Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Why Is Obama Only Transparent with Enemies?

President Obama entered the White House promising to be the most transparent president. His track record, however, is murkier. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that the Obama administration is “absolutely” the most transparent, many supporters and journalists disagree.

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President Obama entered the White House promising to be the most transparent president. His track record, however, is murkier. While White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest has said that the Obama administration is “absolutely” the most transparent, many supporters and journalists disagree.

But whatever transparency Obama lacks on domestic issues and in his dealings with Congress, he has absolutely become the most transparent president in our nation’s history in telegraphing to America’s sworn enemies what we are and are not willing to do.

When George W. Bush announced the surge in Iraq, he spoke about “victory” and didn’t enunciate publicly a timeline, even if he knew his timeline all along. When Obama announced his surge in Afghanistan, discussion of victory was conspicuously absent but talk of a timeline to end the surge was emphasized. Now the White House is suggesting that Obama will announce a three-year plan in his speech tonight. Obama considers himself a great orator. Perhaps he may want to take a hint from other presidents, however, who faced down enemies. Did Franklin Delano Roosevelt enunciate a timeline in his Pearl Harbor Address? No. And here is Harry S. Truman explaining the need to enter war footing in Korea. Again, no timeline. Operation Desert Storm? No timeline. In all cases, however, there was a commitment to victory. Why issue an arbitrary timeline? Why let the enemy know that there is light at the end of the tunnel?

Ditto the question of whether or not to involve ground forces. Whether or not one supports the insertion of Special Forces or other troops on the ground, why enunciate that? The United States can gain much more with strategic ambiguity. Likewise, why unnecessarily constrain U.S. forces in the future should the situation change significantly?

Every time Obama speaks on military strategy, he omits talk of victory but peppers his speech with caveats and assurances of what the United States will not do. Rather than create a culture of opacity at home and transparency for our enemies, perhaps it’s time for Obama to do the opposite.

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Obama Still Leading From Behind

After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

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After saying that he hadn’t yet come up with a strategy to deal with the problem, tonight President Obama will finally say what exactly he plans to do about the ISIS terrorist movement in Iraq and Syria. According to administration sources, the president will say he is prepared to authorize air strikes. But what is most striking about this crucial moment is that once again Obama is trying to “lead from behind.” But this time he is not so much following the lead of foreign leaders as he is of the American people. Rather than inspiring Americans to rise to the challenge, it appears that it is they who are dragging him to do his duty and protect American interests and the homeland from a lethal terror threat.

Though belated, the administration’s decision to act is commendable. But what is remarkable about this radical shift in policy is that it seems to be as much a response to the change in public opinion about the situation in the Middle East as it is a realization on the president’s part that his past decisions to stay out of Syria and to bug out of Iraq were mistaken.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the president has spent much of his time in office mocking those who urged him to stop standing on the sidelines as the Middle East fell apart as warmongers. At other times, he engaged in puzzling maneuvers, such as his embarrassing back and forth decisions on Syria last year, that amounted to a gigantic head fake that encouraged America’s foes while puzzling and isolating friends.

But, as a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reveals, not only do Americans no longer have any confidence in the president’s foreign policy, they actually feel less safe than at any time since the 9/11 attacks. The poll also shows that a large majority of Americans support air strikes on ISIS in Syria and Iraq with a substantial minority also willing to deploy ground troops to deal with the threat.

In theory, that ought to make the president’s job of selling the country and the world on the need for the U.S. to go on offense against ISIS and other Islamist terrorists. But the spectacle of the last several weeks during which it appeared that the president was being dragged kicking and screaming toward a decision makes it a bit harder for both friends and foes to take Obama seriously. More to the point, if the orchestrated leaks about the president’s speech are accurate, the cribbed nature of his plan for action in which he will take the possibility of a U.S. presence on the ground off the table and set firm time limits on the campaign will undermine the effort from the start.

Why are Americans so upset and fearful?

Part of the answer lies in the power of the disgusting videos released by ISIS that showed American journalists being brutally murdered. While one can argue that Syrian chemical weapons and Iran’s nuclear program may provide as much, if not more of a challenge to U.S. security as this terror group, the images in the videos were visceral and easily understood. Moreover, if the NBC/Journal poll is accurate, more than 94 percent of Americans saw it. Theoretical threats are one thing. Arrogant Islamists beheading Americans and taunting us (and President Obama) about it are quite another. The public seems to have understood long before the president that this is something that has to stop and that there is no negotiating with or maneuvering around a terror threat that, despite Obama’s reelection boasts, is very much alive.

Does it matter that negative poll numbers about the president are driving the anti-ISIS effort more than it is being pushed by his vision of defending both the U.S. and our allies against a clear and present danger?

One could argue that the motivation for U.S. action isn’t important so long as the president follows through on his plans and lets the U.S. military operate effectively to defeat ISIS. But the long-range success of those efforts will depend as much on the confidence of the people of the region that America can be counted on to stay the course in a conflict that won’t provide quick or easy victories. That will require more than a poll-driven speech that provides as many caveats about what the U.S. won’t do than anything else.

In any conflict, there is no substitute for leadership that not only can articulate policies that people want but also is prepared to tell them that there are some things that must be done that are not so popular. Not every wartime leader must be Winston Churchill, but one that is primarily concerned with “not doing stupid stuff” and who takes weeks to make up his mind to do what Americans wanted already done is setting both himself and the country up for failure.

What we need from the president tonight is a signal that his period of irresolute dithering is over and that he will spend the time that is left to him in the White House fighting to win against Islamist terrorists rather than managing the threat. Both doubtful American allies and a worried Congress are waiting to hear from a leader who will get out in front of this problem. More leading from behind will not only fail but also conclusively tarnish his legacy forever.

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Putin to Europe: Winter Is Coming

Although Vladimir Putin’s expansionist agenda and deadly authoritarianism have finally earned regular coverage from the media, I’m still at a loss to explain why one story in particular isn’t getting consistently boldfaced treatment. Heading into the weekend, Estonian security official Eston Kohver was abducted by Russian officers and tossed in a Russian jail. He has been accused of spying for Estonia and running afoul of Russian gun-possession laws.

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Although Vladimir Putin’s expansionist agenda and deadly authoritarianism have finally earned regular coverage from the media, I’m still at a loss to explain why one story in particular isn’t getting consistently boldfaced treatment. Heading into the weekend, Estonian security official Eston Kohver was abducted by Russian officers and tossed in a Russian jail. He has been accused of spying for Estonia and running afoul of Russian gun-possession laws.

It’s a fairly absurd story, and a throwback to a darker time when Putin’s previous employer, the KGB, was in existence. So was Russia’s decision on Sunday to take Kohver “to Moscow where he was paraded before television cameras,” as the Guardian reported. Of course the most notable first impression of the incident was that it took place right after President Obama traveled to Estonia and gave a public address warning Russia not to meddle further in its near-abroad and pronouncing the U.S.-led NATO coalition’s vow to protect Estonia, and other such countries in the neighborhood, from Russian aggression. Putin has gotten quite creative in his demonstrations of contempt for Obama.

Putin has watched Obama offer mostly empty words, self-contradictions, and confused backtracking on foreign policy and decided that Obama is not someone to fear or respect. Putin is not alone in this assessment of Obama. He’s just the only leader currently using Obama’s weakness and indecision as an excuse to invade Europe.

And with winter approaching, Putin is also signaling that the last excuse for Obama’s appeasement policy–getting Russian cooperation on energy issues–is meaningless as well. The New York Times reports that Russia is in talks with Iran to help Iran get around sanctions intended to curb its nuclear program. And the Polish government has now said that Russia’s state gas company, Gazprom, has been cutting supplies to Poland by at least twenty percent.

The point is not only to strike at Poland but to hit Ukraine as well:

Some European countries believe Moscow may use a disruption of gas to Europe as a trump card in its confrontation with the west over Ukraine. The row has already brought relations between Moscow and the west to their lowest ebb since the cold war.

Ukraine’s gas transport monopoly Ukrtransgaz was quoted by a Russian news agency as saying Gazprom was limiting flows to Poland to disrupt supplies of gas in the opposite direction, from Poland into Ukraine.

Kiev is already cut off from Russian gas in a pricing dispute and depends on these “reverse flows” to supply homes and businesses with gas.

Gazprom made no immediate comment. Polish gas monopoly PGNiG said on Wednesday it was trying to find out why volumes were down.

There was no indication that any European Union importers of Russian gas besides Poland were affected.

So that’s one reason to hit Poland on energy supplies. Another is because a recent NATO summit approved the creation of a rapid-response force to counter Russian aggression in NATO countries–and broached the idea of headquartering it in Poland. Just as Putin sought to prove Obama’s promises to Estonia to be empty, so too does he intend to show he regards the promises to Poland to be just as empty.

There is also the issue of historical memory. Poland is a symbol both of Russian domination of its neighborhood and of the West’s tendency to abandon its Eastern European allies when the going gets tough. Bullying Poland–now a NATO ally, remember–is in some ways more inflammatory than meddling in Ukraine because the U.S. was under no obligation to defend Ukraine, and few observers took seriously the idea that Obama would challenge Putin over Ukraine.

That was mostly a good bet: Obama abandoned Ukraine each of the three times Russia invaded, and finally cobbled together sanctions that have not slowed Putin’s march. And since Putin isn’t invading Poland (yet, I suppose we should add), it’s unlikely Obama–who has repeatedly picked silly fights with Poland’s leadership–will care about a gas cutoff. He might care about Russia helping Iran evade sanctions, but only if he is truly dedicated to preventing an Iranian nuke. That remains to be seen, and the evidence so far does not inspire much confidence in the president.

But the most immediate message being sent by Putin is a reminder that winter is coming. As Kathryn Sparks wrote earlier this year, Europe is dependent on Russia for both nuclear and gas power. Five Eastern European states are particularly dependent on Russia for nuclear power: “For these 80 million Europeans, the Russian state provides services essential to some 42 percent of electricity production.” Additionally, “Four of the five nuclear-dependent states are among at least nine countries that rely on Russian gas pumped through Ukrainian pipelines for about three-quarters of their total gas supply.”

Russia is unlikely to just cut energy supplies to a whole swath of Europe: Moscow needs the revenue and the influence it buys. But Putin is not above reminding his neighbors that Barack Obama has not proved himself willing to defend them and that they ought not bite the hand that feeds, especially if there’s no alternative.

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U.S. Ukraine Policy: Dumb and Immoral

President Obama may–stress the word “may”–finally be doing the right thing if he is serious about defeating and destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. He is still a long way from doing the right thing in Ukraine where outright Russian aggression has been met with an alarmingly tepid response from the U.S. and our allies. The U.S. has imposed tougher sanctions than the EU, but neither has barred Russian firms from their financial systems–sanctions that could have truly serious consequences for the Russian economy. And neither the U.S. nor Europe is providing Ukraine with the weapons it desperately needs to defend itself.

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President Obama may–stress the word “may”–finally be doing the right thing if he is serious about defeating and destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. He is still a long way from doing the right thing in Ukraine where outright Russian aggression has been met with an alarmingly tepid response from the U.S. and our allies. The U.S. has imposed tougher sanctions than the EU, but neither has barred Russian firms from their financial systems–sanctions that could have truly serious consequences for the Russian economy. And neither the U.S. nor Europe is providing Ukraine with the weapons it desperately needs to defend itself.

Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times provide chapter and verse of the dismaying American failure to help the victims of aggression. They note that Obama has promised to deliver a measly $70 million in nonlethal aid–for rations, first-aid kits, radios, and the like–but most of the assistance is “still in the pipeline.” “The United States has also promised to train 700 members of Ukraine’s National Guard,” they note, “but that program is not scheduled to get underway until 2015.” In short, by the time that American training efforts get under way Ukraine as we now know it will likely not exist.

Ukraine has been asking for assistance and we should provide it. As retired Admiral James Stavridis, a former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, argues, the U.S. “should provide the Ukrainian forces with antitank weapons, ammunition, fuel, cyberdefense help and military advisers.” Even rushing secure radios to the Ukrainian forces would be a big improvement since at the moment the have to use unencrypted cell phones that are easy for the Russian forces to intercept.

Yet Obama is still refusing to help for fear of “provoking” the Russians or “escalating” the conflict. One would think that the appeasement mentality would have evaporated about the time when Vladimir Putin spat on Obama’s hoped-for “reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow. Instead Putin decided to reset Russian foreign policy to the days of the Soviets or possibly the czars.

He has already carved out a corridor in eastern Ukraine that, if the current ceasefire holds, will remain effectively outside of Kiev’s control. We can expect further carve-ups of Ukraine and possibly other states (such as the Baltics) in the future if Putin isn’t stopped now. Moreover, if he gets away with aggression, as he has done to date, it sends a very dangerous message to the Chinese, Iranians, and others bent on upsetting a regional status quo by force if necessary.

Refusing to help the Ukrainians with military aid is not only stupid strategically. It is immoral. The Ukrainians will bear the risks of fighting the Russians to defend their country. It will be Ukrainians, not Americans, in harm’s way. The least we can do is to give them the tools to fight for their freedom.

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Obama Tripped Up By His Own False Choice

So it now appears that President Obama is ready after all to authorize air strikes in Syria. Let us hope he does not lose his nerve at the last moment as he did exactly a year ago when he last seriously contemplated employing American air power in Syria–on that occasion not to target ISIS but rather the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons.

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So it now appears that President Obama is ready after all to authorize air strikes in Syria. Let us hope he does not lose his nerve at the last moment as he did exactly a year ago when he last seriously contemplated employing American air power in Syria–on that occasion not to target ISIS but rather the Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons.

It would have been even better if the president had unleashed American air power, in conjunction with aid to the Free Syrian Army, much earlier in the conflict–all the way back in 2011 as some of us urged at the time. By waiting so long Obama now has to grapple with a much tougher situation not only in Syria but also regionally. In December 2011, for example, I wrote: “If parts of Syria slip outside anyone’s control (as occurred in Iraq from 2003 to 2007), they could become havens for Sunni extremists such as al Qaeda.” Sadly that prediction has been vindicated–not only in Syria but also in Iraq.

The point of recalling what I and others said at the time isn’t to engage in a game of “I told you so.” Like every other foreign-policy analyst out there, I have made my share of mistakes that others can second-guess. No one gets it right every time and Obama had legitimate concerns that led him to avoid getting more deeply involved in Syria in 2011.

But there is a broader point here that is well worth keeping in mind. When I or others advocated robust action in Syria (stopping short of using U.S. ground troops), many noninterventionists including the president himself implicitly or explicitly accused us of being warmongers. As recently as late May at West Point, Obama was defending his conduct of foreign policy by attacking supposed hawks: “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable,” he said. And: “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

In that speech Obama set up a false dichotomy by suggesting that the only choices confronting a U.S. president are isolationism or extreme interventionism–by which he meant of course waging the Iraq War as George W. Bush did. The reality, however, is that in many circumstances a willingness to use a little force early on can avert the need for a bigger, messier involvement with lower chances of success later on. That is exactly the situation we face today in Syria and Iraq where it is much harder to make progress now than it was in 2011 when no one had ever heard of ISIS. Let us hope that President Obama and others who share his noninterventionist inclinations learn a lesson about the costs of inaction–just as those of us who favor a tougher approach to foreign policy should have learned some lessons about the cost of interventionism in Iraq from 2003 to 2007.

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Why Immigration Reform Won’t Pass

President Obama justifies his plans (put off until after the midterm elections) to act unilaterally to legalize millions of illegal immigrants on the grounds that Congress has failed to pass the immigration reform bill he prefers. That’s a risible justification for throwing the Constitution under the bus and bypassing Congress and the checks and balances enshrined by the Founders. But even if we all agreed that reform is needed, rarely does the president or his supporters stop to ask why it is that so many Americans and the House of Representatives oppose their position.

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President Obama justifies his plans (put off until after the midterm elections) to act unilaterally to legalize millions of illegal immigrants on the grounds that Congress has failed to pass the immigration reform bill he prefers. That’s a risible justification for throwing the Constitution under the bus and bypassing Congress and the checks and balances enshrined by the Founders. But even if we all agreed that reform is needed, rarely does the president or his supporters stop to ask why it is that so many Americans and the House of Representatives oppose their position.

An answer comes again today from one of the most visible advocates of changing the system to grant the 11 million illegals currently in the country a path to legal status if not citizenship. Jose Antonio Vargas, a former reporter for the Washington Post who outed himself in the New York Times in 2011 as having come to the United States illegally from the Philippines as a child, writes today in a Politico Magazine article about his decision to symbolically turn himself in to the Department of Homeland Security last month along with ten other undocumented aliens. Vargas believes the system is broken and unjust and is demanding the president not wait a moment before using an executive order to override the will of Congress and stop the deportation of illegals.

If we limit our discussion to the question of a system that doesn’t work and which has been loosely enforced by the government for many years, Vargas has a strong argument. Indeed, the need for reform is clear and that includes some sort of rational solution for the millions of illegals who, like Vargas, are obviously not going to be deported.

But if Vargas and Obama want to know why there is such fierce resistance to some of the proposals, including the bipartisan bill passed by the Senate last year, they need to stop and consider how the mockery of the rule of law implicit in Vargas’s brazen stunts (such as getting himself arrested near the Texas border in July) aimed at pressuring the government to let illegals off the hook undermines their case.

It is one thing to say that those living in the shadows should be brought under the umbrella of the system. It is quite another for Vargas and his colleagues to act as if obeying or enforcing the law is merely an option. Vargas has become not so much the poster child for the arbitrary nature of a law he opposes but a professional illegal immigrant.

That is, in and of itself, something of an affront to the whole concept of law and law-abiding citizens. While he boasts of walking around with a copy of the Constitution in his pocket (which he carries, along with his Philippine passport, for good luck), he fails to recognize that the basis of that document is a belief in the rule of law. Though he writes eloquently of the plight of illegals, he seems to think the fact that they broke the law by entering the U.S. without permission is a mere detail. His attitude is primarily one of entitlement, not martyrdom.

Above all, what Vargas and those who seek to publicize and laud his antics forget is that by treating the law as a thing that can be violated with impunity they are undermining the cause they seek to promote. If, after all, the border can be crossed with impunity, there is no border or law.

It is precisely this sense of chaos that led to the current impasse as well as to this summer’s surge of illegal immigrants and in particular, unaccompanied children, to flood across the border to Texas.

Instead of mocking the increased security present along the Rio Grande or those who ask him and other illegals to leave and then get in line behind those already waiting to get into the country, Vargas should understand that there would never be a critical mass of support for reform until the border is secured. Many erstwhile supporters of the Senate bill have come to the conclusion that any resolution of the plight of the illegals must come after the flow across the border is stopped, not before.

Every publicity stunt which allows illegal immigrants to flaunt their status makes it that much harder for any reform bill to pass. Even more to the point, rather than encouraging Obama to trample on the Constitution, Vargas should realize that the only way to win over House Republicans who believe they are defending the rule of law is to meet them on their own ground. Instead, Vargas and Obama are both sending a clear message to the House that they regard the issue with contempt.

This bodes ill for future efforts at reform. If Obama acts after the election on his own to change the law it will set off years of bitter conflict about the constitutionality of his actions, causing opponents of reform to refuse to listen to future proposals. And so long as Vargas and others treat the law as a joke, it will be hard to blame them.

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Obama’s Siege Mentality

You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

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You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

There was the famous “hashtag diplomacy,” during which spokeswoman Jen Psaki demanded that Vladimir Putin stop invading Ukraine and thereby truly begin to “live by the promise of hashtag.” Even if Putin wanted to give the order to retreat from Ukraine, there was no way he could do so until he stopped laughing, so the selfie diplomacy was counterproductive as well as inane.

Then there was Marie Harf, first rewriting history on the bin Laden raid and getting called out on television by Andrea Mitchell and then, in the course of defending some more ridiculous moments by Psaki, picking a fight with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and even calling him “sexist” for criticizing Psaki.

If that last gambit sounded eerily like a stale, cynical Obama campaign ploy, there’s a reason for it: Psaki and Harf came to the State Department from the committee to reelect the president. (Though, in fairness, Harf worked in communications for the CIA earlier in her career.) And that, I think, helps us understand why exactly Psaki and Harf were given their current jobs, and why the president may not quite understand how much of a disaster they’ve been.

Over the weekend Paul Mirengoff at Power Line offered his own dual theory as to why Obama hires such “obvious lightweights” to speak for American foreign policy. First, Mirengoff writes, “Obama is playing to a core component of his base — the young.” Second, Mirengoff believes “Team Obama is trying to ‘demystify’ foreign policy — to make it look unthreatening almost to the point of child’s play. Psaki and Harf provide visual expression of this view just by standing at the podium and talking.”

He continues:

If one believes that the world is a dangerous place and that the U.S. must, accordingly, respond with constant vigilance and, at times, forceful engagement, then you want your spokespersons to look and talk maturely and somberly — to project, in a word, gravitas. For those of us who see the world that way, James Haggerty (Eisenhower’s press secretary who once said “if you lose your temper at a newspaper columnist, he’ll get rich or famous or both”) is a model.

But suppose you don’t believe the world is all that inherently dangerous. Suppose you believe, as Obama does, that the U.S. is at the root of many of the world’s problems and that a new dawn in international relations is possible if America will just lighten up.

In that case, you will be quite happy with light, breezy young foreign policy spokespersons. And if, like Harf, that spokesperson likes to get snarky with conservative journalist, all the better.

I recommend Mirengoff’s whole post on the topic. But my guess would be, as I mentioned earlier, to look to the Harf/Psaki team’s last jobs to grasp their current ones.

Back in 2012, the New York Times published a long article on President Obama’s “Terror Tuesdays,” his weekly meetings on counterterrorism. The article was centered on Obama’s drone war and how he was choosing and eliminating terror targets instead of capturing them. Present in the room for those meetings, the Times revealed, was Obama’s top political advisor David Axelrod, “his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.”

Axelrod was there because Obama is always hyper-aware of the partisan political implications of everything he does, including national security acts and choosing which terrorists to assassinate. It rankled people a bit that Axelrod sat in on those meetings, but for Obama cynical political point-scoring tends to be the priority.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel wrote a piece on “Obama’s Kissingers,” the people the president had brought into his national-security inner circle. It was heavy on the “political hacks.” Some of them, like Tommy Vietor (who famously responded to a question on Benghazi with the immortal words “Dude, this was like two years ago”), were particularly undistinguished.

So why put people like that out front to take questions from the press? Because Obama’s innate bitter partisanship dominates his staffing decisions, and because he not only views the press as possible enemies–and treats them as such–but any questions as being part of the daily political competition between the president and his many pursuers.

A disturbing example of this was contained in an August column by Chemi Shalev on the administration’s decision to withhold weaponry from Israel during wartime. Shalev writes: “a very senior Washington figure recently told an Israeli counterpart that each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.”

That is the kind of remarkably unhealthy paranoia for which the president has unfortunately come to be known. And it explains why political hacks and spinmeisters are the only people he trusts to field questions from the press. To this president, everyone’s a suspect.

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Yes, Obama Was Talking About ISIS

There they go again.

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There they go again.

The Obama White House, first in the person of press secretary Josh Earnest and now in the person of the president himself, is perpetrating a falsehood of some significance on the American people. It has to do with the denial by Messrs. Earnest and Obama that when the president used the dismissive phrase “jayvee team” in his interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, he didn’t have ISIS in mind.

Here’s the exchange that took place in his interview on Meet the Press:

CHUCK TODD: Long way, long way from when you described them [ISIS] as a JV team.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I–

CHUCK TODD: Was that bad intelligence or your misjudgment?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Keep– keep– keep in mind I wasn’t specifically referring to [ISIS]. I’ve said that, regionally, there were a whole series of organizations that were focused primarily locally. Weren’t focused on homeland, because I think a lot of us, when we think about terrorism, the model is Osama bin Laden and 9/11.

But as I laid out in a fair amount of detail two weeks ago, there’s simply no question that the president was referring to ISIS. Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post weighed in a week later, making essentially the same case, and awarding the White House four Pinocchios for their dishonesty on this matter.

This is no small matter. Mr. Obama’s misjudgment on ISIS was extraordinarily costly. It was a complete misreading of the situation, long after others were warning about the nature of the ISIS threat. This mistake ranks among the worst errors of the Obama presidency, which is saying quite a lot. President Obama knows this, which is why he’s frantically trying to pretend he didn’t say what he so clearly said.

The problem is in this whole process the president of the United States is distorting the truth. He’s doing so willfully. But this deception will not only fail; it will further undermine his credibility, which is already at a low ebb. As Mr. Obama said in 2008, “I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”

Mr. Obama is at war with reality, and reality is winning.

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Obama’s Immigration Punt Won’t Work

Analyses of President Obama’s decision not to make good on his pledge to use executive orders to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants are focusing today on the political implications of the move. But the notion that punting on immigration will save the Senate for the Democrats may be mistaken. By telling us that he is only putting off actions that bypass Congress until after the midterm elections, the president won’t disarm Republicans who are running against his lawless behavior while at the same time depressing liberal activists and minorities that Democrats desperately need to energize. It may be that his handling of this ill-considered proposal has worsened an already perilous situation for his party.

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Analyses of President Obama’s decision not to make good on his pledge to use executive orders to grant legal status to millions of illegal immigrants are focusing today on the political implications of the move. But the notion that punting on immigration will save the Senate for the Democrats may be mistaken. By telling us that he is only putting off actions that bypass Congress until after the midterm elections, the president won’t disarm Republicans who are running against his lawless behavior while at the same time depressing liberal activists and minorities that Democrats desperately need to energize. It may be that his handling of this ill-considered proposal has worsened an already perilous situation for his party.

The story of the plan for the president to unilaterally implement his own immigration reform package is one that highlights all of Obama’s characteristic shortcomings: poor planning, indecision, a willingness to throw his own party members under the bus to cover up his own faults, and a lack of principle.

Let’s start with the fact that the president’s basic premise underlying his June announcement that he planned to implement immigration proposals by the end of the summer was an end run around the Constitution. The fact that Congress did not pass the immigration reform package he favored does not give the president the right to act on his own. Immigration reform is needed, but the failure of the bill he favored was due to concerns over the breakdown of border security that now seem even more justified than they were before because of the surge of illegals whose arrival was due largely to a belief that the president’s pledges about granting permanent status would apply to them as well as to the millions already here. But whatever one may think about the issue, the president is wrong to think he has the power to disregard constitutional checks and balances.

Yet he did so to the cheers of many in his party, the media, and a Hispanic community that has been frustrated by the gap between the president’s immigration promises and the reality of an administration that has stepped up deportations of illegals. In June, the assumption was that the president was operating under the belief that executive orders that would provide the “amnesty” conservatives have long feared would amp up his base and help Democrats. Polls showing that most Americans thought immigration reform a good idea were seen as providing cover for Democrats who believed the president was going too far.

Had the president issued his orders then it would have inflamed Republicans and earned applause from Democrats. But instead of acting, he did what he always does: he thought about it. But as with other instances of his Hamlet act getting in the way of policy decisions, by the time the end of the summer came, circumstances had changed. Not only had the border surge changed the minds of many Americans about the wisdom of dealing with the illegals here before the border was secured, it was also clear that many of the Democrats that Obama is counting on to hold the Senate for him opposed the president’s plans for unilateral action. The delay gave members of both parties time to disassociate themselves from any effort to bypass both Congress and the Constitution. Not only was there no immigration consensus to fall back on but the intervening months had also produced a new consensus against Obama’s desire to govern alone and to trash the rule of law.

Under these new circumstances, Obama’s decision to delay action was seemingly politically wise, especially since many Senate Democrats were pleading with him not to do it. Yet it’s not as simple as that. Had the president pondered the issue for months without having publicly said he would do it by the end of the summer, a punt on the matter would have worked. But after three months of damaging debate on the issue, it is probably too late to defuse GOP anger. With the president merely postponing such action until after the midterms, the issue remains an easy one for GOP candidates to use against Democrats.

But choosing to spurn the desires of his base (while also blaming the initial promise of action on Senate Democrats like Chuck Schumer rather than the president taking personal responsibility for the blunder) isn’t good politics either. The Democrats desperately need minorities and especially Hispanics to turn out in something close to the numbers they did in 2008 and 2012 when Obama was on the ballot. By choosing to cynically discard the issue in the face of criticism, he has depressed his core constituencies in an election that will, as is the case with most midterms, be determined by the enthusiasm of the party bases. When you consider that it’s entirely possible that some of the key red-state Democrats he’s trying to save may already be doomed, this supposedly smart political move seems even dumber than it did at first glance.

Put it all together and you have a scenario in which Obama’s partisan boasts, indecision, and ultimate cynicism has given Democrats the worst of all possible worlds in 2014: an energized conservative base and a distinctly unenthusiastic liberal core.

Digging even deeper into this issue, if the president is really serious about unilateral immigration moves after the election, does he really think it will be easier for him to do this after the country has already rejected his party at the polls? The only possible advantage to the Democrats in the president making good on his June pledge was the possibility that some Republicans would overreact and try another government shutdown in response this fall. But by punting, Obama has made that impossible and possibly saved conservative Republicans from themselves.

While the president’s belief in his power to act without Congress on immigration is wrongheaded, his handling of the politics of this issue has been uniformly foolish from start to finish. Punting on immigration won’t work and it may also make the next two years even more dismal for Obama and the Democrats than we might have thought.

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Obama’s ISIS Policy: Committed to Victory?

We will have to wait until Wednesday to hear the president lay out in greater detail his plans for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but he and his aides have already said some things that should offer cause for both celebration and concern.

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We will have to wait until Wednesday to hear the president lay out in greater detail his plans for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, but he and his aides have already said some things that should offer cause for both celebration and concern.

Start with the good news: Obama said on Meet the Press, “We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we’re going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them.” To which one can only say: About time. The threat from ISIS has been growing dangerously for many months. Now that ISIS has conquered an area the size of the United Kingdom, it is high time for the administration to commit to its defeat.

My concerns relate primarily to whether Obama will commit the resources needed to achieve this objective. Defense Department sources are leaking that the president envisions a three-year campaign against ISIS. The timeline may or may not be right, but why, in any case, is it being leaked? Did Franklin Roosevelt announce on December 8, 1941, that our goal was to defeat Germany and Japan within three years? He never did that. In fact Roosevelt was quite clear that our objective was the unconditional surrender of the enemy, no matter how much time it took. That is the proper way to rally the nation to go to war. Even if you have internal estimates of how long the campaign will take, why announce them? It can only give hope to the enemy that they can wait you out and dispirit allies because they fear that you are not committed to doing whatever is necessary to prevail. But Obama has become used to rolling out deadlines for military action, such as his 18-month timeline for the Afghan surge or his commitment to stay in Afghanistan after this year but to pull out before he leaves office in 2017. This is counterproductive.

So too is Obama’s habit of short-changing commanders on their troop requests. In Afghanistan, for example, the middle option presented by General Stanley McChrystal in 2009 was for 40,000 troops. Instead Obama sent only 30,000 and he imposed a hard cap of 100,000 U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, which forced commanders to juggle units in and out so as to adhere to an artificial deadline rooted in politics not geo-strategy. Commanders were never given the resources or time that they needed to mount a full-blown counterinsurgency campaign and in fact Obama never embraced the word “counterinsurgency” even though that was what his commanders were doing with his full knowledge.

In the case of Iraq today, Obama has already made clear that he will not put any “boots on the ground,” thereby creating an artificial limit on the ability of our forces to achieve his primary objective–to destroy ISIS. All options should be on the table even if no one today contemplates sending large numbers of U.S. ground troops. At the very least, however, we will need an augmented force of advisers and Special Operations troops which, to be effective, would probably need to number at least 10,000 personnel once all the support elements are included. Will Obama sign up for such a commitment or will he try to achieve his objectives on the cheap by utilizing air power alone?

If he relies on airpower alone (the lowest risk option, at least from a force protection standpoint), it will be much harder to increase the effectiveness of the Sunni tribes, Iraqi security forces, Kurdish pesh merga, and the Free Syrian Army–the proxies we must count on to wage ground warfare in conjunction with U.S. air strikes. Their combat prowess will vastly increase if some American advisers and special operators can work alongside of them–and if the elite commandos of the Joint Special Operations Command are allowed to do the kind of network targeting of ISIS that they previously did to its predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Moreover, to fight an organization like ISIS that sprawls across Syria and Iraq, the administration will need to sign up for military action on both sides of the virtually nonexistent Syria-Iraq border. Will Obama do so or will he be paralyzed by concerns about violating Bashar Assad’s “sovereignty” even though we no longer recognize him as the rightful ruler of Syria?

These are all causes for concern that we must hope Obama will address and allay on Wednesday. But given his track record of half-hearted military commitments from Libya to Afghanistan, I am worried that once again there will be a major disconnect between ends and means.

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The Ignorance Driving Coverage of Israel and American Policy

I can’t quite decide if the headline and framing of this recent dispatch from the Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief is further evidence of everything that is wrong about the media’s reporting on the conflict or if it’s a modest step in the right direction. The headline is: “Here’s what really happened in the Gaza war (according to the Israelis).”

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I can’t quite decide if the headline and framing of this recent dispatch from the Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief is further evidence of everything that is wrong about the media’s reporting on the conflict or if it’s a modest step in the right direction. The headline is: “Here’s what really happened in the Gaza war (according to the Israelis).”

The point of the article is that a group of journalists met with an Israeli intelligence official to get Israel’s side of the story. On the one hand, I suppose the media can be commended for at least recognizing that there’s a side other than that churned out by Hamas flacks. On the other hand, the war is over. Perhaps, I don’t know, during the war would have been a good time to figure out that there are two sides to the story? Just a thought. Additionally, isn’t the fact that basic information about Hamas fighters and weaponry is considered a major scoop a massive indictment of the press?

Here’s another question: should the Jerusalem bureau chief of a major American newspaper show his surprise at finding out information he should have known long before? The tone of the report, then, doesn’t help either. For example:

The intelligence chief said it is not important how lethal the rockets were. He said the aim was to instill terror, to force a million Israelis to run into shelters.

So Hamas succeeded, in part.

Of the 4,500 rockets fired by Hamas and allies, 875 fell inside Gaza. Many were lobbed at Israeli soldiers during the ground offensive, but others were duds or misfires that landed short, meaning Hamas dropped explosives on its own people.

It is even possible, the intelligence chief said, that some of that fire was intentional.

Yes, some of the damage to Gaza was inflicted directly by Hamas. If you have the resources of the Washington Post behind you and you need this pointed out to you after the war, you might want to consider it not a revelation but a piece of constructive professional criticism.

What we discovered–or, rather, confirmed yet again–during this latest war was that the Palestinian leadership, and especially Hamas, relies on the ignorance of the Western press. The lack of knowledge about Palestinian politics is crucial to Hamas’s strategy and it should be a source of agitation for newspapers providing the resources to cover the conflict and getting this lump of coal in return.

But it’s not just ignorance of Palestinian politics; it’s ignorance of Israeli politics too–far less justifiable since English is so broadly spoken there and the country allows freedom of the press. And that ignorance is not just on the part of the press; it’s also from national governments, including the current occupants of the White House.

This was brought to light again by another excellent piece debunking settlement myths by Elliott Abrams and Uri Sadot, who have returned to this topic again to address the manifold falsities inspired by the recent land designation, which we covered on the blog here and here. Not only were the press and foreign leaders wrong about this particular land, but Abrams and Sadot also point out it’s part of a larger misunderstanding about Israel’s broader settlement policy under Benjamin Netanyahu.

The prime minister continues to rein in settlement growth. For that, he is denounced by the settler movement for restricting settlements and by Western governments for expanding settlements. Only one of those is right–and it’s not the Western governments:

It’s a lose-lose situation for Bibi, as nasty attacks from settler leaders coincide with those from prime ministers, foreign ministers, and presidents across the globe. The Israeli prime minister deserves credit, under these circumstances, for sticking to what he has said and appears to believe: Israel must build where it will stay, in Jerusalem and the major blocks, and it is foolish to waste resources in West Bank areas it will someday leave.

At this point, the mindless refrain on settlement construction seems to have assumed a life of its own. But anyone who’s serious about addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should ignore the speeches and the rote condemnations, and study the numbers. The vast expansion of Israeli settlements in the future Palestinian state is simply not happening.

Newspapers may have resources, but nobody has the resources of the American government. And yet, the Obama administration’s pronouncements on Israeli politics and policy reveal a stunning, all-encompassing ignorance. Even worse, that ignorance is voluntary: it is very easy to get the real story. The president and his Cabinet don’t seem to want the real story. It’s no wonder their policies toward the conflict are so destructive and their diplomacy so thoughtlessly harmful.

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What the Syria Fiasco Means for Iran, Gaza

To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

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To say President Obama badly needed a foreign-policy win is an understatement. And there were decent odds he’d eventually get one: as sports fans tend to say about a batter in a terrible slump, “he’s due.” The plan to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was supposed to be that victory. But now administration officials don’t seem to even believe it themselves.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, who rose to prominence accusing lots of American officials of inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on their watch and then joined the Obama Cabinet where she has practiced inexcusable inaction while mass slaughter occurred on her watch, says Assad may still have chemical weapons. And he has a record of using them. Oh, and the brutal butchers of ISIS may get their hands on them too. So the administration’s one success in the Middle East was less “mission accomplished” and more “hey, we gave it a shot.”

There is much to be concerned about in this report, but even the minor details are problematic:

Samantha Power spoke to reporters after the Security Council received a briefing from Sigrid Kaag, who heads the international effort to rid Syria of its chemical weapons.

The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile. But Kaag said the OPCW is still working with Syria to resolve discrepancies in its declaration, which she said range from outdated records to discrepancies on the volume of materials.

Power said the U.S. is concerned not only that President Bashar Assad’s regime still has chemical weapons but that any stockpiles left behind could end up in the hands of the Islamic State group, which has seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq.

“Certainly if there are chemical weapons left in Syria, there will be a risk that those weapons fall into ISIL’s hands. And we can only imagine what a group like that would do if in possession of such a weapon,” Power said, referring to the militant group by one of its known acronyms.

The Easter egg of disaster buried in that excerpt was the following sentence, if you missed it: “The joint mission of the United Nations and the Organization for the prohibition of Chemical Weapons will end at the end of the month after destroying nearly all of Syria’s declared stockpile.” It’s actually quite amazing. The job isn’t finished, and they know it’s not, but they’re ending the crux of the mission anyway because … well they just are.

So what are the lessons from yet another Obama team failure? Firstly, we knew this was a failure even before the mission came to an end, because the list of banned chemicals was not exhaustive and Assad’s regime was still using other chemical weapons during this process.

But more importantly, it continues to hammer away at whatever is left of Obama’s credibility. Ending the mission to follow through on the chemical-weapons deal before it’s done tells us much about why the world would be foolish to trust Obama on any Iran deal. Deadlines get extended, but at some point they don’t even do that anymore; the administration just gives up and pivots to trying to contain the damage from their failure.

In Syria, that damage means the possibility that not one but two actors in the conflict will use chemical weapons: the original offender, Assad, and the murderous Islamists of ISIS. In Iran, the damage from such a failure would be orders of magnitude worse, because it would mean nuclear weapons in the hands of a terroristic state actor and possibly murderous Islamist groups as well. It could be Syria, in other words, minus the state failure but plus nukes.

And it’s not just Iran, of course. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has suggested that in order to preserve a cessation of hostilities emanating from Gaza, the Hamas-run enclave should be demilitarized with Obama’s Syria disarmament in mind. As the Jerusalem Post reported during the recent war:

The idea of demilitarizing Gaza has its roots in the Syrian precedent, and the fact that the US and Russia managed to successfully dismantle Syria of the vast majority of its chemical weapons stockpile.

Netanyahu likes that model, and has repeatedly praised US President Barack Obama for it.

Indeed, he has called for the same paradigm to be used with Iran: dismantling their nuclear infrastructure.

That may have once sounded like a recipe for progress. It’s now clearly a recipe for disaster. The Obama administration has taken to making promises in lieu of action. The Syrian precedent suggests those promises are, as always, just words.

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Whose Victory Is Amerli?

The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.

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The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.

If you want to know more about Suleimani, who may be the most feared man in the Middle East, read this long profile by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker which notes that in addition to directing Syria’s deadly offensive against rebel forces, “Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone.”

This, in short, is not someone the U.S. should knowingly be cooperating with even if we share an interest in rolling back ISIS advances in Iraq. The problem, even leaving moral qualms aside, is that Suleimani’s way of war is to employ indiscriminate violence to try to cow rebel forces into submission. In Iraq, such a strategy is likely to backfire by driving Sunnis deeper into ISIS’s camp.

The way to win in Iraq–to “degrade and destroy” ISIS as President Obama claims to be doing–is not to drop bombs in support of Suleimani’s thugs. The only way to truly roll back ISIS–to chase them to “the gates of hell,” wherever those may be found, as Joe Biden theatrically vows to do–is to ally with Sunni tribes who are chafing under ISIS’s heavyhanded rule but will stick with the terrorist group as long as it credibly postures as the defender of Sunnis against the “Persians,” as Anbari tribesmen refer to all Shiites. Normally to call Shiites “Persians” is an insult implying they’re not real Iraqis–but in the case of Suleimani the label fits because he really is Iranian, not Iraqi. Thus the more that resistance to ISIS is identified with Iranian interests, the less traction it will gain in Sunni areas.

The U.S. needs to tread carefully, supporting the Kurdish pesh merga, non-sectarian elements of the Iraqi Security Forces (which may mean principally the Iraqi Special Operations Forces), and Sunni tribes–not the murderous Shiite militias armed and directed by Suleimani. But in order to do that the U.S. needs more of an on-the-ground presence than we currently have: it’s impossible to accurately employ U.S. airpower in more than dribs and drabs without having more eyes on the ground than we currently possess.

I have been arguing for sending 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to act as Special Operations Forces and as advisers to the Iraqis and the Free Syrian Army–a view endorsed by no less than retired Marine General Tony Zinni, a widely revered former commandeer of Central Command (and a skeptic of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq).

Zinni is quoted as saying: “My God, we are the most powerful nation in the world. This is a moment we have to act. How many Americans getting their throats cut on TV can we stand?” Good question–and one that President Obama still needs to answer.

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Will Hostage Bring Cameron into the War?

Refusing to pay ransoms to terrorists has the virtue of being both morally laudable and strategically expedient. However, governments that refuse to negotiate with terrorists are generally obliged to take some alternative course of action instead–such as to combat and defeat them. British Prime Minister David Cameron has employed some staunch rhetoric against ISIS’s advance, much of it far more rousing than that of President Obama, who generally sounds as if he is discussing a matter with all the urgency of mass transit whenever he is forced to speak on the subject. Still, Cameron is yet to join the United States in its airstrikes against the Islamists. And with a British hostage now apparently next in line on ISIS’s macabre list of beheadings, there is a renewed pressure for Cameron to match his strong words with some equally strong actions.

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Refusing to pay ransoms to terrorists has the virtue of being both morally laudable and strategically expedient. However, governments that refuse to negotiate with terrorists are generally obliged to take some alternative course of action instead–such as to combat and defeat them. British Prime Minister David Cameron has employed some staunch rhetoric against ISIS’s advance, much of it far more rousing than that of President Obama, who generally sounds as if he is discussing a matter with all the urgency of mass transit whenever he is forced to speak on the subject. Still, Cameron is yet to join the United States in its airstrikes against the Islamists. And with a British hostage now apparently next in line on ISIS’s macabre list of beheadings, there is a renewed pressure for Cameron to match his strong words with some equally strong actions.

There are of course those in Britain who would want to see Cameron pursue the same course of action as has been adopted by the countries of mainland Europe. French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Danish hostages were all held by militants in Iraq and Syria and are all now free after their ransoms were paid. But in surrendering to the terrorists’ demands Western governments are in a sense both funding terrorism and putting more of their citizens around the world at risk by incentivizing their kidnapping.

The French attitude to hostage taking makes the point pretty clearly. Despite the fact that the payment of ransoms for French hostages is generally undertaken through state owned companies rather than by the government directly–so as to permit French politicians to make the unconvincing claim that they are absolved from the whole sordid affair–the effect is still entirely the same. Indeed, it has been estimated that France has now paid over $57 million to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in return for the release of hostages. For their trouble France has succeeded in making its citizens the most desirable people in the world to kidnap and last year it is thought that more French nationals were taken hostage than those from any other country in the world.

Of course as well as funds, terrorists also often demand the release of prisoners. But by letting hardened terrorists go free, Western governments are essentially just returning combatants to the field and replenishing the ranks of terrorist groups. Furthermore, in countries where the most severe punishment on the books is imprisonment, the release of these prisoners renders terrorism a crime without penalty. During the 1970s the PLO and associated groups became particularly adept at using hostage taking for this very purpose. They knew that European countries were the weak link here and of the 204 terrorists convicted outside of the Middle East between 1968 and 1975, only three were still in prison by the end of that period.

So David Cameron’s refusal to follow his European counterparts down the ransom paying rabbit hole is indeed both sensible and admirable. Yet, if he is not going to free British hostages by negotiating with their captors then he must explain what he intends to do instead. Nor can he maintain the rhetoric of moral opprobrium against ISIS with any kind of credibility if he still refuses to take real action. If British government officials want to label ISIS as “evil” then that is fine–just so long as they know that doing so will quickly render their current policy morally indefensible.

Up until now, Britain has met the ISIS threat with what appears to have been a defense strategy devised by Quakers. A team is being put together to document ISIS war crimes so that these people might one day be put on trial, while the British air force recently took to the skies over mount Sinjar to drop bottles water to the sheltering Yazidis down below. Yet in the end it was only ever going to be the kind of airstrikes employed by the United States that would save the Yazidis from the ISIS militants seeking to perpetrate genocide against them. As it is, Obama’s strategy may well prove to be too little, too late. But as things stand, for all his tough talk, Cameron has only managed less than that.

With regard to freeing the British hostage, Cameron’s government now insists that all options are being considered. Yet under present circumstances a rescue operation looks unlikely. Cameron’s former secretary of defense, Liam Fox, has however very publicly called on Britain to join the U.S. in its airstrikes. There are the first tentative signs that the British government may be coming round to this idea. But for the moment, Cameron is stalling, talking about building a broad coalition, one which he insists must include non-Western nations as well–though with news about the existence of a British hostage now being made public, there are the first stirrings of popular pressure for “something to be done.”

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A Rabbi Upsets the Church of Liberalism

Last week, Rabbi Richard Block caused a bit of a stir by announcing he was canceling his subscription to the New York Times. It caused a stir because of who he is: “a lifelong Democrat, a political liberal, a Reform rabbi, and for four decades, until last week, a New York Times subscriber,” as he wrote in Tablet.

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Last week, Rabbi Richard Block caused a bit of a stir by announcing he was canceling his subscription to the New York Times. It caused a stir because of who he is: “a lifelong Democrat, a political liberal, a Reform rabbi, and for four decades, until last week, a New York Times subscriber,” as he wrote in Tablet.

Every so often, someone surprises and offends the intelligentsia by revealing they don’t read the Times. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger wrote the definitive column on the subject back in 2004 (reprinted online at NRO a few years ago). Because Block represented a somewhat prominent liberal defector, the true believers of the religion of liberalism were aghast.

Perhaps no one took this more personally than Chemi Shalev, columnist for Haaretz. Most of Shalev’s column is pretty silly, accusing Block of intellectual retreat because he no longer will give his money to the house organ of the Church of Liberalism. This is, essentially, the I know you are but what am I response to Block, since the Times’s extreme ideological rigidity and enforced narrative conformity are precisely what Block objects to about the newspaper. But Shalev’s column–actually, one sentence of the column–is interesting for two reasons.

The first is the extent to which the rise of conservative and pro-Israel alternative media has slowly driven the left mad. Shalev writes:

Really, Rabbi Block? You won’t miss the New York Times? You’ll make do with Fox News and the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Free Beacon, because they report on Israel in the way you deem acceptable? You’ll give up the Times because they upset you on Gaza?

It’s the third sentence there, of course, that is the interesting one. Can you imagine, Shalev asks, someone giving up the Times? What will they read, the Washington Free Beacon? This is supposed to be an insult directed at the Free Beacon, but of course a Haaretz columnist taking a shot at the reporting chops of the Beacon is actually punching up. (Sample piece from today’s Haaretz: Sefi Rachlevsky’s argument that the country’s Orthodox Jewish schools are putting Israel in danger of transforming the Jewish state into “the world of ISIS.” Haaretz tweeted out a link to the article, writing: “Israel needs humanistic science education, not religious – or else it will become like ISIS.”)

The other reason that line is interesting is because it offers an opportunity to point something out about the Wall Street Journal. Shalev includes the Journal with Fox and the Beacon, presumably to impugn the objectivity of its reporting. Shalev, in other words, has no idea what he’s talking about. As everybody knows, the Journal’s editorial page is conservative but its reporting–as the data make explicitly clear–is not. There is a view among many leftists that if the editors of a publication are reliably supportive of Israel, the entire publication isn’t to be trusted. It would be shame if Shalev subscribed to this mania.

But more importantly, the summer war with Gaza made clear that when it comes to reporting on the conflict in the Middle East, no one holds a candle to the Journal. It was by far the most important newspaper to read, at least outside of Israel, to understand the complex web of diplomacy before and during the war. Adam Entous, in particular, was head and shoulders above any of his peers.

Entous had two major scoops during the war, in addition to excellent general reporting. The first told the story of how the alliance between Israel and Egypt’s new strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi formed after the Egyptian military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in a coup. The story explained how Egypt’s policies changed toward Gaza, how Israel’s assessment of Sisi developed, and how and why the ceasefire diplomacy during the war took shape.

The second was the major scoop that the Obama administration had downgraded its military cooperation with Israel during the war and even withheld a missile shipment in order to tie Israel’s hands and force it to accept a ceasefire opposed not just by Israel but by the Arab states in the immediate vicinity who understood the deal would benefit Hamas and its benefactors, Qatar and Turkey.

Meanwhile, the Times was making a fool of itself. It wasn’t just biased; it was, as the better reporting elsewhere showed, creating a version of events so far removed from reality as to make the reader wonder which war the Times was covering. This wasn’t altogether surprising: the Times Jerusalem bureau chief has had a disastrous tenure and does not appear to be at all familiar with the basic geography of the country she covers and the municipality out of which her bureau is based. And the Times’s Gaza correspondent was apparently using a photo of Yasser Arafat as his Facebook profile picture.

In sum, the point is not about bias: that’s nothing new. The point is that if you read the Times’s war coverage you did not learn anything about the war. You simply read proofread versions of Hamas press releases. I can’t speak for Rabbi Block, but I get the impression he’s not canceling his Times subscription because he can’t deal with inconvenient facts. I imagine he’s canceling his subscription because he is seeking out the facts, and this summer proved he’d have to go elsewhere for them.

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Biden v. Obama on ISIS

Vice President Joe Biden has given a speech in which he bellows about what America will do to ISIS. “We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” according to Mr. Biden.

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Vice President Joe Biden has given a speech in which he bellows about what America will do to ISIS. “We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” according to Mr. Biden.

I wonder, though: Will we follow ISIS to the gates of hell only if we are joined by the “international community”? And is “following them to the gates of hell” the same thing as continuing to “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem,” as Mr. Biden’s boss, President Obama, said earlier today?

Just wondering.

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Obama’s Monty Python Foreign Policy

Speaking to a group of donors gathered at a Democratic National Committee barbecue in Purchase, New York over the weekend, President Obama decided to put his own peculiar spin on world events.

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Speaking to a group of donors gathered at a Democratic National Committee barbecue in Purchase, New York over the weekend, President Obama decided to put his own peculiar spin on world events.

While conceding, “I can see why a lot of folks are troubled,” the president said this: “And the truth of the matter is, is that the world has always been messy. In part, we’re just noticing now because of social media and our capacity to see in intimate detail the hardships that people are going through.” According to Mr. Obama, “If you watch the nightly news, it feels like the world is falling apart.” (The remark weirdly elicited laugher from his audience.) He added that while the Middle East is challenging, “the truth is it’s been challenging for quite a while.” The president told his audience, “I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago.” In fact, “we are much less vulnerable than we were 10 or 12 or 15 years ago.”

Let’s sort through these comments, shall we?

It’s certainly true that the world has always been messy; but it actually has gotten a good deal messier during the president’s watch. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in a front-page story published earlier this summer, “The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s.” Things have even gotten worse since that story. On Sunday the Washington Post, in front-page story, put things this way:

Short of world war, it’s rare that a chief executive goes through a foreign policy month like President Obama’s August.

U.S. warplanes struck in Iraq for the first time in years, as U.S. diplomats struggled to establish a new government in Baghdad. Islamic State militants beheaded an American journalist in Syria and spread their reach across the Middle East.

War raged between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. In Afghanistan, U.S. plans for an orderly exit at the end of the year teetered on the brink of disaster. Russia all but invaded Ukraine and dared Obama to stop it. Libya descended into violent chaos.

Even since that story, it’s been reported that a political crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan is worsening. And it was confirmed today that ISIS beheaded another American journalist.

In his remarks on Saturday the president seemed to be advancing the thesis of Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. My concern is that the president, in taking comfort from long-term trends that are driven by a variety of factors (including the rise of the nation-state, commerce and cosmopolitanism), is underplaying the dangers that characterize this particular moment.

Professor Pinker’s book may well be right in broad historical terms; but it’s the trajectory of events just now that are so alarming. And that’s what the president, I think, is missing. This is a period of rising disorder and instability that could unleash catastrophic consequences. And Mr. Obama has shown he’s wholly unprepared to meet them. He has been completely overmatched by events – confused, hesitant, often passive, sending mixed signals, desperately hoping a deus ex machina arrives in the form of allies who confront these threats in lieu of America leading the effort.

The president made that clear once again during his press conference in Estonia this morning, declaring that “if” we are joined by the “international community,” we can continue to “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

But that “international community” isn’t going to emerge unless America leads the way, which is something the president hasn’t shown any inclination to do. His preference since Day One has been “leading from behind,” in the words of an Obama advisor. Which means not leading at all. It turns out coalitions in the abstract mean nothing at all and can do nothing at all.

The president, rather than facing reality, appears to be turning from it. He looks to be falling deeper into denial. He doesn’t like what’s happening in the real world, so he’s reinventing it. This is how it plays itself out: Mr. Obama now insists he really and truly wanted to keep American troops in Iraq rather than withdraw them. The tide of war is receding. Vladimir Putin’s conquests are a sign of weakness and even unfashionable. (“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” Secretary of State John Kerry said as Russia began its invasion of Crimea earlier this year.) The Libya campaign was a model of success. As recently as the early part of this year, ISIS/ISIL was nothing more than a “jayvee team.” The president’s policies have, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest, “improved the — you know, the tranquility of the global community.”

We now have a presidency that resembles a Monty Python movie. Apart from the Islamic State, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Gaza, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Crimea, Ukraine, Russia, China, Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, North Korea, and other nations, the world is a sea of tranquility.

The difference between the Obama presidency and Monty Python is Monty Python was intentional satire.

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WaPo Calls Out White House for Misleading on ISIS

Last week I went into painstaking detail to prove that White House press secretary Josh Earnest wasn’t telling the truth when he claimed that President Obama didn’t have ISIS in mind when he used the phrase “jayvee team” in a New Yorker interview.

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Last week I went into painstaking detail to prove that White House press secretary Josh Earnest wasn’t telling the truth when he claimed that President Obama didn’t have ISIS in mind when he used the phrase “jayvee team” in a New Yorker interview.

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler weighs in today, making essentially the same points and, by the end, awarding Mr. Earnest “four pinnochios,” the worst possible rating when it comes to judging the honesty of a claim.

According to Mr. Kessler:

With the passage of eight months, the president’s “JV” comment looks increasingly untenable, so we can understand why the White House spokesman would try to suggest that what is now known as the Islamic State was not the subject of the conversation.

But in quoting from the transcript, Earnest provided a selective reading of the discussion. In particular, he failed to provide the context in which Obama made his remarks — the takeover of Fallujah by ISIS. That’s fairly misleading. The interviewer was certainly asking about ISIS when Obama answered with his “JV” remarks.

Mr. Kessler also reports, “We asked Earnest and White House representatives for a response but over a four-day period did not get a reply.”

It’s little wonder why. The White House press secretary intentionally misled us, he’s been called out for it, and he can’t defend it. All of this from an administration which promised to return politics to a respected place in American life.

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NATO, Ukraine’s Frozen Conflict, and the Georgia Precedent

President Obama gave a fairly strong speech this morning in Estonia, calling out Russian aggression and rejecting talk of “spheres of influence.” But there was one aspect of the speech that had a missing element, and that element undermines much of Obama’s bluster toward Moscow and his tough talk on beefing up the NATO alliance.

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President Obama gave a fairly strong speech this morning in Estonia, calling out Russian aggression and rejecting talk of “spheres of influence.” But there was one aspect of the speech that had a missing element, and that element undermines much of Obama’s bluster toward Moscow and his tough talk on beefing up the NATO alliance.

In a section of the speech on Ukraine, Obama pledged to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine and other regional allies, and that the West “will not accept Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea, or any part of Ukraine.” The Georgian conflict with Russia is helpful in understanding why Obama’s comments on defending Ukraine ring hollow.

The New York Times today reports on what should be encouraging news, but is actually nearly a repeat of Moscow’s victory in Georgia: Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are moving haltingly toward a ceasefire arrangement in eastern Ukraine. According to the Times, here are Putin’s conditions:

The primary conditions on Mr. Putin’s list are that the separatists halt all offensive operations and that Ukrainian troops move their artillery back out of range of all population centers in the rebel-held area.

Mr Putin also called for Ukraine to cease airstrikes, for the establishment of an international monitoring mission and humanitarian aid corridors, for an “all for all” prisoner exchange, and for “rebuilding brigades” to repair damaged roads, bridges, power lines and other infrastructure.

Mr. Putin made the remarks at a news conference during a state visit to Mongolia. After confirming that he had spoken with Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Putin offhandedly mentioned that he had “sketched out” a peace plan during his flight from Moscow. An aide then handed Mr. Putin a notebook, from which he read the plan.

This is a major victory for Putin, and–though it wasn’t picked up on by the American press–a very clear rebuttal to Obama’s NATO rhetoric. That’s because what Putin has done in Ukraine, if a ceasefire is struck along these lines, is create a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine.

When Putin invaded Ukraine for a second time by sending troops into the eastern part of the country, Kiev asked for Western help. The West ignored such pleas. So Kiev began maneuvering to make some type of robust Western help obligatory, first by asking to be named a major non-NATO ally and then making noises about getting on track to actually join the alliance. The frozen conflict makes this impossible. And here, the Georgia precedent is instructive.

At a 2008 NATO summit, George W. Bush advocated for putting Ukraine and Georgia on membership action plans (MAP), the path of domestic reforms leading to eventual NATO membership. The French and Germans opposed him. The disagreement over Georgia, which was closer than Ukraine to attaining the political stability essential for a MAP, had much to do with the frozen conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway provinces where Russia had installed Russian officers in the local positions of authority and stirred up enough trouble for a pretext for invasion. (Sound familiar?)

The conflicts in Georgia were longstanding; as I’ve explained before, for a decade before war actually broke out Russia had been staffing local governments, arming them to the teeth, distributing Russian passports to these Georgians, and even occasionally bombing Georgian territory. After the 2008 NATO meeting at which the spineless European hypocrites declared frozen conflicts to be cause for MAP rejection (the Germans had been reminded by one diplomat at the time that West Germany was admitted to NATO four decades before its own “frozen conflict,” the east-west division, was resolved), Russia invaded. Putin’s puppet Dmitry Medvedev later openly admitted that Moscow did so in order to keep Georgia out of NATO.

What the Russians are doing now in eastern Ukraine is quite similar, though Putin can’t count on the Western left for support quite to the same degree as when his opponent was the Georgian Mikheil Saakashvili. Putin doesn’t need to conquer territory to control it. Not only does he know how to use pipeline politics to get his way, but he’s already moved Russian military equipment into place in Ukraine and deputized local pro-Russian militants.

Putin may not annex eastern Ukraine (though he might also slow-bleed the territory into submission and lull the Western media into boredom in order to capture the territory eventually, in stages). But he knows precisely how to ensure that when Obama pledges to come to the aid of all NATO allies, that list never includes Ukraine.

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The Inevitable Appeasement of Putin

President Obama was in Estonia today uttering brave words. He said that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London” and vowed that the U.S. would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea anymore than it recognized the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic Republics. “Borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun,” he said.

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President Obama was in Estonia today uttering brave words. He said that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London” and vowed that the U.S. would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea anymore than it recognized the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic Republics. “Borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun,” he said.

Is Vladimir Putin impressed? Hardly. The smirking, swaggering aggressor just bragged that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he felt like it. Certainly Putin has little cause to think that even a Russian military march to Kiev would meet with serious Western opposition given the lack of response so far to the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.

In an article on the European response, the New York Times had a telling line: “Despite anger at Russian actions, there are few signs that Europe has the stomach for a more confrontational policy if the White House does not. In the end, European leaders whose economies are dependent on Russian energy are reluctant to widen the conflict beyond additional sanctions. Instead, they may seek an outcome that makes some concessions to the Kremlin.”

Thus, for all the rhetorical furor over Russian actions, the Europeans resist imposing serious sanctions or sending arms to Kiev. France is actually providing Russia with two state-of-the-art warships while leaving Ukraine high and dry.

It is hardly surprising that the Europeans would want to appease Russia no matter what. It is their way with aggressors whether named Mussolini, Hitler, or Putin. Only the U.S. can rally lethargic Europeans to do more to stop Russian aggression which, if left unchecked, will erode the entire basis of the post-1945 world order which created peace in Europe in the first place.

But for all of Obama’s tough-sounding words, he is not willing to back them up with tough actions such as sending arms to the Ukrainians to allow them to defend themselves, positioning substantial U.S. army units in the frontline NATO states, or imposing truly severe sanctions that would cut off the entire Russian economy from access to the U.S. financial markets and dollar-denominated transactions. And if the U.S., which is far away and much less economically connected with Russia than are the Europeans, won’t act, what chance is there that the Europeans–who will face real economic consequences for standing up to Russia–will do anything?

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