Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Obama’s Bad-Faith Iraq Withdrawal

The United States has made at least two disastrous foreign policy decisions in the past decade: first, invading Iraq in 2003 without a clear plan or the resources to establish order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall and second leaving Iraq in 2011 without any idea of how to maintain the tenuous calm that existed while U.S. troops were still in the country. Few if anyone would dispute that the former mistake was ultimately the fault of George W. Bush even if much of the blame also falls on his subordinates. But President Obama has waged a semi-successful campaign to avoid being blamed for the latter mistake. He claims it wasn’t really his choice to leave Iraq—the Iraqis simply would not agree to maintain a U.S. troop presence.

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The United States has made at least two disastrous foreign policy decisions in the past decade: first, invading Iraq in 2003 without a clear plan or the resources to establish order after Saddam Hussein’s downfall and second leaving Iraq in 2011 without any idea of how to maintain the tenuous calm that existed while U.S. troops were still in the country. Few if anyone would dispute that the former mistake was ultimately the fault of George W. Bush even if much of the blame also falls on his subordinates. But President Obama has waged a semi-successful campaign to avoid being blamed for the latter mistake. He claims it wasn’t really his choice to leave Iraq—the Iraqis simply would not agree to maintain a U.S. troop presence.

Anyone who still believes this well-worn excuse should read Rick Brennan’s article in the new issue of Foreign Affairs, “Withdrawal Symptoms: The Bungling of the Iraq Exit.” Brennan, a RAND political scientist who advised the U.S. military in Iraq from 2006 to 2011, provides copious detail to explode Obama’s alibi, which was that he had no choice but to withdraw troops because the Iraqi parliament would not provide our personnel with legal immunity and we cannot possibly station troops abroad without it.

Brennan points out that the 2008 agreement negotiated by the Bush administration to keep U.S. forces in Iraq did not have total legal immunity either: “Instead, in somewhat ambiguous terms, the agreement gave Iraqi authorities legal jurisdiction over cases in which U.S. service members were accused of committing serious, premeditated felonies while off duty and away from U.S. facilities.” U.S. military commanders were comfortable with this language “since members of the U.S. armed forces are on duty 24 hours a day and are not permitted to leave their bases unless on a mission.” Indeed the Iraqis made no attempt to prosecute a single U.S. soldier between 2008 and 2011.

Yet Obama insisted that he could not possibly keep U.S. troops in Iraq without approval of immunity from parliament. Brennan writes that in September 2010 Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns that Iraq’s parliament would approve an American presence but not grant “complete immunity.” “Instead, Maliki proposed signing an executive memorandum granting immunity without the need to gain parliamentary approval.” But White House lawyers judged this language inadequate and Obama used this as an excuse to announce a pullout.

What makes this episode all the more astonishing is that now Obama has sent 1,600 and counting U.S. troops back to Iraq, as Brennan notes, “on a promise of immunity backed only by a diplomatic note signed by the Iraqi foreign minister—an assurance even less solid than the one Maliki offered (and Obama rejected) in 2010.”

Along with Obama’s decision to offer the Iraqis only 5,000 troops, rather than the 20,000 or more judged necessary by U.S. military commanders, this strongly suggests that the Obama administration was negotiating in bad faith: that the president was not really committed to maintaining troops in Iraq beyond 2011. We are now seeing the consequences of this monumental miscalculation as ISIS consolidates its control over much of northern and western Iraq. It is early days still, but it is likely that this mistake will haunt Obama’s historical reputation just as Bush’s mistakes in Iraq will continue to haunt his.

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Diplomatic Success Requires Willingness to Walk Away

In Dancing with the Devil, my recent study of U.S. negotiation with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I document how American diplomats who seek to resolve conflict by talking to parties that refuse to adhere to the norms of diplomacy often become so invested in the process that they end up prioritizing continued dialogue over the very goal of talks.

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In Dancing with the Devil, my recent study of U.S. negotiation with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I document how American diplomats who seek to resolve conflict by talking to parties that refuse to adhere to the norms of diplomacy often become so invested in the process that they end up prioritizing continued dialogue over the very goal of talks.

There are any numbers of examples: Successive administrations have desperately attempted to continue talks between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, even if it has meant absolving Palestinian leaders and factions of the requirement to forswear terrorism and recognize Israel’s legitimacy. The only president who sought to hold true to the Oslo Accord and who refused to tolerate terrorism was George W. Bush. For his sin of moral clarity and for his refusal to rationalize terrorism, he brought upon himself the opprobrium of the State Department, for whom the continuation of the process trumped its substance.

The same pattern occurred with regard to North Korea. Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of the Agreed Framework. That anniversary should be cause to reflect about just how irrelevant agreements can be when partners are insincere and treat diplomacy as an asymmetric warfare strategy. Against the backdrop of ever more desperate American attempts to engage, North Korea developed nuclear weapons and new generations of ballistic missiles.

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry appear determined to make the same mistake with regard to Iran. Jonathan Tobin already noted how the Europeans are betting that Obama will appease Iran. It’s not a bad bet. After all, while the White House and State Department seek creative formulas to keep talks going, it’s useful to remember multiple unanimous or near-unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions insisting Iran cease enrichment.  It’s also worth recalling the original International Atomic Energy Agency findings of Iran’s non-compliance with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Safe Guards agreement, which put Tehran in the hot seat in the first place. Obama likes to claim he values multilateralism, but he has become an extremely unilateral American president, voiding those multilateral Security Council resolutions for the sake of his own diplomatic ambition.

Alas, Obama seems intent to compound failure. In order to ensure continued dialogue, Obama and Kerry appear prepared either to take a bad agreement or extend talks beyond their promised deadline. This plays into Iran’s hands because, after all, there is very little to talk about: Either Iran complies with its responsibilities or it does not and faces the consequences.

If you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if you’re a diplomat, everything looks like a reason to continue talks. Seldom, it seems, is their consideration of the larger picture or of the broader strategy. This is an administration without a strategist. Nor is it an administration with perspective. When the United States sits down at the table, it should not sit as an equal, but rather as the stronger, dominant party. Cultural equivalence is the refuge of the defeatist. If it looks like opponents are insincere with regard to talks, value process over commitments to peace, or are unable to offer a good deal, then the United States should simply walk away until it reinforces its leverage and is capable of getting a deal which fulfills its needs. That is not hostility to diplomacy; it is recognition that diplomacy means more than constant talk.

When describing Iranian negotiating behavior, many people—not only Americans but also Iranians—utilize the analogy of the Iranian bazaar. Negotiations over the price of Persian carpets may be just one example of the type of haggling Iranians engage in: they could just as easily be bargaining over the price of eggs, vegetables, crates of tea, or furniture. But when Iranians are unable to get a good price or if they believe their negotiation partner is being unreasonable, they will walk away.

That’s a lesson American negotiators should learn. Obama and Kerry are like the tourists who don’t recognize they face a 600 percent mark-up and could get a better deal if they demonstrate a willingness to leave the store. Alas, as the administration winds down and both Obama and Kerry see their legacies tarnished by repeated failure, they seem unwilling to question their basic approach and strategy. They act like gamblers who lose everything but can’t resist that one more spin of the wheel, to win it all back. How sad it is that they forget the house always wins. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is running the house and there are consequences to failure.

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Selective Memory and the CIA

Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

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Talk about politicized intelligence. At least that’s what it would be called if the president in office were a Republican.

At the request of the White House, in 2012 or 2013, the CIA did a review of the agency’s long history of supporting insurgencies abroad and found “that it rarely works.” Now, as Seth noted, the result has been leaked to the New York Times. Would it be cynical on my part to imagine that CIA analysts are telling the president what he already thinks–that the U.S. shouldn’t do much to back moderate Syrian rebels?

As a historian, I’m all for studying history. But let’s not cherry-pick historical examples to support a predetermined conclusion. Because based on the Times’s reporting of the CIA study (which needless to say I have not seen) the “dour” conclusions need a lot of qualification.

It’s true that in its early days the CIA failed in supporting would-be rebels in places like Poland, Albania, North Korea, and Tibet. But that’s because they were fighting against totalitarian police states that had great intelligence on U.S. plotting thanks to the information provided by traitors such as Kim Philby. The Bay of Pigs operation was similarly hare-brained and ill-fated.

But there have also been notable successes such as the U.S. support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s–one of the CIA’s biggest coups ever even if there was a lack of follow-up which allowed the Taliban to rise out of the succeeding vacuum of authority. The U.S. had just as much success backing the Northern Alliance to overthrow the Taliban after 9/11 and, earlier, helping the KLA to overthrow Serbian authority in Kosovo, in both cases with American air support. Croatia also succeeded in rolling back a Serbian offensive in the early 1990s with informal American help. Let’s remember too that the U.S.-backed rebels in Libya succeeded in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi with NATO airpower. As in post-Soviet Afghanistan, there was nothing inevitable about the resulting chaos, which occurred because President Obama failed to support the governmental forces attempting to impose order.

The CIA’s support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s was also successful, contrary to the CIA report and despite the halting nature of the program (due to congressional opposition), because even though the contras didn’t seize power at gunpoint, they pressured the Sandinistas into holding elections, which they lost. U.S. support for anti-Communist rebels in Angola and Mozambique was less successful but at least tied down Cuban and other Soviet bloc forces in defending those regimes. During the Vietnam War, too, the CIA had considerable success supporting anti-Communist fighters in Laos who prevented for a decade a takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao at low cost to the U.S.

The U.S. has had even more success in supporting governments fighting communist insurgencies in countries such as Greece, the Philippines, El Salvador, and Colombia.

So the historical record of U.S.-backed insurgencies (to say nothing of counter-insurgencies) is certainly not one of unalloyed failure. But while it’s good to learn from history it’s also important to understand differences between historical examples and present-day dilemmas. And the situation in Syria today is nothing like the situation the U.S. confronted in the Communist bloc in the early Cold War days. The Free Syrian Army is not fighting a powerful totalitarian regime. It is fighting a multi-front struggle against a weak dictator (Bashar Assad) who has already lost control of two-thirds of his country and against Islamist insurgent groups, the Nusra Front and ISIS, which have filled some of the succeeding vacuum but are a long way removed from the Stalinist or Maoist states in their ability to control their terrain. In such circumstances U.S. backing for the Syrian rebels was–and is–the best available option for the U.S. even though the Free Syrian Amy’s odds of success decline the longer we refuse to provide them with serious backing such as American airpower to impose a no-fly zone and take away Assad’s murderous air force (Which even the CIA study seems to concede would raise the odds of success).

Ultimately responsible policymakers cannot retreat into inaction by citing studies of historical examples where support for insurgencies has failed, while seemingly ignoring contrary examples. The relevant question to ask in Syria or any other hard case is: What is the least bad option? Sure it’s possible that serious support for the moderate rebels would have failed–but what’s the alternative? Actually we’re seeing the alternative today: letting ISIS and Assad run wild, slaughtering tens of thousands of people and destabilizing neighboring countries. Obama made a horrible decision by taking a hands-off attitude toward Syria and he can’t take refuge in a slanted view of the historical record to justify his inaction.

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Syria: What Might Have Been

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

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The Obama administration, like its predecessors, has used strategic leaks to the press to buttress arguments in which officials are (theoretically) hamstrung by secrecy laws. Usually the Obama administration has done so in order to look tougher than critics give the president credit for being, but in today’s New York Times they’ve taken the opposite tack: a leak designed to support the president’s instinctive caution on Syria. Unfortunately for Obama, the attempt to spin his Syria policy merely reveals just how little the president understands about military strategy and the Middle East.

The story in the Times recaps a classified report from the CIA to the president analyzing the success rate of arming rebels in past conflicts. The report, according to the story, greatly contributed to Obama’s reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But there are two problems with this approach. The first, and obvious, one is that Obama has already given the green light to arming the rebels the administration considers sufficiently moderate. If the CIA report was the reason not to arm them sooner, what’s the reason to arm them now?

The answer to that appears to be: Obama wants to fight ISIS more seriously than he wanted to defeat Bashar al-Assad–though that still doesn’t account for the fact that the president believes it’s a policy with very low odds of succeeding. Indeed, the story itself eventually points out that Obama nonetheless chose the least effective method of helping the rebels:

The C.I.A. review, according to several former American officials familiar with its conclusions, found that the agency’s aid to insurgencies had generally failed in instances when no Americans worked on the ground with the foreign forces in the conflict zones, as is the administration’s plan for training Syrian rebels.

So this arguably raises as many questions as it answers. But the other aspect of this is about the dishonesty with which the administration seeks to push back on its critics, especially those who recently left the administration–Leon Panetta most prominently, but also Hillary Clinton, Michele Flournoy, and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The Times mentions Clinton, Panetta, and David Petraeus:

The debate over whether Mr. Obama acted too slowly to support the Syrian rebellion has been renewed after both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta wrote in recent books that they had supported a plan presented in the summer of 2012 by David H. Petraeus, then the C.I.A. director, to arm and train small groups of rebels in Jordan.

But the tone and nature of this argument coming from the administration is just a repeat of a classic Obama tactic: setting up a straw man and then knocking him down. The administration wants to paint Syria intervention as simply a gunrunning operation, with some foreign training. But the idea that it was either CIA gunrunning or nothing is what the president, were he on the receiving end of this argument, would call a false choice. And it goes to the heart of why Obama’s foreign policy has been so unnerving: he doesn’t seem to really understand the issues at play.

Arming and training the Syrian rebels was indeed a key part of interventionists’ early argument. But it wasn’t the whole argument. A more comprehensive intervention that still stopped shy of an American ground war included territorial carve-outs to secure parts of the country in the hands of certain rebels; a no-fly zone (or more than one) to enforce the boundaries of the new carve-outs; large on-site training programs; and humanitarian corridors to those territories from neighboring friendly countries, like Jordan and perhaps Kurdish positions in Iraq and Turkey.

This would also allow intelligence from Israel to be better coordinated and utilized, at least for air support and the tracking of enemy forces, and would improve and streamline recruitment efforts. And it would protect segments of the disappearing borders of these countries, to make it more difficult (though far from impossible) for Islamist terrorist groups to take advantage of porous borders, especially between Iraq and Syria. It would also go some way toward protecting at-risk minorities from groups like ISIS, and it would force ISIS to either defend more territory (instead of almost always being on offense) or leave forces behind in territory through which it marches virtually unopposed to hold that territory, spreading its resources thinner and disrupting its communications and supply lines.

Obama seems to think that the fragmented nature of the Syrian rebels and the weakness of the Syrian state and the Iraqi army vindicate his reluctance to help the Syrian rebels. But the opposite is the case. There were better options available to the president than simply gunrunning in Syria. Had he taken those options, it’s likely the situation would be better today than it is. But that would require the president to first admit that those options even exist.

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GOP’s Hawkish Turn Rewarded in the Polls

Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

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Republicans can take heart from public opinion polling showing that when it comes to dealing with both the economy and national security they have taken a big lead over Democrats, erasing the deficit they had labored under during the last years of the Bush administration and the early years of the Obama administration. As the Wall Street Journal‘s Jerry Seib notes: “In the September Journal/NBC News survey, Americans gave Republicans a whopping 18-point advantage, 41% to 23%, as the party better able to handle foreign policy. And Gallup’s new survey found the GOP with a 19-point advantage on handling Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria.”

That swing in public opinion could well deliver the Senate into GOP hands–and it will likely make the next presidential election anything but a cakewalk for Hillary Clinton. But before gloating too much, Republicans should reflect that this swing in public opinion actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about President Obama’s mistakes, which are monumental. Naturally, as ISIS and Vladimir Putin run wild, the public has lost confidence in him and his party. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP is worthy of respect or that the newfound popularity of the Republicans will last long.

Happy Republicans should reflect on how decisively they lost their traditional edge, in particular, on national security issues during the bungled years of President Bush’s operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Luckily for both Bush and the country, he managed to oversee an impressive recovery in Iraq in 2007-2008 whose gains, unfortunately, have been dissipated by Obama’s pullout–for which the president is now paying a price in the polls.

To sustain public confidence in their national-security credentials it would be helpful for Republicans to have a unified line as they mostly did during the Cold War, at least since Dwight Eisenhower beat Robert Taft (the standard bearer of Midwestern isolationism) in 1952. That kind of unity has been in large part lacking since the Iraq War turned south, with some in the GOP advocating a more interventionist foreign policy while others preached non-interventionism.

The rise of ISIS has temporarily inspired a return to more hawkish attitudes even among neo-isolationists like Rand Paul. But it remains to be seen if this is a passing fad or whether leading Republicans are finally getting serious about embracing their Teddy Roosevelt-Ronald Reagan heritage of global leadership. If Republicans succumb once again to the non-interventionist temptation, as President Obama did, their newfound popularity will not last long. Because if the latest polls show anything, it is that the public demands strong leadership on national security even if it is uncertain about the particulars of this or that policy.

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2014’s Most Cringe-Inducing Moment

Yesterday when writing about Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes’s bizarre attempt to avoid admitting that she voted for Barack Obama for president, I expressed the hope that the Democrat and her political consultants would come up with a more coherent answer than her previous attempts to dodge the question. Those hopes were misplaced. At her sole debate with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Grimes doubled down on her refusal to say she had voted for Obama. In doing so, she may toss away whatever is left of her own hopes for upsetting her Republican opponent. But she also gave us what is likely to be the most cringe-inducing moment of American politics in 2014 and will, no doubt, give future political historians plenty of fodder for analysis of what makes seemingly smart people do dumb things.

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Yesterday when writing about Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes’s bizarre attempt to avoid admitting that she voted for Barack Obama for president, I expressed the hope that the Democrat and her political consultants would come up with a more coherent answer than her previous attempts to dodge the question. Those hopes were misplaced. At her sole debate with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Grimes doubled down on her refusal to say she had voted for Obama. In doing so, she may toss away whatever is left of her own hopes for upsetting her Republican opponent. But she also gave us what is likely to be the most cringe-inducing moment of American politics in 2014 and will, no doubt, give future political historians plenty of fodder for analysis of what makes seemingly smart people do dumb things.

As Fox News’s Chris Stirewalt wrote yesterday, Grimes’ position on her vote for Obama puts her in the running for what he dubbed the Todd Akin Prize for the worst political gaffe of this election cycle. Akin produced a whopper of historic proportions in 2012 when he produced a strange and ignorant theory about rape and pregnancy that not only ensured that he would fail to topple a vulnerable Claire McCaskill in the Missouri Senate race but also hurt Republicans around the nation who suffered from guilt by association with Akin. Stirewalt believes Texas Democrat Wendy Davis is the favorite for the 2014 prize because of her astoundingly bad judgment in releasing an attack ad that drew attention to her opponent’s being confined to a wheelchair. He also gives honorable mention to Iowa Democrat Bruce Braley for mocking the state’s Senator Charles Grassley for only being “an Iowa farmer.”

But I think Grimes has the edge here. Grimes was an Obama-supporting delegate to the 2012 Democratic National Convention. But her sanctimonious cant about ballot box privacy after having already said she voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential primaries is both absurd and an indication that she thinks voters are idiots. Yet it also, like Akin’s gaffe, speaks to a national trend that affects other elections. Like many other Democrats running for office in 2014, Grimes’s biggest problem is the head of her party, not her opponent.

Running away from an unpopular incumbent president is an age-old problem for politicians, but there are ways to finesse the issue. Yet instead of addressing it honestly and saying she voted her principles, Grimes believes not saying the words that everyone knows is the truth (unless, as our John Podhoretz speculated on Twitter yesterday, that she didn’t vote at all!) will be enough to deceive the public. While it may be no more stupid than deriding farmers in Iowa or attacking a man in a wheelchair, it nevertheless made a moment that had to leave even some of her sternest critics feeling embarrassed for her.

What makes supposedly smart people do such stupid things?

We can blame Grimes’s political consultants or her father, a former politician who is widely believed to be the person calling the shots in her campaign. But I think what wins her the Akin Prize is actually the polar opposite of what led to his blunder. Akin blabbed his moronic theory that pregnancy can’t result from a rape because he had such confidence in his beliefs that he didn’t know enough to show some caution when discussing a delicate topic. But Grimes is so afraid of being attacked that she cannot bring herself to admit a fact that is not really in dispute. While Akin showed naïve arrogance as well as stupidity, Grimes demonstrated a lack of guts that is equally fatal. While McConnell is not perfect and had his own difficult moments in last night’s debate when discussing ObamaCare, he can never be accused of lacking the courage of his convictions. If Grimes’s silly willingness to bet her political future on this point induces a degree of pity, we should also be glad if it ensures that the ranks of Senate cowards won’t be increased.

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First Rule of the Anti-ISIS Club Is: You Do Not Talk About the Anti-ISIS Club

President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

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President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

It was not too surprising that Obama’s highly-touted “broad coalition” was in fact far less than meets the eye. After all, among Obama’s many weaknesses in foreign affairs, international diplomacy is arguably at the top of the list. And that’s how Obama has not only put together a coalition that has thus far struggled against ISIS but also bungled the coalition’s cohesion. In wanting to prove he wrangled a broad coalition of allies his administration has forgotten the first rule of the Anti-ISIS Club: Don’t talk about the Anti-ISIS Club.

As Foreign Policy reports:

The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.

The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.

Turkey’s behavior has been the subject of much debate. If they are an ally, they have an awfully funny way of showing it. As Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Politico Magazine last week, it may be time to kick Turkey out of NATO. Aside from Ankara’s unhelpful attitude toward the anti-ISIS effort, Schanzer notes that Turkey supports the Hamas terrorists of Gaza and even allows leaders of the group to operate out of Turkey; it has refused to take antiterrorism seriously, undermining NATO’s global efforts as well as regional stability; and it has helped Iran evade sanctions intended to curb its illicit nuclear program.

In addition, after waffling on the anti-ISIS coalition Turkey turned around and resumed bombing Kurdish militant positions, the first such strikes since the two-year-old peace process began in earnest. This comes after Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s refusal to help aid the anti-ISIS effort (thus further endangering their Syrian Kurdish brethren), resulting in riots and the deaths of more than thirty people.

As with the possible fall of Kobani to ISIS, which Max Boot wrote about yesterday, Turkey’s behavior is reprehensible but no excuse for American incompetence. Turkey may have had a more extreme reaction, but it is not the first country to be “outed” as part of Obama’s broad coalition that didn’t want to be identified as such. As the Foreign Policy report pointed out:

In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.

“I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.

Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.

“I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge,” he said. “We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus.”

Placing European countries on an anti-ISIS list and hoping they wouldn’t notice is truly amateurish behavior. But it also demonstrates a recurring problem for this administration, which I’ve written about before: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the rest of those responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy simply don’t listen.

And they are far more interested in the sloganeering of bumper-sticker diplomacy and vapid politics than in actually accomplishing what they’re supposed to, causing an already shaky coalition to crumble further.

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Obama’s Strategy to Defeat ISIS Collides with Reality

In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

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In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

More than a month after the president’s pronouncement that our strategy is to destroy ISIS, and more than two months after the first American air strikes against ISIS militants in Iraq, it’s worth assessing how the Obama strategy is faring and to review what leading military figures who served under President Obama are saying about it.

ISIS’s Military Gains Since the U.S. Air Campaign Began

“Islamic State militants have gained territory in Iraq and Syria despite weeks of bombing by the U.S. and its allies, raising questions about the coalition’s strategy of trying to blunt the jihadists’ advance while local forces are being trained to meet the threat on the ground. In Syria, fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have taken large sections of the city of Kobani in recent days… This comes despite a week of heavy airstrikes around the city to help local Syrian Kurdish fighters keep Islamic State forces from the city center. In Iraq, militant forces operating in a swath of territory the size of California have extended their control of the roads and commercial routes in strategically vital Anbar Province, which connects the capital Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.” – “Militants Advance Despite Airstrikes”, Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2014.

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“Islamic State militants are threatening to overrun a key province in western Iraq in what would be a major victory for the jihadists and an embarrassing setback for the U.S.-led coalition targeting the group. A win for the Islamic State in Anbar province would give the militants control of one of the country’s most important dams and several large army installations, potentially adding to their abundant stockpile of weapons. It would also allow them to establish a supply line from Syria almost to Baghdad and give them a valuable position from which to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital.” – “Islamic State fighters are threatening to overrun Iraq’s Anbar province”, Washington Post, October 9, 2014.

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“Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged the Syrian border town could fall to the militants despite the bombings. ‘Air power alone is not going to be enough to save Kobani,’ he said Wednesday. The fighting in Kobani comes amid mounting worries about the effectiveness of the U.S.-led air campaign, which has failed to loosen the militants’ hold on territory in Iraq and Syria or prevent the Islamic State from taking new areas.” – “U.S. steps up airstrikes as Kurds cling to Syrian town”, USA Today, October 7, 2014.

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“U.S.-led airstrikes designed to serve notice on Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria have also delivered a sobering message to Washington and its allies: Breaking the militants’ grip will be every bit as difficult as they feared…. Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began. ‘The strikes are useless so far,’ said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. ‘Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.’” — “U.S.-led Airstrikes Disrupt Islamic State, But Extremists Hold Territory”, Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2014.

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“After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.” – “Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq”, New York Times, September 22, 2014.

What Military Experts Are Saying About the Obama Strategy

“Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship… a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.” – “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State”, Washington Post, September 18, 2014.

* * * *

“I don’t think the president’s plan has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding.” — Retired Marine General James Conway, who served as commandant of the Marine Corps under President Obama, September 19, 2014.

* * * *

“You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do … Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility. We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.” – Retired Marine General James Mattis, who served as commander of United States Central Command under President Obama, September 18, 2014.

* * * *

“Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House.” – “Countering Islamic State will be hard in Iraq and harder in Syria, officials say”Washington Post, September 10, 2014.

* * * *

“The reality is, they’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga or the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won't be troops on the ground], the president in effect traps himself.” – Robert Gates, secretary of defense under President Obama, September 17, 2014.

* * * *

“No, Chuck. This is very early days of the strategy. The strategy’s very clear. We’ll do what we can from the air…. But we are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq. It’s not what is required by the circumstances that we face and even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we’re not going to do, it wouldn’t be sustainable. We’ve got to do this in a sustainable way.” – Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, responding to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on whether the administration is reassessing its strategy against ISIS, October 12, 2014. (On the same program Ms. Rice declared that Turkey had made a commitment to allow the United States to use its bases for operations against ISIS. Turkey immediate contradicted Ms. Rice and denied such a deal had been made. This comes a week after Vice President Biden apologized to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey for comments he made that Middle Eastern allies are partly to blame for the strengthening of ISIS.)

* * * *

“We don’t do stupid [stuff]” – President Obama describing his foreign policy doctrine in private conversations to reporters, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats”, New York Times, May 28, 2014.

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Of Pipelines and Fundraisers

For six long years, the Obama administration has been holding up the Keystone XL Pipeline that would bring oil from the Alberta oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Approving the project would provide thousands of well-paying construction jobs, boost the economy, help lower the world price of oil (which has been declining sharply on its own in recent weeks—as you have probably noticed at the gas pump), and reduce the influence of Russia and OPEC in world affairs. In other words, Keystone is a win-win-win-win project.

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For six long years, the Obama administration has been holding up the Keystone XL Pipeline that would bring oil from the Alberta oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries. Approving the project would provide thousands of well-paying construction jobs, boost the economy, help lower the world price of oil (which has been declining sharply on its own in recent weeks—as you have probably noticed at the gas pump), and reduce the influence of Russia and OPEC in world affairs. In other words, Keystone is a win-win-win-win project.

Obama, however, prefers to cater to self-appointed environmental interests that are a major component of his base. They, of course, being uniformly affluent, don’t give a damn about working-class jobs, however well paying. They prefer driving around in their Range Rovers, maintaining more than one large home, jetting off hither and yon, and congratulating themselves on their good stewardship of planet earth. It’s another indication of how much the Democratic Party has become the party of the elite. Siding with the environmentalists, of course, not only injures the American economy, it also injures the Canadian economy and strains our relationship with one of our closest allies and NAFTA partners.

But Canada is a sovereign state. It’s not going to abandon one of its key natural resources because a bunch of over-privileged Americans don’t like its exploitation and go to Obama fundraisers. So Canada is beginning to develop alternatives. One would be to build a 2,900-mile pipeline that would carry a million barrels of oil a day from the oil sands region to the ice-free port of St. John, New Brunswick, on the Bay of Fundy. There it would be refined and then shipped to customers around the world via supertankers.

The oil was always going to reach market one way or another, sooner or later, a fact that the environmentalists and the Obama administration refuse to acknowledge. So the only fruits of Obama’s policy of endless delay will be considerable harm to the American economy and some successful fundraisers. No wonder his Gallop approval rating is down to 39 percent.

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Alison Grimes Can’t Hide From Obama

It is to be hoped that by the end of the day, Alison Lundergan Grimes will have, with the help of her political consultants, come up with a coherent answer to the question of whether she voted for Barack Obama for president in 2012. This evening’s debate with Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell is probably the last chance for the Democrat to end the jokes about her going mum about her vote and save what’s left of her chances to win a Kentucky Senate seat next month. But even if we set aside the justified criticisms of Grimes’s foolishness, the flap over this issue illustrates how the president’s boast about his policies being on the ballot in 2014 is very much to the point.

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It is to be hoped that by the end of the day, Alison Lundergan Grimes will have, with the help of her political consultants, come up with a coherent answer to the question of whether she voted for Barack Obama for president in 2012. This evening’s debate with Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell is probably the last chance for the Democrat to end the jokes about her going mum about her vote and save what’s left of her chances to win a Kentucky Senate seat next month. But even if we set aside the justified criticisms of Grimes’s foolishness, the flap over this issue illustrates how the president’s boast about his policies being on the ballot in 2014 is very much to the point.

Grimes raised eyebrows when she ignored a reporter’s question about whether she voted for the head of her party in 2012 a couple of weeks ago. But when she doggedly refused to answer the same simple question during a taped meeting with the editorial board of the Louisville Courier-Journal, even liberals were left scratching their heads. It may be hyperbole to dub her efforts as “The Worst Senate Campaign of the Year,” as the New Republic did in their headline of a report about her, but it’s fair to say that she must be considered the biggest disappointment for Democrats.

As TNR’s Jason Zengerle put it, for a woman who was an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2012 to talk about “the sanctity of the ballot box” when asked if she backed the president showed that she thought “voters were idiots.” While Zengerle wouldn’t go as far as NBC’s Chuck Todd, who said the answer “disqualified her” for the Senate, it’s clear that the enormous funds that Democratic donors from both coasts have poured into the effort to unseat the GOP minority leader have been wasted.

Zengerle puts most of the blame for this debacle on Grimes and her father, veteran politician Jerry Lundergan, who has been calling the shots on his daughter’s campaign. Having convinced themselves that McConnell would use anything she said, even the obvious observation that a Democrat voted for her party’s ticket, as fodder for attack ads, the candidate has spent the last year and a half in a “defensive crouch.” While Democratic operatives, including Bill Clinton, touted Grimes as a talented politician with a future when they were doing their best to steer actress Ashley Judd away from a possible run for the Kentucky seat last year, she hasn’t lived up to the billing.

The result of her caution is that she has come across to voters as being almost as unlikeable as the notoriously unpopular McConnell. Indeed, right now some Kentucky Democrats might be wondering if they made a mistake in rejecting Judd. McConnell would have skewered her as a “Hollywood liberal” but she would also have been less obviously scripted, more authentic, as well as more likeable than Grimes.

Nevertheless, some of the backbiting on the left about Grimes seems to stem from the natural instinct of both parties’ bases to criticize candidates that stray from their ideological biases. Grimes has tried, albeit with minimal success to run as a centrist, something for which liberals will never forgive her if she loses in the same way conservatives despise moderate Republicans.

But the focus on Grimes ignores the main problem Democrats are dealing with this fall: Barack Obama.

Two weeks ago, the president boasted that while his name wasn’t on the ballot this fall, his policies were. That was a terrible political error but also a truthful assessment of the situation. Though local issues and the strengths and weakness of Senate candidates are crucial factors in determining the outcome of the midterms, the one unifying theme of this election remains the record of the incumbent president. With growing chaos abroad, economic stagnation, and a myriad of scandals at home, the country is ready to give the president a vote of no confidence after six years. While it is disingenuous of someone like Grimes to pretend that she can avoid being tagged as an Obama supporter, there is good reason for her to fear being identified as someone who will loyally back the president’s agenda should she help the Democrats hold onto the Senate.

The problem for Grimes is the same for every other Democrat not running in a deep-blue state. She can run but she can’t hide from the president. Just as the messianic hopes that Obama engendered helped his party in 2008, dissatisfaction with a failed presidency is bound to doom many Democrats in 2014 whether or not they run terrible campaigns.

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Democrats Turn On Obama

The Washington Post, in a July 30, 2008 story, reported the following:

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The Washington Post, in a July 30, 2008 story, reported the following:

In his closed door meeting with House Democrats Tuesday night, presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama delivered a real zinger, according to a witness, suggesting that he was beginning to believe his own hype.

Obama was waxing lyrical about last week’s trip to Europe, when he concluded, according to the meeting attendee, “this is the moment, as Nancy [Pelosi] noted, that the world is waiting for.”

The 200,000 souls who thronged to his speech in Berlin came not just for him, he told the enthralled audience of congressional representatives. “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions,” he said, according to the source.

Democrats seem rather less enthralled with Mr. Obama these days. In retrospect, Obama’s ascension to the presidency wasn’t quite the moment the world was waiting for. Increasingly that’s the judgment of Democrats. This year, in fact, Democrats have leveled unusually sharp and damaging charges against the president.

Well into the sixth year of his presidency, then, it’s worth considering not what Republicans but what members of Mr. Obama’s own party, and in some cases former members of his own administration, are saying about him.

* * * *

“But these last two years I think [Obama] kind of lost his way. You know, it’s been a mixed message, a little ambivalence in trying to approach these issues and try to clarify what the role of this country is all about… There’s a little question mark to, is the United States going to stick this out? Is the United States going to be there when we need them?” – Leon Panetta, secretary of defense and director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Obama, October 6, 2014.

* * * *

“My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours. I privately and publicly advocated for a residual force that could provide training and security for Iraq’s military…. 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.” — Panetta, October 1, 2014 (published excerpts from his book Worthy Fights).

* * * *

“The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, or the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [the U.S. won't put boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself.” — Robert Gates, secretary of defense under President Obama, September 17, 2014.

* * * *

“With all the talk of coming home, of nation building at home, the perception has grown increasingly around the world that the U.S. is pulling back from the global responsibilities that it has shouldered for many decades. I believe Russia and China, among others, see that void and are moving to see what advantage they can take of it.”– Gates, May 21, 2014.

* * * *

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”– Hillary Clinton, secretary of state under President Obama, distancing herself from how President Obama described his foreign policy doctrine, August 10, 2014.

* * * *

“First of all, [the United States under Obama] waited too long. We let the Islamic state build up its money, capability and strength and weapons while it was still in Syria. Then when [ISIS] moved into Iraq, the Sunni Muslims didn’t object to their being there and about a third of the territory in Iraq was abandoned.” – Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States, October 7, 2014.

* * * *

“For now [Obama] has been reduced to … an isolated political figure who is viewed as a liability to Democrats in the very states where voters by the thousands had once stood to cheer him…. As November nears, Mr. Obama and his loyalists are being forced to reconcile that it is not only Democrats in conservative-leaning states, like Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who are avoiding him…. Even the slightest injection of the Obama brand into this election seems perilous for Democrats.” – “In This Election, Obama’s Party Benches Him”, New York Times, October 7, 2014.

* * * *

“What Democrats told me today is that President Obama, however much they love him, he is an albatross around their necks right now. His poll numbers are so bad, people not feeling good about the state of the economy even if there economic indicators that things are getting better. Wages are stagnant.” – Jake Tapper, chief Washington correspondent and anchor for CNN, October 8, 2014.

* * * *

“One prominent party strategist said Obama ‘should take a flamethrower to his office. He needs dramatic change — it’s not even a debatable point,’ the strategist said. ‘The general consensus that the president is surrounded by people who do him more harm than good because they are more focused on pleasing him than they are challenging him or proposing a different course.’ Obama has endured a brutal two years since his reelection, with a legislative agenda stalled and his approval ratings in the dumps. On the midterm campaign trail, he’s mostly been persona non grata, with Democratic candidates wishing he’d stay away.” – “Dems want White House shakeup”, The Hill, October 12, 2014.

* * * *

“I respect the sanctity of the ballot box.” – Alison Lundergan Grimes, Democratic Senate candidate, refusing to say if she voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 or 2012, October 10, 2014.

* * * *

“It was a mistake.” – David Axelrod, former White House senior adviser, responding to President Obama’s statement, “I’m not on the ballot this fall … but make no mistake, these policies are on the ballot — every single one of them.” October 5, 2014.

* * * *

“It is safe to say that Obama has been a huge disappointment. I really don’t think there’s any comparison between him and Bill Clinton. I don’t think we’re even talking about the same universe.” — Kirsten Powers, Democratic political commentator, October 2, 2014.

* * * *

“This administration has been disconnected from the government it’s supposed to be running. They seem to view the federal workforce as hostile territory. They don’t engage with it…. They don’t have a strong system of getting info from the agencies to the president. They keep getting surprised by stuff. And the surprise is almost worse than anything else. It conveys the sense that the White House doesn’t know what its own government is doing.” – Elaine Kamarck, senior policy advisor to Vice President Al Gore, October 5, 2014.

* * * *

“Even those loyal to Mr. Obama say that his quest for excellence can bleed into cockiness and that he tends to overestimate his capabilities…. ‘I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,’ Mr. Obama told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, at the start of the 2008 campaign, according to The New Yorker. ‘I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.’” – “The Competitor in Chief”, New York Times, September 2, 2012.

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A “Clinton Democrat” Runs in New York

Democrat Sean Maloney is running for reelection to Congress in New York’s 18th Congressional District. He beat the incumbent, Republican Nan Hayworth, in 2012, and she is now trying to unseat him in turn. He is ahead according to the only poll on Real Clear Politics, released September 17, at 50-40. While undecideds tend to break against incumbents, that’s a fairly comfortable lead, although RCP has it only “leans Democratic.” The district covers some of the exurbs of New York City in the lower Hudson Valley as well as rural areas farther north. (It’s my congressional district, by the way.)

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Democrat Sean Maloney is running for reelection to Congress in New York’s 18th Congressional District. He beat the incumbent, Republican Nan Hayworth, in 2012, and she is now trying to unseat him in turn. He is ahead according to the only poll on Real Clear Politics, released September 17, at 50-40. While undecideds tend to break against incumbents, that’s a fairly comfortable lead, although RCP has it only “leans Democratic.” The district covers some of the exurbs of New York City in the lower Hudson Valley as well as rural areas farther north. (It’s my congressional district, by the way.)

Maloney got into politics as a volunteer in Bill Clinton’s first campaign for president and then worked in the Clinton White House, rising to the position of staff secretary.

The 18th is pretty much a middle-of-the-road district, and Maloney is running as a centrist Democrat. How centrist? Well, consider this. Although New York is one of just five states where President Obama’s approval rating is at or above 50 percent, much of that support is concentrated in New York City. Upstate, as in most of the country, Obama is about as popular as Ebola. No Democratic politician wants to be anywhere near him.

So Maloney’s yard signs—and yard signs sprout like mushrooms in New York State in the weeks before election day—say only, “Maloney: A Clinton Democrat.”

Obama Democrats are pretty thin on the ground these days, even in deep-blue New York State.

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Deserving Nobel Recipients

The Nobel Peace Prize was easy to lampoon even before Barack Obama won the award at the start of his presidency for doing essentially nothing beyond giving a few grandiose speeches.  It has tended to go to people like French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand and Secretary of State Frank Kellogg  (co-authors of the Briand-Kellogg Pact outlawing war as an instrument of policy), author Norman Angell (who wrote The Great Illusion, claiming that war was obsolete right before the outbreak of World War I), the Quakers, and the Pugwash Conferences—those who dreamed of peace but who did not have much luck in implementing their dreams.

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The Nobel Peace Prize was easy to lampoon even before Barack Obama won the award at the start of his presidency for doing essentially nothing beyond giving a few grandiose speeches.  It has tended to go to people like French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand and Secretary of State Frank Kellogg  (co-authors of the Briand-Kellogg Pact outlawing war as an instrument of policy), author Norman Angell (who wrote The Great Illusion, claiming that war was obsolete right before the outbreak of World War I), the Quakers, and the Pugwash Conferences—those who dreamed of peace but who did not have much luck in implementing their dreams.

Some of the recipients have actually been warmongers, most notably North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. South Korean President Kim Dae Jung won for his failed Sunshine Policy, which included bribing North Korea’s Kim Jong-il into meeting with him.  Few and far in between have been worthy recipients, such as Teddy Roosevelt, George Marshall, Martin Luther King Jr., Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin, and Mother Theresa. The U.S. armed forces, the greatest force for good in the world in the past century, have never won the prize.

But occasionally the Nobel committee gets it right—usually once a decade or so. This is one of those times, with the award going to Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India. Yousafzai is the 17-year-old girl who had the temerity to campaign for girls’ education in the Taliban-dominated area of Swat in Pakistan. To silence her, a Taliban gunman shot her in the head but she survived and is now reportedly living in Britain. Satyarthi is a longtime campaigner against child slavery in India and is credited with freeing some 50,000 children from quasi-slavery as indentured laborers.

There are lots of heroes like Yousafazai and Satyarthi around the world who are fighting for freedom. Another worthy recipient would have been Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Nobel Committee should stick to recognizing and elevating their efforts instead of awarding prizes, as they have so often done, to Westerners who are big on grand gestures that cost them nothing.

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The Unresolved Problem with Boots on the Ground

A growing chorus of analysts, generals, and even cabinet secretaries who served under President Obama suggest that Obama’s stated goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS is not going to occur by means of air power alone. That might be true, although it’s also true that Obama hasn’t used airpower to its full effect. To read a Pentagon press release is to read reports of five, six, or seven airstrikes. Given that an aircraft carrier can launch planes every 30 to 40 seconds, this suggests that the Obama administration is effectively committing the equivalent of three or four minutes of dedicated aircraft carrier time to achieve its goals. And even then, many of the strikes Obama has ordered (and the president has said that he approves every strike carried out inside Syria) attack empty buildings or equipment far away from the fronts of the fight.

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A growing chorus of analysts, generals, and even cabinet secretaries who served under President Obama suggest that Obama’s stated goal to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS is not going to occur by means of air power alone. That might be true, although it’s also true that Obama hasn’t used airpower to its full effect. To read a Pentagon press release is to read reports of five, six, or seven airstrikes. Given that an aircraft carrier can launch planes every 30 to 40 seconds, this suggests that the Obama administration is effectively committing the equivalent of three or four minutes of dedicated aircraft carrier time to achieve its goals. And even then, many of the strikes Obama has ordered (and the president has said that he approves every strike carried out inside Syria) attack empty buildings or equipment far away from the fronts of the fight.

But even if boots on the ground are necessary with an augmented air campaign, there is one problem that is unsolvable, and that is the personality and lack of commitment of the commander-in-chief. President Obama has the strategic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Despite his September 10 speech, it’s unclear whether he is truly committed to destroying ISIS or was simply reacting to the spike in public outrage following the murder of James Foley.

Now make no mistake: I personally feel that the defeat of ISIS is an overwhelming national interest, and that the goal should not simply be “deradicalization” for its fighters, but rather their death. That said, there is nothing more dangerous to any potential ground troops than to be inserted into a warzone without broad public consensus about their mission and to have a commander-in-chief who has consistently met the requests of forces in the field with indecision and a failure to deliver what ground commanders consider their minimum basic needs.

What can be done? Unfortunately, there’s no good answer with such lackluster leadership in the White House and Congress. But those serving in uniform and placing themselves in harm’s way should not be a political football. At present, however, that is exactly how the president and some members of both parties treat them and the ISIS problem. Until there is focus and responsibility in both the White House and Congress, and recognition that military action cannot be governed by polls or political timelines, it is foolhardy to insert ground forces.  Regardless of how they might be needed and how determined ISIS is to strike the United States, ground troops without serious leadership would be unwise. Never again should there be a deployment of ground forces without political consensus, broad public support. If these are lacking and we have to pay the consequence, then that will be a “teachable moment” for the public about the importance of freedom and the nature of the evil that the United State must confront.

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Keeping America Safe for the Middle Class

“If Republicans win, we know who they’ll be fighting for,” President Obama said on Tuesday. “Once again, the interests of billionaires will come before the needs of the middle class.”

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“If Republicans win, we know who they’ll be fighting for,” President Obama said on Tuesday. “Once again, the interests of billionaires will come before the needs of the middle class.”

Where did he say it? According to the New York Post, in the hyper-exclusive Conyers Farm area of very upscale Greenwich, Connecticut. Conyers Farm has ten-acre zoning. He was speaking at a fundraiser at the $26-million estate of a man named, believe it or not, Rich Richman. His audience consisted of people who had paid up to $32,400 a head to have dinner with him. He had flown up from New York City, where he had earlier attended a fundraiser hosted by George Soros (net worth $24 billion) and Paul Tudor Jones (net worth $4.3 billion). The flight was in a convoy of four helicopters and they landed at the Greenwich Polo Club. Polo, of course, is the most expensive sport you can play on land. (A polo field measures 300 by 160 yards, bigger than nine football fields.)

So the president was telling a bunch of millionaires and billionaires to pony up in order to prevent the country from being run for the benefit of millionaires and billionaires, the one segment of the American socioeconomic spectrum that has prospered exceedingly during the Obama administration.

And politicians wonder why people don’t like them or trust them.

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Obama’s Strategy May Turn the Islamic State into the “Strong Horse”

Those who early on said that President Obama’s strategy to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State — the words and aims are Mr. Obama’s — was ludicrously insufficient are finding those concerns being borne out.

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Those who early on said that President Obama’s strategy to “degrade and defeat” the Islamic State — the words and aims are Mr. Obama’s — was ludicrously insufficient are finding those concerns being borne out.

On the front page of Wednesday’s USA Today is a picture with this caption: “ISIL close to seizing strategic Syrian town: Smoke rises from Kobani, Syria, as seen from the Turkish side of the border. Despite U.S.-led airstrikes, Islamic State militants are still encroaching, indicating President Obama’s no-ground-troops strategy may not be working.”

Reporting on the same event, the New York Times puts things this way:

A Kurdish official in Kobani, Assi Abdullah, said that despite the bombing, Islamic State fighters had managed to enter new areas of the town and move north, closer to the border.

That development, along with what could be seen of the fighting from across the border, suggested that two days of intensive airstrikes had failed to turn back the militants. Kurdish fighters, as well as Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have said that airstrikes alone will not stop the attackers.

These reports should be combined with this one, a Wall Street Journal story that reports, “Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began.”

“The strikes are useless so far,” said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. “Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.”

(On Saturday Islamic State fighters seized the Iraqi town of Kubaisa, located in western Anbar province, “its latest conquest in the desert region where it has chalked up a string of victories, a military official and people fleeing the scene said.” This comes two days after the fall of Hit and as the Islamic State sought to consolidate control in towns west of Ramadi.)

What’s happening was easy to predict when the president announced his plan to defeat the Islamic State without “boots on the ground”; it’s now being confirmed by facts on the ground.

Mr. Obama is waging this war in a slapdash fashion. (He is reluctant even to refer to this conflict as a war.) His approach is de minimis, a trifling, “defined mainly by its limitations,” according to the Washington Post. Unless he fundamentally alters his approach, the president has no chance to achieve his stated goal. The result may be the Islamic State, having withstood our strikes, will be seen as the “strong horse” in the Middle East. America, thanks to Mr. Obama, will be seen as the “weak horse.” And we know what that led to last time. “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” So said Osama bin Laden shortly after 9/11.

Has Barack Obama learned nothing since then?

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The President’s Emotional State Bears Watching

One of the more interesting political/psychological pastimes these days is to watch how President Obama deals with his crumbling presidency. The answer is: Not well.

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One of the more interesting political/psychological pastimes these days is to watch how President Obama deals with his crumbling presidency. The answer is: Not well.

Take (via The Daily Caller) his comments last night in which Mr. Obama blamed the press for his travails:

“Frankly, the press and Washington, all it does is feed cynicism,” he insisted, despite getting six years of favorable coverage from establishment newspapers and TV shows.

“Most of you don’t know the statistics I just gave you,” Obama said, after listing a series of cherry-picked data that ignored that roughly 10 million Americans who have given up looking for work, and the $7 trillion in added debt.

“The reason you don’t know [the favorable data] is because they elicit hope. They’re good news … and that’s not what we hear about,” he declared to the roughly 250 supporters who paid up to $1,000 to attend.

“We hear about phony scandals, and we hear about the latest shiny object, and we hear about how Washington will never work,” Obama insisted.

Pobrecito, as the Spanish say. Poor thing.

What is worth paying increasing attention to, I think, is the emotional state of the president. It’s in front of his donors that his most authentic feelings seem to surface, and it’s clear he’s becoming increasingly isolated, embittered, and thin skinned. His excuse making is now chronic and habitual. He’s even displaying some signs of paranoia. Everyone is against him.

Obama is becoming Nixonian.

The man who by a wide margin has received the most worshipful press coverage in at least the last half-century is complaining that the press is mistreating him. A president who routinely misleads the public on matters large and small, who first ran for president on the promise of unifying America but governs based on dividing it, and who allows the most important national-security matters to be decided by crass political considerations is blaming others for feeding cynicism.

Watching a narcissist struggle to deal with massive, multiplying failures can be a poignant thing, especially when everyone gets what’s going on except the narcissist and his enablers. When this happens to a sitting president, however, what is poignant becomes alarming. Because it’s always better that the president of the United States live in reality rather than creating his own.

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Dems Prepare for World Without Obama

After two presidential election victories that were won largely on the force of his personality and the historic nature of his candidacies, Barack Obama’s political stock is low and getting lower. But while the sidelining of the president in this year’s midterm elections is depressing for his many and adoring media cheerleaders, it is an important dry run for his party. Though much of the attention in the midterms is on the Democrats efforts to retain control of the Senate, they’re also attempting to do something else: prepare for a political world without Obama. Their success this year or lack thereof may go a long way toward answering the question as to whether Obama’s past victories truly transformed American politics or were just a passing phase.

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After two presidential election victories that were won largely on the force of his personality and the historic nature of his candidacies, Barack Obama’s political stock is low and getting lower. But while the sidelining of the president in this year’s midterm elections is depressing for his many and adoring media cheerleaders, it is an important dry run for his party. Though much of the attention in the midterms is on the Democrats efforts to retain control of the Senate, they’re also attempting to do something else: prepare for a political world without Obama. Their success this year or lack thereof may go a long way toward answering the question as to whether Obama’s past victories truly transformed American politics or were just a passing phase.

Heeding the call of his immense ego rather than the advice of his party’s political consultants, last week President Obama attempted to inject himself into this year’s midterm elections. But the unpopular president’s declaration that his policies, if not his name, was on the ballot in November was remarkable mainly for the fact that it was treated as a major political gaffe rather than as an inspiring call to arms for Democratic activists. This turn of events is a comedown for a man who entered the White House like a messiah but will spend his last years there as a lame duck. But, as the New York Times reports today, the real story here is whether the Obama coalition of young people, unmarried women, minorities, and educated elites that elected him twice is a foundation for his party’s future or something that stopped being relevant after 2012.

The president’s supporters believe he can still play a role in mobilizing key Democratic constituencies. In deep-blue states like Illinois, New York, and California that might be true. But as the president’s poll numbers head south, the idea that the magic of his personality can create a governing majority is no longer viable. With Democratic candidates in battleground states avoiding the unpopular chief executive like the plague, it is increasingly clear that his party is on its own.

It should be remembered that in the wake of the 2008 and 2012 elections, we were treated to a round of Democratic triumphalism about Obama having changed American politics in a way that gave his party what amounted to a permanent majority for the foreseeable future. That in turn generated a companion wave of Republican pessimism about their inability to win in a changing demographic environment in which minority voters would ensure GOP losses in national elections.

But like all such predictions (remember how George W. Bush’s victory in 2004 was thought to herald a permanent GOP majority?), these analyses failed to take into account that issues, candidates, and circumstances make each election a unique event. The Democrats’ victories were impressive and influenced heavily by the fact that the electorate is less white than it was only a decade ago. But if you take the Obama factor out of the equation, the notion of a permanent hope-and-change coalition seems more like science fiction than political science.

As the Times notes, the president isn’t only less popular among groups that are less inclined to support him but also among those that were crucial to the Democrats’ recent victories like young people and women. While no one thought that Obama would be anything but a liability to Democrats in red states like Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, or Georgia, he’s also being politely asked to keep out of swing states like North Carolina and even light blue states like Michigan. All of which means that this midterm is shaping up as a preview of 2016 when Democrats will try to win a national election without the old Obama magic helping them.

One Democratic answer centers on their past and their likely 2016 nominee: the Clintons. Hillary Clinton will have her own coalition to build and can certainly count on enthusiasm for what may be our first major-party female candidate for president. But as much as Democrats in states like Arkansas are happy to welcome her husband in to help bolster their tickets, it may be too much to ask even of Bill Clinton to expect him to save incumbents like Mark Prior.

Without the Obama personality cult boosting Democratic turnout, they will have to fall back on their technological edge in turnout and organization. Yet in the end each election is decided more on the names on the ballots than anything else. It remains to be seen whether the Democrats’ shaky incumbents and weak bench is strong enough to build on what Obama accomplished. But those who are counting on the same sort of enthusiasm fueling future Democratic campaigns need to explain who, in the absence of a charismatic leader, can give a reason for voters to heed the social networking appeals and other strategies that have worked so well for them in the recent past.

A world without Obama is terra incognita for a Democratic Party that must prove it can win a victory without the aid of a boogeyman like George W. Bush or a hope-and-change messiah. Moreover, eight years of a largely failed presidency has altered the political landscape just as much as the changing demographics. Next month we will get the first indication whether Democrats are equipped to deal with that dilemma. If the polls that currently give the GOP an edge are any indication, they might not like the answer.

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Bobby Jindal: One Wonk to Rule Them All?

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Jindal is obviously smart, experienced, and fluent in policy. He’s also taken on the kind of “happy warrior” persona Republicans should embrace: outrage is not the same thing as anger. And seems to understand the importance of perceived authenticity, so he’s dropped the faux-folksiness he once wore on his sleeve and appears more comfortable in his own skin. But for the revenge of the nerds to be successful, Jindal is going to have to overcome the key challenge posed by how Republicans and Democrats see American electoral politics today.

On the Republican side, few if any doubt Jindal’s obvious intelligence and undeniable competence. But in a wide-open race for the nomination, it will be crucial for each candidate to have their own base within the conservative movement. In this respect, Jindal’s identity as a jack of all trades is less beneficial than it first appears.

Jindal’s defense plan is hawkish, but Marco Rubio long beat him to the punch in terms of establishing his political identity as a learned advocate for a robust American presence in the world. If the party’s hawks are to latch onto any prospective candidate, Rubio is likely to be the one. Most of the party’s potential nominees are hawkish and even Rand Paul has embraced the plain fact that President Obama’s unthinking retrenchment has been a disaster. (So have the president’s Cabinet secretaries; no one wants to take any credit for Obama’s colossal mishandling of world affairs.)

The same is generally true of the other major streams of American conservatism, as I’ve written in the past. But Jindal’s official identification as a hawk does not change the calculus.

The other challenge for Jindal here is how the two parties have reacted to the failure of the Obama presidency. When Obama was a candidate, he was built up by the media and his supporters (but I repeat myself) as a very smart, nuanced thinker. When that turned out not to be true, and when it became clear he also didn’t have the intellectual curiosity necessary to remedy his broad lack of knowledge, the right and the left each reacted differently.

Conservatives responded by turning forcefully against the pretensions of the academic elite. Rule by experts was always under suspicion because of the folly of treating people as science experiments and the repellant culture of eugenics so many of the policies seek to legitimize. But with Obama it became perfectly clear that the experts weren’t actually experts. Liberals just pretended to know what they were talking about, and hid behind credentialism when questioned.

Who is better positioned to take advantage of the discovery that the professor has no clothes, someone like Jindal or someone like, say, Scott Walker, the successful reformist governor without even a college degree? To conservatives, the answer seems clear. They will almost surely end up nominating someone more knowledgeable than the current president, just because the bar is so low. But they would take special pleasure in nominating precisely the kind of politician who would be looked down upon by the Democrats but who would nonetheless run circles around their Democratic opponent intellectually.

Liberals responded to Obama’s failure in a different way: by reverting to the mean of left-liberal politics. Democratic Party politics is traditionally a method of organizing a coalition of interested parties in such a way as to reward them for their support. There is not much of a coherent ideological component outside of the extremely ideological character of the party’s positions on social and cultural issues. Ben Domenech touched on this in last month’s COMMENTARY by noting that:

History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax.

Political science has begun to catch up with this reality as well. In a recent paper, Matt Grossman and his coauthor David A. Hopkins studied the way Democrats and Republicans each seek to govern, and explain that Republicans tend to govern according to ideological principles while Democrats govern by rewarding constituencies. They write:

The partisan asymmetry in the governing style of political elites has its roots in the mass public. Party identifiers in the electorate perceive political choices differently: Republicans are more likely to reason ideologically whereas Democrats are more likely to think of politics as a competition among groups over benefits. This difference is durable over time.

The authors add that “Republican politicians and interest groups thus represent both their partisan base and a wider public majority when they think, speak, and act ideologically, advocating restrictions on government activity in a broad sense. By contrast, Democratic politicians and affiliated interests prefer to stress their advocacy of particular policies that have wider public support and that offer targeted benefits to members of their electoral coalition, placing themselves on the side of social groups favoring government action to ameliorate perceived disadvantages.”

That also helps explain the proliferation of put-upon groups in the constellation of liberal identity politics. If Democrats need more votes, they stoke resentment and create a new category for taxpayer-funded benefits. Their response to the revelation that their experts can’t be trusted, in other words, was to go back to inviting enough voters to raid the treasury to win national elections.

What does that mean for Jindal and the wonks? It means an uphill battle. Republicans believe they nominated a competent managerial technocrat last time around–and lost decisively. And Democrats aren’t particularly interested in intellectual prowess–they simply want to divide and conquer the electorate. Jindal is obviously qualified to be the nation’s chief executive. But it’s lonely out there for a wonk.

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Obama Writes His Own Ballot Epitaph

The debate continued today over whether President Obama made a colossal gaffe when he said last week that while he wasn’t on the ballot, his policies were. Even though former Obama political guru David Axelrod admitted this was a mistake, White House spokesman Josh Earnest loyally claimed the statement wouldn’t hurt Democrats. But like most of Earnest’s duties rationalizing, excusing, or downright lying about the administration’s failures, the official party line was unpersuasive. But now that Republicans are starting to put the video clip to good use, the pertinent question are not about its wisdom but concern just how much damage it will do in close Senate races and whether it will serve as a fitting epitaph for a failed presidency.

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The debate continued today over whether President Obama made a colossal gaffe when he said last week that while he wasn’t on the ballot, his policies were. Even though former Obama political guru David Axelrod admitted this was a mistake, White House spokesman Josh Earnest loyally claimed the statement wouldn’t hurt Democrats. But like most of Earnest’s duties rationalizing, excusing, or downright lying about the administration’s failures, the official party line was unpersuasive. But now that Republicans are starting to put the video clip to good use, the pertinent question are not about its wisdom but concern just how much damage it will do in close Senate races and whether it will serve as a fitting epitaph for a failed presidency.

The irony about the president’s challenge is that his party’s best, if not only chance to hang onto the Senate this year rested in the ability of Democrats or even independents like Kansan Greg Orman to distance themselves from Obama. That’s a task that some members of his party are finding easier than others.

North Carolina’s Kay Hagan has spent much of the last year trying to point out her differences with the president and making her reelection fight a referendum on the record of her GOP opponent Thom Tillis, the speaker of the unpopular North Carolina legislature. To the extent that other Democrats like Colorado’s Mark Udall, Arkansas’s Mark Prior, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu, and Alaska’s Mark Begich have given themselves a fighting chance in their uphill reelection fights it was by playing the same “I’m not Obama” card. That also applies to those Democratic challengers like Georgia’s Michelle Nunn and Kentucky’s Alison Lundergan Grimes who have a chance to knock off Republican opponents.

As for the nominally independent Orman, as Seth noted earlier today, his likely victory is based on the notion that the midterms will be about Senator Pat Roberts’ desultory record and not whether the GOP needs to be given the Senate in order to thwart the Democrats’ plans.

It is true that the Republicans have been trying to make the president the central issue in the campaign all along with middling success. In the second term of a presidency, the midterm inevitably revolves around the incumbent in the White House and his policies. But midterms are by their very definition statewide contests and not national elections. And if there has been any consistent theme sounded by liberal pundits it is that the GOP has clearly failed to make issues closely associated with the president such as ObamaCare central to the contest this fall. But with one stray ill-considered line, Obama may have tossed away his party’s key advantage.

Will this prove decisive? The extent of the damage may be more than Democrats will currently admit. In 2012 Mitt Romney carried all of the states where battleground contests are being fought. The last thing Kay Hagan or any other Democrat needed this year was a reminder that the president thinks the election is all about him and not a Democrat who keeps telling the voters that they are not named Barack Obama. A month is a lifetime in politics and it may seem that long to Democratic incumbents who will be forced to endure endless repetitions of the Obama clip in their opponents’ campaign ads.

But rather than attempting to estimate the carnage this foolish remark will cause for his supporters, perhaps the better question to ask is why he did it. About that there doesn’t seem much room for debate.

The defining characteristic of this presidency remains the arrogance of Barack Obama. Having come into office on the strength of a campaign that presented him as not merely a breath of fresh air but as a messiah who could turn back the oceans and renew American society, the president’s inflated opinion of his abilities and his appeal is hardly surprising. Nor after two elections won on the strength of his personal appeal is it at all astonishing that he would think injecting himself into the midterms would be to his party’s advantage.

But along with the self-assurance that comes with two presidential victories is the reality that the Obama White House remains an echo chamber where bad news or telling the truth about the president’s mistakes are not welcome. In the same bubble where it is OK for Obama to blame the intelligence community for underestimating ISIS when it was he who would make that error despite his advisors warning him of the danger, the news about the president’s staggering unpopularity in his second term has also not penetrated the commander-in-chief’s inner sanctum.

But even if some are telling our emperor–who believes he can govern without the consent of Congress on issues like immigration and is arrogant enough to warn the voters he will do just that after they are done casting their ballots—that he has no clothes, this is not a man who is likely to listen to such advice. If he has lengthened what was almost certainly going to be a longer than average lame duck period of his presidency with last week’s statement, it is in a way fitting that this should happen as a result of his outsized ego rather than anything else.

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