Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Hug it Out? Hillary Shows Weakness

If Hillary Clinton runs for president—as she almost certainly will—the former secretary of state is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But the sense of inevitability about her candidacy took a hit yesterday when she sought to back away from the quarrel she picked over the weekend with President Obama.

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If Hillary Clinton runs for president—as she almost certainly will—the former secretary of state is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination in 2016. But the sense of inevitability about her candidacy took a hit yesterday when she sought to back away from the quarrel she picked over the weekend with President Obama.

As I wrote on Monday, Clinton threw down the gauntlet to the president on foreign policy in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. No one doubted that she would at some point revert to the more centrist views on the world that contrasted with those of Obama during their 2008 primary battle. But Clinton’s willingness to judge the president’s decisions harshly seemed to mark a turning point in their complicated relationship. When she rightly damned Obama’s Syria policy as a “failure” that led directly to the current ISIS catastrophe in Iraq, that demonstrated her belief that she needed to distance herself from an increasingly unpopular incumbent heading into 2016.

Given the chaos that has erupted across the globe on the president’s watch, more distance from him would make sense for a Democrat who may not want the voters to think they are casting a ballot for a third term for Obama in 2016. But once the White House starting to push back strongly against her criticism and some in the liberal base of the party began to seethe about her flipping back to a “neoconservative” line about Iraq and in support of Israel, Clinton blinked.

Rather than stick to her guns and dare the left to try and oppose her, Clinton was quick to try and patch up the quarrel with the White House, calling the president and reportedly suggesting that the pair “hug it out” when they each other at a Martha’s Vineyard soiree they are both attending this week.

Maintaining some kind of détente with a sitting president who is the unchallenged leader of the Democrats and the idol of its base makes sense. But there was something craven in the unseemly speed with which Clinton sought to diffuse the controversy. Try as her team of media spinners might, there’s no disguising the fact that her attempt to cut straight to general-election campaign tactics without first having to curtsy the left-wing base of the Democrats isn’t going over very well.

There may be no credible Democratic alternatives currently willing to put their names up in opposition to Clinton right now. Whether they love the Clintons or not, most Democrats have bought into her compelling narrative about being the first female president as the best way to hold onto the White House. The Clintons’ ability to raise money and play hardball politics has also intimidated potential candidates into staying out of the race. But, as I also noted yesterday, that won’t stop liberal outliers like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders from mounting symbolic ideological protest candidacies that could prove troublesome even if no one on the left thinks he should be president.

But the Hillary broadside, followed by her quick retreat, has reminded many in her party that she may not be the political colossus that her admirers in the mainstream press insist she has become.

Like her 2008 candidacy, Clinton’s 2016 “inevitability” is based on the idea that she is so strong that no one other than a marginal figure like Sanders would dare oppose her. But liberals are starting to recall that while Barack Obama’s personal political magic was the main cause of her downfall in 2008, it was only made possible by the fact that most Democrats disliked her centrist foreign policy views.

While we shouldn’t expect this to be the last time Clinton seeks to create more daylight between herself and the man who was her boss for four years, her decision to once again play the person with adult foreign-policy views is bound to foment anger on the left. That means that it might be a mistake to think that Sanders is the only Democrat who believes a leftist challenge to Clinton makes sense. The more people that think about that, the more likely it will be that someone may step forward who could hurt her more than an avowed socialist. Clinton hopes this kerfuffle will only be a blip on the radar in her inevitable long march to the Democratic nomination and the presidency. But it might also be the moment when the 2008 dynamic that sunk her starts to kick in again even without an Obama to take the former first lady down.

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Why Wasn’t Obama Better Informed?

That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

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That was an extraordinary interview that President Obama gave to Tom Friedman last week, and it bears some more analysis on top of what Jonathan has already said.

The big thing that struck me was the president’s habit of blaming others for the world’s problems instead of taking personal responsibility. “Our politics are dysfunctional,” he said, and he blamed “the rise of the Republican far fight,” “gerrymandering, the Balkanization of the news media and uncontrolled money in politics.” These are all real factors but it’s striking the extent to which Obama won’t take any responsibility for aggravating the partisan divide and for not doing more to reach out to Republicans.

Next he blamed Iraqis for the problems the country has faced since the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011. “The fact is, said the president, in Iraq a residual U.S. troop presence would never have been needed had the Shiite majority there not ‘squandered an opportunity’ to share power with Sunnis and Kurds.” True, but this disaster was entirely foreseeable; in fact it was foreseen by many of us who warned that absent U.S. troops, Iraq would not be able to function. Of course Iraqis deserve primary responsibility for their own woes, but it is striking the extent to which Obama won’t acknowledge how his mistake (in not trying harder to keep U.S. troops there) contributed to the current disaster.

He took a similar line regarding Syria, disparaging the Free Syrian Army which he has refused to help: “With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’ ”

Someone in the 18th century could well have described America’s own independence fighters as “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” and pooh-poohed the idea that they could stand against the “well-armed” British state. Yet they manage to defeat the British Empire with copious French arms, French training, and French naval power. In Syria we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army could have done if we had offered robust support from the beginning of the rebellion, as Hillary Clinton says she advocated, but it’s pretty disingenuous for Obama to blame these fighters for not having “as much capacity as you would hope” when we have failed to give them the capacity they desire.

The only personal responsibility Obama seemed to take was for the mess in Libya, although even here he insisted on sharing blame with our European allies: “I think,” he said, “we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this,” meaning if you’re going to topple Gaddafi. Yet curiously enough Obama never explained why he made this elementary mistake, which should have been obvious after the early failures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It’s not as if there was any secret about the possibility of post-Gaddafi disintegration in Libya or the need to send trainers and peacekeeping forces to avert such a disaster. I, for one, wrote regularly on this theme in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times not to mention in COMMENTARY. And I wasn’t alone. My boss at the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, issued a similar warning in the Financial Times. You might think the president might have noticed one of these articles. Even if he hadn’t, his own advisers and intelligence experts should have been issuing similar warnings to him–if they didn’t, then they were guilty of gross negligence.

So why, one wonders, did Obama disregard these warnings not only in 2011 but in subsequent years even as Libya’s problems grew more and more severe? It’s nice that in one case at least the president is taking some ownership for a colossal error, but what’s amazing is that he’s still not fixing it. Instead he’s talking like a dispassionate analyst rather than as the commander in chief who has the capabilities of the world’s most powerful country at his command.

It is the president’s curious passivity, I believe, which accounts for the rapid disintegration of public confidence in his presidency and in particular in his foreign policy. Americans may not want to be entangled in foreign wars, but they want a strong, decisive president. That is certainly not the image Obama is projecting.

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Obama’s Failures Once Helped Rand Paul; Are They Now Impeding Him?

It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

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It might be better to be lucky than good, but so far Rand Paul has been both. His political skill has been clearest in his attempts to build coalitions within the GOP and conservative movement (with Democrats too, but they won’t play much of a role in helping him win the GOP nomination): his marathon filibuster attracted support from less vocal critics of domestic surveillance; his outreach to the Jewish community has allayed some concerns about his approach to Israel; and he has been a strong voice for a pro-life libertarianism.

Luck has been at his side as well. Events tend to shape elections, though it’s not always clear just how much. (The 2008 financial crash probably didn’t cost John McCain the election to Barack Obama, but it certainly didn’t help. The Russia-Georgia war of that year was expected to be helpful to McCain, but it didn’t provide any noticeable bounce.) There’s no question, however, that current events during Rand Paul’s first term in the Senate have been in his wheelhouse.

The NSA scandal, a botched undeclared war in Libya, bureaucratic belly flops like the ObamaCare exchange, and abuse-of-power scandals like the IRS targeting have all helped Paul and his supporters make the case that the government needs to be reined in. Back in December, a Gallup poll found a record high percent of Americans consider big government to be a bigger threat to the country than big business or big labor. And last February, Pew found that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans considered the federal government to be a threat to their rights and freedoms.

And then, like any story about conservatives that is years old, the New York Times even caught on, publishing a magazine essay last week asking: “Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?” The story ran a cover photo of Rand Paul.

Paul’s luck was bound to run out eventually, and just as he could thank President Obama’s string of domestic failures and abuses for his momentum, so too can he rue Obama’s colossal foreign-policy failures for the fact that events have reversed the tide on him. The Lightbringer giveth, the Lightbringer taketh away.

A stable global order is a great time to be a noninterventionist. The Age of Obama, alas, is not. President Obama’s attempt to pull America back from a tenuous global balance was a bit like the would-be amateur magician’s first attempt to pull the tablecloth away without disturbing the plates and glassware. It wasn’t really thought through, and everything came crashing down.

And so we find ourselves going back into Iraq and trying to put out the fires Obama and John Kerry started elsewhere in the Middle East. Even Hillary Clinton has abandoned her former boss, joining with the interventionists to try to restore some order and push back the advance of terror pseudostates. What say you, Rand Paul? The senator, after a few days of silence, offered his thoughts on the airstrikes to push back ISIS in Iraq:

“I have mixed feelings about it. I’m not saying I’m completely opposed to helping with arms or maybe even bombing, but I am concerned that ISIS is big and powerful because we protected them in Syria for a year,” Paul said.

Paul has cemented himself as one of the leading potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates with a libertarian brand of conservatism that includes skepticism of foreign military intervention. However, he was initially conspicuously silent on the airstrikes and did not respond to requests to comment on the issue from multiple media outlets including Business Insider.

Along with implying ISIS grew because the U.S. did not back other groups in the fighting in Syria, Paul pointed out some of the same foreign policy hawks who support the current airstrikes also wanted to launch military operations against Assad.

“Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them? Assad, the Syrian government. So a year ago, the same people who want to bomb ISIS wanted to bomb Syria last year,” said Paul. “Syria and ISIS are on opposite sides of the war. We’re now bombing both sides of one war that has spread into another country.”

Paul said the examples of Syria and ISIS show why some Americans might want a more “moderate” foreign policy.

In addition to not really answering the question (though we can certainly allow for some nuance), Paul seems to suggest that lack of intervention in Syria helped create this crisis, which apparently is a case for less intervention. Also, he senses hypocrisy in those who want to intervene against ISIS and also against Assad while Assad is fighting ISIS too.

Yet the point only really holds if those are the only two sides in the dispute. They’re not. There are also non-ISIS, non-Assad aligned forces. In seeking to help the Kurds and save the Yazidis in Iraq, for example, we’re not actively allying ourselves with Assad next door. We’re trying to do two things simultaneously: prevent genocide and build up the defensive capabilities of an American-aligned minority enclave in Kurdistan. Those who support intervention believe we have a responsibility to our allies and would gain strategically by strengthening a proxy that could shoulder some of the burden during our period of retrenchment.

That may or may not be correct ultimately (I think it is, and I think our experience with Israel and Jordan shows the potential). But I don’t think Paul comes off as being comfortable at all with this debate. Perhaps his luck has run out, or maybe it’s on temporary leave. But foreign policy has reasserted itself, and with two years left in Obama’s term, it’s likely to stick around.

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It’s the Obama Optics, Not the Golf

President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.

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President Obama’s defenders are angry and some of their scorn for his critics is justified. Everybody, even a president, is entitled to a vacation. But the problem this week isn’t just that the Obamas have left Washington for the friendly embrace of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the arrogant assumption on the part of the White House that the president is exempt from even making a show of demonstrating his awareness that the world is falling to pieces on his watch.

As Lawrence Knutson writes today in Politico, the president is never entirely on vacation wherever he goes. The occupant of the White House lives, as Ronald Reagan used to say, “above the store” and even when they leave it for ranches, beaches, or other retreats, they bring the business with them in the form of armies of aides who are there to ensure that the government continues to run smoothly. Presidents have been leaving the seat of government to spend time at either their own homes or resorts since the time of George Washington. And their critics have never shied away from abusing them for doing so, even when such comments are transparently partisan in nature. Democrats pile on Republican presidents for taking breaks and the GOP returns the favor with both sides conveniently forgetting their lack of outrage when one of their one was the target.

But even if I agree that the routine carping about presidential vacations is hypocritical and off the point, there is something to the rumblings about the Obamas that goes above and beyond the normal grousing as well as the run-of-the-mill hysteria that he inspires in certain sectors of the political right.

The problem with the Obama vacation is both the habits of this particular president and bad timing.

While no one can say that Obama—or any president for that matter—doesn’t work hard, he has a habit of acting as if the normal rules of political behavior don’t apply to him. This president has spent more days golfing than any of his recent predecessors. While George W. Bush spent more days away from the White House—principally at his Texas ranch or at the family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, both of which functioned routinely as little White Houses—Obama has never shown he cares much about the optics of being seen recreating while terrible things are happening. Bush stopped playing golf in 2003 after the war in Iraq began principally because he believed it didn’t look right for the president to be strolling the links while Americans faced death abroad. Obama has no such compunctions.

The timing is also a problem. It can be argued that there is something bad happening somewhere on the globe every day of the year. But there is something particularly egregious about Obama loafing around while the successful outcome in the Iraq War that he inherited from Bush is transformed into a victory for Islamist terrorists.

As even his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton noted this past weekend, the disaster in Iraq is a direct consequence of decisions that Obama has made. The rise and spread of the ISIS caliphate wouldn’t have been possible without Obama’s choice to bail on Iraq. For him to treat this catastrophe for both human rights and U.S. interests as not worth changing his schedule over—even as he ordered U.S. air crews into action to launch strikes against the terrorists—is simply bad optics.

It wouldn’t have cost him much to delay his trip, even for a day or two, to be seen consulting with military leaders and advisors over this issue. But like everything else about Obama, it appears that he believes his historic status means he doesn’t play by the same rules other politicians have to live by.

While, like all presidents, Obama is entitled to some vacation time, postponing the getaway would have demonstrated both sincerity and a willingness to take responsibility for his own mistakes.

Losing a round or two of golf just to show the world and an American people who have already begun to dismiss Obama as the lamest of lame ducks that he is on the job would not have been a tragedy for the president or his family. Moreover, given the cushy nature of presidential retirement, it’s not unfair to tell commanders-in-chief that they should postpone most of their time off to the period when they leave the White House and begin their permanent post-White House vacation. While the responsibilities they must shoulder are crushing, the perks of presidential life are such that no one need waste much sympathy on Obama giving up a bit of his free time to look like he cares about Iraq and the other international crises that is unable or unwilling to do much about.

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“The Tide of War is Receding,” “We Don’t Do Stupid [Stuff],” and Other Myths  

Given unfolding events in the world–the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the breaking apart of Iraq and Libya, the war between Israel and Hamas, fears of destabilization in Jordan, the radicalization and rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, the mistrust toward America by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, an emboldened China in the South China Sea, and strained relations with allies in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia–it might be worth calling attention to some of President Obama’s statements on foreign policy and national security over the years. I’ve included excerpts and headlines from newspaper and magazine articles following quotes from Mr. Obama, in order to help provide context and clarify the record.

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Given unfolding events in the world–the rise of ISIS, the civil war in Syria, the breaking apart of Iraq and Libya, the war between Israel and Hamas, fears of destabilization in Jordan, the radicalization and rising anti-Semitism in Turkey, the mistrust toward America by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the setbacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine, an emboldened China in the South China Sea, and strained relations with allies in North and South America, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia–it might be worth calling attention to some of President Obama’s statements on foreign policy and national security over the years. I’ve included excerpts and headlines from newspaper and magazine articles following quotes from Mr. Obama, in order to help provide context and clarify the record.

Think of this as an exercise in accountability, then; in holding Mr. Obama not to my standards but to his, to measure what he said he’d do against what he has actually done and what has come to pass.

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“The tide of war is receding.”–Address to the nation, June 22, 2011

“The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s… In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.”–“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2014

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“These long wars [in Iraq and Afghanistan] will come to a responsible end.”–Address to the nation, June 22, 2011

“The crisis gripping Iraq escalated rapidly on Thursday with a re-energized Islamic State in Iraq and Syria storming new towns in the north and seizing a strategic dam as Iraq’s most formidable military force, the Kurdish pesh merga, was routed in the face of the onslaught.”–“Jihadists Rout Kurds in North and Seize Strategic Iraqi Dam”, New York Times, August 8, 2014

“In one of the most significant coordinated assaults on the government in years, the Taliban have attacked police outposts and government facilities across several districts in northern Helmand Province, sending police and military officials scrambling to shore up defenses and heralding a troubling new chapter as coalition forces prepare to depart… With a deepening political crisis in Kabul already casting the presidential election and long-term political stability into doubt, the Taliban offensive presents a new worst-case situation for Western officials: an aggressive insurgent push that is seizing territory even before American troops have completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan.”–“Taliban Mount Major Assault in Afghanistan”, New York Times, June 27, 2014

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“The analogy we use around here sometimes [in describing ISIS], and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.”–Quoted in the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

“ISIS now controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations. It possesses the means to threaten its neighbors on multiple fronts, demonstrating a military effectiveness much greater than many observers expected. Should ISIS continue this pattern of consolidation and expansion, this terrorist ‘army’ will eventually be able to exert a destabilizing influence far beyond the immediate area.”–Janine Davidson, Council on Foreign Relations, July 24, 2014

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“Let’s just keep in mind, Falluja is a profoundly conservative Sunni city in a country that, independent of anything we do, is deeply divided along sectarian lines. And how we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”–Responding to a question about the fall of Falluja to ISIS, the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

“U.S. expands airstrikes against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq.”–Washington Post headline, August 8, 2014

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“What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision… the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances. And on that basis, we left… So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were — a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.”–President Obama, asked by reporters if he had any second thoughts about pulling all ground troops out of Iraq, August 9, 2014

“After taking office, I announced a new strategy that would end our combat mission in Iraq and remove all of our troops by the end of 2011… So today, I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year. After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”–Remarks to the press corps, October 21, 2011

“At one meeting, [Nouri al-] Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. ‘The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,’ Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.”–“What We Left Behind”, Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker, April 28, 2014

“Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. ‘There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,’ he said. ‘Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.’ But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies.”– “What We Left Behind”, Dexter Filkins, the New Yorker, April 28, 2014

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“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”–Remarks to the White House press corps, August 20, 2012

“US attack on Syria delayed after surprise U-turn from Obama”–the Guardian headline, August 31, 2013

“Forensic Details in U.N. Report Point to Assad’s Use of [Deadly Chemical] Gas.”–New York Times headlines, September 16, 2013

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“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”–“Obama on the World”, Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 8, 2014

“President Obama got angry at lawmakers who suggested in a private meeting that he should have armed the Syrian rebels, calling the criticism ‘horsesh*t.’”–“Obama Told Lawmakers Criticism of His Syria Policy is ‘Horsesh*t’”, Josh Rogan, the Daily Beast, August 11, 2014

“The White House … proposed a major program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels, in a significant expansion of the U.S. role in a civil war that officials fear is bleeding into Iraq and across the region. The Obama administration requested $500 million—a larger amount than expected—to aid the Syrian opposition, reflecting growing U.S. alarm at the expanding strength of Islamist forces in Syria, who in recent weeks have asserted control of large parts of neighboring Iraq and now pose threats to U.S. allies in the region.”–“Obama Proposes $500 Million to Aid Syrian Rebels”Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2014

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“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free… Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.”–Address to the United Nations, September 21, 2011

“The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighbouring Tunisia under US military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said. ‘Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the US embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,’ a spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said.”–“US closes embassy in Libya after militia battles in Tripoli”, the Guardian, July 26, 2014

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“In fact, by most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world. Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics.”–Commencement address at West Point, May 28, 2014

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

“[Obama’s is] a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.”–“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy”, Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker, May 2, 2011

* * * *

“So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, those who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. And this cycle of suspicion and discord must end. I’ve come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect…”–Remarks at Cairo University, June 4, 2009

“In a number of strategically important Muslim nations, America’s image has not improved during the Obama presidency. In fact, America’s already low 2008 ratings have slipped even further in Jordan and Pakistan… in the Middle East there is little enthusiasm for a second term – majorities in Egypt (76%), Jordan (73%) and Lebanon (62%) oppose Obama’s re-election… There is little support for Obama, however, in the predominantly Muslim nations surveyed. Fewer than three-in-ten express confidence in him in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan. And … just 7% of Pakistanis have a positive view of Obama.”–“Global Opinion of Obama Slips, International Policies Faulted”, Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, June 13, 2012

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 “Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage.  If we don’t, no one else will.”–Commencement address at West Point, May 28, 2014

“Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding… Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. ‘It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,’ the adviser said. ‘But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.’”–“The Consequentialist: How the Arab Spring remade Obama’s foreign policy”, Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker, May 2, 2011

* * * *

President Obama: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space… This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

President Medvedev: “I understand. I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”–Exchange between President Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, March 26, 2012

“Putin Reclaims Crimea for Russia and Bitterly Denounces the West”–New York Times headline, March 18, 2014

* * * *

“The truth is that Mr. Putin acted out of weakness, not out of strength.”–President Obama in a radio interview (KNSD) speaking about the Russian invasion of Crimea, March 20, 2014

“Putin clearly indicated [in a March 18 speech to parliament] he believes that borders drawn even earlier — right after the revolution of 1917 — can and should be redrawn. In other words, he positions contemporary Russia as the heir to the Russian Empire as it was constituted under the czars.”–Masha Gessen, Russian American journalist and author, “After carving up Ukraine, where will Putin turn next?”, Washington Post, May 9, 2014

“The Levada Center, a well-respected independent polling center, has also found that Putin had a 72 percent approval rating, up 7 points from January and a recent record. To put that in context on a world stage, U.S. president Barack Obama is currently at 43 percent, according to Gallup, while 79 percent of the French say they don’t approve of Francois Hollande’s presidency. Putin isn’t just popular, he’s extraordinarily popular.”–“We treat him like he’s mad, but Vladimir Putin’s popularity has just hit a 3-year high”, Adam Taylor, Washington Post, March 13, 2014

* * * *

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

“The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.”–“Obama Contends With Arc of Instability Unseen Since ’70s”, Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2014

“Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”–President Obama’s former Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic, August 10, 2014

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“I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.”–Barack Obama, September 6, 2008

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Team Obama to Hillary: Be Careful What You Wish For

Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

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Hillary Clinton finally has a primary challenger for 2016: Hillary Clinton. After the former secretary of state’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in which she criticized President Obama’s approach to the world, people wondered if Hillary was truly a foreign-policy centrist with a proud vision of American global power projection, or if she was making it all up. Obama administration officials have offered their answer: she was making it all up.

It was perhaps inevitable that Obama loyalists would come forward and paint a picture of Hillary as fundamentally dishonest and engaged in self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of power. But it’s still somewhat surprising to see this all play out so far from the 2016 presidential election. As Jonathan wrote yesterday, Clinton’s interview signaled that she is already running her general-election campaign: with no serious lefty challenger, she has no need to play to the base on foreign affairs. Obama’s defenders have, however, cast her as her own rival by seeking to portray the presidential aspirant as she was during her time as secretary of state, not the new and improved “neocon” Hillary.

The Obama pushback has taken two forms. The more entertaining is David Axelrod’s shot across the bow this morning. In Clinton’s interview, she disparaged Obama’s foreign-policy mantra, telling Goldberg: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Today, Axelrod fired back, tweeting:

Just to clarify: “Don’t do stupid stuff” means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.

In other words, “don’t do stupid stuff” as an organizing principle is only necessary because people like Clinton insisted on doing stupid stuff. Of course, by this logic Obama is hardly in the clear: Democrats, including Obama’s Cabinet, were enthusiastic supporters of the Iraq war. Axelrod may be trying to insult Clinton’s intelligence, but he’s also reminding the public that, accordingly, the president has surrounded himself with dullards.

In addition to the enlightening Axelrod vs. Clinton “no, you’re a stupidhead” debate, White House officials also told the New York Times that when her opinion actually mattered in the formation of policy–and when it was offered behind closed doors–Clinton wasn’t exactly the bold outlier:

Still, when Mrs. Clinton says that “the failure to help build up a credible fighting force” against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” the suggestion is that Mr. Obama’s refusal to arm the rebels might end up being a singular misjudgment. But at the time of the Obama administration’s internal debate over that decision, several officials said, Mrs. Clinton’s advocacy was far less thunderous: The United States had tried every diplomatic gambit with Syria, she said, and nothing else had worked, so why not try funneling weapons to the moderate rebels.

As Mrs. Clinton stakes out her own foreign policy positions in advance of a possible campaign for the White House, it is only natural that some of her statements will not be entirely in sync with her record as secretary of state, when she served at the pleasure of the president.

At the end of her tenure, for example, Mrs. Clinton wrote a memo to Mr. Obama recommending that the United States lift its half-century-old trade embargo against Cuba. It was not a position that she seriously advocated while at the State Department, officials said.

The Times article draws attention to the fact that Clinton was hardly a dissenting voice in the Obama administration. She sometimes disagreed, but equivocated when doing so. And that gets to the real significance of this row: both sides, Obama and Clinton, are aiming for the other’s Achilles’ heel.

Obama is vulnerable right now on the topic of former officials trying desperately to distance themselves from him. Bob Gates’s memoir caused a bit of a stir for criticizing his former boss before Obama was out of office. After leaving the State Department, Vali Nasr slammed Obama’s foreign-policy conduct. And now Clinton is doing the same. Gates and Clinton are particularly harmful to Obama, since they were both Cabinet members and are both vastly superior intellects to their successors, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry. Obama’s current Cabinet cannot match the credibility of his previous Cabinet, and it’s his previous Cabinet going public with their disapproval.

For Clinton, her weakness continues to be her Clintonian lack of principle and authenticity. Whatever their reasons for backing Clinton, it’s doubtful any of her supporters thinks Clinton believes anything. To Clinton there are no facts, only focus groups. She is yet another representation of the modern Democratic Party’s identity politics: it isn’t what she thinks that matters, but what she represents. The Obama team’s rebuttal of her attempts to throw the sitting president under the bus constitutes a warning to be careful what she wishes for. She may want to pivot to the general election already, but non-liberals might not be so enthused about her constant attempts at misdirection and reinvention.

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The Return of Senator Hillary

If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

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If there were any doubt that Hillary Clinton is preparing for another presidential run, it was erased by her interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic. In it we saw not only the inevitable pre-2016 distancing from President Obama but a return, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned, of the centrist stances that were articulated by Senator Hillary Clinton prior to her becoming secretary of state. While welcome, the phrase caveat emptor should be stamped all over the piece.

Let’s specify that the analyses of world problems and policy choices that Clinton articulates in this interview are almost uniformly sensible and are informed by a sensibility that under Obama, the U.S. appears to be withdrawing from the world stage. The contrast with President Obama’s recent defense of his foreign policy in a New York Times interview with Thomas Friedman that I discussed yesterday couldn’t be clearer. While attempting to pose as the advocate of a position that is balanced between what she calls the too bellicose policies of George W. Bush and Obama’s retreat, there is a distinctly neo-conservative spirit to Clinton’s remarks in which an American freedom agenda comparable to the U.S.’s Cold War strategy is needed.

Clinton rightly notes that the West’s failure to act in Syria early in the civil war that broke out there three years ago is the root cause of the current catastrophe in Iraq. While the president claims nothing the U.S. could have done in 2011 would have made a difference in Syria, Clinton rightly believes that the administration’s failure to sufficiently back the moderates who started the revolt against Bashar Assad not only ensured the dictator’s survival but also set in motion the chain of events that led to the rise of ISIS and the potential collapse of Iraq.

The former first lady also made it clear that the direction of administration policy on the Iran nuclear negotiations was wrong:

“I’ve always been in the camp that held that they did not have a right to enrichment,” Clinton said. “Contrary to their claim, there is no such thing as a right to enrich. This is absolutely unfounded. There is no such right. I am well aware that I am not at the negotiating table anymore, but I think it’s important to send a signal to everybody who is there that there cannot be a deal unless there is a clear set of restrictions on Iran.

Again, this is a direct rebuke of the decision of her successor John Kerry’s policies. Kerry tacitly recognized an Iranian right to enrichment in the weak interim deal signed with Tehran last November. She also seemed to be staking out a position in opposition to the administration’s likely acceptance of a deal that would leave Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact while dismantling the international sanctions that she labored to put in place.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton sounded more like a candidate for a New York Senate seat than one seeking the nomination of the party whose supporters are, polls show, less supportive of Israel than the Republicans. Clinton not only took direct aim at some of Israel’s administration critics of its military tactics in Gaza but she more or less endorsed the Netanyahu government’s inclination to avoid any further territorial withdrawals on the West Bank—such as those advocated by President Obama—in the absence of credible security guarantees that are obviously not forthcoming. She also rightly noted the role that anti-Semitism plays in the protests against Israel’s efforts to defend itself against Hamas terrorism.

Even more telling is that Clinton seemed to be saying that the basic underpinning of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs is basically clueless:

She finds his approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good. At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters).

This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”

She’s completely right about that, but what do we make of this decision by Clinton to draw a sharp distinction between her approach and those of the president she served for four years?

On the one hand, Clinton’s willingness to criticize Obama, especially on Syria, Israel, and Iran, is most welcome. At a time when the president’s feckless foreign policy is spreading chaos, it is high time that some one in the Democratic Party noted his failures and proposed something different.

But what Clinton doesn’t tell us is why we should take her current common sense seriously when her record as secretary of state showed that she was just as culpable for Obama’s bad record on foreign policy as the president. These are, after all, very similar to the positions she articulated in 2008 when she first ran for president and before that when she was a senator from New York.

While Clinton claims in her latest memoir to have been the voice of reason on Syria within administration counsels, there’s no evidence that she was successful or that she influenced Obama on Israel or Iran. Indeed, she played the point person at times in the president’s efforts to undermine and pressure Netanyahu. The insincerity of her latest switch (she embraced Suha Arafat while first lady and then sounded like a Likudnik while running for the Senate) is so brazen that it is almost shocking.

Even more to the point, her about face on the administration shows that the most important line on her resume is somewhat misleading. While her supporters claim she was a great secretary of state, the reality is that she was a doormat at Foggy Bottom who had little or no influence on policy except on issues like Russia, where she also failed (such as the “reset”).

As far as 2016 is concerned, what is significant about these remarks is that they seem to reflect a belief that she has truly cleared the field of potential challengers. Her foreign-policy centrism is bound to be unpopular with the liberal Democratic base and might make her vulnerable if she had a viable primary opponent. But in the absence of a new Barack Obama or even someone who would only give her a good scare, Clinton seems to think that she can start her general-election campaign more than two years before facing the voters. That gives her a tremendous advantage, especially given the divisions among Republicans on foreign policy.

But as much as this interview signals her confidence, it is also a warning sign that Clinton may not have as easy a time rallying her base as she thinks. Though she may not get a primary opponent, her decision to give the back of her hand to Obama and the left-wing core of her party may yet backfire in the form of a less enthusiastic liberal base that could come back to haunt her when it is time for them to turn out to elect her president.

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Obama Doesn’t Worry About Israel’s Survival. That’s Why We Should.

In an interview with the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, President Obama once again sounded the themes that have characterized his second term foreign policy: befuddlement and helplessness. But amidst the alibis for failure, the president also said something significant: He’s not worried about Israel’s survival but is concerned about its values. That’s exactly why the rest of us should be more worried about its security.

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In an interview with the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, President Obama once again sounded the themes that have characterized his second term foreign policy: befuddlement and helplessness. But amidst the alibis for failure, the president also said something significant: He’s not worried about Israel’s survival but is concerned about its values. That’s exactly why the rest of us should be more worried about its security.

Here’s the quote:

I asked the president whether he was worried about Israel.

“It is amazing to see what Israel has become over the last several decades,” he answered. “To have scratched out of rock this incredibly vibrant, incredibly successful, wealthy and powerful country is a testament to the ingenuity, energy and vision of the Jewish people. And because Israel is so capable militarily, I don’t worry about Israel’s survival. … I think the question really is how does Israel survive. And how can you create a State of Israel that maintains its democratic and civic traditions. How can you preserve a Jewish state that is also reflective of the best values of those who founded Israel. And, in order to do that, it has consistently been my belief that you have to find a way to live side by side in peace with Palestinians. … You have to recognize that they have legitimate claims, and this is their land and neighborhood as well.”

It’s nice that the president admires Israel’s achievements. But his complacence about its military achievements combined with his patronizing concern about its democratic and civic traditions is the sort of left-handed compliment that tells us more about his animosity for the Jewish state’s government than his fidelity to the alliance between the two allies. You don’t have to read too closely between the lines to understand that the subtext of these comments—Hamas’s genocidal intentions and Iran’s nuclear ambitions—make Obama’s blasé confidence about Israel’s ability to defend itself deeply worrisome.

The president is, of course, right to note that Israel has a formidable military. In particular, Israel’s dedication to technological advances such as the Iron Dome missile defense system have both saved many lives in the last month’s fighting with Hamas and provided a substantial long-range benefit to its American security partner. But his complacency about its security situation is hardly reassuring.

Israel remains under siege by hostile neighbors in the form of terrorist states on both its northern (Hezbollah) and southern borders. Both remain committed not just to Israel’s destruction but also the genocide of its Jewish population. While Israel is in no current danger of military defeat, the spectacle of Hamas forcing the majority of Israelis in and out of bomb shelters for a month encouraged the Islamists and their supporters to believe their cause is not yet lost. The fact that their efforts are being cheered on by a worldwide surge in anti-Semitism fueled by hatred of Israel also ought to leave any true friend of Israel worried.

Even more to the point, the principal sponsor of those terror groups—Iran—is working hard to gain nuclear capability, a (to use Obama’s own phrase) “game changing” factor that could destabilize the entire Middle East, threaten the security of the U.S. as well as endanger Israel’s existence. But despite paying rhetorical lip service to the effort to stop Iran, Obama has spent the last years hell-bent on pursuing détente with Tehran. The weak interim nuclear deal signed by the U.S. last fall undermined the sanctions that had cornered the Iranians and discarded virtually all of the West’s leverage. If the Iranians are currently playing hard to get in the current round of negotiations (now in the equivalent of soccer’s injury time as the deadline promised by Obama for talks has been extended), it is because they know the president’s zeal for a deal (and an excuse to abandon his campaign promises to stop Iran) outweighs his common sense or his resolve.

The bulk of Friedman’s interview with Obama concentrated on the disaster in Iraq and related troubles. But here, as with many domestic problems and scandals, the president’s priority is to absolve himself and his policies. The world is, he seems to be constantly telling us, a complex and confusing place where all of our possible choices are bad. There’s some truth to that, especially in places like Syria and Iraq. But what comes across most in his account of America’s declining affairs is that this is a president who is overwhelmed by events and has little understanding of them. The best he can do is to spew clichés about his bad options and to blame others.

Obama’s chief whipping boy in the Middle East is Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the world leader with whom he has quarreled the most in his years in office. Despite the events of the last month that have proved again that any territory Israel hands to the Palestinians will become a terror base, Obama continues to obsess about the need for Netanyahu to make territorial concessions that will create the possibility of, as the Israeli says, 20 Gazas in the West Bank. The overwhelming majority of Israelis reject such mad advice but Obama dismisses their common sense as merely being a case of a lack of vision. Despite his talk about supporting Israeli democracy he has been doing everything possible to thwart the will of Israel’s voters by undermining Netanyahu. Israelis want peace but understand that subjecting themselves to terror governments won’t bring the conflict to a close.

Obama also believes that the obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians isn’t Hamas. This conveniently ignores the fact that it is Hamas that plunged the region into war and whose hold on power there is being guaranteed by American pressure on Israel to restrain its counter-attacks on Islamist rocket fire and terror tunnels. The problem is, Obama says, that Netanyahu is “too strong” and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is “too weak.” That explains Obama’s constant attacks on Israel and his praise for the feckless—and powerless—Abbas. If he were serious about supporting democracy, he’d be wary of the autocratic Abbas and his corrupt PA gang and understand that asking Israel to further empower a Palestinian leadership that won’t make peace is not the act of a friend.

Even if we take the president’s assurances of his friendship for Israel at face value, this interview confirms what has been obvious since January 2009. This is a president who believes Israel’s security is not his priority or even a particular concern. Rather, he wants to save Israel from itself and acts as if it has not already made several offers of peace that have been consistently turned down by the Palestinians. Though Obama is right that Israelis won’t allow their country to be destroyed, his apathy about the deadly threats it faces from Iran and its terrorist proxies, cheered by a chorus of anti-Semitic haters, does nothing to inspire confidence in his leadership. The world has gotten less safe on his watch. The Israeli objects of his pressure tactics do well to ignore his advice. Friedman’s interview gives those who do care about the Jewish state’s future even more reasons to worry.

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The Gaza War Has Changed the Way the World Talks About Hamas

Amid all the metrics commentators propose to determine “who won” Operation Protective Edge, one is staring everyone in the face: the international community’s attitude toward a postwar (if and when the war is over) Gaza. And on that score, Israel seems to have won a convincing victory. The Gaza war has changed the way the world is talking about Hamas and the Gaza Strip–and, despite all their tut-tutting at Jerusalem, they sound quite a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Amid all the metrics commentators propose to determine “who won” Operation Protective Edge, one is staring everyone in the face: the international community’s attitude toward a postwar (if and when the war is over) Gaza. And on that score, Israel seems to have won a convincing victory. The Gaza war has changed the way the world is talking about Hamas and the Gaza Strip–and, despite all their tut-tutting at Jerusalem, they sound quite a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu.

I wrote last week of the Netanyahu government’s informal proposal for a sort of “economic peace” for Gaza in return for its demilitarization. Despite its record of success, economic peace has never really been embraced by the international community–and when Netanyahu proposes it, it’s usually met with anger and derision. But not this time. This time Hamas seems to have overplayed its hand.

It’s possible that this is Hamas being a victim of its own morbid “success” with regard to the propaganda war. That is, maybe the international community is so torn up by the violence in Gaza that they want more than ever to prevent its recurrence. And no matter how often they try to blame Israel, they seem to understand that there’s only one way to prevent future bloodshed: demilitarize, at least to a significant degree, the Gaza Strip.

Take, for example, the Obama administration. While President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and their staffers and advisors have been intent on criticizing Israel in public and in harsh terms, the president’s loyal defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, reportedly spoke as though he took the need to disarm Hamas for granted last week. And it’s even more significant to hear of European leaders joining that bandwagon. As Foreign Policy reported last night:

Major European powers have outlined a detailed plan for a European-backed U.N. mission to monitor the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of Hamas’s military tunnel network and rocket arsenals, according to a copy of the plan obtained by Foreign Policy.

The European initiative aims to reinforce wide-ranging cease-fire talks underway in Cairo. The Europeans are hoping to take advantage of this week’s 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire to cobble a more durable plan addressing underlying issues that could reignite violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

It remains unclear whether the European plan has the support of Hamas, Israel, or the United States. It does, however, include several elements the Obama administration believes are essential, including the need to ease Gazans’ plight, strengthen the role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and ensure the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip.

The plan — described in a so-called non-paper titled “Gaza: Supporting a Sustainable Ceasefire” — envisions the creation of a U.N.-mandated “monitoring and verification” mission, possibly drawing peacekeepers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which has monitored a series of Israeli-Arab truces in the region since the late 1940s. The mission “should cover military and security aspects, such as the dismantling of tunnels between Gaza and Israel, and the lifting of restrictions on movement and access,” according to the document. “It could have a role in monitoring imports of construction and dual use materials allowed in the Gaza Strip, and the re-introduction of the Palestinian Authority.”

The plan’s existence is in many ways more important than its details, for it shows Europe to be embracing Netanyahu’s idea for an economic peace for Gaza. Removing the import and export restrictions (or most of them) in return for real demilitarization would be an obvious win for everyone–except Hamas. In fact, it would give a major boost to the peace process overall, because it would discredit armed “resistance” as an effective method to win Palestinians their autonomy.

It would be quite a turnaround if Gaza somehow became the prime example of peaceful state building with the international community’s help. It’s also not an easy task, to say the least. But the fact that even Europe is on board, and expects to get the UN to agree to such a plan, shows that the principle of disarming Hamas and demilitarizing the Gaza Strip has gone mainstream.

Whether it happens is another question, of course, and no one should get their hopes up, especially while Hamas is breaking even temporary ceasefires. Additionally, the UN’s record in policing such zones of conflict, especially in the Middle East, is not cause for optimism. But talk of Hamas “winning” this war is made all the more ridiculous when the topic of conversation in the capitals of the Middle East and throughout the West is how to permanently disarm Hamas and dismantle any infrastructure they can use against Israel.

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Action Against ISIS Still Needs a Strategy

The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.

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The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.

And his actions provide much-needed relief for the besieged Yazidis who were in danger of dying under siege from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as for the Kurdish peshmerga which were reeling under ISIS assaults.

But Obama’s directives raise more questions than they answer. One obvious question is why the humanitarian imperative in Iraq is compelling enough to justify American military action but not in Syria, where at least 170,000 people have been killed since 2011 and where ISIS is just as oppressive and threatening as it is in Iraq? One suspects that the answer is that it is easier to drop food and water to 40,000 Yazidis stuck on one mountaintop than it is to alleviate the more monumental scale of suffering in Syria. Yet how can we justify turning our backs of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, which is so much worse?

Even in Iraq the Yazidis are hardly the only victims of ISIS. This group of fundamentalist savages is terrorizing all of northern and western Iraq, and while minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians are its targets so are Shiites and Kurds. Even Sunnis are being oppressed and murdered. Indeed all of northern Iraq could be in grave danger if ISIS were to blow the Mosul Dam, which it has just captured. Don’t Iraqis other than Yazidis deserve some relief from this monstrous threat too?

It is still unclear how far Obama is willing to go in fighting back against ISIS. He drew an implicit red line by suggesting, in essence, that the U.S. would not allow ISIS to take Erbil or Baghdad–a red line that, one hopes, he will do more to enforce than previous red lines in Syria. And today two US Navy F-18s did bomb an ISIS position near Erbil, which suggests that Obama’s words are not entirely empty. But what is the logic of telling ISIS to stay out of Erbil and Baghdad but implicitly allowing it to consolidate its hold on western and northern Iraq and eastern and northern Syria? Is the president basically saying that the U.S. is OK with a terrorist state as it now exists as long as it does not expand any further? Surely that is not the message the White House wants to send, yet it is the message that, I fear, is being received in the Middle East.

What is needed now is more than a few symbolic air strikes or food drops. What is needed is a strategy to roll back ISIS. In congressional testimony on July 29, I offered a few thoughts about what such a strategy should look like. I suggested that we need to send many more advisers and Special Operations Forces to Iraq, backed up by airpower, to aid not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga and the Sunni tribes to fight back against ISIS–and that we should also step up our aid to the Free Syrian Army to put pressure on ISIS on the other side of the border. It is possible that the events of this week are a small step in this direction, but it is also quite possible, even likely, that President Obama will not go nearly as far.

The danger in what he is doing now is that a few symbolic air strikes could actually bolster ISIS’s standing in the Muslim world as a fighter against the Great Satan without doing it serious damage. In for a penny, in for a pound: If we’re going to attack ISIS, let’s do it right. Let’s do it as part of a comprehensive, adequately sourced strategy that has a decent chance of breaking the group’s grip.

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Obama’s Love–Hate Relationship with Retrenchment

Does the Obama administration actually want to step back from world affairs, or does it want to control them more than ever but through obedient proxies? Until recently, the answer seemed to be closer to the former. Obama himself is noticeably uncomfortable on foreign affairs, often displaying his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his knowledge. But perhaps there’s a degree of control the president is unwilling to give up after all.

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Does the Obama administration actually want to step back from world affairs, or does it want to control them more than ever but through obedient proxies? Until recently, the answer seemed to be closer to the former. Obama himself is noticeably uncomfortable on foreign affairs, often displaying his lack of interest in filling the gaps in his knowledge. But perhaps there’s a degree of control the president is unwilling to give up after all.

Israel has always been the exception to Obama’s approach to the world. He has long denounced American meddling, though he tried in his first term (rather transparently) to collapse Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition and force a change in Jerusalem. When it comes to American retrenchment, then, Israel seems to be an exception to the rule yet again.

The Wall Street Journal has a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the development of the Israel-Egypt relationship since the coup that replaced the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi with General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Here is some key background:

At first, Israeli intelligence officials said they didn’t know what to make of Mr. Sisi, a devout Muslim who in previous posts treated his Israeli counterparts coldly, a senior Israeli official said. As Mr. Sisi moved to take control of the government, Israeli intelligence analysts pored over his public statements, writings and private musings, Israeli and U.S. officials said.

The Israeli intelligence community’s conclusion: Mr. Sisi genuinely believed that he was on a “mission from God” to save the Egyptian state, the senior Israeli official said.

Moreover, as an Egyptian nationalist, he saw Mr. Morsi’s Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, as threats to the state that needed to be suppressed with a heavy hand, the Israeli official said.

Israeli intelligence analysts interpreted Mr. Sisi’s comments about keeping the peace with Israel and ridding Egypt of Islamists as a “personal realization that we—Israel—were on his side,” the Israeli official said.

Here’s how Hamas in Gaza viewed the change:

Under the protective umbrella of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist-led government, Hamas had imported large quantities of arms from Libya and Sudan, as well as money to pay the salaries of government officials and members of their armed wing, Israeli and U.S. officials said. His successor abruptly changed that.

“One day we had been sitting having great conversations with Morsi and his government and then suddenly, the door was shut,” Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’s deputy foreign minister, said in an interview last month.

And here’s the most important point of all, on the war in Gaza:

U.S. officials, who tried to intervene in the initial days after the conflict broke out on July 8 to try to find a negotiated solution, soon realized that Mr. Netanyahu’s office wanted to run the show with Egypt and to keep the Americans at a distance, according to U.S., European and Israeli officials.

The Americans, in turn, felt betrayed by what they saw as a series of “mean spirited” leaks, which they interpreted as a message from Mr. Netanyahu that U.S. involvement was neither welcomed nor needed.

Reflecting Egypt’s importance, Mr. Gilad and other officials took Mr. Sisi’s “temperature” every day during the war to make sure he was comfortable with the military operation as it intensified. Israeli officials knew television pictures of dead Palestinians would at some point bring Cairo to urge Israel to stop.

The Americans felt betrayed, and were clearly frustrated–as other accounts have explained in detail–by their lack of control. Walter Russell Mead calls it an “irony” that the administration wanted to have some way to step back from the world, especially the Middle East, without having it all go to hell, and yet when that opportunity arose they didn’t know what to make of it.

I think Mead is being overly generous. Obama and is advisers were more than surprised; they were resentful to such a degree that it was reflected in their public statements. But they can’t have it both ways. Obama can’t pull back from the world and put more of the burden on our allies to pick up the slack and then complain when those allies think for themselves instead of applying Obama’s magical thinking to serious conflicts.

The real irony is that all this brought Israel and the Arab states much closer together–a perennial goal of American foreign policy–only to make Obama complain they were ganging up on him. It was the one possible success in Obama’s rebalancing efforts, yet it’s the one that really bothers him.

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R2P Is MIA for the Besieged Yezidis of Iraq

Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.

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Once upon a time–and not so long ago–President Obama and senior members of his administration openly embraced the idea of “R2P” or “responsibility to protect.” This meant that the U.S. and other civilized nations have a responsibility to do something when genocide or other terrible crimes are occurring in other people’s countries.

Susan Rice, now the national security adviser, then the UN ambassador, gave an impassioned address in 2009 in which she said: “The Responsibility to Protect—or, as it has come to be known, R2P—represents an important step forward in the long historical struggle to save lives and guard the wellbeing of people endangered by conflict.” This principle formed an important justification for the U.S. intervention along with NATO allies in Libya in 2011 to prevent Muammar Gaddafi from slaughtering opponents of his regime. In 2012 Obama even created an Atrocities Prevention Board to carry out this humanitarian doctrine.

But in practice R2P has been MIA in this White House. Since 2011 more than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria–one ongoing atrocity after another–and the result has been a shrug from the White House which seems more concerned with stopping Israel’s war against Hamas terrorists. Now there is an even more urgent example of precisely the kind of atrocity that should motivate the U.S. and other powers into action. I am referring to the plight of the Yazidis–members of a small religious minority rooted in Zoroastrianism–who have been in the gunsights of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as its black-clad fighters have rolled over northern Iraq.

Last week ISIS took the Iraqi town of Sinjar, forcing tens of thousands of Yazidis to flee for their lives. Many took refuge on Mount Sinjar where they have been meeting an appalling fate–devoid of food and water, they are slowly dying yet are afraid to come down from the mountain for fear that they will be slaughtered by ISIS if they do so. As many as 40,000 people remain trapped and they are desperate for help. The Washington Post quotes a UNICEF official saying: “There are children dying on the mountain, on the roads. There is no water, there is no vegetation, they are completely cut off and surrounded by Islamic State. It’s a disaster, a total disaster.”

Tens of thousands of Christians in northern Iraq are also on the run, knowing they face death at the hands of ISIS. Yet so wary is the Obama administration of any involvement in Iraq that it is not even willing to send U.S. cargo aircraft to drop food and water to the trapped Yazidis–much less to call in air strikes that would break the siege of Mount Sinjar.

The president’s chief foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes grandly proclaims that Obama is busy positioning “the U.S. to lead for the next 10, 20 or 30 years.” His gaze firmly fixed decades in the future, Obama seems to be missing the preventable atrocities–which not only violate the R2P doctrine but also threaten vital American national security interests–that are occurring in the here and now.

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Obama Is Destroying Traditional Democratic Issue Advantages

Here’s an interesting, and potentially significant, effect of the Obama presidency. Issues that have traditionally been very strong Democratic ones no longer are.

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Here’s an interesting, and potentially significant, effect of the Obama presidency. Issues that have traditionally been very strong Democratic ones no longer are.

Health care is one obvious example. Historically it’s been an issue on which Democrats have dominated Republicans. No more. While the public still trusts Democrats more than Republicans on health care, the margin is single digits. And a recent poll shows that nearly 60 percent (58) of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of health care. Health care was a central issue in the GOP landslide in the 2010 mid-term elections, and it’s a key subject in this year’s mid-term elections as well. In almost every instance, Democrats are playing defense on health care.

Then there’s immigration, another issue that until now has been a potent one for Democrats. No more. A poll last week by AP-GfK shows that immigration is now President Obama’s worst issue. More than two-thirds of Americans (68 percent) disapprove of Obama’s handling of the immigration issue in general. Just 31 percent approve. Aaron Blake of the Washington Post points out, “when you separate those most passionate about the issue, the difference is even more stark, with 57 percent opposed and just 18 percent in favor. That’s more than three-to-one.” A CNN/Opinion Research poll from June showed Obama’s worst two issues were gun policy and illegal immigration.

What’s happened, it appears, is that the public is holding the Democratic Party accountable for the failures of Mr. Obama. Americans have for the most part cast aside the airy rhetoric and promises; they’re now judging the president and his party against reality. Their propositions and policies have been tested in real time, in real circumstances, and the results have been by and large a disaster.

This hardly means Republicans are home free on these matters. But it does mean there are enormous cracks in the foundation and Republicans have a historic opportunity to make inroads on issues that were once owned by Democrats.

Barack Obama may turn out to be a historic president, but not for the reasons Democrats were hoping for.

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Bibi and Barack After Gaza

As Operation Protective Edge wound down in Gaza, talk in the media turned to the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has been an unusually tense few months for Washington and Jerusalem.

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As Operation Protective Edge wound down in Gaza, talk in the media turned to the U.S.-Israel relationship. It has been an unusually tense few months for Washington and Jerusalem.

What’s puzzling is not President Obama’s desire for peace. It is always admirable to want wars to go on for no longer than they must. But in this case, once Israel discovered the terror tunnels, the state had to act in its own defense. The New York Times has a story today on the administration’s frustration with its lack of control over another sovereign state’s actions, but the entire piece can be boiled down to the following paragraph, appearing early on in the story:

With public opinion in both Israel and the United States solidly behind the Israeli military’s campaign against Hamas, no outcry from Israel’s Arab neighbors, and unstinting support for Israel on Capitol Hill, President Obama has had few obvious levers to force Mr. Netanyahu to stop pounding targets in Gaza until he was ready to do it.

Well that pretty much explains it, doesn’t it? Not only did Israel have public support in the U.S., but its actions were backed by its Arab neighbors and the U.S. Congress. Obama was the odd man out–or one of the few, anyway. There was a rare consensus in Israel’s part of the Middle East that included Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Everyone was on the same page both with Israel and the U.S. for once. It was an easy diplomatic call for Obama, but he still made the wrong one.

Additionally, the efficacy of American pressure on Israel depends to a large extent on the Israeli public. In this particular case, Hamas had constructed an underground city with tunnels that led into Israeli territory. Of course the Israeli public wanted those tunnels gone. And the threat from the rockets flying from Gaza, often derided by the world as glorified firecrackers, had increased as well. The rockets practically shut down Ben-Gurion Airport, Israel’s gateway to the outside world, which had the effect of temporarily isolating a Jewish polity that, for clear and rational reasons, is a bit sensitive to their enemies’ attempts to ghettoize them.

As Ruthie Blum writes today in Israel Hayom:

One could argue that the reason public support for Operation Protective Edge reached a ‎whopping 95 percent was the utter justice of its cause; that the incessant rocket-‎fire from Gaza, now hitting the center of country, was too much even for the peace ‎utopians to bear. ‎

One could assume that no matter what an Israeli’s personal political leanings, he would ‎see the virtue in defeating an enemy that glorifies death; uses children as canon fodder; ‎abuses women; tortures homosexuals and the disabled; and vows to annihilate the world’s ‎Jews while converting or slaughtering its Christians. ‎

Nevertheless, it is usually impossible to get even those Israelis with similar outlooks to ‎agree on anything, including where to hang a communal clothesline, for more than five ‎minutes. Hence the quip, “Two Jews, three opinions.”‎

Blum also mentions the surprising fact that this unity occurred under the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose essential pragmatism tends to leave Israelis wary of his intentions. Netanyahu doesn’t really have a political base in the traditional sense, since the right wing doesn’t trust him. Yet in this current conflict, virtually the entire country was his base.

Such unity of spirit and support for Israel in the Arab world should have been inspiring. To Obama, it was a source of aggravation. As the Times notes:

The blunt, unsparing language — among the toughest diplomats recall ever being aimed at Israel — lays bare a frustrating reality for the Obama administration: the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has largely dismissed diplomatic efforts by the United States to end the violence in Gaza, leaving American officials to seethe on the sidelines about what they regard as disrespectful treatment.

Obama has always been more receptive to the angst of the Democratic Party’s base than other elected Democrats who didn’t, after all, become the most powerful person in the world by riding a wave of feverish antiwar anger. And the Democratic Party’s base is the one sector of American politics whose open hostility to Israel is not only growing stronger by the day but also seeping into the rest of the party from the margins.

Obama has often left commentators perplexed by the battles he chooses and the fights he picks, since they’re so often with steadfast allies. And it should be noted that he hasn’t abandoned Israel in the military realm–far from it. But the diplomatic aggression toward Israel is far from meaningless. The Times explains that “a senior American official predicted that the tough State Department statement would ‘box [Israel] in internationally.’”

Despite having the Arab world on their side in this fight, not to mention the U.S. Congress and the public they represent, the Obama administration is trying to rally international–European, presumably–opinion against Israel. It’s strategically foolish and diplomatically illogical. Perhaps the end of Operation Protective Edge, then–if indeed this is the end–will serve to protect the Obama administration from itself by preventing further self-inflicted wounds, or at least remove Gaza as their source.

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David Remnick’s Distorted Judgment

The New Yorker’s David Remnick is an intelligent man and a fine editor and writer. (I just read his excellent 1998 book on Muhammed Ali, King of the World.) But when it comes to politics, his political judgments, especially about Barack Obama, are hopelessly distorted.

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The New Yorker’s David Remnick is an intelligent man and a fine editor and writer. (I just read his excellent 1998 book on Muhammed Ali, King of the World.) But when it comes to politics, his political judgments, especially about Barack Obama, are hopelessly distorted.

Mr. Remnick, it’s worth noting, appeared on the November 7, 2008 broadcast of PBS’s Charlie Rose discussing the election of Obama. Mr. Remnick compared Obama’s rhetorical skills to Lincoln. The campaign, he said, “shows him in a decision-making mold that is very encouraging.” Mr. Obama demonstrated a “receptivity to ideas outside the frame” and possesses a “worldview that allows for complexity.” He “assumes a maturity in the American public” and possesses “great audacity.” Not to believe Obama’s election will have “enormous effect” on the streets of Cairo, or Nairobi, or Jerusalem is “naive.” It continued in this vein until Remnick–who was nearly in tears during portions of the interview, which included historians–finally had to say, “We’ll climb out of the tank soon.”

Such Obama adulation is impossible to sustain these days, with the Obama presidency in ruins. Mr. Remnick has therefore decided the thing to do is to make excuses for Obama. And so on Sunday’s roundtable discussion on ABC’s This Week, Remnick said this:

He’s pretty stifled [legislatively]. It’s frustrating to see his projection of frustration. You want him to suck it up and keep going at it and leading and leading. But I think history is going to show that this presidency has been stifled at every angle.

Actually, for the first two years of his presidency Obama had his way with the stimulus package, the Affordable Care Act, the GM-Chrysler bailouts, “cash for clunkers,” financial regulations, release of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds, credit-card price controls, the extension of jobless benefits, and more. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Mr. Obama has been the least obstructed president since LBJ in 1965 or FDR in 1933.” Mr. Remnick’s comments, then, are quite misleading.

To be sure, after the epic blowout Democrats suffered in the 2010 midterm elections, the president has been stifled in many areas (though he is getting around that by taking a series of lawless acts). But the crushing defeat of Democrats was precisely because Obama got his way on so many things and the public was unhappy with the results. Since then, they have grown more disenchanted, to the point that Obama’s approval ratings are now among the lowest ever for a president at this juncture in his term and Republicans, right now at least, are favored to take control of the Senate. Since defending Obama isn’t easy these days, expect people like Remnick to train their fury on Republicans, attempting to portray them as nihilistic and all the rest. The thinking here is that while Obama may not be perfect–on second thought, he may not be the equal of Lincoln–Republicans are malicious and malevolent. That is the political narrative that is supposed to save New Yorker-style liberalism.

One other thing: In the context of the discussion about the president sending signals he is going to sign an executive order giving amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, Remnick said this: “The immigration issue, first of all, I think a lot of people at this table are here because of America’s openness to immigration. I think that’s fair to say.”

It also irrelevant to the discussion. As Remnick’s co-panelist William Kristol pointed out, Remnick conflated legal immigration with illegal immigration. They are quite distinct, and our approaches to them should be, too. To treat the debate over illegal immigration as if it’s a debate about legal immigration is once again misleading.

And let’s examine the logic of Remnick’s position. It goes something like this: Most of us are here because somewhere in the past our relatives were legally allowed to immigrate to America, so we should have completely open borders and allow everyone in who wants to settle in America. QED. If the suffering peoples of Latin America, Africa, and other continents want to come to America, on what grounds is Mr. Remnick going to say no? Is there a limit to the number of people we can take in? A million? Ten million? Fifty million? A hundred million? And should we give priority to the people living in, say, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Madagascar, Swaziland, Congo, Zimbabwe, and Haiti? If someone says we have to draw some lines on illegal immigration, will Remnick’s response be, first of all, most of the people making those arguments are here because of America’s openness to immigration and so they have no standing to make their case?

It’s fascinating to see how people’s political biases distort not just their objectivity but their reasoning ability. David Remnick is hardly the worst example of this; in fact, he perfectly represents a certain slice of the political class. He is a man who is intelligent but not wise, who is dogmatic even as he has convinced himself he is a model of objectivity. To be rigidly ideological is bad enough; to be so blind to it is even worse.

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Peter Beinart Predicts the Triumph of Peter Beinartism

No one knows what the outcome of the Gaza crisis will be, but Peter Beinart is sure of this: it has proved him right. Beinart has been saying for some time that Israel and its defenders in the United States are out of step with a changing America. Millennials do not favor Israel as much as their parents do, and blacks and Hispanics do not favor Israel as much as whites do. Beinart also thinks that young people and minority groups are right to reject the pro-Israel arguments of America’s Jewish establishment and its allies. This establishment, Beinart explains in his Haaretz column (unfortunately gated) this Thursday, is best described as Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf described Jewish leaders more than 40 years ago: “they do not demand support, but rather submission.” This description was false then and is false now, but never mind. Beinart, who declared four years ago that Obama and his skepticism about Israel are “the new normal” believes that we are entering a new political world whose salient feature will be that more people agree with Beinart.

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No one knows what the outcome of the Gaza crisis will be, but Peter Beinart is sure of this: it has proved him right. Beinart has been saying for some time that Israel and its defenders in the United States are out of step with a changing America. Millennials do not favor Israel as much as their parents do, and blacks and Hispanics do not favor Israel as much as whites do. Beinart also thinks that young people and minority groups are right to reject the pro-Israel arguments of America’s Jewish establishment and its allies. This establishment, Beinart explains in his Haaretz column (unfortunately gated) this Thursday, is best described as Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf described Jewish leaders more than 40 years ago: “they do not demand support, but rather submission.” This description was false then and is false now, but never mind. Beinart, who declared four years ago that Obama and his skepticism about Israel are “the new normal” believes that we are entering a new political world whose salient feature will be that more people agree with Beinart.

This prediction looked bad last year when Gallup declared, “American’s Sympathies for Israel Match All-Time High.” Indeed, Americans leaned heavily toward the Israelis over the Palestinians, 64% vs. 12%.” “Americans’ partiality for Israel has consistently exceeded 60% since 2010,” the year Beinart penned the first article I linked. That number was only 55 percent for younger respondents, but Gallup called the variation “minor” and added that young people are “no more likely to favor the Palestinians. They are simply less anchored about whom they favor. In a February 2014 Gallup poll, 72 percent of U.S. respondents viewed Israel favorably, with younger Americans coming in at 64 percent.

Beinart did not recant, of course. Like all people who think they are on the right side of history, he treats contrary data as an indication that history is taking a while longer to sweep aside his opposition than one could wish. Last week, though, Gallup published what Matt Drudge would call a “shock poll.” Only 25 percent of younger U.S. respondents consider Israel’s actions Gaza justified. 51 percent consider them unjustified. To complete Beinart’s feast, the nonwhites whom he considers part of the coalition against today’s Zionist establishment also disapprove of Israel’s actions, 49 percent to 25 percent. The Pew Research Center offers a more complex picture but has majorities of blacks, Hispanics, and younger respondents blaming Israel more than Hamas for the present violence.

One can’t blame Beinart for displaying this rare sign that he could be right. But two data points hardly show thatevery time a conflict like this breaks out—especially if Israel continues to elect governments hostile to a viable Palestinian state—the American mood will incrementally shift. American opinion of Israel has dipped during conflicts before without producing such an incremental shift. In 2006, during the Lebanon war, a CBS/New York Times poll found that a plurality of Americans blamed Israel and Hezbollah equally for the violence. A majority thought that the United States should either stay silent or criticize Israel, not support it. Israel’s reputation recovered. In 1989, during the first intifada, another CBS/New York Times poll asked whether Israel had done enough to prove its interest in peace; 17 percent of respondents said yes, 70 percent no. Israel’s reputation recovered. In 2002, during the second intifada, Gallup found that just 34 percent of younger respondents favored Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians while 22 percent favored the Palestinians. Israel’s reputation recovered.

In a way, the Beinart of 2010 undercuts the Beinart of 2014. In 2010 Beinart thought that opinion would turn against Israel because Israel’s enemies were more appealing than before. Gone were the days when “Israel’s foes could be trusted to make it look good by comparison.” Israel’s leading critic was now Turkey, a democracy and a member of NATO.” The face of Palestine was Salam Fayad, a “proponent of nonviolence, a source of anti-corruption and a devotee of the Texas Longhorns.” Today, Turkey looks a little different, and Hamas is the face of Palestine, but Beinart’s argument hasn’t changed. He still thinks that the young people he describes as more liberal, peace-loving, and secular than their elders will in the long run cease to support Israel in its conflict with Hamas. 

Beinart neglects one of Gallup’s findings: the “more closely Americans are following the news about the Middle East situation, the more likely they are to think Israel’s actions are justified.” And as Pew notes, young Americans are as a group not following the conflict very closely; 23 percent of younger respondents say they are doing so. Far from being on an inevitable path to rejecting Israel until Israel adopts policies Beinart likes, the opinion of young people is not fixed and, in ordinary times is sympathetic toward Israel. This group can certainly be persuaded that Israel has a right to defend itself against the likes of Hamas.

As for Beinart, he need not worry about persuading anybody because he believes, as his headline writer aptly put it, that the age of Obamahas changed everything. Now who’s out of step?

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The Sue-Me President

Yesterday the House of Representatives voted along party lines to sue the President for rewriting key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The vote has been criticized as a political stunt at best and a prelude to impeachment at worst. But it is neither. It is actually the next logical step in dealing with an administration whose motto has gone from “Hope and Change” to “So, sue me.”

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Yesterday the House of Representatives voted along party lines to sue the President for rewriting key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The vote has been criticized as a political stunt at best and a prelude to impeachment at worst. But it is neither. It is actually the next logical step in dealing with an administration whose motto has gone from “Hope and Change” to “So, sue me.”

Anyone who has seen Schoolhouse Rock knows that the Constitution establishes clear procedures for the enactment of legislation: bicameralism, presentment, and signature. If a law doesn’t work out as hoped, the same process must be used to amend it. House Republicans argue that by unilaterally extending certain deadlines mandated by the ACA, the president has violated that process.

The stage is set for a classic struggle over the separation of powers. In one corner of the ring are members of Congress who believe that the president is encroaching upon the powers of the legislative branch. In the other corner is a president who believes that he has the discretion to change the law as he sees fit with the stroke of the pen and a wave of the phone.

Such a suit would have been unthinkable little more than a year ago. The notion that a close majority in one house of Congress could sue the president would have been laughed out of federal court. But thanks to one of the signal judicial victories of the Obama administration, U.S. v. Windsor, this case may well find itself on the fast track to the steps of the Supreme Court.

In order to have one’s day in court, a litigant has to demonstrate that he has standing to sue: he must show that he has sustained an actual injury and that the court has the power to provide a remedy. Historically, members of Congress have tried to sue sitting presidents on several occasions; but in each case they were unable to clear the standing hurdle. For example, in 1990, as the tensions leading to the First Gulf War escalated, fifty-four members of Congress sued President George H. W. Bush for encroaching on the powers of Congress by violating the War Powers Act. The case was dismissed on the ground that the claimants did not represent the totality of Congress and therefore did not have standing. In order to sue the president, the Court held, Congress would have to pass a joint resolution authorizing suit.

But last year, something changed. Last year, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court recognized for the first time that an unofficial committee of the House of Representatives,

the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), had standing to defend a federal statute when the executive would not. The statute in question was the Defense of Marriage Act, and its constitutionality was being challenged by New York widow Edith Windsor. President Obama ordered the Department of Justice not to defend the statute because he believed it was unconstitutional. DOMA would have been dead in the judicial water had BLAG not sought to intervene in the case and defend the statute’s constitutionality all the way to the high court.

The Supreme Court decided by a margin of one vote to recognize BLAG’s standing in the suit on “prudential” grounds relating to the public significance of the questions presented by the suit. It was an unprecedented ruling. As Justice Scalia noted in his dissent, the majority was so “eager—hungry—to tell everyone its view of the legal question at the heart of this case” that it dispensed with the ordinary standing requirements.

The administration got the outcome it wanted in Windsor–the Court declared DOMA unconstitutional–but it set a procedural precedent that may well be about to backfire for the president. Now that the Supreme Court has recognized BLAG’s standing to defend acts of Congress, the federal judiciary will have to decide whether to follow the Windsor precedent and allow the case against the president to proceed or to revert to traditional conceptions of standing and dismiss the suit.

It seems that John Boehner now has the president pinned by the point of his own pen. An administration that has cared less about constitutionally sound process than about politically expedient outcomes may well be about to reap what it has sown.

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Reality Is Neoconservative

“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

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“The facts of life are conservative,” said Margaret Thatcher. It was her way of pointing out that, regardless of political fights, the world trudges on behaving in ways that vindicate conservatives’ skepticism of perfectibility schemes: Markets make more efficient use of limited resources than do expert planning bodies. Handouts erode the human spirit. Well-intentioned policies have damaging unintended consequences. “Out of the crooked timber of humanity,” said Kant, “no straight thing was ever made.” It is the predictably misshapen fruit of man’s efforts that conservatives are (at their best) prepared to catch and to handle—within the bounds of reasonable expectation.

In the summer of 2014, is it not clear that reality is neoconservative?  That is to say, disposed toward violence and chaos in the absence of an American-led liberal world order. Recently, the case was made unwittingly not by a neoconservative, but rather by CBS News’s Bob Schieffer. “Trying to understand the news of this terrible summer,” he said, “it is hard to come away with any feeling but that we are in the midst of a world gone mad.” He went on:

On one side of the world, an ego-driven Russian leader seems to yearn for the time of the czars, when rulers started wars on a whim or a perceived insult — and if people died, so be it.
 In the Middle East, the Palestinian people find themselves in the grip of a terrorist group that has embarked on a strategy to get its own children killed in order to build sympathy for its cause — a strategy that might actually be working, at least in some quarters.

Schieffer closed with his own apt quote from Will Durant: “Barbarism, like the jungle, does not die out, but only retreats behind the barriers that civilization has thrown up against it, and waits there always to reclaim that to which civilization has temporarily laid claim.” The barbarians are back.

And just think of what Schieffer’s inventory of barbarism ignored. This week in Iraq, ISIS forced the last of Mosul’s Christians from the city under the threat of death. The United States evacuated its embassy in post-Gaddafi Libya, owing to an orgy of violence taking place there. In a recent 10-day period 1,800 Syrian civilians were killed in the ongoing civil war—a new conflict record.

And when Iran develops its fervently sought nuclear weapon, this will look in retrospect like our last carefree summer.

In the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt has called the current state of affairs “as close to a laboratory experiment on the effects of U.S. disengagement as the real world is ever likely to provide.” In Barack Obama’s global laboratory, the experiment persists even as it fails. The experimental design was laid out in his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly in the fall of 2009. Explaining the hypothesis to be tested, the president said, “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”

Globally interdependent benevolence. It was a nice thought, and, given its uncontested dominance in the academic institutions of which Obama is a product, its implementation was inevitable. But being president of merely one country, Obama could ensure only that it followed the new rules. That country, the United States, was the linchpin of the peaceful post-WWII global order, and national experimentation put the whole planet at risk. Because reality is neoconservative, no one else obeyed. Bad actors around the world mobilized to exploit the new dispensation.

In 2011, a thinker named Richard Tokumei wrote a book arguing that while modern liberals usually believe in evolution, their policy prescriptions tend not to incorporate it. Conversely, says Tokumei, conservatives are more likely to doubt evolution while supporting policies that reflect it. I make no claims for the evolutionary convictions of neocons, but this is at heart an argument about understanding human nature. Neoconservatism is grounded in it. Globally interdependent benevolence is a dream.

The challenge is that reality has only a glancing relationship with political expediency. In the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, neoconservatism remains politically unpopular. That could very well change, depending on the duration and rigor of Obama’s experiment. But whether or not we see a neocon comeback anytime soon, we’ve certainly not seen a serious challenge to neoconservative reality. Which is sad for us all.

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OFA the Undead: A Political Zombie’s Lessons for Conservatives

Mary Katherine Ham called attention last night to a rather humorous ongoing correspondence between Organizing for Action and the Washington Post. OFA is the perpetual Obama reelection campaign, which has been retooled to act as a campaign organization without a campaign. It’s an organizational zombie, which reflects the Obama administration’s own attitude toward their perceived value in the permanent campaign, even when there are no elections left (they even run the Barack Obama Twitter account). But there are lessons, I think, for conservatives in OFA’s story.

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Mary Katherine Ham called attention last night to a rather humorous ongoing correspondence between Organizing for Action and the Washington Post. OFA is the perpetual Obama reelection campaign, which has been retooled to act as a campaign organization without a campaign. It’s an organizational zombie, which reflects the Obama administration’s own attitude toward their perceived value in the permanent campaign, even when there are no elections left (they even run the Barack Obama Twitter account). But there are lessons, I think, for conservatives in OFA’s story.

The basic story is that, as Ham notes, Post political blogger Philip Bump wrote a piece in May that called attention to the fact that OFA was a purposeless shell, aimlessly wandering the country and unable to make a legislative impact on its pet political issues. Bump wrote about OFA’s announcement that with the midterms approaching and the need to maximize fundraising to candidates, it will stop accepting large donations. “Even without that news,” he added, “it’s not clear how much longer OFA will survive.”

OFA, coming from its formative experience as an Obama campaign machine, handles bad press about as well as you would expect the humorless president’s cultish fan clubs would. They challenged Bump over the next couple months to acknowledge and grade their work. He did, and he found that he was right. They’re a joke:

Organizing For Action has spent two months sending emails to the Post, trying to convince us of its effectiveness. (They were unhappy with this post asking how long the organization could survive.) So, we decided to look at what the group’s executive director, Jon Carson, was sending us. To catalog it. To do exactly what Carson apparently intended: Evaluate their work.

In short, we were not terribly impressed. …

By the most important metric, the group is largely ineffective. Of the priorities above — which, according to the group’s mandate, are meant to bolster federal efforts — none has seen national legislative action. The president introduced new restrictions on carbon pollution, but that was an executive action, not legislation. Immigration reform has stalled; there hasn’t been a national minimum wage increase. All of these things are difficult, given the opposition the president faces from Republicans in Congress, but that’s the point, right? Encourage people to take action in their communities? Bottom up change and all that?

Nonetheless, there are a couple things conservatives can learn from OFA’s good days and bad.

The first is that they should not dismiss OFA’s raison d’être. Though we often criticize the means by which the Democrats drum up support from their base–I regularly knock the White House’s “war on women” and took a shot at the pitiful attempts to get the GOP to talk impeachment–rallying the base itself is something conservatives should get used to, and the Obama campaign was very good at it.

Conservatives have tended to recoil a bit from the politicization of everything, and with good reason. But getting involved in partisan politics in a democracy is, as our Pete Wehner noted a couple weeks ago, a noble effort. I’m often reminded of the Jews in DP camps after World War II organizing themselves into political parties, ready to combat the tyranny they were subjected to not with more tyranny but with party politics as practiced by free men–even before they were truly free.

The instinct to organize and vote in or out policies and politicians according to your values and principles is the right way to change what needs changing. Liberal activism often has the feel of mob rule because that’s exactly what it is–except when those same activists who spend their time ostracizing the people they disagree with or destroying the livelihood of a thought criminal show up to the polls and vote. It’s terrible that liberals want to undo the protections in the First Amendment. But they give their authoritarian dreams hope of becoming reality by electing senators who actually introduce their wish lists as bills in Congress. Boosting turnout and organizing political action is the way they do that. Conservatives can’t expect to stop them by hoping John Roberts finds his spine.

The other lesson for conservatives is that the OFA zombie is a very leftist creature. I don’t just mean the politics, which are shallow and conventionally liberal. Its walking dead routine is the logical result of applying the liberal world view to any such organization. It becomes a bureaucracy that never disappears and simply prowls the night desperate for something to feed on.

Conservatives should learn not only from the left’s strengths but their weaknesses. This was a lesson conservatives may have learned from the spectacular failure of the Romney campaign’s get out the vote program. It had many problems, but one was surely its overly hierarchical command structure.

The Tea Party is best placed to relate to the organizing of the left because it is a grassroots movement that got candidates elected to Congress. The existence of a Tea Party Caucus is a good example of how these organizations get bureaucratized and then stuck in place, ultimately working against their own best interests thanks to their obsession with their brand. But there’s still a lot the right can learn from an Obama campaign organization that now seems to be plodding off, arms outstretched, into the sunset.

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How to Help the Anti-ISIS Backlash

Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.

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Word is trickling out of Mosul that Iraqis are starting to chafe under the heavy-handed rule of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. New York Times correspondent Tim Arango reports of anger against ISIS for destroying a shrine to the biblical prophet Jonah. Residents actually gathered around Mosul’s ancient leaning minaret to prevent its destruction too.

There is also understandable concern that ISIS isn’t making life better for the people–its specialty, after all, is suicide bombings, not municipal governance. The Times quotes one Mosul resident interviewed by phone: “There are unorganized groups fighting ISIS now. If we had the power and the supplies, we could have kicked ISIS out of Mosul by now.”

This is a positive sign–it shows how unpopular Islamist fundamentalists are whenever they achieve power. But we should keep our euphoria about a potential anti-ISIS revolt firmly in check. The history of ISIS suggests that, however much Iraqis may resent their rule, they will successfully rise up only if they have strong outside support. Resentment of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the ISIS predecessor) did not boil over in Anbar Province until 2006 and even then it required American efforts during “the surge” to forge tribesmen into a 100,000-strong Sons of Iraq militia to fight against AQI. In prior years, nascent revolts in Anbar had been repressed with great brutality by AQI.

The question now is where can outside support come from to support an anti-ISIS revolt in western and northern Iraq? Probably not from the Iraqi government, which is identified with a Shiite sectarian agenda that only drives Sunnis further into ISIS’s arms and whose army has shown a depressing inability or unwillingness to fight hard under the political hacks appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

It is possible a change of leadership in Baghdad can revitalize the Iraqi army, lessen the government’s sectarian taint, and thereby allow effective partnering with the Sunni tribes. But don’t count on it. Even if a new prime minister is selected, there will still be deep-seated suspicion in the Sunni community, and understandably so. The only force the Sunnis would trust–despite our prior abandonment of them–is the United States.

But to become an effective catalyst for a Sunni revolt, the U.S. will have to send a lot more than 825 troops to Iraq–the current number. This week I testified before the House Armed Services Committee, presenting my own plan for rolling back ISIS gains. I suggested, in essence, a multi-pronged approach based on supporting relatively moderate factions in both Iraq and Syria–to wit, the Free Syrian Army, elements of the Iraqi security forces which have not been totally subordinated to the Iranian Quds Force, the Sunni tribes, and the Kurdish peshmerga.

I argued that we need to send at least 10,000 troops to act as advisers, intelligence gatherers, air controllers (to call in air strikes), and Special Operations raiders and that in Iraq these personnel need to be evenly distributed between the Iraqi army, the Sunni tribes, and the peshmerga. U.S. troops would not be on the frontlines of ground combat but they would be enabling proxies to fight far more effectively, as we have previously done in countries as disparate as Kosovo, Libya, and Afghanistan. This should be done in conjunction with a political strategy focused on replacing Maliki with a more inclusive figure.

Alas there is no sign that the Obama administration is seriously rethinking its abandonment of Iraq or its misguided policy of arming the current sectarian regime in Baghdad without real American oversight over how the weapons we provide are employed. Unless the administration is willing to roll up its sleeves and get more involved in Iraq (admittedly a difficult political pill for the anti-interventionist president to swallow), anti-ISIS sentiment among Sunnis is unlikely to lead to a serious revolt and ISIS will continue to strengthen its terrorist caliphate.

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