics, Not Compassion

President Obama was at his rhetorical best Thursday night in making an eloquent case for his executive orders that allow five million illegal immigrants to avoid deportation. But his eloquence invoking compassion for immigrants was the worst kind of cynical game being used to justify an unprecedented presidential usurpation of power. Even if one accepted the arguments he employed on behalf of fixing our broken immigration system or being fair to illegals, it was all beside the point. The purpose of this exercise was to vastly expand the scope of presidential power while provoking a confrontation with Republicans. None of it had much to do with actually changing the system.

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President Obama was at his rhetorical best Thursday night in making an eloquent case for his executive orders that allow five million illegal immigrants to avoid deportation. But his eloquence invoking compassion for immigrants was the worst kind of cynical game being used to justify an unprecedented presidential usurpation of power. Even if one accepted the arguments he employed on behalf of fixing our broken immigration system or being fair to illegals, it was all beside the point. The purpose of this exercise was to vastly expand the scope of presidential power while provoking a confrontation with Republicans. None of it had much to do with actually changing the system.

There are good reasons to support changes in the system. The status of the 11 million illegals in this country needs to be resolved in some rational manner. The president is right to state that mass deportations are both unlikely and undesirable. Even if they violated the law, many, if not most of the illegals are not bad people and some of their stories should inspire compassion from Americans.

But by acting unilaterally rather than returning to the hard work of crafting a bipartisan compromise on immigration with the new Republican majorities in Congress, Obama showed that he had other motives besides his supposed passion for the illegals.

The president’s argument remains that he is being forced to act because House Republicans refused to pass the bipartisan compromise bill passed by the Senate. This is a specious appeal for four reasons.

The first is that even if the Senate bill deserved support, it is the prerogative of the Congress to pass laws. The president may advocate, lobby, cajole, threaten, or bargain with members to get his way. But if the executive branch fails to get the legislative branch to approve measures, it must accept the verdict and try again. Such a failure does not grant the president the right to usurp Congress.

Second, this is no emergency that required immediate action. Comparisons to the Emancipation Proclamation or wartime emergency measures are absurd. If it were a genuine emergency, Obama would have acted on it during his first two years in office when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and could have gotten any measure he liked. He might also have issued these orders at any time since then but instead waited until he was safely reelected and then for the midterms to be finished before acting.

Third, seen from the perspective of November 2014, it is clear the House was right not to pass the Senate bill. Though I did not think so at the time, the impulse to break up the measure and to pass border security legislation first and then and only then consider the future of the illegals already here was correct. Despite the president’s claims that the border is secure, last summer’s surge of illegals proved otherwise. Moreover, his boasts about the supposed decline in illegal immigration has little to do with the still shaky enforcement at the border and everything to do with the shaky economic recovery the president has presided over. Even worse, it is likely that today’s temporary amnesty—which may be reversed by the next president—will encourage another such surge. The same thing happened after President Reagan’s amnesty and that was not nearly so egregious as Obama’s and an attempt to clarify a law passed by Congress, not an end run around the Constitution.

Fourth, if, as he says, he wants a new bill, the only way to achieve any kind of reform would have been to work with the new Congress. Chances were admittedly slim for a new compromise but the president’s orders have now reduced it to zero. Hispanics and immigration-reform advocates applauding these orders should think about the fact that with a stroke of a pen, Obama has made it impossible for any Republican, no matter how committed to fixing the system, to vote for a new bill in the next two years. That is a greater setback for that cause than anything done by House Republicans in the past two years.

And that leads us to the most important conclusion to be drawn from the president’s move. It must be understood that this is as much a tactical political move as it an attempt to build a legacy as some of the president’s defenders claim.

By issuing his orders now in the wake of the Democrats’ drubbing in the midterms, Obama is attempting to take back the initiative from a victorious GOP. Despite the pious rhetoric he used about bipartisanship, his goal here is to goad a rightly furious Republican caucus into overreacting and to recreate the government shutdown confrontation of 2013 that he rightly believes himself to have won. In doing so, he hopes, with the help of a partisan liberal media that is already happily defending his measures and lambasting conservative anger, to gain an advantage in the latest episode of the pointless partisan squabbling that he has helped to engender.

By going outside of the constitutional order in this manner, the president has created a dangerous precedent that undermines both the rule of law and the concept of separation of powers. One may even agree with the substance of his ideas while also understanding that this is a radical action that puts more power in the hands of an already too-powerful executive branch.

But the fact that Democrats are already seeking to depict this struggle as one between a compassionate president and Republicans who want “ethnic cleansing” illustrates that this merely politics, not principle at play. Those who hoped they were electing a Congress to get things done were not wrong to think the new majorities had an opportunity to legislate. But President Obama has made that impossible by firing the first shot in a political war intended to further polarize the nation. Nothing could be more cynical or less high-minded.

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Did Obama Unite the GOP on Immigration?

Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

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Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen provided a moment of levity at a Secret Service hearing yesterday when he suggested that a moat might make a good upgrade for White House security. He backtracked today, saying he didn’t mean a moat-moat, just a water barrier of some sort. But the timing, as President Obama was feeling his monarchical oats, was impeccable. Indeed, this president’s preference for the authority of an elected kingship shows how Obama may have misjudged the Republican reaction to executive amnesty.

In the past, Obama has been fairly skilled in dividing Republicans against themselves, especially on the issue of immigration. And one might have expected something similar this time as well. Republicans are not, after all, of one mind in how to respond to the executive action he plans to announce tonight. Obama has twice scuttled immigration reform, once as senator and prospective presidential candidate and once as president as well, because the issue was thought to hurt Republicans with Hispanic voters.

The issue also seemed to weaken the Republican presidential fields. In 2012 Rick Perry stumbled badly over an immigration question at a primary debate and never really recovered. And for 2016, prospective candidates found themselves on different sides of the issue: Marco Rubio helped get comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate, Rand Paul wavered but ultimately voted against it, and Ted Cruz was opposed.

That, and the fact that reform died in the House anyway, was a setback for Rubio. The Florida senator had since recovered some of his earlier momentum thanks in part to the president’s vast array of foreign-policy blunders, and the president’s executive amnesty is likely to help the two GOP rising stars who voted for immigration reform last year: Rubio and New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte.

Immigration hawks will still remember their votes for the reform bill. But the president’s actions do two things that will help them. First, it removes some of the fear the grassroots might have in what action a hypothetical President Rubio might take on immigration. That is, if amnesty is already done, then the only things that are left are issues that Republicans tend to broadly agree on, such as border security.

It’s true that comprehensive immigration reform was unlikely to pass the House in the near future anyway, but Obama has essentially taken the part of it that conservatives like the least off the table. There’s no looming threat of amnesty; it’s here. Having already supported immigration reform, Rubio will get some credit from Hispanic voters. But will his opposition to executive amnesty lose them?

That’s where the second aspect of Obama’s miscalculation comes in. By making such an obvious power grab, he has made opposition to his actions intellectually much simpler. The words “king” and “emperor” have been thrown around; Ted Cruz even referenced Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline today, as if Obama would even know who that is:

“When, President Obama, do you mean to cease abusing our patience? How long is that madness of yours still to mock us? When is there to be an end to that unbridled audacity of yours, swaggering about as it does now?” he said, using the beginning of Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline.

Even Democrats seem to have no idea how to explain how the executive amnesty is legal.

Which is to say: it’s very easy to criticize this move without attacking immigrants–though the media, surely, will attempt to conflate the two. And doing so also enables Republican candidates to come out strongly against Obama’s power grabs more generally, and his immigration actions specifically, to a conservative audience in the same way they would do so to a general-election audience, without having to flip-flop or triangulate.

Obama has been criticized for this power grab by even traditionally supportive left-leaning media, such as the Washington Post and the Economist, because of the precedent it would set and the left’s fear of reprisals. This debate isn’t about the policy anymore, and anyone who pretends otherwise is selling something. Obama has given even supporters of immigration reform a way to oppose amnesty without opposing immigration in itself.

Obama has made the conversation about the damage this act would do to American democracy. That’s very comfortable terrain for Republicans, who are thus far more united on this issue than they would otherwise be.

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Pro-Palestinian, Pro-Peace, and Fading Fast

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the two-state solution in particular, is more than just a strategy. To some, as Aaron David Miller and others have written, it is a religion in itself. To others, such as Arab states in the Middle East, it is an excuse. To still others, like UNRWA, it is a self-enrichment scheme designed to perpetuate the conflict. But to nearly everyone, it is, at its most basic level, a market–for ideas, for products, for influence. And as some organizations are finding out now, the bungling of the peace process, such as that done by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is bad for business.

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The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the two-state solution in particular, is more than just a strategy. To some, as Aaron David Miller and others have written, it is a religion in itself. To others, such as Arab states in the Middle East, it is an excuse. To still others, like UNRWA, it is a self-enrichment scheme designed to perpetuate the conflict. But to nearly everyone, it is, at its most basic level, a market–for ideas, for products, for influence. And as some organizations are finding out now, the bungling of the peace process, such as that done by President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, is bad for business.

BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray documents the travails of one such group: the American Task Force on Palestine. It was founded in 2003, she notes, to advocate for Palestinian statehood among policymakers. It was self-consciously moderate, attracting political figures (like then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to its events and associating itself with Palestinian figures like former prime minister Salam Fayyad, a moderate technocrat who hoped to crack down on corruption and bad governance and was driven out of Palestinian politics for his efforts.

Though the group wasn’t awash in money, things were going fairly well for a while, Gray writes. Indeed, though Gray doesn’t go into the political developments in the U.S. during ATFP’s rise, they are significant. George W. Bush publicly pushed for the creation of a Palestinian state early on in his presidency, giving renewed momentum to the idea of two states for two peoples. The Bush administration’s progress included giving Ariel Sharon the support he needed (later rescinded by Barack Obama in a damaging blow to hopes for peace) to withdraw from the entire Gaza Strip and set the stage for even more territorial concessions. By the end of the Bush administration, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was presenting a map and a generous offer of a deal to Mahmoud Abbas.

That’s when the backsliding began, as Abbas walked away from the offer without making a counteroffer. Then Obama came to office and began to dismantle the progress all sides had worked to achieve. Obama and Kerry, the arsonists of the ongoing blaze in Israel and the Palestinian territories, pushed the two sides farther apart, alienated everyone involved, and sided against not just Israel but also the Palestinian Authority whenever Hamas’s interests were at stake. The process, not exactly on the brink of success to begin with, collapsed.

So what happens to groups like the American Task Force on Palestine when the process is at a low ebb? Gray explains:

But things changed for ATFP this year. This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas and the breakdown of U.S.-mediated peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians aiming to broker a two-state solution, which is core to ATFP’s mission, have proven to be a toxic combination to the nonprofit. The group has decided to cancel its annual gala this year, which usually brings in half of its annual fundraising. And its founder says it will have to cut staff and office space. ATFP’s situation is a casualty of a larger shift: The hope for a two-state solution, which is official U.S. policy and regarded by the establishment as the only legitimate way to end the conflict, is running out of steam, causing a major existential crisis for some of those most dedicated to it.

There’s more than mere symbolism in what this says about the peace process. On a practical level, it shows that relying on the two-state solution as your raison d’être is a poor business model. The American government can afford for John Kerry to toss a match onto the Mideast tinderbox and walk away; private organizations, not so much.

On a political level, it shows the damage for a pro-Palestinian organization to align itself with moderate elements. With regard to the Palestinian polity, this means people like Fayyad, who represented a genuine desire for positive change and the willingness to do the hard work of state building. He was the only one, unfortunately.

It would be one thing if Fayyad had been forced to make only incremental change slowly so as not to rock the boat too much. Instead the system treated him like a virus, seeking to neutralize and then expel him. Which is exactly what happened. When moderate elements are not even tolerated, there’s not much room for a two-state solution or its supporters.

And domestically, it also says much about the hate and intolerance of the Palestinians’ Western supporters. Here’s Gray talking to ATFP’s president on what it’s like to be seen as a collaborator with the enemy merely for talking to Jews:

“That is part of the problem with raising money,” Asali said. “The mere fact that we talk to the Israelis publicly, here and in Israel, and to the Jewish organized and non-organized community has presented a major obstacle in our communication with our community.”

“We are for dealing with the establishment that deals with Palestine and Israel,” he said. “Which means by necessity that at least half of it would be Jewish or Israeli.”

Precisely. You can’t have a negotiating process leading to a two-state solution if you won’t deal with one side. Which raises the unfortunate fact: a great many of the Palestinians’ supporters and allies don’t actually want a two-state solution. They are not invested in real peace or ending the conflict; they are invested in ending Israel.

It’s tempting to say “with friends like these…” but that misses the point. The Palestinians’ supporters are not unintentionally undermining them with their hate. They are taking their cues from the Palestinian government. Those who support the Palestinians but also want peace and a two-state solution are few in number, and dwindling still.

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What Jonathan Gruber Didn’t Say

Despite the unmasking of ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber as a dishonest advisor hired by the Obama administration to mislead the public about the law, far too many commentators have still let Gruber set the terms of the debate about the lies used to pass ObamaCare. For example, an actual discussion over the “stupidity of the American voter” has ensued to pin down what exactly Gruber was saying. This requires putting words in Gruber’s mouth, so it’s worth pointing out what Gruber wasn’t saying.

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Despite the unmasking of ObamaCare architect Jonathan Gruber as a dishonest advisor hired by the Obama administration to mislead the public about the law, far too many commentators have still let Gruber set the terms of the debate about the lies used to pass ObamaCare. For example, an actual discussion over the “stupidity of the American voter” has ensued to pin down what exactly Gruber was saying. This requires putting words in Gruber’s mouth, so it’s worth pointing out what Gruber wasn’t saying.

Last week Dan Drezner made the absolutely correct argument that, in Gruber’s defense, social scientists broadly agree with the premise that voters are “rationally ignorant.” Fair enough, but rational ignorance results from a kind of prioritization of a voter’s time and resources. What Gruber was saying was that he and the Obama White House had to design policy to fool voters who were invested in understanding the issue. He wasn’t really saying “stupid” as a stand-in for “rationally ignorant”; he was saying that the Obama administration had to be particularly dishonest and opaque because voters were making the very rational decision to invest their energy in the health-care debate and thus they had to be intentionally confused, misdirected, and in some cases out and out lied to.

Drezner’s point about voters is valid. It’s just not the same point Gruber was making.

What else wasn’t Gruber saying? Well, he wasn’t really saying the voters are stupid in the traditional sense of the word either. To see what I mean, I recommend Jake Tapper’s post today at CNN about the so-called Cadillac tax–the tax on expensive employer-provided health plans.

Tapper starts out by recalling Obama’s 2009 attempts to sell health-care reform by assuring voters that any tax on insurance plans would be aimed at high-end plans and not at average Americans. Crucially, he said, he had “taken off the table” getting rid of the tax deduction on employer-provided plans so that employers wouldn’t stop providing insurance.

And yet, Tapper points out, “That promise is completely at odds with how Gruber describes not only that provision of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, but the intention of that provision.” One of the videos, for example, has Gruber explaining that they sought to get rid of that subsidy but had to be creative about it, since the subsidy is popular. So they had to trick Americans into thinking they weren’t going to lose the subsidy Gruber was purposely taking away from them.

Here’s Tapper:

Gruber said the only way those pushing for Obamacare could get rid of the tax subsidy for employer provider health insurance was to tax the more generous, or Cadillac, plans — “mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans.”

The second way was have the tax kick in “late, starting in 2018″ and have its rate of growth tied to the consumer price index instead of to the much higher rate of medical inflation. Eventually, the 40% tax on the more expensive plans would impact every employer-provided insurance plan.

“What that means is the tax that starts out hitting only 8% of the insurance plans essentially amounts over the next 20 years essentially getting rid of the exclusion for employer sponsored plans,” Gruber said. “This was the only political way we were ever going to take on one of the worst public policies in America.”

Now, the voter who didn’t crunch the numbers and plan out how a consumer price index-tied tax would, over twenty years, slowly eat up all the other plans as well by mapping out the complicated financial landscape of health costs, taxes, and government spending over two decades: does he sound “stupid” to you? Not exactly, right? The administration needed an MIT economist to devise this scheme; it’s not like Nancy Pelosi put this together on the back of a napkin.

Gruber didn’t outsmart the voters so much as con them. He made loads of cash by tricking non-economist Americans into losing their health insurance. (He’s a heck of a guy, isn’t he?)

What else didn’t Gruber say? Here’s a post from the Fix’s Chris Cillizza (hat tip to Kevin Williamson) in which Cillizza says that conservatives are so outraged about Gruber’s comments because “it’s not just that the Obama administration is trying to pull the wool over your eyes. It’s that they think you, conservative American, are too stupid to even notice.”

You may notice that what Cillizza said is exactly the opposite of the truth. Gruber wasn’t saying conservative voters were stupid; they were against the bill, as were independents. They understood that it was a scam. If Gruber was calling anyone stupid, it could only possibly have been liberal voters. The scam didn’t work on non-liberals; it worked just well enough on liberals to get the bill through Congress.

Perhaps that gives us some clue as to why there’s so much debate about what Gruber really meant. Because what he said, essentially, was this: the people who supported this bill, the people who voted for this bill, and the people in the press who parroted the administration’s talking points about this bill–they’re idiots. It’s not a reality leftists want to accept, but the infamously evasive Gruber couldn’t be clearer this time.

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Obama’s Shattered Credibility

National Journals Ron Fournier, a journalist whom I respect, is hardly a conservative. He’s said before he supported passage of the Affordable Care Act. And so it’s worth noting when someone like Mr. Fournier says, as he did the other night, that “the central attribute you have to have as any leader, in any walk of life and certainly in government is trust — and this president has destroyed the credibility of his administration, himself and government itself.”

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National Journals Ron Fournier, a journalist whom I respect, is hardly a conservative. He’s said before he supported passage of the Affordable Care Act. And so it’s worth noting when someone like Mr. Fournier says, as he did the other night, that “the central attribute you have to have as any leader, in any walk of life and certainly in government is trust — and this president has destroyed the credibility of his administration, himself and government itself.”

Mr. Fournier’s judgment is a harsh one, but an entirely appropriate one. I take no joy in saying the president lies and then lies about his lies. But that is what the record shows, indisputably; and those lies have now caught up with Mr. Obama. They are having a corrosive effect on trust between him and the people he was elected to serve. It’s one thing to be inept, as the president surely is. It’s quite another to deceive and dissemble, to govern with the philosophy that the ends justify the means, and to act in ways that show contempt for the truth and for the American polity. This has been a hallmark of the Obama years, and it’s done irreparable damage to him, and great damage to our political and civic culture.

This is not what hope and changer were supposed to be.

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Obama Is About to Commit an Act of Constitutional Infamy

The president will present his case on behalf of his forthcoming executive order on amnesty tomorrow at 8 p.m. I certainly hope President Obama addresses the arguments against his action that were repeatedly and passionately made by … President Obama. Our friends at National Review have put together a nice video here; I’d urge you to watch it. Mr. Obama is now acting like, in his words, an “emperor.” His hypocrisy is, even by his standards, staggering.

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The president will present his case on behalf of his forthcoming executive order on amnesty tomorrow at 8 p.m. I certainly hope President Obama addresses the arguments against his action that were repeatedly and passionately made by … President Obama. Our friends at National Review have put together a nice video here; I’d urge you to watch it. Mr. Obama is now acting like, in his words, an “emperor.” His hypocrisy is, even by his standards, staggering.

But hypocrisy is not unusual in politicians and presidents; firing a missile aimed at our constitutional form of government is. And that is what Mr. Obama is about to do.

As the liberal law professor Jonathan Turley put it last night, this is a “particularly dangerous moment” for the president to defy the will of Congress yet again, just 15 days after an election in which the American people registered their emphatic (anti-Obama) judgment. “What the president is suggesting is tearing at the very fabric of the Constitution,” according to Professor Turley. “We have a separation of powers that gives us balance. And that doesn’t protect the branches — it’s not there to protect the executive branch or legislative branch — it’s to protect liberty. It’s to prevent any branch from assuming so much control that they become a threat to liberty.”

What is about to happen may be the low point in a presidency filled with them. Mr. Obama is acting in a way that he himself knows–that he himself has said–is unconstitutional and indefensible. No matter. In an act of unmatched narcissism and selfishness, the president will create–he is thirsting to create–a constitutional crisis that is utterly unnecessary and will further polarize our political culture.

Mr. Obama is about to commit an act of constitutional infamy. This is a stain that will stay with him.

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