Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

The GOP’s Resurging Public Image

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Scott Clement write about a new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

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The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Scott Clement write about a new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

Republican victories in the midterm elections have translated into an immediate boost in the party’s image, putting the GOP at its highest point in eight years, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The spike in the party’s standing comes after Republicans picked up nine seats to take control of the Senate, raised their numbers in the House to the highest level in more than half a century and added new governorships to its already clear majority.

In the new poll, 47 percent say they have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, compared with 33 percent in the month before the midterm elections. An equal percentage have an unfavorable view, which marks the first time in six years that fewer than half of Americans said they saw Republicans negatively.

This news is welcome news for the GOP. What it means, I think, is that the American people are giving the Republican Party a careful second look in the aftermath of the multiplying failures of the Obama presidency. (Not only do 50 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable impression of the Democratic Party; a majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the presidency, the economy, immigration, and international affairs, while a plurality disapprove of how he’s handling the threat of terrorism.) It’s quite striking that those surveyed give Republicans in Congress a nine-point advantage over Obama when it comes to handling both the economy and immigration.

At the same time, this boost in the GOP’s image is at least in part a temporary development, one you’d expect in the wake of a very successful midterm election. To their credit, the congressional leadership of the Republican Party has been smart enough to avoid taking steps that might have led to a government shutdown, which would have more than washed away the progress the party has made without achieving anything useful.

The task of the GOP during the next two years is to act in ways that are responsible and adult-like, that shift perceptions of it from being the Party of No to being the party of prosperity and the middle class. There are limits to what the Republican Party can do without a presidential nominee. But between now and when it chooses one, the GOP can avoid traps set for it by the president, present itself as a principled and constructive force in American politics, and hand off to the eventual nominee a party that is better positioned than it has been in a decade.

That may not be everything–but it wouldn’t be nothing, either.

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Obama’s ISIS Boasts Ring Hollow

President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

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President Obama went to New Jersey yesterday to speak to troops at a military base to thank them for their service, as is appropriate for the commander in chief. But the president used the occasion to tout the campaign against the ISIS terror group he began at the end of the summer as a success. Comparing this effort to America’s encounters with al-Qaeda, the president boasted of “hammering” ISIS and having “put them on the defensive.” But as the year heads to a close, there is no sign that the group’s grip on much of Iraq and Syria is slipping. Though Americans must hope that Obama’s optimism about ISIS’s certain doom is well founded, given the half-hearted nature of the U.S. commitment to the fight and the paucity of results, it may be that the group’s continued strength is doing more to undermine confidence in the U.S. commitment to the fight than bolstering it.

As our Max Boot wrote last month, the administration has only been taking small steps toward assembling the forces needed to defeat ISIS, let alone implanting a war-winning strategy. The few troops and air crew being used to hit ISIS may have done some hammering of the Islamists, but to date there is nothing indicating that either the U.S. or its allies in this battle are anywhere close to being able to start rolling back ISIS’s massive territorial gains of the past year.

The comparison between past American campaigns in both Kosovo and Afghanistan is apt. When those commitments began, the U.S. deployed the kind of force and began bombing the foe on a scale that soon crumpled the resistance of the Serbs and the Taliban respectively. Though the Afghan war continues to this day, the offensive to rout the Islamists out of control of most of the country was successful. But what the U.S. has done so far in the fight against ISIS are pinpricks by comparison. Given the vast territory it has gained on Obama’s watch, the notion that three months of combat have merely “blunted its momentum” is hardly comforting to those suffering under its murderous rule or neighboring countries that were hoping the U.S. would act decisively.

The president was dragged into this fight reluctantly after years of refusing to take action in Syria as the situation there worsened along with the options available to the U.S. The U.S. is paying a high price for Obama’s Hamlet-like dithering before the decision to fight ISIS was taken. But it is also going to be paying a price for the half-hearted nature of the efforts against ISIS going on now.

It’s not just that it is appalling that the world’s sole superpower finds itself either unable or unwilling to muster sufficient force to be able to defeat a group that Obama continues to speak of with contempt. Nor can he use the excuse that it is a guerrilla group hiding out in the mountains that can’t be defeated by the conventional military tactics and airpower that the U.S. military excels in using. ISIS has, in fact, conducted its own conventional war and has managed somehow to go on fighting on two fronts in two countries with no signs that it is cracking.

That was bad enough when the administration was still able to pretend that this wasn’t their fight. But once the beheadings of American citizens forced Obama to act, he has continued to treat this as a minor affair that the U.S. can conduct on the cheap. But wars fought on the cheap tend to be very expensive in the long run. So far, all this campaign has gotten Washington is a closer relationship with an equally dangerous Iranian regime and the loss of trust in American power on the part of its allies.

Though the temptation to speak is obvious, it is a mistake for the president to be running his mouth about desultory achievements that do more to highlight the shortcomings of his strategy than proving their value. So long as it stays in the field in control of the bulk of the territory of two countries while fighting the U.S., ISIS is winning and showing the people of the region that they would be fools not to back the “strong horse” that is standing up to the Americans. Until he can announce some real victories against ISIS, President Obama should stop drawing attention to his failures with foolish boasts that do more to undermine U.S. security than to enhance it.

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How Many Snowden Documents Are Fake?

The 2014 Pulitzers gave supporters of NSA leaker and defector Edward Snowden an opportunity to spike the football. And they would do so. “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor,” crowed the Huffington Post. The Pulitzer is indeed a prestigious award, though I would doubt that the Huffington Post would claim that the 1932 Pulitzer Prizes demolished the idea that Stalin was a murderous tyrant. Even after the award, Snowden’s actions have given his critics more reason to doubt him. And now we have another.

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The 2014 Pulitzers gave supporters of NSA leaker and defector Edward Snowden an opportunity to spike the football. And they would do so. “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor,” crowed the Huffington Post. The Pulitzer is indeed a prestigious award, though I would doubt that the Huffington Post would claim that the 1932 Pulitzer Prizes demolished the idea that Stalin was a murderous tyrant. Even after the award, Snowden’s actions have given his critics more reason to doubt him. And now we have another.

Last year, the German publication Spiegel, which had been publishing some of the leaked Snowden documents, alleged that the NSA was bugging Angela Merkel’s phone. I say “alleged” rather than “revealed” because the credibility of that story just took a major hit. The story caused ripples of consternation throughout Europe and threatened to rupture U.S.-German relations, and President Obama apologized, though he denied knowing anything about it. The denial seemed implausible at the time; it turns out the president was probably telling the truth.

The German government began an investigation into the allegations this year, and they have come to some preliminary findings, as Reuters reported:

Germany’s top public prosecutor said an investigation into suspected tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone by U.S. spies had so far failed to find any concrete evidence.

Revelations by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden that Washington carried out large-scale electronic espionage in Germany provoked widespread outrage — particularly the allegation that the NSA had bugged Merkel’s phone.

Harald Range launched an official investigation in June, believing there was enough preliminary evidence to show unknown U.S. intelligence officers had tapped the phone, although there was not enough clarity on the issue to bring charges.

On Wednesday he said however, “the document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database.

“Not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA” is an extremely important detail. If that’s true, here’s what appears to have happened: an American defector to Russia (Snowden had been granted asylum in Russia just a couple months before the Spiegel story was published) passed along a fake document designed to throw a wrench in U.S.-German (and U.S.-European) relations.

But we don’t know that either. In fact, this episode raises more questions than it answers. We already know Snowden isn’t trustworthy, and we know his story has changed. We know he has embraced a role as a Putin propagandist. We know that, according to Snowden himself, he doesn’t know everything that’s included in the trove of documents he stole and released on his way to Russia.

So there’s much we already know about Snowden. But if this document is fake, there’s a lot we don’t know about the leaks. First and foremost, we don’t know how much is fake. This is important, because careers were made and Pulitzers were won on the backs of this document trove. NSA reform efforts took shape based on the supposed revelations (many of them surely actual revelations; no one should think all the documents are false).

And it’s also why Snowden’s credibility is so crucial to sorting all this out. The debate that raged in the aftermath of the first disclosures and the news that Snowden had taken much more, which would amount to a steady drip-drip of American secrets, took for granted that the United States government did what Snowden said it did.

In this, Snowden was aided by two things: first and foremost, the journalists who essentially worked as his secretaries. And second, the overwhelming amount of documents he took.

If it’s true that the NSA order regarding Merkel was a fake, why didn’t the NSA show it to be at the time? One possibility is that the size of the bureaucracy of America’s intelligence apparatus makes such a denial a bit like proving a negative: how could the entire organization be sure it never came from NSA? The president’s initial denial suggests the top leaders at the organization truly didn’t recognize the order. But if you redact names and other essential information from such a document, it’s not so easy to trace it.

And who has the resources to conduct such an investigation? Remember, the documents were not handed back to the government. Clearly some of the information released by Snowden’s secretaries was accurate, the rest believable. Snowden seems to have been relying on this.

And he also seems to have been relying on the media. The public doesn’t have access to Snowden’s haul. They trust reporters to sift through them and present them accurately. This is not exactly the golden age of ethics in media, but the public doesn’t really have a choice. They now know that their faith in the media was misplaced. The press isn’t qualified to interpret massive amounts of national-security documents. That doesn’t mean there’s another option; there isn’t. The press still does a great service when correctly reporting on government malfeasance. It would just be nice if the press got the story right far more often than it does.

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No UN Palestinian Veto? Obama’s Tempted.

This week push may come to shove on the long-simmering feud between President Obama and the Israeli government. With the Palestinians pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would unilaterally recognize their independence in the territory won by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the administration must decide whether it is truly in its interests to facilitate an end run around the peace process it has sponsored by refusing to veto the measure just to demonstrate its pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu and or undermine his chances for reelection in the March elections. But while the stakes here are high for both Israel, whose isolation could be greatly increased by passage of such a resolution, and Netanyahu, the danger to Obama’s foreign policy and U.S. interests from such a vote is high as well. Just as important, the notion that passage of this resolution has anything to do with promoting peace is farcical.

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This week push may come to shove on the long-simmering feud between President Obama and the Israeli government. With the Palestinians pushing for a United Nations Security Council resolution that would unilaterally recognize their independence in the territory won by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, the administration must decide whether it is truly in its interests to facilitate an end run around the peace process it has sponsored by refusing to veto the measure just to demonstrate its pique at Prime Minister Netanyahu and or undermine his chances for reelection in the March elections. But while the stakes here are high for both Israel, whose isolation could be greatly increased by passage of such a resolution, and Netanyahu, the danger to Obama’s foreign policy and U.S. interests from such a vote is high as well. Just as important, the notion that passage of this resolution has anything to do with promoting peace is farcical.

The Palestinian Authority’s motives for seeking to gain a Security Council vote on recognition of their independence are clear. They claim that the peace negotiations promoted by the U.S. over the years has not brought them closer to their declared goal of gaining a state and that only by having the international community force its hand will Israel ever be willing to retreat to the 1967 lines and let Palestinians enjoy sovereignty and self-determination. That is the argument behind the decisions of several European parliaments to adopt resolutions endorsing Palestinian statehood.

But it must be understood that this campaign is about avoiding a negotiated end to the conflict, not finding a shortcut to one. The Palestinians have, after all, been offered statehood in Gaza, almost all of the West Bank, and a share of Jerusalem three times by the Israelis in 2000, 2001, and 2008. Even Netanyahu’s government arrived at the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State Kerry in the last year prepared to offer another two-state solution with a prominent advocate of this plan, Tzipi Livni, as their negotiator. But PA leader Mahmoud Abbas blew up those talks just as he fled the table in 2008 when Ehud Olmert offered him virtually everything he had asked for. The obstacle wasn’t Israeli settlements or intransigence, but the fact that Abbas knows it would be political suicide for him to sign any deal that would recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one, no matter where its borders were drawn.

What the Palestinians want, in other words, is a way to avoid negotiations that would obligate them in one form or another to end the conflict with Israel as the price of their independence. The problem with negotiations isn’t that the Israelis, even Netanyahu, have been intransigent, but that no matter how much Obama and Kerry tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, a solution must in the end require them to make peace. The UN resolution they want would merely obligate the Israelis to retreat from more territory without any assurances that what happened when they gave up every inch of Gaza in 2005—the creation of a terrorist Hamas state—would not happen again in the more strategic and larger West Bank.

Obama would savor the embarrassment this would cause Netanyahu, whose chances for reelection might be damaged by an open breach with the United States and the country’s increased isolation as the world demanded it give up land without offering it peace. But this would also mean the effective end of a major portion of the president’s foreign-policy focus: the achievement of a Middle East peace agreement. It would also mark the end of U.S. influence over either side to the confrontation as both Israelis and Palestinians would no longer need or have any desire to gravitate to the U.S.

The surge in Palestinian violence and the growing support for their statehood among European governments may cause Obama to feel more pressure to go along with Western European allies. Just as important, he may be dismayed by the thought that another veto that backs up a negotiated path to Palestinian statehood will be interpreted by Israelis as proving that Netanyahu has, contrary to his critics, not destroyed the alliance. The irony that a decision by the prime minister’s bitter American enemy would help undermine arguments for Netanyahu’s replacement has to worry Obama. But he should also be worried by the blowback from a failure to order a veto.

The president’s hard-core left-wing supporters might defend such a decision but it would be widely condemned by most Democrats, who will rightly see it as a cynical betrayal of principle motivated more by personal grudges than the national interest. It might also backfire in Israel since voters there would be entitled to say the non-veto was proof of Obama’s irremediable hostility to the Jewish state and might motivate many to back Netanyahu so as to demonstrate their unwillingness to be intimidated into accepting measures that would undermine their security and rights.

The optimal scenario for Obama is to avoid any vote on Palestinian independence in the Security Council that would destroy the peace process. But if he is in this difficult position, it’s largely the fault of his own efforts. After spending the last few years bending over backwards trying to demonstrate daylight between the positions of Israel and the United States, the Palestinians have come to believe that sooner or later the president will hand them the diplomatic victory they long for without being forced to pay any price for it. Doing so will be as much a blow to U.S. interests as it will be to Israel, but it’s hard to blame either the Palestinians or the Europeans for thinking that this time, Obama will really betray the Israelis simply in order to harm Netanyahu. If he does, it will mark a new low for an administration that has already turned undermining allies into an art form.

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Should Obama Care Who Wins Israel’s Knesset Elections?

The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

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The latest polls out of Israel show basically a dead heat between Labor and Likud in the upcoming Knesset elections. Likud still has the advantage, because it will likely be easier for Likud to assemble a blocking coalition than for Labor to assemble a governing coalition should they win. But a Labor-Likud race is, in some ways, just like old times. And in the past, when there has been a close left-right election and a Democrat in the White House, the American president tended to dive into the Israeli election and seek to manipulate the outcome in favor of the left. Which raises the question: Will Barack Obama do the same this time around?

Actually, the more interesting question is: Should Obama care who wins? Obviously we know he does care. He hates Netanyahu, and Obama and co-president Valerie Jarrett tend to make policy based on personal grievances and petty grudges rather than on basic rationality. So Obama will care who wins, and perhaps even seek to, yet again, influence the results.

But he shouldn’t care. (Even if he did, he shouldn’t meddle, but the days when Obama could be convinced to respect the sovereignty and democracy of allies are over, if they ever existed.) Bibi Derangement Syndrome has caused American politicos and commentators to do very strange things. For Obama, this has meant downgrading the U.S.-Israel military alliance while Israel was at war. For commentators, this has meant trying to recruit the corrupt and unpopular Ehud Olmert to return to politics.

So, being that the results of the Western left’s interaction with Israeli politics range from terrible to awful, it would benefit everyone involved if Obama gave up on trying to sabotage Israeli governments. And perhaps one way to convince him of that is to explain very clearly why it would be futile for him to meddle anyway.

That’s not because the left doesn’t have a chance to unseat Bibi; indeed it does (though still a longshot). Rather, it’s because the outcome of a Labor victory is unlikely to fundamentally change anything about the peace process.

Obama’s interest in Israel starts and ends with his attempts to get the Jewish state to give away land so he can boost his own presidential legacy. This is in part why Israelis have never come to trust Obama. He doesn’t know much about Israel, and he doesn’t show any interest in learning. For all his mistakes, this was simply not true of Bill Clinton. It was the opposite of true for George W. Bush, who gave moving speeches in Israel that testified to his love of the country and his deep knowledge and appreciation of its people and its history. Obama’s lack of intellectual curiosity is not limited to Israel, of course, but it certainly applies to it.

And so if his interest in Israel starts and ends with the peace process, his interest in Israeli national elections starts and ends there too. Thus Obama might assume that since Labor is traditionally more supportive of the peace process than Likud, and since Labor has added Tzipi Livni, who was Netanyahu’s peace envoy, to its combined electoral slate, therefore this election presents a stark choice between those Obama can manipulate and those Obama cannot. The reality, however, is more complicated, as reality tends to be.

The Israeli right is still benefiting from the collapse in public confidence in the left’s prosecution of national-security policy. Labor has recovered somewhat, but in recent years economic issues have hovered pretty close to the surface for Israeli voters. If Labor wins the election, it almost certainly won’t be seen as a mandate for giving away land to the Palestinians.

This is not only because Labor has less room to maneuver on this issue than the more security-trusted Likud. It’s also because the peace process is at a low point of the modern era, and it’s there because of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. The Clinton administration made some progress on this front, even if the ultimate failure of the Clinton initiative led to a wave of Palestinian violence. The Bush administration made more genuine progress on this front with the Gaza disengagement and the eventual proffer of a generous peace deal from Olmert to Mahmoud Abbas.

The Obama era has seen the resort to a wave of Palestinian violence but no progress leading up to it. In fact, the two sides have been pushed by Obama and Kerry farther apart than they’ve been in decades. When Obama gets involved in the peace process, there is simply no upside, only downside. If Labor wins, there is no room right now for a renewed peace process, and Obama only has two years left in office anyway.

Additionally, Labor would have to do more than just win the election. They would have to put together a governing coalition, and the math is aligned against them. This also mitigates against the Obama agenda; any coalition Labor could put together would probably have to include Avigdor Lieberman and/or the ultra-Orthodox.

It is doubtful that anything significant will change after the Knesset elections in March. That may be disappointing to Obama, but it also might stop him from once again recklessly meddling in the messy world of Israeli politics.

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In Nuke Talks, Obama Still Iran’s Best Asset

For the first time since the Iran nuclear talks were extended for the second time last month, the United States and its allies will meet again with Tehran’s negotiators in Vienna on Wednesday. To listen to public statements from the Obama administration, the allied team will be there to insist on a deal that will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But the same factors that have tilted these negotiations in Iran’s direction throughout the process still seem to be pushing the outcome toward an agreement that will be touted as a desperately needed foreign-policy triumph for the administration. With both the French becoming more vocal about their dissatisfaction with America’s leadership in the talks and the Islamist regime making no secret of their unwillingness to make more concessions, the question facing the negotiators is not so much whether a deal is possible, but whether the U.S. is able to resist the temptation to continue giving ground to the Iranians in order to get a deal at virtually any price.

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For the first time since the Iran nuclear talks were extended for the second time last month, the United States and its allies will meet again with Tehran’s negotiators in Vienna on Wednesday. To listen to public statements from the Obama administration, the allied team will be there to insist on a deal that will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But the same factors that have tilted these negotiations in Iran’s direction throughout the process still seem to be pushing the outcome toward an agreement that will be touted as a desperately needed foreign-policy triumph for the administration. With both the French becoming more vocal about their dissatisfaction with America’s leadership in the talks and the Islamist regime making no secret of their unwillingness to make more concessions, the question facing the negotiators is not so much whether a deal is possible, but whether the U.S. is able to resist the temptation to continue giving ground to the Iranians in order to get a deal at virtually any price.

As the next round of talks begins, observers need to think back to the allies’ position prior to the signing of the interim deal to understand just how far the U.S. has retreated from its current perilous position. In 2012 when he was running for reelection, President Obama vowed during his foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney that any deal must end Iran’s nuclear program. The allies were similarly united behind a position that Iran had no right to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel under any circumstances and that its plutonium plant at Arak must be dismantled.

Since then, the U.S. has accepted the notion that Iran has the right to a nuclear program and that its infrastructure will remain largely in place no matter what the terms of an agreement might say. It has also tacitly recognized Iran’s right to enrichment while claiming that the low levels permitted freeze its progress toward a bomb even though everyone knows these restrictions can easily be reversed. The U.S. has also given every indication it will allow Iran to keep its centrifuges as well as showing no sign that it will press Tehran to give up its plutonium option or stop producing ballistic missiles whose only purpose would be to deliver nuclear warheads. Even worse, the administration seems to be giving up any effort to find out just how much progress the Iranians have made toward weaponizing their nuclear project or to force them to admit International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to get the answers to this vital question.

Based on the experience of the last year and a half of talking with Obama’s envoys, Iran’s negotiators know they only have to stand their ground and it’s only a matter of time until the Americans give in to their demands one by one until they get terms that will let them become a nuclear threshold power as well as lifting the economic sanctions that continue to cripple Iran’s economy.

That the Iranian people are clamoring for an end to the sanctions is clear. As the New York Times reported on Friday, anticipation of the collapse of the restrictions is the talk of Tehran. The eagerness of their would-be European trading partners is just as vocal. In theory, this desire to reconnect Iran to the global economy ought to give the U.S. the leverage to make the Iranians give up their nuclear ambitions. On top of that, the collapse of the price of oil should have Iran even more desperate and the position of the allies even stronger.

But the Iranians know whom they are dealing with. As has become increasingly clear in the last year in which the talks went into two overtime periods despite administration promises that the talks would be finite in length, President Obama’s goal is not so much to fulfill his campaign promise about the nuclear threat as it is to launch a new détente with the Iran. This is a crucial point since it not only makes him more reluctant to stick to Western demands about nuclear issues but makes it impossible for him to contemplate abandoning the negotiations. That means that the Iranians know the president isn’t even thinking, as he should be, of ratcheting up the economic pressure with tougher sanctions, or of making the Islamists fear the possibility that the U.S. would ever use force to ensure the threat is eliminated.

Under these conditions the chances of the U.S. negotiating a deal that could actually stop Iran from ever getting a bomb are slim and none. Instead, the only question remains how far the Iranians are willing to press the president to bend to their will in order to let him declare a victory and welcome this terrorist-sponsoring regime moving closer to regional hegemony as well as a nuclear weapon.

Rather than the renewed diplomacy being a signal for congressional critics from both parties of the president’s policy to pipe down, the new talks should encourage them to work harder to pass the sanctions the president claims he doesn’t need. Unless they act, the path to appeasement of Iran seems to be clear.

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Abandoning the Free Syrian Army

So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

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So how’s the administration campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS going? Not so well in spite of some limited success that Iraqi forces have had in pushing ISIS back in a few spots such as Beiji. The core problem remains the outreach, or lack thereof, to Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. On that score the news isn’t good.

The New York Times has a report on how the police force in Ninevah Province in northern Iraq is not receiving support from the central government in Baghdad or from the U.S. This is a mostly Sunni force in an area where ISIS has been strong–Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to ISIS in June, is located in Ninevah. Retaking, and crucially holding Mosul after retaking it, will require the work of local security forces, but they complain that they are not getting arms or equipment. “We are in a camp like refugees, without work or salaries,” the Times quotes one Iraqi SWAT team member wearing a “U.S. Army” T-shirt saying. “ISIS is our target, but what are we supposed to fight it with?”

Some of these officers fondly remember the days when they did raids alongside American forces, but that is ancient history by now. Today the Obama administration refuses to channel aid directly to Sunnis in either Anbar or Ninevah Province because it insists on working exclusively through the central government–and never mind that the central government is so penetrated by Iranian influence that the minister of interior, who is in charge of the police, is a member of the Badr Corps, an Iranian-sponsored militia that is inveterately hostile to Sunnis.

This is a self-defeating policy and yet one in which the Obama administration persists, pretending that sending aid to Sunnis directly would undermine Iraqi sovereignty. In truth the Baghdad government already controls considerably less than half the country and it will never regain any more control unless it can mobilize Sunnis to fight ISIS. The U.S. can be a key player in mobilizing Sunnis, as it was in 2007-2008, but only if it is willing to reach out to them directly.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Josh Rogin of Bloomberg reports that Congress has not passed a $300 million appropriation to fund the Free Syrian Army. The money was apparently held up in the House Intelligence Committee because lawmakers are concerned that the Free Syrian Army is not an effective fighting force.

Rogin writes that “Congress’s disenchantment with the Syrian rebels is shared by many officials inside the administration, following the rebels’ losses to Assad, IS and the al-Nusra Front in northern Syrian cities such as Idlib. There is particular frustration that these setbacks resulted in some advanced American weaponry falling into extremist hands. Reflecting that dissatisfaction, the Obama administration has taken a series of steps in recent weeks to distance the U.S. from the moderate rebels in the north, by cutting off their weapons flow and refusing to allow them to meet with U.S. military officials, right at the time they are struggling to survive in and around Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.”

Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more that the U.S. refuses to fund the Free Syrian Army, the weaker it will get–and the more its weakness will be used as an excuse not to support it. This dynamic has been plain for years and it continues. And yet despite our neglect, the Free Syrian Army is still battling, as Rogin notes, to hold onto Aleppo. The U.S. has no choice but to help if we are going to support any alternative in Syria to Sunni jihadists (Al Nusra Front, ISIS) and Shiite jihadists (Hezbollah, Quds Force). But it increasingly looks as if the Obama administration is counting on Bashar Assad–who has murdered some 200,000 of his own people–to fight ISIS.

There is a connecting thread between Syria and Iraq: in both places the Obama administration is tacitly acquiescing to Iranian domination. That is a grave mistake for a whole host of reasons, not the least of them being that the more prominent that Iran appears to be in the anti-ISIS coalition, the more that Sunnis afraid of Shiite domination will flock to ISIS and the Nusra Front for protection.

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The Mood of America

The Pew Research Center released a new survey that included the following findings:

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The Pew Research Center released a new survey that included the following findings:

Level of Dissatisfaction

  • Just 26 percent are satisfied with national conditions, while 71 percent are dissatisfied.
  • Forty-nine percent say they think 2015 will be a better year than 2014, while 42 percent think it will be worse. The current ratings are more pessimistic than in recent years, as the public generally takes an optimistic view of the year to come.

Top Concerns

  • A third (34 percent) cite an economic issue as the top national problem. (Compared to the start of the year, however, just half as many specifically cite unemployment or joblessness as the top national problem: 20 percent then vs. 10 percent now.) The share expressing dissatisfaction with government or the president, or who cite partisan gridlock or the divisions in the country has increased from 13 percent last January to 18 percent currently. Just 9 percent say foreign or international issues are the country’s top problem, unchanged from January.

Political Polarization

  • More than eight out of 10 Americans surveyed (81 percent) say the country is more politically divided these days than in the past. While that is little changed from two years ago, it is as high a percentage expressing this view as at any point over the past decade.
  • Just 17 percent think the country will be less politically divided five years from now. More than three-quarters (78 percent) say either the country will be about as divided as it is today (41 percent), or more politically divided (36 percent).
  • The public’s expectations for cooperation between leaders in Washington are highly partisan. Fully 66 percent of Democrats think President Obama will cooperate at least a fair amount with Republican leaders in Congress over the next two years, compared with just 19 percent of Republicans who say this.
  • Fully 71 percent say a failure of Republicans and Democrats to work together over the next two years would hurt the nation “a lot” and 16 percent say it will hurt “some.” Yet 66 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents want their leaders to stand up to Obama on issues, even if less gets done, rather than work with him.

Unhappiness with the President

  • Forty-two percent say they approve of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president, while 51 percent disapprove. These ratings are little changed over the past year. Nearly nine in ten Republicans (89 percent) disapprove of Obama’s performance, while views among independents are also more negative than positive (55 percent vs. 39 percent approve). Mr. Obama continues to receive positive ratings from a majority of Democrats (72 percent approve vs. 19 percent disapprove).

Unhappiness with Congress

  • Just 22 percent express a favorable opinion of Congress while 71 have an unfavorable one. Positive views of Congress have remained below 30 percent for more than three years. The current ratings rival the lowest on record (in July 2013), when 21 percent had a favorable opinion while 70 percent an unfavorable one.
  • The favorable ratings for congressional leaders of both parties (John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) are all in the 20s, ranging from a low of 20 percent (Reid) to a high of 27 percent (Pelosi).

Unhappiness with the GOP and the Democratic Party

  • There is no sign of a honeymoon for the Republican Party following its midterm victories: Just 37 percent view the GOP favorably while 57 percent view it unfavorably, little changed over the past year.
  • What has changed is the Democratic Party’s favorable ratings, which are now nearly as low as the GOP’s. Just 41 percent have a favorable impression of the Democratic Party while 54 percent have an unfavorable opinion. That is among the most negative measures of favorability for the Democrats in more than two decades of polling.
  • Today independents’ views of the two parties are about the same. About a third have favorable impressions of either the Republican Party (32 percent) or the Democratic Party (33 percent); in October, more independents viewed the Democratic Party (41 percent) positively than the Republican Party (33 percent).

The mood of the country, then, is unhappy and unsettled. Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the conditions of the nation (especially economically) and unusually pessimistic about the future. The level of political polarization troubles them, even as massive distrust exists between Republicans and Democrats. And there’s across-the-board discontent with our political institutions–the two national parties, Congress, and the president. The Democratic Party has clearly suffered more than the GOP this year, based both on public approval and, especially, based on the outcome of the 2014 midterm elections. But the Republican Party is still -20 in the favorable-unfavorable ratings.

We are in the midst of a prolonged period of alienation between the American people and those who govern them. That isn’t good for a republic, where some degree of trust between the citizenry and its elected leaders is necessary in order to address urgent national problems.

One of the most daunting tasks facing those who run for president in 2016 will be to convince Americans that they understand the scope and dimensions of what’s happening, that they’re genuinely troubled by it, and that they have the skills–temperamentally, philosophically, and politically–to begin to repair the breach and put us on the right path. It is quite a formidable task, yes; but it’s also quite a vital one, too. It’s at moments like this when exceptional leaders need to step up.

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Warren’s Cromnibus Chaos and Hillary’s Nightmare Scenario

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The “Torture Report” and American Values

One of the most common and most understandable reactions to the Senate’s “torture report” is that the practices described by Dianne Feinstein’s investigators are contrary to “American values.” On a certain level the assertion is undeniable: torture (and that’s what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” amount to, even if it is not torture as heinous as that routinely practiced by dictatorships) is definitely not an “American value.” But what about incinerating civilians? Is that an “American value”?

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One of the most common and most understandable reactions to the Senate’s “torture report” is that the practices described by Dianne Feinstein’s investigators are contrary to “American values.” On a certain level the assertion is undeniable: torture (and that’s what the “enhanced interrogation techniques” amount to, even if it is not torture as heinous as that routinely practiced by dictatorships) is definitely not an “American value.” But what about incinerating civilians? Is that an “American value”?

The reality is that the U.S. has often done things in the past that, looked at in another light, could be judged as immoral acts or even war crimes. Exhibit A is the strategic bombing of Germany and Japan in World War II which culminated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two atom bombs killed an estimated 190,000 civilians. The non-nuclear bombing of Japan killed at least 330,000 more. That’s more than half a million dead civilians in Japan alone. The toll was not as high in Germany but it was high enough. One bombing raid alone, on Dresden, killed between 25,000 to 40,000 people. The total number of Germans killed in Anglo-American bombing raids has been estimated at over 300,000.

It would be interesting to know what those who now decry the torture of terrorist suspects have to say about the deaths of some 800,000 people, mostly civilians, in these World War II bombing raids. Were Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the presidents who ordered these bombing campaigns, war criminals? And if not how can one argue, a so many on the left seem to, that George W. Bush is?

This is not purely a historical debate either. Although Barack Obama shut down the “enhanced interrogation” program (or, more accurately, continued the shutdown which had already been ordered by Bush in his second term), he has stepped up drone strikes in countries from Pakistan to Yemen. By one estimate: “the United States has now conducted 500 targeted killings (approximately 98 percent of them with drones), which have killed an estimated 3,674 people, including 473 civilians. Fifty of these were authorized by President George W. Bush, 450 and counting by President Obama.”

Note that there was no judicial review before any of these attacks, nor should there have been. They were purely executive decisions made by President Obama and they resulted, by this estimate, in the deaths of some 473 civilians. Is that OK but the use of coercive interrogation techniques is not? That’s a good question for a college class on the ethics of war. At the very least it’s not an easy question to answer, and it’s one that those who are outraged by the CIA’s interrogation program should grapple with.

I tend to agree that we should not torture, but I am honest enough to admit there are circumstances–for example preventing an imminent, mass casualty attack on the American homeland–when a president may well be right to decide that repugnant measures are necessary to save large numbers of innocent lives. I am also troubled, by the way, by the strategic bombing campaign of World War II, but I am not arrogant enough to second-guess the decision makers at the time who thought that such steps were necessary to defeat the evils of Nazism and fascism. If you think the atomic bombing of Japan was wrong, try reading Paul Fussell’s wonderful essay, “Thank God for the Atomic Bomb,” whose sentiments have been echoed by every World War II vet I have ever spoken to.

It would be nice, but unlikely, if all of those preening about how awful torture is would stop for a minute to wrestle seriously with these complicated moral dilemmas. Try to place yourselves in the shoes of a Truman or a Bush and ask what you would do when you felt that the only way to effectively protect the United States was to use methods that one’s critics could denounce as barbaric. And try to place yourselves in the shoes of a future president who may well have to grapple with such dilemmas while trying to avoid a WMD attack on the American homeland that would make Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined look like a Sunday picnic by comparison.

But of course it’s much easier to simply flay Bush, Cheney, and the CIA as latter-day Nazis. All of this reminds me of nothing so much as the pacifists of World War II who were “advocating,” as George Orwell once put it, “non-resistance behind the guns of the American Fleet”–or in this case behind the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center.

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No, Iran Isn’t Protector of the Shi’ites

Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry shrugged off Iranian military involvement in Iraq. Responding to senators’ concern regarding recent Iranian airstrikes, Kerry reportedly said: “Iraq is 80 percent Shi‘a. There are interests.”

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Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry shrugged off Iranian military involvement in Iraq. Responding to senators’ concern regarding recent Iranian airstrikes, Kerry reportedly said: “Iraq is 80 percent Shi‘a. There are interests.”

With all due respect to Mr. Kerry, his comments reflect ignorance of Iranian behavior, Iraqi Shi‘ites, and religious freedom. That the Islamic Republic is the only protector of Shi‘ites around the globe has long been a staple of Iranian propaganda. But the concept of clerical rule imposed by Ayatollah Khomeini (and subsequently by his stepchild, Hezbollah in Lebanon) has long been an outlier among traditional Shi‘ites because it violates the separation of mosque and state at the heart of traditional Shi‘ism.

In short, ordinary Shi‘ites believe that the religious authority to follow is an individual, personal decision and not a state decision. Theologically, mainstream Shi‘ism teaches that only with the re-emergence of the Mahdi, Shi‘ism’s messianic figure, will there be perfect, incorruptible, Islamic government on earth. Therefore, until his return, government is by definition imperfect, corrupt, and un-Islamic, whatever the claims of the politicians who lead it. Khomeini turned this on its head, effectively arguing that the Prophet Muhammad didn’t separate religion and state, so neither would he and that Shi‘ite religious figures could act as the Mahdi’s deputy. Most Shi‘ite religious leaders don’t accept Khomeini and Khamenei’s view, however, nor do most individuals, either in Iran or outside it.

Independent Shi‘ism is, more than political reformism or anything emerging from the amorphous Green Movement, the true Achilles’ heel for the Iranian regime. It created militias like the Badr Corps and Jaysh al-Mahdi not simply to fight Americans, but rather to impose through force of arms and intimidation what is not in the hearts and minds of ordinary Iraqi Shi‘ites. Here’s the basic problem for the Iranian leadership. As supreme leader, Ali Khamenei claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on Earth. Khamenei’s religious credentials are greatly exaggerated, however, and every time he has sought to put himself forward as the chief source of emulation for the Islamic world, for example after the death of Grand Ayatollah Araki in 1994, he has been laughed off the stage, and subsequently withdrew his name to save face.

Earlier this year, my colleague Ahmad Majidyar and I published a short monograph based on travel and interviews which surveyed all the Shi‘ite communities surrounding Iran, and examining the nuanced and diverse strategies each of these communities embraced to maintain their own independence from Iranian attempts to speak and act on their behalf (and AEI produced a short video for its launch, here). Iraqi Shi‘ites have struggled to preserve and protect the religious independence of both Najaf and Karbala from those in Tehran who would seek to speak on their behalf. The Iranian government surely pressures Iraq to do its bidding, a job made all the easier by the American withdrawal. But Iraqi Shi‘ites don’t want to be Iranian puppets, and never have. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi Shi‘ites did most of the fighting; they didn’t defect en masse just because Khomeini claimed to be the voice of the Shi‘ites. In 2013, the governor of Basra inaugurated a new bridge (built with U.S. money) over the Shatt al-Arab. It was no coincidence that he chose to inaugurate it with a fireworks display on the anniversary of Khomeini’s death. The implication was clear: even Iraqi Shi’ites celebrate on a day when the Islamic Republic officially mourns.

Iran may want to defeat the Islamic State, but they do nothing altruistically. Once they enter Iraq, they will not leave simply because they cannot afford to have any Iraqi ayatollah resident in Najaf or Karbala contradict the word of the supreme leader. How ironic it is that President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry defer so much more to the Iranians than even Iraqi Shi‘ites do. And how sad it is that the United States continues to treat religious freedom in the Middle East, whether practiced by Jews, Christians, or Shi‘ite Muslims, so cavalierly. Make no mistake: the Iranian regime isn’t the protector of the Shi‘ites; it is among their chief oppressors.

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The CIA, Interrogation, and Feinstein’s Parting Shot

Readers of news coverage of the CIA “torture” report, with details about all the unpleasant techniques employed by interrogators to elicit information from suspected terrorists, might be wondering why an agency of the U.S. government did such heinous things. The answer comes from a veteran Washington politician:

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Readers of news coverage of the CIA “torture” report, with details about all the unpleasant techniques employed by interrogators to elicit information from suspected terrorists, might be wondering why an agency of the U.S. government did such heinous things. The answer comes from a veteran Washington politician:

It is worth remembering the pervasive fear in late 2001 and how immediate the threat felt. Just a week after the September 11 attacks, powdered anthrax was sent to various news organizations and to two U.S. Senators. The American public was shocked by news of new terrorist plots and elevations of the color-coded threat

level of the Homeland Security Advisory System. We expected further attacks against the nation….

I can understand the CIA’s impulse to consider the use of every possible tool to gather intelligence and remove terrorists from the battlefield, and CIA was encouraged by political leaders and the public to do whatever it could to prevent another attack.

The Intelligence Committee as well often pushes intelligence agencies to act quickly in response to threats and world events.

The author of those sentences is none other than Dianne Feinstein, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee (though for not much longer) who ordered the report in question compiled and released. Given the undoubted truth of these comments, offered by way of a preamble, it is hard to know why the senator nevertheless felt compelled to release for public consumption this report that will undoubtedly damage American credibility and standing in the world and could well diminish the effectiveness of the very agencies that we count on to protect us from today’s most pressing dangers.

The Senate Intelligence Committee action, taken over the opposition of the panel’s Republican members, recalls nothing so much as the Church Committee and Pike Committee investigations of 1976 which spilled the CIA’s “crown jewels” to the public. This was when the world learned of CIA involvement in assassination plots, even if the committees never produced any evidence that the CIA ever actually assassinated anyone (in part because of the CIA’s own ham-handedness), and of other covert operations such as the testing of LSD on unwitting subjects. Many of these activities were admittedly ill-advised but there was no evidence that the CIA had acted in contravention of executive orders; it was not a “rogue elephant” but rather an agency carrying out the wishes of successive presidents.

It was, therefore, unfair and harmful to demonize the CIA even while leaving alone the reputation of presidents such as John F. Kennedy who had ordered some of its most aggressive covert actions. The result of all this public condemnation, followed by the disastrous tenure of Jimmy Carter’s Director of Central Intelligence, Stansfield Turner, was an agency in disarray. Many of the best CIA officers left and the nation was left with reduced capacity to detect and prevent catastrophes such as the Iran Hostage Crisis.

We do not yet know the result of today’s revelations but it is likely that they will be equally deleterious to our intelligence capacities–and just as unfair. The Intelligence Committee report, after all, condemns the CIA for interrogative techniques, since discontinued, that were fully approved by the president and briefed–and tacitly approved–by congressional leaders such as Dianne Feinstein herself.

Her report claims that the CIA concealed certain information from the president, a charge heatedly denied by current CIA director John Brennan, an Obama appointee, and all of his predecessors–as well as by George W. Bush and other officials of his administration. Perhaps there were in fact details that were not shared with the White House but it is clear that the president knew in broad brushstrokes what was happening, that it was judged to be legal by the White House and Justice Department, and that it was considered necessary to prevent another 9/11.

There is debate about whether the coercive interrogations produced information that led to counter-terrorist successes; Feinstein’s report denies it but numerous CIA executives, current and former, side with Director Brennan, who writes: “Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees on whom EITs [enhanced interrogation techniques] were used did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives. The intelligence gained from the program was critical to our understanding of al-Qa’ida and continues to inform our counterterrorism efforts to this day.”

As an outsider, I am not in a position to judge where the truth lies. I am also ambivalent about whether the enhanced interrogation techniques should have been used in the past and whether they should be totally prohibited in the future: It’s easy to denounce such brutal measures from the safety of an armchair, but it’s hard not to sympathize with a president who fears an imminent attack on the United States that may kill thousands, even millions, and therefore feels compelled to use every technique available, no matter how repugnant, to protect untold numbers of lives.

Whatever the case, of one thing I am positive: that the release of the Senate report will only aid our enemies who will have more fodder for their propaganda mills. It is hard to see how it will serve the interests of the United States, because even if you believe the interrogations in question were war crimes, the reality remains that they were long discontinued. Feinstein’s report merely rakes up history and for no good purpose beyond predictable congressional grandstanding.

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Presidential Legacies on Race Are Built on Laws, Not Speeches

The recent Bloomberg poll showing that a majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened on President Obama’s watch probably doesn’t have too much to do with Obama himself. No doubt he has contributed his fair share by running two presidential campaigns predicated on the belief that opposition to him was racist, and then writing off policy dissent as racist too. But the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island of the death of black men at the hands of police have resulted in national protests. The public may have been tuning Obama out lately, but they notice riots and traffic-stopping “die-ins,” as well as retaliatory race-based violence.

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The recent Bloomberg poll showing that a majority of Americans believe race relations have worsened on President Obama’s watch probably doesn’t have too much to do with Obama himself. No doubt he has contributed his fair share by running two presidential campaigns predicated on the belief that opposition to him was racist, and then writing off policy dissent as racist too. But the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island of the death of black men at the hands of police have resulted in national protests. The public may have been tuning Obama out lately, but they notice riots and traffic-stopping “die-ins,” as well as retaliatory race-based violence.

Obama has fumbled on race relations in other ways, notably not reining in Eric Holder’s politicization of all things race and by making ill considered comments about cases on which he had very clearly not been fully briefed. And so it’s no surprise that Obama has pulled back recently, treating a sensitive issue with something closer to the careful deliberation it requires. African-American advocates and activists have responded by criticizing him for it, the New York Times reports:

As crowds of people staged “die-ins” across the country last week to protest the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers, young African-American activists were in the Oval Office lodging grievances with President Obama.

He of all people — the first black president of the United States — was in a position to testify to the sense of injustice that African-Americans feel in dealing with the police every day, the activists told him. During the unrest that began with a teenager’s shooting in Ferguson, Mo., they hoped for a strong response. Why was he holding back?

But the Times story gets at something of more practical interest to the president. After conveniently whitewashing the Obama administration’s poor record on race relations, the story explains that Obama’s inner circle has begun pressing Obama to, essentially, make this moment about himself and put the current conflicts to work in the service of his own legacy.

“White House advisers say addressing the nation’s racial conflicts is now an imperative for the president’s final years in office,” the Times reports, and then unsurprisingly follows that assertion with a quote from Valerie Jarrett. It’s entirely understandable for presidents to want to shape their legacies, especially on issues that have become inseparably entangled with their careers. Race, for Obama, is one such issue. It’s also an issue that casts a long shadow over American history, and thus anyone responsible for marked improvements regarding race relations is seen as making a special contribution to the character of American life.

And yet, Obama’s advisors are going about this the wrong way. “Mr. Obama has stepped up some of his rhetoric,” the Times reports. For better or worse, however, rhetoric just won’t cut it. The improvement of race relations–specifically the cause of integration and anti-discrimination–in America has been done by laws, not speeches.

And in fact, those laws are often ahead of public opinion on the matter. The country wasn’t convinced to join hands and sing Kumbaya; instead, integration was accomplished by force of law.

A major change in the way race affected American life took place with the Second World War. William Lee Miller, in his joint biography of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, writes:

All-out war unsettles the society that fights it, and makes deep change possible. America’s “civil rights revolution,” although center stage from 1954 to 1965, did not begin with the great Court decision or the Montgomery bus boycott; its roots were in the war. The war changed blacks as well as whites and sharpened ideals. Black Americans sought war work and went north, or joined the army and were sent south. Northern African-Americans, who were drafted and sent to army camps in the South, were forced to the back of the bus, to the last seats in the theater, to the separated tables in the mess hall (southern African-Americans were, too, but the northerners were not accustomed to it). White Americans as well as black Americans were sent to England, to the Continent, to the Pacific. Civilians changed jobs and geography. Millions of blacks and whites moved to the North. Detroit exploded. There were “incidents,” protests, riots. Black activists, including A. Philip Randolph, threatened to march on Washington to protest discrimination, and as a result, Roosevelt signed the Fair Employment Act. The blatant racism of the enemy heightened awareness of national ideals; it also heightened frustration and moral outrage.

After the war, Truman pursued several avenues toward equality in a nation that could no longer ignore the issue. He established a committee on civil rights in 1946. It–and the report it produced–constituted a milestone of sorts, and Truman refused to squander the opportunity. Truman gave important speeches on the issue but only along with legislation he wanted passed. Congress blocked the legislation. So Truman took another route, issuing his executive order to desegregate the military.

Eisenhower, too, furthered the cause, and Congress would relent somewhat, passing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Within a decade, under LBJ Congress would pass the far-reaching Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the rest is history. And that brings us to another reason Obama doesn’t have much of a legacy on racial healing: the major civil-rights acts have been law for decades; presidents now are tinkering at the margins.

That doesn’t mean those margins aren’t important. Sentencing reform, sensible changes in the war on drugs, and prison reform–Rick Perry’s Texas has been the model on this–can make a big difference. But there is no Truman-Ike-LBJ accomplishment on the horizon because race relations, equality under the law, and integration may not be perfect but they are far better than where they were. And the president certainly won’t change the world with a speech.

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Liberalism’s Setbacks Aren’t Fatal

Last week was not a good week for the institutions of American liberalism. Which is not shocking, because last month was a terrible month for American liberalism. And that was mainly the result of the fact that the last year has not been a good one for American liberalism. But conservatives ought to remember the greatly exaggerated rumors of their own demise pushed by gleeful and historically ignorant liberals after the American right’s last such slump. Certainly liberalism is experiencing a crisis of sorts, but as Miracle Max could tell them, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

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Last week was not a good week for the institutions of American liberalism. Which is not shocking, because last month was a terrible month for American liberalism. And that was mainly the result of the fact that the last year has not been a good one for American liberalism. But conservatives ought to remember the greatly exaggerated rumors of their own demise pushed by gleeful and historically ignorant liberals after the American right’s last such slump. Certainly liberalism is experiencing a crisis of sorts, but as Miracle Max could tell them, there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead.

The continuing ObamaCare disaster, the IRS corruption revelations, and the manifold foreign-policy failures of the Obama-led Democrats over the last year led to a cratering of the public’s faith in the left and produced a trouncing at the polls for Democrats in the midterms. With Saturday’s runoff defeat of Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu coupled with the GOP gains in states Obama won, it is the Democrats who appear at risk of being considered a regional party–an epithet they tossed at Republicans in 2012. How are the Democrats handling being washed out of the South almost entirely? Not well, if Michael Tomasky’s public breakdown is any indication:

Practically the whole region has rejected nearly everything that’s good about this country and has become just one big nuclear waste site of choleric, and extremely racialized, resentment. A fact made even sadder because on the whole they’re such nice people! (I truly mean that.)

With Landrieu’s departure, the Democrats will have no more senators from the Deep South, and I say good. Forget about it. Forget about the whole fetid place. Write it off. Let the GOP have it and run it and turn it into Free-Market Jesus Paradise. The Democrats don’t need it anyway.

The funniest part is the headline: “Dems, It’s Time to Dump Dixie.” In fact, Dixie has clearly already dumped the Dems. If it were only the South, Tomasky’s neo-secessionism would at least be somewhat viable. But the Democrats have lost, at least for the time being, too much of the country to run away from.

The drubbing the Democrats have taken, sealed with Landrieu’s loss, has been so bad that you kind of want to put an arm around Tomasky, buy him a double bourbon (Kentucky isn’t technically part of the Deep South, right? He can still have bourbon?) and tell him it gets better. Because it always does.

Many obituaries were written for American conservatism by the concern-trolling left in the wake of President Obama’s two victories (the first supposedly heralding the death of conservatism, the second confirming it). They were all, without exception, deeply ahistoric and scandalously stupid items of triumphalist rubbish.

But for sheer symbolism, the crowning jewel of the group is without a doubt the essay, later expanded into a book, published in February 2009: “Conservatism Is Dead,” by Sam Tanenhaus. It ran in the New Republic.

Less than six years later, conservatism is alive and the New Republic is dead.

Not really dead, mind you. But to its writers and devotees, it is. I should say ex-writers and ex-devotees, because when last week news broke that Chris Hughes, the accidental Facebook billionaire (or almost-billionaire) and owner of TNR, shoved Frank Foer out the door and with him went Leon Wieseltier, a mass exodus ensued. That’s not only because Foer is beloved by his peers and Wieseltier is an institution. It’s also because Hughes has announced he doesn’t think magazines with lots of big words are worth keeping around anymore, bro, and the literary tradition should be replaced with whatever passing fad can be monetized at this very moment. Carpe diem, and all that jazz. (Well not jazz, I guess, which is a bit nuanced and old and has absolutely no cat gifs in it whatsoever; but you get the point.)

Critics of American liberalism have pointed out, however, that the Altneurepublic being mourned was not the Altneurepublic of popular imagination. There seems to be a general consensus, in fact, that the decline and fall of that TNR became undeniable with its infamous anti-intellectual anthem which began “I hate President George W. Bush,” published about a decade ago.

Not that there weren’t warning signs along the way. The best of these in recent years might be this 2013 Reason magazine piece by Matt Welch mourning “the death” not of liberalism, but “of contrarianism.” With the new New Republic, Welch lamented, the magazine’s modern incarnation as a constructive questioner of liberal received wisdom was gone:

An entire valuable if flawed era in American journalism and liberalism has indeed come to a close. The reformist urge to cross-examine Democratic policy ideas has fizzled out precisely at the time when those ideas are both ascendant and as questionable as ever. Progressivism has reverted to a form that would have been recognizable to Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann when they founded The New Republic a century ago: an intellectual collaborator in the “responsible” exercise of state power.

Liberalism is in crisis for many reasons, but surely one of them is this: it has ceased to look at itself in the mirror. If it did, would it be horrified by what it saw? One hopes.

Whatever the answer, conservatives must also understand the difference between crisis and death. Liberals are still here. The president is a liberal, and the next one might be a liberal too. Democrats have less than half the Senate but not much less than half the Senate. And it was not all that long ago that the country found itself in the bizarre situation of having to pay attention to Nancy Pelosi.

It’s true that a genuinely intellectual liberalism is nowhere to be found at the moment. But it’ll wander back. Crises are good times for political movements to take stock and cease pretending everything is just fine. It is not a matter of if, but when the pendulum will swing back in the other direction. And conservatives should be aware and humble enough to see it coming.

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Why Is Military Morale Dropping?

One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.

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One of the conceits of the antiwar crowd–those who argued over the past thirteen years for leaving Afghanistan and Iraq regardless of the situation on the ground–was that doing so would be a favor to the American military, which has sacrificed so much in those wars. The sacrifice has been real and ongoing, with an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder and in suicide and divorce being only a few of the more discernible costs. Yet a new Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops finds that morale is actually lower now than it was in the days when far more U.S. troops were deployed in harm’s way.

Back in 2009, when an average of 50,000 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan and 135,000 in Iraq, 91 percent of troops surveyed said their quality of life was good or excellent. Today only 56 percent say that and 70 percent believe their quality of life will decline in coming years. Some other findings: “73 percent of troops would recommend a military career to others, down from 85 percent in 2009. And troops reported a significant decline in their desire to re-enlist, with 63 percent citing an intention to do so, compared with 72 percent a few years ago.”

Troops are less willing to reenlist now than in the days when they were much more likely to be wounded or even killed in the line of duty? How could this be? Why aren’t troops embracing the Obamian paradise of unilateral withdrawal from war?

Part of the answer is provided by political scientist Peter Feaver, who is quoted pointing out “that the mission mattered more to the military than to the civilian. For the civilian world, it might have been easier to psychologically move on and say, ‘Well, we are cutting our losses.’ But the military feels very differently. Those losses have names and faces attached to [them].”

Few civilians can realize how deeply dispiriting it is for troops who fought for cities such as Fallujah and Al Qaim to see them fall to black-clad jihadist fanatics. Once troops served with a purpose–to avenge 9/11 and to defeat our nation’s enemies. Now, however, with an administration that makes withdrawal the highest priority, the military’s sense of mission and purpose is waning–with deleterious effects on morale. “Of those surveyed, 52 percent said they had become more pessimistic about the war in Afghanistan in recent years. Nearly 60 percent felt the war in Iraq was somewhat unsuccessful or not at all successful.”

This problem is aggravated by the severe budget cuts that the White House and Congress have collaborated to enact. The Military Times has a telling anecdote: “A Navy aviation machinist’s mate first class based in El Centro, California, said operational budget cuts left him and fellow sailors cannibalizing working parts from other aircraft entering phased maintenance so they could repair higher-priority broken jets. Even uniforms are in short supply, he said, as the Navy embarks on what could be a decade of scrimping under sequestration. ‘We are on the bare necessities and sometimes not even that. For example, I need new boots but they’ll ask me, ‘How long can you stretch that?’ ‘ he said.”

Another telling line: “A Navy fire controlman chief with 10 deployments said budget fears are contributing to a feeling of distrust and abandonment. ‘If sailors are worried about not getting paid, how am I supposed to do my job?’ he said. ‘I’m not an effective warfighter if I don’t have the backing of my government at home’.”

The U.S. military, to be sure, remains the most professional and capable force in the world. But it is suffering real damage and it would be nice if we had a president who recognized that was the case and sought to do something about it. Even a better secretary of defense, which Ash Carter promises to be, will have limited leverage to reverse crippling budget cuts or to implement plans for Afghanistan and Iraq that make military sense. Alas, the U.S. military appears to be in big trouble and help is still a couple years away at best.

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Bennett Routs Indyk, In a Victory for Truth

Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.

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Over the weekend, the Brookings Institution held its annual Saban Forum, designed to better facilitate the practice of American think-tankers lecturing Israelis on their own country. The forum heard from high-ranking American and Israeli officials, such as Vice President Joe Biden, professional speech-giver Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the main event was surely the “conversation” between Israeli economy minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party and Middle East arsonist extraordinaire Martin Indyk.

Bennett’s challenge was twofold. First, he had to exhibit restraint and treat Indyk as a legitimate interlocutor. Indyk, of course, has spent the past decade and a half representing Democratic U.S. governments in the peace process intent on undermining the sitting Israeli prime minister, subverting Israeli democracy, and poisoning the well by badmouthing Israeli officials to the press behind their backs. The current violent turmoil in and around Jerusalem is a hangover from the failed peace talks. And the failed peace talks were due in large part to Kerry’s team, led by Indyk.

The second part of Bennett’s challenge was to recognize that amid current or former Obama administration officials, he had a tough crowd. That was only exacerbated by the upcoming Israeli elections. Before the last elections liberal American journalists and commentators, whose opinions are considered fringe in Israel but who live in a bubble of unearned self-righteousness here in the States, engaged in a collective freakout over the prospect of Naftali Bennett succeeding. He was projected to win as many as fifteen seats; they projected the end of the world.

Both were wrong: Bennett fell to a late surge by Yair Lapid, and the earth didn’t open up and swallow humanity whole as punishment for the electoral success of religious Zionists. Now there is another Israeli election looming; Bennett is projected to fare rather well; and liberal American commentators and journalists are once again, like the late Harold Camping, marking their calendars for the reckoning.

It was into this atmosphere that Bennett sat down for his on-the-record discussion with Indyk, after which he took questions from the audience. The transcript is here, and I recommend the full discussion, but there are a couple of points worth highlighting.

Bennett’s strategy was to be a forceful defender of Israel without lapsing into humorlessness. He succeeded, and at no point in this discussion was that success more impressive than when Indyk–who took potshots at the Israeli government after the talks’ collapse and was later found to be rambling at a bar to all who would listen about Israel’s perfidy–accused Bennett of being disrespectful to the U.S. government. It was milestone in the annals of hypocrisy, a particular talent of Indyk’s that repeated failure has only sharpened.

But Bennett was unafraid to hit back. He repeatedly made an important point that generally goes ignored in the Western press: Israel’s citizens make their own decisions. He knew his audience, he just refused to kowtow to it. When Indyk kept badgering him about global opinion, Bennett said:

Now, it’s the people of Israel — I want to point something out. The audience here and, you know, these sort of conferences does not at all — if I put a poll here probably Zahava Gal-On would be prime minister and maybe Tzipi Livni number two. The only problem with Israel is that for some strange reason they put the polling booths all across Israel and they actually let the public speak up. And the public, which is a very healthy public, does not think that Jerusalem should be split. It does not think that our land is occupied. It does not want to commit suicide.

Later, Bennett pressed Indyk on the fact that the peace process was supposed to bring, you know, peace. And yet, everyone wants to continue without learning from those failures. When Indyk told Bennett “I just think you live in another reality,” Bennett responded:

How many missiles need to fall on Ashkelon until you’ll wake up? How many? How many people need to die in our country until you wake up from this illusion? You know, the Oslo process took more than a thousand lives in Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem, and I didn’t hear anyone say, you know what, I made a mistake. When are you going to wake up? When is Tzipi Livni going to wake up?

This will not endear him to his critics on the left, especially in America. But it will be seen as a breath of fresh air to the reality-based community. And when Indyk foolishly propagated the long-debunked myth of the so-called root causes of terrorism that put the blame on Israel, Bennett shot back: “Right, because that’s why ISIS is cutting off heads because of Judea and Samaria. Come on, give me a break.”

One of the most important comments Bennett made was an otherwise unremarkable line about Israel’s reputation. In response to Indyk’s warning of Israel’s isolation, Bennett said that Israel’s government has to learn to change the conversation and challenge the false accusations leveled against its democracy: “if something is false and it’s repeated enough times, it becomes sort of common wisdom. We have to undo that.”

And in this Bennett was also revealing something else: one reason for the rise of Bennett and others on the right is the fact that the international community–including now the Obama administration–pulls the conversation so far to the left that Israel must defend itself. The more the world delegitimizes Israel’s rights, the more Israel will need to put those like Naftali Bennett front and center, to pull the conversation back closer to sanity. It’s ironic that the Martin Indyks of the world lament the rise of people like Naftali Bennett, when they do so much to bring it about.

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Feinstein Putting Petty Politics above National Security

During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

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During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

On Friday, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin broke the news that:

Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein… to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials. Kerry was not going rogue — his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning,  could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad.  Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.

Kerry is absolutely right to delay the report; he would be even more correct to ask Feinstein to table the report forever, if he and she valued the protection of American national interests over petty political vendettas. After all, if Feinstein were truly acting on principle, she would have targeted President Bill Clinton for investigation with the same gusto with which she came after the Bush administration. According to Washington Post columnist and former Bush administration speech writer Marc Thiessen:

…The men who decided to carry out the first extraordinary rendition of a terrorist target — over the legal objections of the White House counsel’s office — were Al Gore and Bill Clinton, according a description of the meeting by the counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, in his memoir, “Against All Enemies.”

Back to Feinstein: Rogin provides further details on how Feinstein has sought to have the report identify in reality if not in name the countries which assisted the United States with extraordinary rendition:

Feinstein was able to ensure that her release would include information about countries that secretly helped the CIA hide and abuse prisoners, although those countries would not be named directly.

This illustrates the unfortunate and growing tendency in Congress and within the Obama administration to treat allies with disdain. If blogger and writer Jeffrey Goldberg is to be believed, a senior Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “chickenshit” and bragged about how Netanyahu couldn’t possibly strike at Iran, hardly a sign of gratitude to a leader who agreed to delay any military strike against Iran at the request of President Obama. Rather than thank Israel for its deference, the White House deliberately sought to humiliate its ally.

In the days, months, and, indeed, years after 9/11, allies bent over backwards to help the United States respond to a growing terror scourge unlike anything the world had ever seen. Some did so reluctantly. Some disagreed with American policy, but bit their tongue and cooperated simply because that is what allies do in times of need when they receive such a request. Feinstein, however, is willing to punish them simply because she does not like George W. Bush. Make no mistake, Feinstein and Kerry may see the world through a partisan lens, but most U.S. allies support what the United States stands for regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. To embarrass these countries for domestic partisan reasons is short-sighted.

The next time the United States has a request—and it won’t matter what party occupies the White House or controls the Congress or what exactly the United States asks—it will be all the more difficult if not impossible to achieve international cooperation. After all, allies might conclude it simply isn’t worth the political risk that they will be targeted because of Washington vendettas that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Feinstein might believe that the United States will never face a parallel to what occurred during the Bush administration, but the nature of crises is that they are simply unpredictable.

Senators should be able to see the big picture, and they should never subordinate national security and national interests to short-term and cynical political agendas. The bigger threats now are the those posed by Russia, Iran, and China, countries which do far worse than the United States on a daily basis. Exposing American operations doesn’t convince the world the Americans are clean; it simply feeds the propaganda outlets in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing.

Don’t like CIA methods and extraordinary rendition? By all means, use all legislative and oversight power to put an end to it. But don’t drag allies into a political debate or air dirty laundry publicly. Don’t damage relations. Trust is at the heart of alliances, and once destroyed, it will never be rebuilt. Let us never punish allies and their leaders for standing by America when the request comes, no matter what politicians may, in hindsight, think of that request.

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New Israeli Elections Highlight Obama’s Missed Opportunities

Yesterday it was announced that new Israeli Knesset elections will be held in March. That means today there were rumors, and tomorrow there will be rumors, and so on and so forth until March, of various electoral strategies and party slate maneuverings that could change everything or nothing at all. Today’s rumor started the great Season of Speculation off with a bang: Gideon Sa’ar, Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently-resigned second in command, is reportedly considering challenging Bibi for the Likud leadership in the party’s early-January primary.

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Yesterday it was announced that new Israeli Knesset elections will be held in March. That means today there were rumors, and tomorrow there will be rumors, and so on and so forth until March, of various electoral strategies and party slate maneuverings that could change everything or nothing at all. Today’s rumor started the great Season of Speculation off with a bang: Gideon Sa’ar, Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently-resigned second in command, is reportedly considering challenging Bibi for the Likud leadership in the party’s early-January primary.

There are also rumors that Tzipi Livni, in need of a life raft, will join Labor to bring along enough seats to top a stagnant Likud. Livni has also been acting as though she’s angling for a combined slate with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which was the great centrist hope and therefore, like all great centrist hopes before it, has been fading precipitously since its debut election. Could Livni be some sort of kingmaker for a centrist party? Could she–would she–turn heel on her pedigree and help crown Labor? Will Elijah the Prophet appear from the mists and announce a joint slate with Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi? Hey, it’s the Season of Speculation; anything’s possible.

Americans often find Israeli politics perplexing, and this goes double for the American members of the press. Early elections, and the silly season they inspire, are a fixture of Israeli democracy. Americans are used to a de facto two-party system. But for Israelis looking for an alternative there always seems to be another option or two or ten. So it’s easy for a foreign observer to get caught up in the endless possibilities, even if those possibilities rarely transform into reality.

But the belief in the wide-open character of Israeli leadership at any moment has been a huge mistake for the Obama administration. That’s because the Israeli electorate tends to care less about which specific party has how many seats and more about the general shape of the government.

The key moment that established this pattern in recent years was, not coincidentally, the beginning of the second Netanyahu era. I’ve referred to it before: the 2009 elections saw Israeli voters give Livni’s party one more seat in the Knesset than Bibi’s. But she had no one to form a government with because her potential coalition partners were rightists who didn’t want her at the head of the government. She won the popular vote because Israelis assumed Netanyahu had it in the bag and voted instead for other parties to Bibi’s right to ensure the shape of the ruling coalition would be a center-right government. And that’s what they got.

The Obama White House learned precisely the wrong lesson from it. They saw what looked like the two-party system of old–Labor and Likud hovering over the polity, with only minor satellites rotating in orbit around them. But the fact that Labor wasn’t involved–that this time it was Likud vs. a splinter faction–should have told them something. They thought Livni was a genuine rival to Netanyahu, and that she was an alternative waiting in the wings. Livni supported the peace process so Washington desperately wanted to believe she was personally more popular than she really was.

Fast-forward almost six years. Livni had six seats in the dissolved Knesset, with polls showing her getting as few as four in the next elections. It wasn’t Livni that was popular in Kadima (a party she left anyway to found Hatnua); it was the remnant of Ariel Sharon’s popularity. The delusions of the Obama White House required completely ignoring the will and intent of the Israeli people. And so it has been six years of missed opportunities.

The Sa’ar rumors illustrate that perfectly. Sa’ar has been at odds with Netanyahu, but he also didn’t believe he could beat Bibi in a primary. When he abruptly announced his retirement from the Knesset in September (but not until he could help Ruby Rivlin win the presidency–a not-insignificant footnote), it was not to start his own party. The broad speculation was that he would wait Bibi out and then return to reclaim the Likud.

Sa’ar was one of the few who could afford to do so. The other Likud bigwigs are around Netanyahu’s age (65); Sa’ar is 47. It’s possible he now believes he has a chance to beat Netanyahu in a primary, though. This prospect is being taken seriously. While Sa’ar is still the underdog, such an upset is not totally unthinkable.

And what would the fallout be? Well, you’d have a transfer of power from Likud to … Likud. This is what Obama never understood about Bibi: the most likely alternatives have been Lieberman, then briefly Bennett, now possibly Sa’ar. Of those three, Sa’ar is the furthest left, yet he is no squish. Obama wants Shimon Peres (the one Israeli he might actually like) and Tzipi Livni (the one Israeli he believes he can control).

It’s always possible the left will make a comeback, and it might be sooner than anyone thinks. Who knows. But six years of delusional American policy toward Israel have revolved around trying to undermine a prime minister who has been in office this entire time, and who heads a democratically elected coalition that has been trying to pull him right, almost completely unsuccessfully. It turns out that all this time, the Obama White House had an ally in the Prime Minister’s Office, if only they would have been willing to admit it.

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The Cost of a False Narrative of Oppression

At a different moment in time, the decision of a Staten Island grand jury not to an indict a white police officer for using a choke hold on Eric Garner, an African-American who later died after being taken into custody, would not be much more than a local news item in New York. But coming as it did on the heels of the much-publicized decision of another grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri not to indict another white cop in the shooting death of another black man, teenager Michael Brown, the Staten Island deliberations were immediately dragooned into service by mainstream media talking heads, African-American leaders, and President Obama to reinforce a narrative of oppression of blacks by white police.

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At a different moment in time, the decision of a Staten Island grand jury not to an indict a white police officer for using a choke hold on Eric Garner, an African-American who later died after being taken into custody, would not be much more than a local news item in New York. But coming as it did on the heels of the much-publicized decision of another grand jury in St. Louis County, Missouri not to indict another white cop in the shooting death of another black man, teenager Michael Brown, the Staten Island deliberations were immediately dragooned into service by mainstream media talking heads, African-American leaders, and President Obama to reinforce a narrative of oppression of blacks by white police.

Though each of these two decisions appear to stand on their own as being reasonable interpretations of the law, together they appear to justify the upsurge in demonstrations around the country protesting police behavior and asserting that blacks are being systematically victimized. But whatever one may think of these rulings or of the police, those who are hyping this story need not only to think carefully whether the story they are telling is true but also whether the net effects of their campaign against the police will hurt minorities far more than it help them.

The facts in the Staten Island case seem to be as straightforward as the Ferguson, Missouri incident were muddled. The confrontation was caught on a video taken by a cell phone and showed that a chokehold was employed. The New York City Police Department has banned chokeholds for use but they are not illegal. The grand jury clearly believed that the tragic result was not the result of a crime but observers may well wonder about the use of excessive force or why an unarmed man resisting arrest for a petty crime wound up dying in this manner.

But no more than in the Ferguson incident, the facts in that case are not really the point of the protests, the president’s statement, or what is being said about the case on the cable news networks. As awful as each of these stories may be, the willingness of the media to seize on every instance in which a white police officer kills a black civilian in order to make a point about race says more about the need of the left to fuel fears about racism for political advantage than a true flaw in the justice system or American society.

The point is one can question the wisdom of the Staten Island grand jury’s decision, just as one can dispute the result of the inquiry into the death of Michael Brown. But even if you think excessive force was used in each incident, taken in total or individually, the argument for a trend of oppression of white on black violence is lacking. Though no one can or should deny America’s history of racism, those who confuse isolated incidents with the systematic violence of Jim Crow are doing minorities and the police a grave disservice.

More to the point, the willingness of the mainstream media to jump on this false narrative has not only wrongly undermined faith in the justice system and justified violent protests; it also makes it harder for police to do their jobs protecting minorities badly in need of protection. Just as bad is the willingness of President Obama to use what is left of his badly damaged credibility to continue to stoke the fires of distrust. Having coming into office with a unique opportunity to heal America’s racial strife, he has instead become a creature of the same race hucksters like Al Sharpton that seek to further divide the nation.

Irrespective of the merits of the case, those trumpeting the Staten Island case as proof that the system is biased against blacks are merely feeding fear, not dispelling racism. To the extent that the mainstream media seeks to assert that both the police and the justice system are guilty until proven innocent, they, too, are undermining the rule of law. While we hope that calm will prevail in the aftermath of this incident, Ferguson provides an excellent example of what happens when media talkers and feckless politicians speak with impunity and ordinary citizens pay the price for their wild accusations.

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On Obama’s Team, Personnel Is Not Policy

Back in 2006 as North Korea was preparing a long-range missile test launch, then-Professor Ashton Carter, a Clinton administration veteran, proposed the following in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with former Defense Secretary William Perry: “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” Carter, clearly more hawkish than many Democratic appointees, appears on the verge of succeeding Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. So should conservatives be thrilled?

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Back in 2006 as North Korea was preparing a long-range missile test launch, then-Professor Ashton Carter, a Clinton administration veteran, proposed the following in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with former Defense Secretary William Perry: “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” Carter, clearly more hawkish than many Democratic appointees, appears on the verge of succeeding Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. So should conservatives be thrilled?

Not exactly. It’s true that Carter is well qualified, as Max wrote yesterday. He’s also considered brilliant and a more-than-capable bureaucrat. As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin write at Bloomberg, Carter “has been a public advocate for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a step opposed by the more dovish side of the arms-control community. When Carter was an academic, before the Obama presidency, he took a hard line on Iran, arguing that the U.S. should use diplomacy and other kinds of coercion to end the country’s enrichment of nuclear fuel.”

So Carter’s hawkishness on North Korea was not a one-time outlier. Nor was his studious and serious take on nuclear nonproliferation. There are moments when conservatives are bound to look at Obama administration nominees and grade them on a heavy curve. But Carter doesn’t even need the curve. He’s clearly a strong pick for the post on his own merits. He’s also, as Michael Crowley writes, in many ways the opposite of Hagel: “Where Hagel, a former senator, was aloof and unfamiliar with the Pentagon’s machinations, Carter was a fearsomely well-briefed manager.”

So have Republicans, as Lake and Rogin suggest in their column’s headline, found “a New Ally at the Pentagon”? It’s probably the wrong question, because the truth is, it doesn’t really matter all that much. That’s because regardless of how much we habitually lean back on it, a reliable truism is no longer true: in the Obama administration, personnel is not policy.

That’s part of what has changed since 2006–indeed since 2009, when Obama took office–and conservatives viewed Carter as a kind of best-case-scenario appointee for a liberal-Democratic administration. (Hypothetical back in 2006, of course, but very much relevant from 2009 on.) Obama came to office with scant knowledge of virtually all areas of policy, and no real experience to speak of. The hope, at least from conservatives, was that he would rely on the counsel of those who did possess the knowledge and experience Obama lacked. Instead, it turned out, he relies on the counsel of Valerie Jarrett–an unaccountable loyalist with even less relevant knowledge and experience than Obama has.

In fact, the prospective Carter nomination fits with Obama administration practice for all the wrong reasons. As Crowley writes:

“He is brilliant and driven, a policy wonk equally adept at mastering the bureaucracy,” says a former White House official. “He’s also arrogant, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

That could be a warning sign in an administration that has already burned through three defense secretaries who resented White House micromanagement of their affairs. In Carter, Obama would be choosing a strong-willed independent thinker who believed the U.S. should have left a robust residual troop force in Iraq and believes the military has been asked to swallow dangerously large budget cuts. Carter’s record on nuclear non-proliferation also suggests he could take a harder line on Iran policy than Obama favors.

That has led some to speculate that there will be a clash of ideas, or at least that this background explains why Obama seemed to go looking under every couch cushion for a possible Hagel replacement before settling on Carter. Obama’s top choices didn’t want to go near the job, for a very good reason: they’d be inheriting Obama’s mess and taking orders from his micromanaging–and maladroit, overwhelmed–inner circle.

Were Obama to let Carter be Carter, the issues raised in Crowley’s profile could produce real friction. They could also produce a policy shift. But that’s not been how Obama operates. Obama may actually like that Carter is more hawkish than he is and has support across the aisle. It feeds what I’ve termed Obama’s Team of Bystanders: the people Obama hires to carry out policies with which they disagree to give a sheen of bipartisanship and open-mindedness where there is none.

So why didn’t Obama just offer Carter the job straightaway? The most likely answer is not Carter’s intelligence, but his awareness of his own intelligence. Obama was elected with the help of a press that pushed the baseless storyline that Obama was exceptionally intelligent. The best way to try to keep up that ridiculous myth was to fill his Cabinet with people like Hagel, John Kerry, Joe Biden, etc.–people who might as well have been the inspiration for the old game show Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?

But Carter “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” That, and not his policy recommendations, is what sets up a possible conflict with Obama.

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