Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Obama’s Free Lunch One-Man Government

As the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows, confidence in President Obama’s ability to handle the economy or put the country on the right path continues to decline. But with more than two and a half years to go until his successor is chosen, the president is barreling ahead and attempting to implement his liberal agenda without congressional assent or much public support. This is a dubious strategy for any president, let alone one whose approval ratings are at all-time lows with little prospect that they will recover as he heads inevitably to the lame duck portion of his second term.

But in order to counteract these trends, the president has chosen what, at least in theory, are the most populist measures available to him. Hence, the “give America a raise” theme he introduced in his State of the Union speech in January that sought to pin a comeback on an effort to implement a hefty increase in the minimum wage. The follow-up comes this week as he builds on that sweeping measure with another designed to play to the same populist sentiment: changing the regulations about overtime payments. The law requires workers to be paid overtime for the hours they labor above the normal confines of the workweek. But the same laws have always exempted supervisors and management employees from these regulations. Obama wants to change that to allow more of those who run the workplace to benefit along with their employees with extra pay for extra hours.

But the truth about this proposal is that it is just as much an example of liberal economic snake oil as the minimum wage. Promising people a free lunch is always popular. But someone has to pay for it, and those who will be most affected by the president’s fiat will not be rich or powerful. That the president is shoving this down the throat of the country in a manner that undermines constitutional checks and balances that provide for accountability shows how desperate the White House has become for cheap and ultimately ephemeral political wins.

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As the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows, confidence in President Obama’s ability to handle the economy or put the country on the right path continues to decline. But with more than two and a half years to go until his successor is chosen, the president is barreling ahead and attempting to implement his liberal agenda without congressional assent or much public support. This is a dubious strategy for any president, let alone one whose approval ratings are at all-time lows with little prospect that they will recover as he heads inevitably to the lame duck portion of his second term.

But in order to counteract these trends, the president has chosen what, at least in theory, are the most populist measures available to him. Hence, the “give America a raise” theme he introduced in his State of the Union speech in January that sought to pin a comeback on an effort to implement a hefty increase in the minimum wage. The follow-up comes this week as he builds on that sweeping measure with another designed to play to the same populist sentiment: changing the regulations about overtime payments. The law requires workers to be paid overtime for the hours they labor above the normal confines of the workweek. But the same laws have always exempted supervisors and management employees from these regulations. Obama wants to change that to allow more of those who run the workplace to benefit along with their employees with extra pay for extra hours.

But the truth about this proposal is that it is just as much an example of liberal economic snake oil as the minimum wage. Promising people a free lunch is always popular. But someone has to pay for it, and those who will be most affected by the president’s fiat will not be rich or powerful. That the president is shoving this down the throat of the country in a manner that undermines constitutional checks and balances that provide for accountability shows how desperate the White House has become for cheap and ultimately ephemeral political wins.

Like the hike in the minimum wage, it sounds perfectly fair and seems to address the supposed problem of income inequality. Why shouldn’t government force profitable companies to fork over more of their profits to their workers? Such measures appeal to resentment about big business and sympathy for those struggling to get by in a struggling economy.

But while implementing the new overtime rules may direct more cash to the pockets of some deserving workers, it will also hurt the very companies the country is counting on to help pull us out of the economic malaise that America is currently stuck in and reduce employment and growth.

As was the case with his blithe admonition for all Americans to get a raise, President Obama speaks as if money can be pulled out of the air to give to those who are hard-working or deserving without anyone other than the undeserving rich being made to pay for it. But this sort of magical economic thinking seems more appropriate to a banana republic than the economic engine of the free world.

The basic facts of life are that the increases in pay will have to be paid for by cuts in overall employment and wages. That will mean companies—large and small—will be forced to cut back on their workforces or to think twice about expanding their businesses. Once the applause for the free lunches being delivered by the president dies down, many of those who think they will benefit from his largesse will soon realize that they have become victims of basic rules of economics. And unlike the president, they will not be able to disregard or pretend that the force of Obama’s personality and good intentions or the wave of his imperial hand can override the math.

It is also remarkable that a president who claims to be clued into technology and cutting edge innovation would choose to ignore the economic models that show a better and more productive way to reward supervisors. The high-tech companies Obama loves to laud have always preferred rewarding those ascending the ladder of company responsibility with stock and other benefits that get them invested in their employers’ success. Merely raising wages is not only economically unsound, it is also less likely to incentivize workers and supervisors to work hard and get ahead. For a president who claims to champion the middle class, this measure is profoundly counterintuitive and unlikely to help anyone.

Last, by directing the Labor Department to change regulations in order to force through this change rather than asking Congress to do so, the president is again trying to see how far he can go in governing by executive order. The answer is that he can do a great deal on his own and the low approval ratings for Congress ought to enable him to get away with it without paying much of a political price. But if he thinks the American people are longing for him to govern as a benevolent despot, he is misreading the poll numbers. As unpopular as Congress may be, voters tend take an equally dim view of the president and still expect him to govern within the bounds of the Constitution.

Promising the voters free lunches via executive orders may garner the president cheers from his political base. But it won’t save the Democrats in a midterm election that is increasingly looking as if ObamaCare will produce another GOP landslide.

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Cameron’s Knesset Speech: Closer to Australia and Canada than Obama

Observers awaiting British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to Israel’s Knesset, which he delivered earlier today, had been unsure of what to expect. Would the prime minister present a speech similar to the warm pledges of unadulterated support recently offered by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or would it be closer to the barbed lecture Israel received from Martin Shulz, president of the European parliament, who visited in February?

Indeed, given the harsh misrepresentation that Israel’s government suffered from President Obama in his recent Bloomberg interview, the way had certainly been cleared for Cameron to deliver a tough message if he felt so inclined. And Cameron certainly has no shortage of domestic incentives to appear critical of Israel; large parts of the British public are actively hostile to Israel, while the British Foreign Office is also notoriously cold in its attitude to Israel–hence the unfortunate comments made by Cameron about Gaza during his 2010 visit to Turkey.

Given this background, the speech that Cameron delivered today was decidedly more supportive of Israel than might have been expected. The tone was much closer to that given by Harper, and if this attitude comes to be fully borne out in British policy, then it would place the UK in the same camp as the governments of other pro-Israel English speaking democracies such as Canada and Australia. In this sense the sentiments Cameron expressed today are quite at odds with the increasingly thinly veiled threats coming from Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Crucially, Cameron set himself apart from both the Europeans and the Obama administration by announcing that he wouldn’t be giving Israel any “lectures” on how to run the peace process.

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Observers awaiting British Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to Israel’s Knesset, which he delivered earlier today, had been unsure of what to expect. Would the prime minister present a speech similar to the warm pledges of unadulterated support recently offered by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or would it be closer to the barbed lecture Israel received from Martin Shulz, president of the European parliament, who visited in February?

Indeed, given the harsh misrepresentation that Israel’s government suffered from President Obama in his recent Bloomberg interview, the way had certainly been cleared for Cameron to deliver a tough message if he felt so inclined. And Cameron certainly has no shortage of domestic incentives to appear critical of Israel; large parts of the British public are actively hostile to Israel, while the British Foreign Office is also notoriously cold in its attitude to Israel–hence the unfortunate comments made by Cameron about Gaza during his 2010 visit to Turkey.

Given this background, the speech that Cameron delivered today was decidedly more supportive of Israel than might have been expected. The tone was much closer to that given by Harper, and if this attitude comes to be fully borne out in British policy, then it would place the UK in the same camp as the governments of other pro-Israel English speaking democracies such as Canada and Australia. In this sense the sentiments Cameron expressed today are quite at odds with the increasingly thinly veiled threats coming from Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Crucially, Cameron set himself apart from both the Europeans and the Obama administration by announcing that he wouldn’t be giving Israel any “lectures” on how to run the peace process.

Perhaps the most significant remarks made by Cameron in the course of his speech were those concerning the Jewish nature of Israel. There had been much anticipation about whether or not Cameron would utter the words “Jewish state.” Given that the Palestinians have said they will refuse under any circumstances to recognize Israel as being the state of the Jewish people, and that the European Union has expressed ambivalence about this Israeli demand, many were waiting to see which side Britain would come out for on this issue. It is heartening then that, in addition to referencing Israel as a “secure homeland for the Jewish people,” Cameron’s outline of his vision for peace included an endorsement of the formulation: “mutual recognition of the nation state of the Palestinian people and the nation state of the Jewish people.” 

Cameron was sure to stress the long and ancient history of the Jews to the land of Israel and spoke of his appreciation of the Jewish people, for their contribution to his country and to the world, as well as of his own distant Jewish ancestry. Naturally, the prime minister spoke at lengths about the history of anti-Semitism and the need to remember the Holocaust, as well as pledging his commitment to defending Jewish practices in Britain today, including kosher slaughtering, which is currently under attack there.

Indeed, Mr. Cameron articulated the all-important connection between remembering the past and acting in the present for Israel’s safety. Touching on the early British role in advancing Zionism, he then went on to declare, “So let me say to you very clearly: with me, you have a British prime minister whose belief in Israel is unbreakable and whose commitment to Israel’s security will always be rock solid.” The prime minister detailed how he had worked to overturn British laws on universal jurisdiction, which were being used by anti-Israel campaigners to keep senior Israelis out of Britain. He claimed credit for acting to create a European consensus for proscribing Hezbollah, for working to try and drive anti-Semitic incitement from British universities, and for keeping anti-Semitic Islamist preachers out of Britain. Equally, Cameron condemned all attempts to boycott Israel, saying, “Israel’s place as a homeland for the Jewish people will never rest on hollow resolutions passed by amateur politicians.”

Having referred to the questioning of Israel’s right to exist as “despicable” and “abhorrent,” Cameron spoke of how Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people is founded in international law and “destiny,” and assured his listeners that “together we will defeat [delegitimization].” Similarly, the prime minister described Israel’s defense of its citizens as “enshrined in international law, natural justice and fundamental morality.” Cameron recognized the concern of territory ceded by Israel becoming a terror base, mentioning the recent interception of a ship carrying Iranian weapons to Gaza and the danger posed by Palestinian incitement, specifically deploring the naming of schools after suicide bombers.

Whereas Obama has threatened Israel that it will become more internationally isolated, Cameron asserted, “No more excuses for the 32 countries who refuse to recognize Israel,” and described as “outrageous” and “ridiculous” the lectures Israel receives at the UN. And Cameron also broke with Obama doctrine, and no doubt the thinking of his own diplomatic service, by refuting the notion that Israel and the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians is causing the problems in the region. Rather, Cameron spoke at considerable length about the “poison” of Islamism. A peace agreement would not stop Iran, noted Cameron, and he stressed that he was not “starry-eyed about the new regime” and shared Israel’s “skepticism” on that front.

If the attitude expressed in this speech were implemented as British policy, then Cameron would rightfully earn himself a place alongside Stephen Harper, Australia’s Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, and the English speaking leaders of the West. Meanwhile Obama is earning himself a place alongside Martin Shulz and the Europeans.  

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Obama, Tibi and the Apartheid Canard

That Desmond Tutu once again accused Israel of apartheid yesterday is nothing new; he’s one of several Nobel Peace laureates who have made second careers out of Israel-bashing (think Jimmy Carter or Mairead Maguire). But it’s far more worrying when similar rhetoric is used by a sitting U.S. president – as Barack Obama did in the most outrageous but widely overlooked line of his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this month. Culminating a series of rhetorical questions about what Israel would do if no Palestinian state arises, he asked, “Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”

As Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid noted, “There is not much distance between this statement and an explicit warning that Israel is liable to turn into an apartheid state.” In short, even if Israel isn’t an apartheid state today, the U.S. president considers it perfectly reasonable to assume it will be someday soon – that instead of a democracy where all citizens are equal before the law, it will become the kind of state that imposes legal restrictions on certain citizens because of their ethnicity. But since Israeli Arabs haven’t been subject to special restrictions since Israel abolished its military administration in 1966, and no subsequent Israeli government has ever contemplated reinstating such restrictions, on what exactly does Obama base this assumption?

The logical conclusion is that he got it from the Israeli Arab leadership and radical Jewish leftists, both of which accuse Israel of apartheid ad nauseam. Yet believing these accusations requires willfully ignoring the facts.

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That Desmond Tutu once again accused Israel of apartheid yesterday is nothing new; he’s one of several Nobel Peace laureates who have made second careers out of Israel-bashing (think Jimmy Carter or Mairead Maguire). But it’s far more worrying when similar rhetoric is used by a sitting U.S. president – as Barack Obama did in the most outrageous but widely overlooked line of his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this month. Culminating a series of rhetorical questions about what Israel would do if no Palestinian state arises, he asked, “Do you place restrictions on Arab-Israelis in ways that run counter to Israel’s traditions?”

As Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid noted, “There is not much distance between this statement and an explicit warning that Israel is liable to turn into an apartheid state.” In short, even if Israel isn’t an apartheid state today, the U.S. president considers it perfectly reasonable to assume it will be someday soon – that instead of a democracy where all citizens are equal before the law, it will become the kind of state that imposes legal restrictions on certain citizens because of their ethnicity. But since Israeli Arabs haven’t been subject to special restrictions since Israel abolished its military administration in 1966, and no subsequent Israeli government has ever contemplated reinstating such restrictions, on what exactly does Obama base this assumption?

The logical conclusion is that he got it from the Israeli Arab leadership and radical Jewish leftists, both of which accuse Israel of apartheid ad nauseam. Yet believing these accusations requires willfully ignoring the facts.

This past December, for instance, one Ahmed Tibi wrote an article for The Hill accusing Israel of treating its Arab citizens like southerners treated blacks in the Jim Crow era. The analogy was a trifle marred by the tagline at the end, in which Tibi admitted he is currently deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset: Blacks didn’t occupy prominent positions in southern legislatures under Jim Crow, much less in South Africa under apartheid. It was further undermined when another Arab deputy Knesset speaker, Hamad Amar, wrote a riposte in The Hill the next week terming Tibi’s claims arrant nonsense. The spectacle of two Arab deputy speakers of parliament publicly dueling, without any fear of consequences, over whether their country discriminates against Arabs isn’t exactly an example of proto-apartheid behavior. But hey, who you gonna believe: Tibi or your lying eyes?

Then there are all the other Arabs in prominent positions – college presidents, hospital directors, ambassadors, army officers, Supreme Court justices and more. The Elder of Ziyon blog has a must-see poster collection featuring these and many other examples that are the very antithesis of apartheid. But hey, who you gonna believe: Haaretz’s Gideon Levy or your lying eyes?

Indeed, on the issue that seems to concern Obama most – freedom of movement, which he highlighted in the rhetorical question immediately preceding the one on Arab Israelis – Arab citizens and permanent residents arguably have greater rights than Israeli Jews: For instance, they can freely visit the Temple Mount, which Israeli Jews can’t; they can also visit the Palestinian Authority, which Israeli law bars Jews from doing. In fact, their freedom of movement is precisely why terrorist organizations consider them prize recruits. It’s a sad day when Palestinian terrorists have a better grasp of Israel’s true nature than the U.S. president.

Obama, of course, is just a symptom of a much larger problem: Too many Western liberals willfully close their eyes to the truth when it comes to Israel, preferring to parrot the current bon ton. But for an administration that explicitly pledged to pursue “evidence-based policy,” a little more attention to the evidence on Israel would be a nice place to start.

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Peace and the Palestinian We Do Not Know

In his now-famous interview with President Obama, Jeffrey Goldberg asked if he agreed with Secretary Kerry’s June 2013 statement to the American Jewish Committee that “we’re running out of time … [and] if we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.” Obama added his own window-is-closing pressure on Israel, but the last sentence of his answer – which he intended as an argument for speed – actually argues for the opposite. Here is what he said:

I think [Kerry] has been simply stating what observers inside of Israel and outside of Israel recognize, which is that with each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis can accept and the Palestinians can accept — in part because of changes in demographics; in part because of what’s been happening with settlements; in part because Abbas is getting older, and I think nobody would dispute that whatever disagreements you may have with him, he has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue. We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.

Before signing an agreement with an aging “president” more than five years past the end of his stated term — someone with no known successor, no process for choosing one, no institutions for holding elections, no capacity to implement any agreement in half his putative state (controlled by the terrorist group he promised to dismantle under the Road Map and didn’t), presiding over a society steeped in anti-Semitic incitement, unwilling to endorse even the concept of “two states for two peoples” (much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state) – we should put aside the perennial argument that time is running out, the over-hyped demographics, and “what’s happening in the settlements” (since what’s happening in the settlements is mostly construction in areas Israel will retain in any conceivable peace agreement), and pause to reflect on President Obama’s last sentence: “We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.”

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In his now-famous interview with President Obama, Jeffrey Goldberg asked if he agreed with Secretary Kerry’s June 2013 statement to the American Jewish Committee that “we’re running out of time … [and] if we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.” Obama added his own window-is-closing pressure on Israel, but the last sentence of his answer – which he intended as an argument for speed – actually argues for the opposite. Here is what he said:

I think [Kerry] has been simply stating what observers inside of Israel and outside of Israel recognize, which is that with each successive year, the window is closing for a peace deal that both the Israelis can accept and the Palestinians can accept — in part because of changes in demographics; in part because of what’s been happening with settlements; in part because Abbas is getting older, and I think nobody would dispute that whatever disagreements you may have with him, he has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue. We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.

Before signing an agreement with an aging “president” more than five years past the end of his stated term — someone with no known successor, no process for choosing one, no institutions for holding elections, no capacity to implement any agreement in half his putative state (controlled by the terrorist group he promised to dismantle under the Road Map and didn’t), presiding over a society steeped in anti-Semitic incitement, unwilling to endorse even the concept of “two states for two peoples” (much less explicitly recognize a Jewish state) – we should put aside the perennial argument that time is running out, the over-hyped demographics, and “what’s happening in the settlements” (since what’s happening in the settlements is mostly construction in areas Israel will retain in any conceivable peace agreement), and pause to reflect on President Obama’s last sentence: “We do not know what a successor to Abbas will look like.”

We do not know, in other words, who will be implementing the agreement Israel is being rushed to sign. We do not know whether it will be Hamas, taking over a Palestinian state in an election or coup (both have happened before); or perhaps the guy next in line in Abbas’s corrupt ruling party; or perhaps the charismatic terrorist currently serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail, who would undoubtedly be released as part of a “peace agreement” but is not likely to be the next Nelson Mandela. We do not know because the Palestinian Authority has demonstrated multiple times that if converted to a state it will be a failed one, lacking the basic institutions of a successful state, unwilling to recognize a Jewish one. Yesterday the Fatah leadership unanimously endorsed Abbas’s rejection of any recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, without which the “two-state solution” is simply a two-stage plan.

If it is in fact urgent to sign an agreement while President-for-Life Abbas is still around, it is even more urgent for him to give his long overdue Bir Zeit speech, telling his people in Arabic that the price of a Palestinian state is recognition of a Jewish one, and that the conflict will not end with the “return” of the descendants of refugees from the 1948 war the Arabs started to a place where those descendants have never lived. It will end with their resettlement in the Arab states that started the war, where those descendants have lived their entire lives, deprived of basic civil and human rights by the countries of their birth.

If Abbas cannot give his Bir Zeit speech, it is not likely he can preside over a peaceful state. Moreover, as President Obama noted, we do not even know what the successor to Abbas will look like. Perhaps it is time to rethink a Palestinian state, not rush to create one.

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Does Obama Care About U.S. Hostages?

Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

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Today, Sunday marks the seventh anniversary since former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared on Kish Island, a free-trade zone on an Iranian island in the Persian Gulf for which visas are not necessary. Much has been written in the interim about just what Levinson was doing, and the relationship he reportedly had with some CIA analysts. For the Obama administration, that should be irrelevant. It should make Levinson’s freedom—and that of American pastor Saeed Abedini—its top priority.

Ever since the Islamic Revolution, Iranian authorities have embraced hostage taking as a mechanism of statecraft. The initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran confirmed Iran as a rogue regime, unwilling to abide by the norms of international diplomacy. The hostage situation paralyzed the Carter administration. Whatever mistakes Jimmy Carter may have made—and there were many when it came to Iran—no one can suggest that he did not seek the hostages’ release.

While Tehran released the embassy hostages as soon as Reagan took his oath of office, the Iranian government was soon at it again, this time acting by its proxies in Lebanon. Hezbollah and affiliated groups seized a number of Americans, killing a few.  According to the Tower Commission report, Reagan obsessively peppered his staff with questions about their condition and the possibilities for their release. Reagan’s concern for the hostages ultimately led to the ill-advised arms-for-hostages scheme.

While many of the hostages returned home by the end of the Reagan presidency, Iranian-backed groups still held a few as George H.W. Bush assumed the presidency. Bush used his inaugural address to suggest that there could be U.S.-Iran reconciliation if Tehran showed goodwill by releasing American hostages. Bush followed up privately with UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar who in turn appointed United Nations bureaucrat Giandomenico Picco to serve as an intermediary with Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsajani. Newly appointed Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei put the kibosh on new talks, and Rafsanjani refused to budge because to do so would be to admit Iranian complacency in an act for which Iran still wanted plausible deniability. Nevertheless, with time, the remaining Americans came home.

President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have undertaken a broader diplomatic initiative with Iran than any predecessor, including Jimmy Carter. In order to get Iran to the table for nuclear talks, Obama approved $7 billion in sanctions relief which, when combined by new investment, means a $20 billion windfall for Tehran. Iran was desperate for cash, its economy having contracted by 5.4 percent in the year before negotiations began. Obama, therefore, had the upper hand and huge leverage. Just as the United States offered incentives to show good will, so too might have Iran, if indeed there was any goodwill on the Iranian side. That Obama did not ask for the return of Americans held hostage or did not insist on their release as a precondition really does set Obama apart. He seems to be the first U.S. president who has not prioritized hostage release in its dealing with the world’s number one hostage-taking country. Absent any other reason offered, it is increasingly hard not to conclude that Obama and Kerry simply do not care about Americans held hostage, and are unwilling to hold the governments responsible accountable. That is a tragedy that no Nobel Prize can erase.  

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Will Obama Blame Israel for Abbas’ ‘No?’

According to today’s New York Times, the conceit behind President Obama’s recent attacks on Israel was to redress what he felt was an imbalanced approach to American diplomacy. Apparently the president thinks Secretary of State John Kerry has been too nice to the Israelis during the course of his effort to revive peace talks with the Palestinians. Thus, the president has decided to play “bad cop,” to Kerry’s “good cop” in dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the president’s assumption of the role of the bully in his Bloomberg interview with Jeffrey Goldberg was entirely convincing, the Israelis may be forgiven for wondering when the good cop will start making nice with them. This is, after all, the same secretary that has threatened Israel with boycotts and even a third intifada if they were not sufficiently forthcoming in the negotiations, leaving the impression that the American tandem was conducting a coordinated campaign of pressure rather than a more nuanced effort to convince Jerusalem to make concessions.

Having paid for Palestinian participation in the talks with the release over 100 terrorist murderers and reportedly already conceded a withdrawal from at least 90 percent of the West Bank once the talks began, the Israelis had good reason to be surprised by Obama’s decision to pile. But while Washington has been obsessively focused on forcing the Israelis to accept a two-state solution and a framework for negotiations that they have already agreed to, the administration seems equally determined to ignore what the Palestinians are doing. Thus the statements from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who received fulsome praise from the president for his commitment to peace, that he will never agree to a key element of Kerry’s framework is being ignored by the White House.

In a statement released by the official PA press agency WAFA, Abbas reiterated what he has been saying for months. He will not sign on to any framework, let alone a peace treaty that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. In Abbas’ words, “There is no way. We will not accept.” The question now is what are Obama and Kerry going to do about it? Their answer will speak volumes not only about the future of Kerry’s talks but their commitment to a genuine peace that will ensure rather than endanger Israel’s survival.

Abbas’ latest “no” leaves President Obama and Kerry with a crucial choice.

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According to today’s New York Times, the conceit behind President Obama’s recent attacks on Israel was to redress what he felt was an imbalanced approach to American diplomacy. Apparently the president thinks Secretary of State John Kerry has been too nice to the Israelis during the course of his effort to revive peace talks with the Palestinians. Thus, the president has decided to play “bad cop,” to Kerry’s “good cop” in dealings with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the president’s assumption of the role of the bully in his Bloomberg interview with Jeffrey Goldberg was entirely convincing, the Israelis may be forgiven for wondering when the good cop will start making nice with them. This is, after all, the same secretary that has threatened Israel with boycotts and even a third intifada if they were not sufficiently forthcoming in the negotiations, leaving the impression that the American tandem was conducting a coordinated campaign of pressure rather than a more nuanced effort to convince Jerusalem to make concessions.

Having paid for Palestinian participation in the talks with the release over 100 terrorist murderers and reportedly already conceded a withdrawal from at least 90 percent of the West Bank once the talks began, the Israelis had good reason to be surprised by Obama’s decision to pile. But while Washington has been obsessively focused on forcing the Israelis to accept a two-state solution and a framework for negotiations that they have already agreed to, the administration seems equally determined to ignore what the Palestinians are doing. Thus the statements from Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who received fulsome praise from the president for his commitment to peace, that he will never agree to a key element of Kerry’s framework is being ignored by the White House.

In a statement released by the official PA press agency WAFA, Abbas reiterated what he has been saying for months. He will not sign on to any framework, let alone a peace treaty that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state. In Abbas’ words, “There is no way. We will not accept.” The question now is what are Obama and Kerry going to do about it? Their answer will speak volumes not only about the future of Kerry’s talks but their commitment to a genuine peace that will ensure rather than endanger Israel’s survival.

Abbas’ latest “no” leaves President Obama and Kerry with a crucial choice.

They can insist that Abbas budge on the Jewish state issue because they know that without it the Palestinians are not conceding the end of the conflict. Unless Abbas says those two little words it will be obvious that despite Obama’s praise for him, he is just as committed to a vision of Palestinian nationalism that is inextricably tied to a war on Zionism as was his predecessor Yasir Arafat. By walking away from the talks over this point, Abbas will be delivering the fourth Palestinian no to an Israeli offer of statehood after previous rejections in 2000, 2001 and 2008.

If so, Obama will be placed in a position where he would be obligated to place the blame for Kerry’s failure just as President Bill Clinton had to blame Arafat for the collapse of the 2000 Camp David Summit as well as the subsequent Taba Conference. But given his antipathy for Netanyahu, the Israelis have to be wondering whether the president will find some reason to let Abbas off the hook.

Even worse is the possibility that they will cave in to Abbas’ demands rather than sticking to their commitment to Israel on the Jewish state issue.

While the Palestinians’ unwillingness to give up their hope of swamping Israel with refugees via a “right of return” and the pressure exerted on the PA from Hamas and Islamic Jihad has always made Kerry’s effort seem like a fool’s errand, he has conducted himself as if the chances for success were good. That’s why he readily accepted the notion that the Palestinians would acknowledge Israel as the Jewish state because in exchange for such a statement they would be rewarded with the territory and sovereignty they say they want.

In other words, while Kerry has always been prepared to give the Palestinians a peace deal that was more favorable to their ambitions than to Israel’s rights, he was still insisting that the end result must be genuine peace rather than a pause in the conflict. If his framework is altered to allow Abbas to avoid saying those two words, Kerry is aware that Israel can have no confidence that it will get peace no matter how much land they give up.

Obama and Kerry believed their bad cop/bad copy routine would be enough to bludgeon the Israelis into giving away the West Bank and perhaps even a share of Jerusalem and they appear to be right about that assumption. But, like all other would-be Middle East peacemakers they forgot or ignored the need to get the Palestinians to agree to peace.

If the administration allows Abbas to escape accountability on this crucial point it will expose their peace efforts as worse than a sham.  As I wrote yesterday, the Jewish state is not a contrived controversy but a concept that lies at the heart of the conflict. Israelis have repeatedly shown their willingness to take risks for peace but the Palestinians are still stuck with a historical narrative that won’t allow them to give up their dream of Israel’s extinction.

Abbas has no intention of ever signing a peace treaty with Israel or granting it legitimacy as a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or how much of Jerusalem they obtain. But if the United States can’t be honest about this even when Abbas gives them a flat no to one of the basic principles of peace, then it is clear that the purpose of the negotiations isn’t a resolution of the conflict but another excuse to bash Israel. If, after Kerry’s mission fails or even if it continues on terms that are incompatible with peace, Israelis should expect to be blamed no matter what they have conceded or how many times Abbas has said no. But so long as Abbas refuses to say two words, those charges will be lies.

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GOP Task: From Oppositional to Governing Conservatism

“Of a sudden,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” 

Senator Moynihan’s statement suggested two things: liberalism was exhausted and conservatives took advantage of the opening by offering an agenda that matched the challenges of that moment: high inflation and interest rates, a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent, “stagflation,” a hollowed out military and Soviet advances all over the world.

Today, once again, liberalism is out of steam. As they watch their unwieldy health-care law sputter and disappoint, liberals don’t have much else to turn to. Their own top priorities tend to be unpopular, and both their ideology and their political coalition constrain them from speaking to the public’s main concerns—economic stagnation and the middle-class squeeze. The president ran for re-election on remarkably little policy substance, and now offers even less. Who could say what his governing vision consists of? 

Not surprisingly, he has witnessed a major collapse in his public support, especially among independents, which in most polls now disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy by a two-to-one margin. About two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Even more are angry about the way things are going in Washington. And public confidence in government is near historic lows. So the moment is ripe for the GOP, at the national level, to offer the public a real alternative.

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“Of a sudden,” the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1981, “the GOP has become a party of ideas.” 

Senator Moynihan’s statement suggested two things: liberalism was exhausted and conservatives took advantage of the opening by offering an agenda that matched the challenges of that moment: high inflation and interest rates, a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent, “stagflation,” a hollowed out military and Soviet advances all over the world.

Today, once again, liberalism is out of steam. As they watch their unwieldy health-care law sputter and disappoint, liberals don’t have much else to turn to. Their own top priorities tend to be unpopular, and both their ideology and their political coalition constrain them from speaking to the public’s main concerns—economic stagnation and the middle-class squeeze. The president ran for re-election on remarkably little policy substance, and now offers even less. Who could say what his governing vision consists of? 

Not surprisingly, he has witnessed a major collapse in his public support, especially among independents, which in most polls now disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy by a two-to-one margin. About two-thirds of Americans say the country is on the wrong track. Even more are angry about the way things are going in Washington. And public confidence in government is near historic lows. So the moment is ripe for the GOP, at the national level, to offer the public a real alternative.

Whether it will, of course, remains an open question. But recent months have offered some encouraging signs. Republicans already showed some real leadership in the president’s first term by offering a serious, market-oriented Medicare-reform proposal—produced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and backed by essentially every Republican in Congress.

Earlier this year, Senators Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, and Orrin Hatch followed up with a health-care proposal that would cover as many people as the Affordable Care Act without the taxes, mandates, and burdensome regulations and at a far lower cost by empowering consumers. Another ambitious health-reform bill is now co-sponsored by a majority of House Republicans.

Mr. Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio (among others) have proposed serious reforms to help sustain the safety net for the poor by re-orienting it toward work and opportunity. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp and Senator Mike Lee have each proposed a major tax reform plan—and a combination of the two could well make for a winning Republican tax agenda. Other prominent proposals have included reforms of higher-education policy to increase options and lower costs, and reforms of transportation policy, the criminal-justice system, unemployment assistance, and more.

It is still fashionable in some circles to call Republicans the “Party of No,” but when has there been such a flurry of concrete policy proposals from an opposition party in Congress?

Even these proposals, of course, are only a start. They have yet to gain broad support, or to be brought together into a coherent conservative agenda. But they are suitable for such an effort, and they offer plausible, targeted, market-friendly approaches in precisely the areas that most trouble voters, and where Democrats have been failing most decisively.

A party that controls one-half of one-third of the federal government can’t hope to see its agenda become law at this point, and high profile confrontations with the Obama administration – such as the government shutdown last October – have mostly ended disastrously. But what the Republican Party can do is gradually build a new internal consensus around a policy agenda of conservative reforms that appeal to a broad base of voters, and which Republican candidates and the party’s next presidential nominee can then run on.

To approach the success of Republicans of past eras, those of this generation must again show how their ideas will improve the lives of American families in concrete ways by applying timeless American principles to a new set of American challenges. Today’s GOP has not done nearly enough of that.

The Republican Party can be the party of the 21st century by showing itself able and willing to reform public institutions that were designed for the needs of the mid-20th century – many of which are now antiquated and out of touch not only with the needs of our time but the expectations of Americans in an age of constant innovation and endless choices.

It can own the future by showing the public how limited government can also be effective government. It can succeed, in other words, by embodying not just an oppositional conservatism but also a governing conservatism.

It’s not yet clear if the party is ready to follow this path. But it is worth noting even modest signs of hope.

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Why Politics Can’t Stop At the Water’s Edge

 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

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 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

Scarborough is right that “political broadsides” are out of place “when the tanks are rolling.” But what’s happening in the Ukraine is not a replay of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets about Berlin or the Cuban Missile Crisis, let alone a crisis when U.S. troops are on the move. The point about what is happening in the Ukraine is that both America’s friends and its foes take it for granted that the U.S. is out of the business of trying to defend freedom, whether in places where our military can make a difference or those, like in Ukraine, where we know it is not possible.

Given the hyper-partisan nature of our current political culture that is exacerbated by an equally divided media, it is hard to imagine the revival of the kind of bipartisanship that Vandenberg embodied under any circumstances. But in the absence of either strong leadership or an articulation of core American principles by the president it is impossible.

Were President Obama showing the kind of courage in standing up to Putin that other presidents of both political parties demonstrated in past disputes with the Russians, criticism of his foreign policy could and would be put off until later. But asking critics to be silent when no such effort to unify the country or to stand up for the interests of U.S. friends and allies is being put forward by the administration is itself mere partisan hogwash.

A debate about foreign policy is needed precisely because what we are witnessing is the product of a feckless foreign policy that primarily views geostrategic foes such as Russia and Iran as candidates for appeasement rather than dangerous enemies to be faced down with strength. For many liberals, Obama’s weakness is an asset to be applauded as they support his vision of a world in which American exceptionalism is mere chauvinism. However, this unilateral moral disarmament has severe consequences. Putin doesn’t need to listen to conservative criticisms of the president’s foreign policy to understand that Obama’s naïve conception of global politics to be encouraged to violate international law. He already came to that conclusion before he invaded the Ukraine.

Politics must now extend beyond the water’s edge not because conservatives wish to cripple administration efforts to defend American interests — as was so often the case in the past when the left treated anti-American forces as victims to be sympathized with rather than enemies to be despised — but because they want Obama to start behaving like someone who believes in his nation’s cause.

Far from undermining the president’s ability to deal with Putin or Iran, a debate about his policies is the starting point for a recovery of American strength. What Putin expects, indeed, what he is counting on, is the kind of apathy about Obama’s foreign policy that has allowed the president to evade accountability for stances that undermined allies and appeased foes for years. After years of being told, both by the left and some on the right that America can afford to retreat from the world stage, a vigorous discussion of foreign policy and the mistakes made by this administration isn’t a political luxury; it’s a necessity.

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How Not to Bring Putin to His Knees

Upset with the invasion of Crimea and Russian sabre-rattling, President Obama announced he will pump up NATO, at least in those countries bordering Russia, and Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Russia to go no farther. With all due respect to both Obama and Kerry, they are going about it all wrong.

Here’s a modest proposal: First of all, Russia’s economy has been stagnating. Rather than threaten sanctions, it would be wiser to offer economic incentives—perhaps offering Russia $7 billion dollars in immediate financial relief over the next six months or so. Businesses might then continue to encourage Moscow to rejoin the international community by offering new investments that would effectively double that cash infusion.

Obama also errs with tough rhetoric toward Russia. Whatever his frustration at Putin’s behavior, it’s important to treat the Russian people with respect, and that means their democratically elected leader. Rather than condemn the Kremlin, Obama should offer an outstretched hand and ask Putin to unclench his fist.

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Upset with the invasion of Crimea and Russian sabre-rattling, President Obama announced he will pump up NATO, at least in those countries bordering Russia, and Secretary of State John Kerry has warned Russia to go no farther. With all due respect to both Obama and Kerry, they are going about it all wrong.

Here’s a modest proposal: First of all, Russia’s economy has been stagnating. Rather than threaten sanctions, it would be wiser to offer economic incentives—perhaps offering Russia $7 billion dollars in immediate financial relief over the next six months or so. Businesses might then continue to encourage Moscow to rejoin the international community by offering new investments that would effectively double that cash infusion.

Obama also errs with tough rhetoric toward Russia. Whatever his frustration at Putin’s behavior, it’s important to treat the Russian people with respect, and that means their democratically elected leader. Rather than condemn the Kremlin, Obama should offer an outstretched hand and ask Putin to unclench his fist.

The Russian military is formidable, and we must recognize Russian rights in the region. It is clear they see U.S. military deployments as a provocation, and so perhaps it is time to cut back naval deployments in and around Russia. If Russian forces shadow or swarm American ships, the best course of action would be simply to withdrawal those American ships in order to resolve any misunderstandings. After all, Russia has never acted aggressively toward any neighboring state, unless of course, its interested dictated it needed to act in such a way. It’s also important to consider that, even if Russia maintains links to separatist groups in Abkhazia, Ossetia, or Crimea, in each case people there act autonomously. Many states bordering Russia act irrationally, and so as we push forward with our diplomacy, it’s important to keep allies like Poland, Georgia, and Estonia in the dark.

Greater people-to-people exchanges might also encourage better understanding. Perhaps having the State Department pay to send U.S. sports teams over to Russia would pay dividends. They might also send scientists who could attend conferences there. Retired diplomats like Thomas Pickering might continue Track II exchanges, and write about how to conduct diplomacy in the New York Review of Books. We’ve got to be mindful of our rhetoric. No matter how often Putin and his Kremlin minions ridicule or condemn the United States, it is important that we recognize that to call Putin ‘evil’ will only justify his actions further.

Setting the right agenda for talks is also crucial. Worrying about Russia’s intercontinental ballistic missile program will hamper the important business of diplomacy, and so Obama should leave that completely off the table. Nor, if Russia works on nuclear warhead triggers, should Obama worry. Indeed, if international agencies appear ready to report Russian misbehavior, it would be ideal to encourage them to keep such findings under wraps in order to enable diplomacy to succeed. Likewise, as we create a framework with Russia, it is best to keep that preliminary deal secret so that if Russia cheats a little, Congress won’t use that in a way that could hamper further dialogue and diplomacy.

You might think such advice may sound both silly and fantastic. And you’d be right. Under no circumstances, would such a soft approach convince Putin to change his behavior.

Perhaps then it’s worth asking why Obama, Kerry, the State Department, and so many journalists and academics endorse such a ridiculous strategy as the proper course of action to resolve the Iranian challenge.

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Back to the Confines of History

Americans occasionally indulge a certain progressive notion about world affairs: that humanity has become so enlightened and sophisticated as to have outgrown its brutal and tragic nature. The idea that we can transcend our blood-soaked past was behind the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sought to outlaw war altogether. Eighty-five years and millions of war dead later, it’s also behind Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a  “19th century act in the 21st century.” Invasions, you see, belong to that buried thing called history. We’re now in something else.

Unfortunately that something else doesn’t look much better. A Russian strongman is gluing together the pieces of a smashed empire, underwriting biblical slaughter in the Middle East, and standing with a nuclear-aspirant, exterminationist regime. Doubtless, Putin took Kerry’s characterization as a supreme compliment, an indication that he’s a great man of history and a belated product of Russia’s Golden Age.

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Americans occasionally indulge a certain progressive notion about world affairs: that humanity has become so enlightened and sophisticated as to have outgrown its brutal and tragic nature. The idea that we can transcend our blood-soaked past was behind the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sought to outlaw war altogether. Eighty-five years and millions of war dead later, it’s also behind Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a  “19th century act in the 21st century.” Invasions, you see, belong to that buried thing called history. We’re now in something else.

Unfortunately that something else doesn’t look much better. A Russian strongman is gluing together the pieces of a smashed empire, underwriting biblical slaughter in the Middle East, and standing with a nuclear-aspirant, exterminationist regime. Doubtless, Putin took Kerry’s characterization as a supreme compliment, an indication that he’s a great man of history and a belated product of Russia’s Golden Age.

Pointing out Putin’s aspirations is becoming risky. There’s been much talk lately of conservatives who idolize the Russian leader. But aside from a handful of marginalized eccentrics, the very opposite is the case. It was the last Republican presidential candidate who called Putin’s Russia our “number-one political foe,” and it was the entire Democratic establishment that supported Obama’s five-year-long attempt to be more accommodating to Moscow. Reconciling these facts has been unpleasant for progressives who’ve only just discovered, via gay-rights activism, that Putin is an unapologetic human-rights abuser. One hopes that similar clarity on Iran is soon to follow.

As Americans reacquaint themselves with living inside history and not beyond it, they’ll head in one of two directions:  They’ll either accept the challenge of making the world a safer, freer place, or they’ll decide that recommitting to the fight against brutality is too burdensome after all. I’m betting they take the challenge. For the idealism that led to post-historic fantasy cuts both ways. If we were idealistic enough to think we’ve moved beyond large-scale injustice then we’re also idealistic enough to go out into the world and do something about the bad guys.  That’s why America and her allies are the planet’s first defense against tyranny and oppression.

To be sure, there is much to shake off this time round: We’re hobbled by the civilian-grade PTSD of the war on terror and by the keystroke complacency of Internet utopianism. We are also enervated by self-congratulation, first for having elected Barack Obama president and then for embracing same-sex marriage. But if the growing, non-partisan disgust with Putinism is any indication, we are already well on our way to re-engaging the world on realistic terms.

Barack Obama often reassured us that we’d moved past “a long gone Cold War,” but the world doesn’t wait on his interpretation before shaping itself. And Obama may have finally realized as much. One strong indication of renewed clarity is the Defense Department’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States will expand military cooperation with Baltic countries in light of Putin’s aggression. This doesn’t mean a “new Cold War” is upon us; it’s just an overdue acknowledgment of whose side we’re on in the continuous fight for liberty.

Contrary to most, I think Putin made an excellent point about American exceptionalism in his September 11 New York Times op-ed. He wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” Quite right. It’s time, once again, for us to be extremely dangerous to men like Vladimir Putin.

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Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Putin Problem

Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong to point out today the loose similarities between Vladimir Putin’s rationale for aggression in the Ukraine and what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s in using ethnic Germans to justify their campaign to overrun Central and Eastern Europe. But overcompensating for something is usually a sign of weakness. Thus, Clinton’s use of language that is far stronger than even that employed by some of President Obama’s fiercest critics raises questions not only about her distancing herself from the administration she served for four years but about whether her record as secretary of state is as much of a political asset as many of her supporters believe it to be.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Clinton has always come across as a lot more clear-headed about Russia and most foreign policy problems than the president or her successor John Kerry, let alone Vice President Joe Biden. But the idea that she is “Hillary the hawk” is a nickname she has earned only by the comparison to the rest of the cast of characters in the Obama administration. This is, after all, the same Hillary Clinton who earned a spot in the all-time foreign policy bloopers reel with her comic presentation of a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian counterpart and who dutifully carried out the president’s orders to make nice with Putin whenever possible rather than treating him as a regional bully and clear threat to peace. So as much as she may wish to thump her chest a bit today with regards to Russian misbehavior in order to reinforce the notion that she is not an Obama clone on foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine is a reminder that she will have to answer for more than Benghazi when running for president in 2016.

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Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong to point out today the loose similarities between Vladimir Putin’s rationale for aggression in the Ukraine and what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s in using ethnic Germans to justify their campaign to overrun Central and Eastern Europe. But overcompensating for something is usually a sign of weakness. Thus, Clinton’s use of language that is far stronger than even that employed by some of President Obama’s fiercest critics raises questions not only about her distancing herself from the administration she served for four years but about whether her record as secretary of state is as much of a political asset as many of her supporters believe it to be.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Clinton has always come across as a lot more clear-headed about Russia and most foreign policy problems than the president or her successor John Kerry, let alone Vice President Joe Biden. But the idea that she is “Hillary the hawk” is a nickname she has earned only by the comparison to the rest of the cast of characters in the Obama administration. This is, after all, the same Hillary Clinton who earned a spot in the all-time foreign policy bloopers reel with her comic presentation of a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian counterpart and who dutifully carried out the president’s orders to make nice with Putin whenever possible rather than treating him as a regional bully and clear threat to peace. So as much as she may wish to thump her chest a bit today with regards to Russian misbehavior in order to reinforce the notion that she is not an Obama clone on foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine is a reminder that she will have to answer for more than Benghazi when running for president in 2016.

Clinton is heading toward 2016 in an even stronger position vis-à-vis her potential rivals for the president than the formidable advantage she possessed in 2008. This time there is no Barack Obama-type challenger waiting in the wings to steal the prize from her. After eight years of our first African-American president, the desire to follow that up with our first female commander-in-chief provides a compelling story line to the election that will be difficult for any Republican, let alone a fellow Democrat, to try to override.

But she will discover that running for president as a U.S. Senator who could talk about every issue but had responsibility for nothing is a lot easier than having to defend a less-than-stellar record as secretary of state. Though she spent her four years at Foggy Bottom as an administration cipher with little will of her own as President Obama imposed his own foreign policy views on the department and then left it praising him, things have since gotten complicated. The debacle over Syria and now Ukraine as well as the unraveling of the American position in Iraq and Afghanistan undermines the notion that she was a successful secretary of state. Merely accumulating frequent-flyer miles — her claim to fame as a public official — is no substitute for success.

But the deterioration of American relations with the dictator that Obama promised that he would treat with more “flexibility” if he were re-elected in 2012 poses a unique problem for Clinton. If pictures are worth a thousand words, a viral video must be valued at an infinite number of printed pages. The film clip of Clinton and the “reset” button will be played over and over again in the next three years and, fairly or not, may paint her as even more of a dupe for the Russians than Obama or Kerry.

Calling Putin a new Hitler seems like a smart way to distance herself from a lame duck president who looks weak. Hence, the always-savvy Clinton machine is already rolling into action seeking to demonstrate that Hillary is as tough as she would like us to think she is. But like so much of her 2008 campaign, the chest beating Clinton will always be seen as lacking in authenticity. The stronger she tries to appear, the weaker her supposedly invincible campaign machine may start to look. 

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An Alternative to the Two-State Solution

Talk of managing, as opposed to solving, the Israel-Palestinian dispute has become increasingly fashionable in these years of a faltering, and at times failed, peace process. For many commentators it had become a case of Israel having to decide not to decide, for now at least. However, with the onset of Secretary of State Kerry’s most recent round of negotiations, we have seen a concerted effort to revive hopes for an imminent resolution of the conflict around a two-state proposal. President Obama’s recent interview in Bloomberg has already drawn much comment. Friends of Israel have expressed fully warranted dismay at the president’s disingenuous attempts to frame Prime Minister Netanyahu as some kind of hardened rejectionist of the peace process as the president willfully ignored the many concessions for peace already sacrificed by Netanyahu. He spoke as if the settlement freezes, prisoner releases and countless hours of negotiating had never happened.

Of course, Netanyahu already embraced the concept of two states as soon as he took office, as outlined in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. However, Israel’s prime minister has also made quite clear that any genuine peace will have to rest on full Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. This has been responded to with skepticism from much of the international community, particularly on the part of the Europeans. The Zionist left (or at least what remains of it) has also proven pretty cold to this demand, with even moderates from this camp such as Shlomo Avineri appearing unenthusiastic about the Jewish state demand.

However, in this month’s featured essay for Mosaic Yoav Sorek not only proposes an alternative strategy, and indeed attitude, for Israel, but a strategy that places at its core the assertion of the Jewish state and its most fundamental rights. In his essay Israel’s Big Mistake Sorek argues that the path of concession and accommodation pursued by Israel since the early 1990s has been a disastrous one, only weakening it and emboldening the demands of Israel’s enemies. Sorek makes a strong case for the acknowledgement of the fact that since the conflict has not ever been about territory, but rather about ending Israel’s existence, nothing short of a total acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East will be able to deliver real peace.

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Talk of managing, as opposed to solving, the Israel-Palestinian dispute has become increasingly fashionable in these years of a faltering, and at times failed, peace process. For many commentators it had become a case of Israel having to decide not to decide, for now at least. However, with the onset of Secretary of State Kerry’s most recent round of negotiations, we have seen a concerted effort to revive hopes for an imminent resolution of the conflict around a two-state proposal. President Obama’s recent interview in Bloomberg has already drawn much comment. Friends of Israel have expressed fully warranted dismay at the president’s disingenuous attempts to frame Prime Minister Netanyahu as some kind of hardened rejectionist of the peace process as the president willfully ignored the many concessions for peace already sacrificed by Netanyahu. He spoke as if the settlement freezes, prisoner releases and countless hours of negotiating had never happened.

Of course, Netanyahu already embraced the concept of two states as soon as he took office, as outlined in his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech. However, Israel’s prime minister has also made quite clear that any genuine peace will have to rest on full Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. This has been responded to with skepticism from much of the international community, particularly on the part of the Europeans. The Zionist left (or at least what remains of it) has also proven pretty cold to this demand, with even moderates from this camp such as Shlomo Avineri appearing unenthusiastic about the Jewish state demand.

However, in this month’s featured essay for Mosaic Yoav Sorek not only proposes an alternative strategy, and indeed attitude, for Israel, but a strategy that places at its core the assertion of the Jewish state and its most fundamental rights. In his essay Israel’s Big Mistake Sorek argues that the path of concession and accommodation pursued by Israel since the early 1990s has been a disastrous one, only weakening it and emboldening the demands of Israel’s enemies. Sorek makes a strong case for the acknowledgement of the fact that since the conflict has not ever been about territory, but rather about ending Israel’s existence, nothing short of a total acceptance of a Jewish state in the Middle East will be able to deliver real peace.

Israel’s mistake has been to buy into the notion that it can purchase from the Arab world its right to exist by trading territory. It has pursued the land for peace equation on the belief that if it shrinks its territory and weakens itself strategically it can placate it enemies’ hostility. But as Sorek points out, logically the opposite is true. It is only by maintaining its strength, asserting its presence, and demanding to be recognized that Israel can have any chance of eventually compelling its neighbors to accept the reality of its existence, and in doing so fulfill the foundational vision of Zionism.

As far as concluding the long running dispute with the Palestinians is concerned, Sorek proposes that Israel might start by not seeking to appease and legitimize the most hard-line elements among the Palestinians. It was the great mistake of the Rabin government, the author argues, to recognize and elevate the PLO instead of continuing the policy of working to defeat Arafat’s terror organization. Instead, Sorek suggests that Israel should essentially take the initiative and simply assert its rights and authority over the entire territory in its control. Whether or not Israel is to find a way to simply fully integrate the Arab communities living throughout its territories, or whether they will ultimately see their future in reclaiming their former Jordanian citizenship, Sorek makes the claim that none of this will prove as difficult as the 20-year long shambles of attempting to establish a Palestinian state.

Obama makes the dishonest claim that he would like to be presented with some alternative to the two-state proposal. But that request is doubly disingenuous, because not only does the president clearly have no desire for an alternative plan, but he also knows full well that Netanyahu is cooperating in efforts to establish a Palestinian state. Yet, Netanyahu is also pursuing somewhat of a synthesis approach by insisting that territorial compromise by Israel must be matched by real Palestinian acceptance of the Jewish state.

Israel’s prime minister may demand this acceptance, but it is a sign of how doubtful the Israelis are that it will come from the region as a whole that they continue to insist that they hold such strategically significant areas as the Jordan valley. As Sorek observes in his essay, Israelis have given up on the hope of ever being embraced by the wider Arab-Islamic world. TS Eliot once wrote of those dreaming up systems so utopian that no one in them would ever need be good. In this way talk of sophisticated early warning systems in the Jordan valley, symbolic deals on token numbers of refugees, land swaps and more, are all part of misguided efforts to negotiate a final status arrangement so watertight that it won’t matter if the Jewish state is still reviled by Palestinians and the wider region.

As Yoav Sorek argues, nothing short of full acceptance of the Jewish state will bring peace to Israel and end the conflict, pursuing that acceptance is the only viable way to bring about a real and lasting peace.

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Obama Wasn’t Alone Misreading Putin

Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

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Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

One of the revelations learned while writing my new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, a study of a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the U.S. military spends more time in the classroom identifying and discussing mistakes than they often do in the field so that they can become better soldiers, sailors, and pilots. The State Department, however, has never convened a lessons learned exercise to determine why its approach on any episode has failed. If John Kerry is truly serious about being a diplomatic leader, he could do nothing better than convene a deep review of the “Reset” with Russia, its origins, the metrics by which the State Department planned to judge it, if they even bothered with metrics, and where they might have caught Putin’s insincerity. It’s not shameful to examine mistakes; it is crucial.

Alas, absent such a measure, expect the United States to get played far more in the coming years by enemies like Putin not because of the current occupant of the Oval Office, but rather because the philosophy he represents is taken as unquestioned wisdom among America’s professional diplomats.

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Netanyahu Doesn’t Take Obama’s Bait

The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

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The last time President Obama ambushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli gave as good as he got. This time he turned the other cheek. The reason for this turnabout by the normally combative prime minister tells us everything we need to know about the relative strength of the positions of these two leaders.

While the assumption on the part of most pundits was that Obama has Netanyahu in a corner, the latter’s reaction to the assault the president launched at him in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg this past weekend shows us this isn’t true. Though Netanyahu had to be infuriated by the president’s single-minded determination to blame Israel for the lack of peace as well as his obtuse praise for Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he felt no need to publicly respond to it. Far from feeling threatened by Obama’s tirade, Netanyahu’s decision to ignore the president’s attack shows that he understands the dynamics of both the peace process and U.S. foreign policy actually give him the upper hand over the weak and increasingly out-of-touch lame duck in the White House.

Obama’s decision to give his faithful admirer Goldberg an interview in which he blasted Israel was odd since it came at a time when the Israelis have shown their willingness to accept Secretary of State John Kerry’s framework for Middle East peace negotiations and the Palestinians have publicly declared the same document to be unacceptable. More than that, the fact that he chose this particular moment to get in another shot at his least favorite foreign leader just when the world was focused on Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and awaiting an American response to this aggression can only be considered bizarre. Not only did this make his attack on Netanyahu seem both petty and personal, it also guaranteed that the international media that might have otherwise have jumped on the story was distracted elsewhere and diminished its impact. But Netanyahu’s seeming dismissal of this broadside shows that Obama is not in as strong a position vis-à-vis Netanyahu as he thinks.

Back in May 2011, Obama chose to give a speech attacking Israel’s stand on the peace process and demanding that it accept the 1967 borders as the starting point for negotiations just as before Netanyahu arrived in Washington. Obama had picked fights with Israel in 2009 and 2010 over Jerusalem and settlements but this was a direct attack on the prime minister. Netanyahu’s response was just as direct. When he met with Obama in the White House, he launched into a lengthy lecture to the president about Israeli security that made it clear to the president that he would not take the insult lying down. Netanyahu doubled down on that the next day when he received more cheers while addressing a joint meeting of Congress than the president had ever gotten.

But this time, Netanyahu chose to ignore the president’s slights. There were no public or even off-the-record remarks from his party expressing anger. And in his speech to AIPAC today, Netanyahu barely mentioned the president.

Though Israel has been squabbling with the U.S. over the direction of the Iran nuclear talks, Netanyahu broke no new ground on the issue in his speech. He restated his concerns about Tehran continuing uranium enrichment during the nuclear talks. But he did not allude to the fact that the U.S. was letting this happen. While he repeated his vow to do anything necessary to defend Israeli security — a veiled threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — he kept his disagreements to a minimum and emphasized the joint concerns of the U.S. and Israel.

With regard to the topic on which Obama had been most critical — the peace process with the Palestinians — there was also no allusion to disagreement with Washington. To the contrary, Netanyahu spoke more about his desire for peace; his willingness to continue engaging in talks with the Palestinians and the advantages that peace would bring to Israel and the entire Middle East. Far from harping on the points where he and Obama disagree about the terms of a theoretical agreement, Netanyahu emphasized a key point where the U.S. had accepted Israel’s position: the need for the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, thus signaling their willingness to end the conflict rather than merely pausing it.

While Netanyahu went on to denounce the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement against as both immoral and anti-Semitic, the key here was a disinclination to use his speech to engage in a tit-for-tat battle with the administration. Why was that?

Some Obama loyalists may claim that this shows that Netanyahu got the message from the president. It’s likely that Israel’s future participation in Kerry’s talks will be cited by some in this group as evidence that Obama’s spanking of the prime minister worked. But this is nonsense. Given that Israel had already signaled that it will accept Kerry’s framework for more talks, that explanation won’t hold water.

A better reason for Netanyahu’s decision to turn the other cheek is that, unlike the president, the prime minister has been paying attention to the currents currently roiling Palestinian politics and knows that Abbas’ inability to rally his people behind a peace agreement renders any potential U.S.-Israeli arguments moot.

It should be remembered that the net results of the 2011 dustup between the two men was pointless. Despite Obama’s best efforts to tilt the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians, Abbas still wouldn’t budge enough to even negotiate, let alone agree to peace terms. The same dynamic is unfolding today with Israel reportedly offering massive territorial withdrawals of up to 90 percent of the West Bank in the secret talks with the PA while the Palestinians are still tying themselves up in knots explaining why they can’t recognize Israel as a Jewish state or give up the right of return.

Far from needing to defend himself on the American stage as he felt it important to do in 2011, Netanyahu now understands that forbearance is the best way to respond to Obama’s provocations. Try as he might to put the onus for the lack of peace on the Jewish state, Netanyahu knows it will always be the Palestinians who say “no” to peace, not the Israelis.

Similarly, as much as he must have been itching to directly take on Obama’s appeasement of Tehran, Netanyahu realizes that it is Iran’s lust for a nuclear weapon that will do more to undermine the administration’s negotiating tactics than anything he can say.

By eschewing any desire to pressure the Palestinians to make peace, the president more or less guaranteed that Kerry must ultimately fail. And by knuckling under the Iranians in the interim agreement signed by Kerry last November, President Obama has also embarked on a path that cannot lead him to the achievement of his stated goals in the current round of talks.

Though Obama’s attacks did real damage to Israel’s position, the prime minister is right to refuse to take the bait. Netanyahu cannot have failed to see that, far from offering him the opportunity to effectively pressure the Israelis, the president is floundering in his second term especially on foreign policy. The most effective answer to Obama’s taunts is patience since events will soon overtake the president’s positions on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts, as well as in other debacles around the globe that have popped up because of Obama’s weak leadership. Though the disparity in the relative power of their positions inevitably means Netanyahu must worry about Obama’s barbs, the bottom line here is that it is the president and not the prime minister who is in big trouble.

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Obama’s Journey from Arrogance to Incompetence

In a post last week, I wrote that near the end of his autobiography, the great French journalist and intellectual Raymond Aron, in a chapter on the tenure of Secretary of State Kissinger, wrote, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

Aron’s overall point is that governing is harder than criticizing those attempting to govern and therefore ought to temper a bit one’s denunciations of those in power. This applies to those of us who are critics of President Obama. 

But this, too, needs to be said. When he ran for the presidency, it was Barack Obama who never put limits on his criticisms of others. He spoke as if the problems of the world would disappear with two events: the removal from office of his predecessor and his arrival as president of the United States. Even in a profession not known for attracting modest individuals, Mr. Obama’s arrogance set him apart.

In 2008 his campaign aides referred to him as the “black Jesus.” He told congressional Democrats during the 2008 campaign, “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” During that campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany– and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate. 

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In a post last week, I wrote that near the end of his autobiography, the great French journalist and intellectual Raymond Aron, in a chapter on the tenure of Secretary of State Kissinger, wrote, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

Aron’s overall point is that governing is harder than criticizing those attempting to govern and therefore ought to temper a bit one’s denunciations of those in power. This applies to those of us who are critics of President Obama. 

But this, too, needs to be said. When he ran for the presidency, it was Barack Obama who never put limits on his criticisms of others. He spoke as if the problems of the world would disappear with two events: the removal from office of his predecessor and his arrival as president of the United States. Even in a profession not known for attracting modest individuals, Mr. Obama’s arrogance set him apart.

In 2008 his campaign aides referred to him as the “black Jesus.” He told congressional Democrats during the 2008 campaign, “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” During that campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany– and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate. 

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Mr. Obama told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, at the start of the 2008 campaign, according to The New Yorker. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.” A convention speech wasn’t enough for Mr. Obama; Greek columns needed to be added. During an interview with “60 Minutes,” Obama said, “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln.” (The use of the word “possible” is priceless.) Mr. Obama has compared himself to LeBron James; his aides compared him to Michael Jordan. He clearly conceived of himself as a world-historical figure. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond his power. (If you think I’m exaggerating, I’d urge you to watch this 30-second clip from an Obama speech in 2008.)

In foreign policy, Obama would wage a successful war in Afghanistan. He would convince dictators and adversaries why they should bow to his wishes. He would solve decades-long conflicts. American prestige would rise in all corners of the globe. “Instead of retreating from the world,” Obama said, “I will personally lead a new chapter of American engagement.” There would be the “reset” with Russia, the “new beginning” in the Middle East, the end of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and so much more. Mr. Obama would practice “smart diplomacy.” After all, he understood things the rest of us did not. And if you didn’t accept his view of the world, you weren’t simply mistaken; you were an ideologue, a hyper-partisan, a dullard, perhaps a fool, and/or someone whose thinking belonged to bygone era. Watch the contemptuous way the president dismissed Mitt Romney in a presidential debate on the topic of Russia — despite the fact that events have proven Romney right and Obama wrong.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Our relations with nation after nation – from Afghanistan and Iraq to Russia and China, from Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to India and Australia, from Honduras to Brazil, from Poland and the Czech Republic to Germany, Great Britain, Canada and more – are worse now than they were when Mr. Obama was sworn in as president in 2009. I’m not asking people to measure Mr. Obama against a standard of perfection; I’m asking them to measure him against his own promises, his own speeches, his own words.

Having been president for more than five years, we can now render some reasonable and informed judgments about Mr. Obama, including this one: he is an amateur on par with Jimmy Carter. And to see the crude and brutish Putin run circles around Obama—on negotiations over nuclear weapons, on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, on convincing Obama to undercut our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, on establishing ties with Egypt, on strengthening the murderous Syrian regime, and now invading Crimea and threatening the rest of Ukraine—is painful for any American to witness. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers put it, “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close.” 

Governing is harder than Barack Obama ever imagined. But it isn’t that much harder.

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Obama’s Settlement Construction Lie

Since John Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams and Jonathan Tobin have all written excellent takedowns of the fallacies, outright lies and destructive consequences of President Barack Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on Sunday, you might think there’s nothing left to say. But there are some additional points that merit consideration, and I’d like to focus on one: settlement construction. Because on this issue, Obama’s “facts” are flat-out wrong – and this particular untruth have some very important implications.

According to Obama, “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” But in reality, as a simple glance at the annual data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals, there has been less settlement construction during Benjamin Netanyahu’s five years as Israeli premier (2009-13) than under any of his recent predecessors.

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Since John Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams and Jonathan Tobin have all written excellent takedowns of the fallacies, outright lies and destructive consequences of President Barack Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg on Sunday, you might think there’s nothing left to say. But there are some additional points that merit consideration, and I’d like to focus on one: settlement construction. Because on this issue, Obama’s “facts” are flat-out wrong – and this particular untruth have some very important implications.

According to Obama, “we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time.” But in reality, as a simple glance at the annual data published by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reveals, there has been less settlement construction during Benjamin Netanyahu’s five years as Israeli premier (2009-13) than under any of his recent predecessors.

During those five years, housing starts in the settlements averaged 1,443 a year (all data is from the charts here, here and here plus this news report). That’s less than the 1,702 a year they averaged under Ehud Olmert in 2006-08, who is nevertheless internationally acclaimed as a peacemaker (having made the Palestinians an offer so generous that then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn’t believe she was hearing it). It’s also less than the 1,652 per year they averaged under Ariel Sharon in 2001-05, who is similarly lauded internationally as a peacemaker (for having left Gaza); the fact that even Sharon out-built Netanyahu is particularly remarkable, because his term coincided with the second intifada, when demand for housing in the settlements plummeted. And it’s far less than under Ehud Barak, who is also internationally acclaimed as a peacemaker (for his generous offer at Camp David in 2000): One single year under Barak, 2000, produced more housing starts in the settlements (4,683) than the entire first four years of Netanyahu’s term (4,679).

It’s true that settlement construction more than doubled last year; otherwise, Netanyahu’s average would have been even lower. But it doubled from such a low base that the absolute number of housing starts, 2,534, is not only far less than Barak’s record one-year high; it’s only slightly larger than the 1995 total of 2,430 – when the prime minister was Yitzhak Rabin, signatory of the Oslo Accords and patron saint of the peace process. In previous years, housing starts under Netanyahu were only a third to a half of those in 1995.

In short, if settlement construction were really the death blow to the peace process that Obama and his European counterparts like to claim, Netanyahu ought to be their favorite Israeli prime minister ever instead of the most hated, because never has settlement construction been as low as it has under him. The obvious conclusion is that all the talk about settlement construction is just a smokescreen, and what really makes Western leaders loathe Netanyahu is something else entirely: the fact that unlike Rabin, Barak, Sharon and Olmert, he has so far refused to offer the kind of sweeping territorial concessions that, every time they were tried, have resulted in massive waves of anti-Israel terror.

But it doesn’t sound good to say they hate Netanyahu because of his reluctance to endanger the country he was elected to serve. So instead, Western leaders prefer to harp on settlement construction, secure in the knowledge that no journalist will ever bother to check their “facts.”

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Surprise: Obama Kills the Peace Process

President Obama may have thought he was being very clever ambushing Prime Minister Netanyahu with scathing comments about Israeli policies that would be published just before he arrived in the United States for a meeting at the White House and to speak at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). By slamming Netanyahu’s policies as the primary, if not the sole obstacle to peace in the Middle East, in the now infamous interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the president put the Israeli on the defensive and undermined his attempts to rally support for his positions with both AIPAC members and Congress. That should also have made it more difficult for Netanyahu to resist American pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to help the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry succeed. But the president’s move had to leave those who have actually been following the talks with the Palestinians scratching their heads.

Kerry’s current objective is to get both parties to agree to a framework for continued talks. As has been widely reported, Netanyahu has already signaled his consent to the framework even though he and his Cabinet have grave misgivings about where the talks may eventually lead. By contrast, the Palestinians have repeatedly and publicly rejected the framework. The Palestinians have angrily rejected the framework’s requirement that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which is to say they agree to end the conflict rather than merely pause it. They also reject the West Bank security guarantees included in the framework even though it also contains their basic demands about a Palestinian state whose borders will be based on the 1967 borders while leaving open the possibility of territorial swaps. In other words, the Israelis have already given Kerry what he wanted while the Palestinians have done the opposite. Yet Obama still treats Israel as the truant and lauds Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a trustworthy warrior for peace even though his government is a font of incitement for hatred against Jews and Israelis and he has repeatedly rejected every previous offer of statehood because he and his people remain unable or unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

By speaking in this manner about Israel, Obama has pleased the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s Jewish critics and Israel-bashers everywhere. But it will also do something else that perhaps the president never intended. He has killed any chance that Kerry’s peace talks could possibly succeed.

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President Obama may have thought he was being very clever ambushing Prime Minister Netanyahu with scathing comments about Israeli policies that would be published just before he arrived in the United States for a meeting at the White House and to speak at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). By slamming Netanyahu’s policies as the primary, if not the sole obstacle to peace in the Middle East, in the now infamous interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, the president put the Israeli on the defensive and undermined his attempts to rally support for his positions with both AIPAC members and Congress. That should also have made it more difficult for Netanyahu to resist American pressure to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to help the negotiations sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry succeed. But the president’s move had to leave those who have actually been following the talks with the Palestinians scratching their heads.

Kerry’s current objective is to get both parties to agree to a framework for continued talks. As has been widely reported, Netanyahu has already signaled his consent to the framework even though he and his Cabinet have grave misgivings about where the talks may eventually lead. By contrast, the Palestinians have repeatedly and publicly rejected the framework. The Palestinians have angrily rejected the framework’s requirement that they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which is to say they agree to end the conflict rather than merely pause it. They also reject the West Bank security guarantees included in the framework even though it also contains their basic demands about a Palestinian state whose borders will be based on the 1967 borders while leaving open the possibility of territorial swaps. In other words, the Israelis have already given Kerry what he wanted while the Palestinians have done the opposite. Yet Obama still treats Israel as the truant and lauds Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas as a trustworthy warrior for peace even though his government is a font of incitement for hatred against Jews and Israelis and he has repeatedly rejected every previous offer of statehood because he and his people remain unable or unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

By speaking in this manner about Israel, Obama has pleased the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s Jewish critics and Israel-bashers everywhere. But it will also do something else that perhaps the president never intended. He has killed any chance that Kerry’s peace talks could possibly succeed.

By abusing Netanyahu even though he knows the Israelis have agreed to the peace framework, Obama vented his spleen at what is obviously his least favorite foreign leader. But rather than cheering his scolding of Netanyahu those who claim to be “pro-peace and pro-Israel” ought to be gravely concerned.

Unfortunately, the audience for the Goldberg interview was wider than the membership of AIPAC or the Israeli Cabinet. The Palestinians were also listening and what they heard will constitute a far greater impediment to peace than settlements or the Israeli prime minister.

By speaking in this manner at this particular time, the president made it clear that his administration doesn’t care what the Israelis or the Palestinians actually do in the talks. He will take sides against Netanyahu and for Abbas no matter what the Israelis say or how the Palestinians continue to obstruct the process. It tells the Palestinians they need not fear American pressure either at this stage of the talks or if they ever get close to final status discussions.

 That’s a catastrophe for the peace processers because they know that the real pressure for peace on Netanyahu doesn’t come from the White House. It stems from the desire of his people for an end to the conflict. Should there ever be a credible peace offer from the Palestinians that pledges them to recognize Israel’s legitimacy and respects Israeli security and sovereignty, Netanyahu knows that no government could turn it down.

But in contrast to the Israelis, there is no Palestinian peace camp or faction within either Abbas’ Fatah or his Hamas rivals that will push for peace even if it doesn’t grant their maximal demands. The only possible source of pressure on Abbas to do make peace must come from the U.S., Europe and the Arab States. But if President Obama is not willing to hold Abbas accountable for his behavior, then no one will. In the absence of an American determination to hold Abbas’ feet to the fire in spite of the enormous Palestinian constituency that will always oppose even the most generous Israeli offer, the already slim prospects for peace are altogether extinguished.

By attacking Netanyahu and lauding Abbas, the president has accomplished something that no Israeli right-winger could possibly accomplish: kill the peace process. Without American insisting that Abbas change his ways, there is no possible way for him to withstand the far greater pressure he gets from the descendants of the 1948 refugees — who still dream of flooding Israel and turning it into another Arab state — or his Islamist rivals.

Though the president warned Netanyahu that he wouldn’t be able to protect Israel if peace talks falter, his interview with Goldberg guaranteed that this is exactly what will happen. From here on in, everything else he says about the topic is moot.

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AIPAC Will Survive While Obama Fails

With over 10,000 pro-Israel activists in Washington this week for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and members of both parties lining up as usual to demonstrate their support for the organization and its cause it may seem odd that so many pundits are prepared to bury the group. But given the Obama administration’s recent successful effort to derail Congressional action on Iran sanctions and the president’s own extraordinary attack on the government of the Jewish state this weekend in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, these are hard times for supporters of the umbrella pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, the collapse of the sanctions campaign combined with what our John Podhoretz correctly described as Obama’s threats against the Jewish state delivered in a pre-AIPAC ambush of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—who was on his way to Washington to meet with the president and speak at the conference—the power of the lobby seems to have been revealed to be a myth.

As Lee Smith writes today in Tablet magazine, AIPAC’s reliance on the bipartisan coalition it has forged in support of the U.S.-Israel alliance has rendered it unable to punish those who cross it. Smith writes persuasively that President Obama has effectively checkmated AIPAC with a series of moves that demonstrated he couldn’t be constrained by its stands on either the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the Iran nuclear threat. Judged by that standard, he’s right to claim the group “flopped” on Iran sanctions this year. Given that the prospects of AIPAC mobilizing sufficient Democratic support in the Senate for a revived effort to pass a new sanctions bill in the face of Obama’s veto threats are poor, it’s hard to argue with Smith’s belief that the group has been isolated and its power exposed as more a figment of the overheated imaginations of anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers than reality.

But before we join Smith’s musings about AIPAC having to do “some hard thinking about its survival,” some perspective is needed. As bad as things look for the pro-Israel community today, the lobby’s business is in taking the long view of both Washington politics and the Middle East. President Obama may have gotten the upper hand over both AIPAC and Netanyahu in recent months, but any assumption that this situation is permanent rests on the idea that the administration’s diplomatic efforts on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts will not falter or that these failures can be blamed on Israel and its supporters. As with the fights Obama has picked with Israel earlier in his administration, events have a way of eclipsing his temper tantrums. While it may be entirely in character for the president to choose the weekend when AIPAC is convening and Russia is invading the Ukraine to be issuing ultimatums to Israel, the collapse of U.S. influence abroad due to Obama’s weakness and delusions will make his victory over the lobby a short-lived triumph.

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With over 10,000 pro-Israel activists in Washington this week for the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and members of both parties lining up as usual to demonstrate their support for the organization and its cause it may seem odd that so many pundits are prepared to bury the group. But given the Obama administration’s recent successful effort to derail Congressional action on Iran sanctions and the president’s own extraordinary attack on the government of the Jewish state this weekend in an interview with Bloomberg’s Jeffrey Goldberg, these are hard times for supporters of the umbrella pro-Israel lobby. Indeed, the collapse of the sanctions campaign combined with what our John Podhoretz correctly described as Obama’s threats against the Jewish state delivered in a pre-AIPAC ambush of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—who was on his way to Washington to meet with the president and speak at the conference—the power of the lobby seems to have been revealed to be a myth.

As Lee Smith writes today in Tablet magazine, AIPAC’s reliance on the bipartisan coalition it has forged in support of the U.S.-Israel alliance has rendered it unable to punish those who cross it. Smith writes persuasively that President Obama has effectively checkmated AIPAC with a series of moves that demonstrated he couldn’t be constrained by its stands on either the Israel-Palestinian conflict or the Iran nuclear threat. Judged by that standard, he’s right to claim the group “flopped” on Iran sanctions this year. Given that the prospects of AIPAC mobilizing sufficient Democratic support in the Senate for a revived effort to pass a new sanctions bill in the face of Obama’s veto threats are poor, it’s hard to argue with Smith’s belief that the group has been isolated and its power exposed as more a figment of the overheated imaginations of anti-Semitic conspiracy mongers than reality.

But before we join Smith’s musings about AIPAC having to do “some hard thinking about its survival,” some perspective is needed. As bad as things look for the pro-Israel community today, the lobby’s business is in taking the long view of both Washington politics and the Middle East. President Obama may have gotten the upper hand over both AIPAC and Netanyahu in recent months, but any assumption that this situation is permanent rests on the idea that the administration’s diplomatic efforts on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts will not falter or that these failures can be blamed on Israel and its supporters. As with the fights Obama has picked with Israel earlier in his administration, events have a way of eclipsing his temper tantrums. While it may be entirely in character for the president to choose the weekend when AIPAC is convening and Russia is invading the Ukraine to be issuing ultimatums to Israel, the collapse of U.S. influence abroad due to Obama’s weakness and delusions will make his victory over the lobby a short-lived triumph.

Smith is right to claim that AIPAC was thoroughly outmaneuvered by the administration in the last year. The group’s failure to oppose the nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense was seen as a sign of weakness by the re-elected president. Smith believes AIPAC was set up by the administration when it agreed to lobby on behalf of the president’s efforts to get Congress to authorize the use of force in Syria. The writer believes Obama was never serious about striking the Assad regime in defense of the “red line” he enunciated about the use of chemical weapons and that the administration’s humiliating retreat from those threats was designed to strengthen its ties with Assad’s Iranian ally and to make AIPAC look foolish. That may be giving the president a little too much credit since Obama’s humiliation at the hands of the Russians and Congressional critics was far greater than any experienced by AIPAC. But Smith is correct that the episode damaged the lobby.

There’s also no arguing with the verdict that AIPAC was undone in the campaign for new Iran sanctions by its reliance on support from both sides of the aisle. There was never any chance that the group would be able to muscle sanctions through a Democratic-controlled Senate once the president issued a veto threat and falsely framed the debate as one between supporters of diplomacy and those who want war.  Nor can AIPAC seek to punish Democrats who have cowardly retreated in the face of pressure from the White House. Combined with the president’s bizarre attack on Israel and his almost total mischaracterization of the Palestinian position on the peace talks, there’s no disputing that this administration has defied supporters of Israel on their two most important issues and there’s nothing they can do about it at the moment.

But that doesn’t mean that AIPAC has failed or that the president now has carte blanche to force Israel to give in to his demands or to negotiate a deal with Iran that falls short of his promises to halt their nuclear drive.

The problem for this administration today when dealing with Israel and AIPAC is the same as it was in the president’s first term. He can engage in spats with Israel and its supporters as often as he likes and even sometimes gain a tactical advantage over them. But the bottom line in these disputes remains the unwillingness of either the Palestinians or the Iranians to behave in a manner that is compatible with Obama’s delusional view of the world.

Just as Obama’s attacks on Netanyahu on settlements, Jerusalem and the 1967 borders were rendered meaningless by the Palestinians refusal to negotiate, his latest tirade at the prime minister’s expense will also be overshadowed by Mahmoud Abbas’s inability to recognize Israel as a Jewish state or to sign a deal that will give up the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Israel will, as Netanyahu and his predecessors have proved, take risks for peace but the Palestinians will always say no because they remain mired in a culture of rejectionism that is at the core of their national identity.

Similarly, the president’s ability to hold off sanctions won’t mean much if the Iranians don’t do his biding in the P5+1 talks. The idea that he can go on negotiating and keep Congress from passing new sanctions indefinitely while the Iranians continue pushing towards a bomb is a misreading of the situation.

The bottom line is that 12 months from now, the president’s threats to Israel will be mere footnotes in the history of Kerry’s failed initiative and not even Obama will be able to persuade Congress or the American people that this entirely predictable result and any resulting violence in its aftermath was the fault of Israel rather than his hubristic secretary of state and Abbas. Nor will be able to pretend that his “moderate” Iranian interlocutors wish to embrace engagement after they spend the next year playing their usual delaying game that will bring them that much closer to their nuclear ambition that imperils both the U.S. and Israel.

But a year from now AIPAC will still be a strong voice in Washington for the U.S.-Israel alliance and it will have retained allies in the Democratic Party that will enable it to push for sanctions once the Iranians finish duping Obama. That is cold comfort for those who rightly worry about the damage the president is doing to U.S. interests now. But by playing the long game, AIPAC will survive to live to fight and win another day. Rather than worrying about the lobby’s survival, analysts would do better to ponder whether the president’s string of foreign policy disasters is hastening the moment when his lame duck status will make any further insults hurled by him at Israel and AIPAC pointless.

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The President’s Prophetic Threats to Israel

In an extraordinary—and I don’t use the word in a complimentary way—interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg, President Obama follows his secretary of state in warning Israel and its leader that a failure to “make peace” now with the Palestinians will have terrible consequences. Israel is “more isolated internationally,” and will become more so; there will be more Palestinians and Israeli Arabs as time goes on, not fewer, so Israel had better move now; and not to move now is to create the conditions for a “permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank….there comes a point when you cannot manage this anymore.”

The wild logical contradictions in his remarks expose the degree to which the American approach in the Kerry peace talks is to haunt Israel with the dire nightmare it will face should the talks fail; Palestinian rejectionism plays almost no role in the Obaman calculus here.

The Palestinians, in Obama’s view, do not actually need to make changes; astonishingly, he says, they’re ready for peace. “The Palestinians,” the president says, overlooking every piece of polling data we have about the opinions of the Palestinians, “would still prefer peace. They would still prefer a country of their own that allows them to find a job, send their kids to school, travel overseas, go back and forth to work without feeling as if they are restricted or constrained as a people. And they recognize that Israel is not going anywhere.”

Ah. So that 2011 poll that says 60 percent of the Palestinians reject a two-state solution is bunk—a poll whose findings have not been  contradicted since. If Palestinians refuse to accept a two-state solution, they do not “recognize that Israel is not going anywhere.” Rather, they are still engaging in a pseudo-national fantasy about Israel’s disappearance or destruction. And they are so eager for peace and coexistence with Israel that they remain the only significant Muslim population that still has a favorable view of suicide bombings, according to a Pew survey.

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In an extraordinary—and I don’t use the word in a complimentary way—interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg, President Obama follows his secretary of state in warning Israel and its leader that a failure to “make peace” now with the Palestinians will have terrible consequences. Israel is “more isolated internationally,” and will become more so; there will be more Palestinians and Israeli Arabs as time goes on, not fewer, so Israel had better move now; and not to move now is to create the conditions for a “permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank….there comes a point when you cannot manage this anymore.”

The wild logical contradictions in his remarks expose the degree to which the American approach in the Kerry peace talks is to haunt Israel with the dire nightmare it will face should the talks fail; Palestinian rejectionism plays almost no role in the Obaman calculus here.

The Palestinians, in Obama’s view, do not actually need to make changes; astonishingly, he says, they’re ready for peace. “The Palestinians,” the president says, overlooking every piece of polling data we have about the opinions of the Palestinians, “would still prefer peace. They would still prefer a country of their own that allows them to find a job, send their kids to school, travel overseas, go back and forth to work without feeling as if they are restricted or constrained as a people. And they recognize that Israel is not going anywhere.”

Ah. So that 2011 poll that says 60 percent of the Palestinians reject a two-state solution is bunk—a poll whose findings have not been  contradicted since. If Palestinians refuse to accept a two-state solution, they do not “recognize that Israel is not going anywhere.” Rather, they are still engaging in a pseudo-national fantasy about Israel’s disappearance or destruction. And they are so eager for peace and coexistence with Israel that they remain the only significant Muslim population that still has a favorable view of suicide bombings, according to a Pew survey.

“The voices for peace within the Palestinian community will be stronger with a framework agreement,” the president says. But why would the “voices for peace” need to be “stronger” if they reflect the actual views of the Palestinian people? They should be more than strong enough on their own now. Indeed, if they are so strong, we would not be hearing repeated denunciations of the “framework” process from Palestinian negotiators.

The president’s fantasies about the Palestinians also  involve Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. “I think,” he says, “nobody would dispute that whatever disagreements you may have with him, he has proven himself to be somebody who has been committed to nonviolence and diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue.” Nobody would dispute? In 2008, offered a peace deal by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that involved Abbas actually drawing a new West Bank map giving the Palestinians something between 92 and 95 percent of the territory, Abbas basically fled the table and didn’t return. Granted, he didn’t do what Yasser Arafat did after a similar deal at Camp David in 2000 and begin the second intifada, but this hardly demonstrates a commitment to a diplomatic effort—except for one that fails.

So the Palestinians, in the president’s view, are all in. It’s really quite wonderful, in fact: “You’ve got a partner on the other side who is prepared to negotiate seriously, who does not engage in some of the wild rhetoric that so often you see in the Arab world when it comes to Israel, who has shown himself committed to maintaining order within the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority and to cooperate with Israelis around their security concerns — for us to not seize this moment I think would be a great mistake.”

Yes, the PA is such a partner for peace that even with negotiations going on, it celebrates acts of violence against Israel on a constant basis, as this report details

Not to mention the little wrinkle that Abbas doesn’t speak in any way for half of the Palestinian polity, the half living under the terrorist group Hamas in Gaza. Ah, but that’s no problem, in the president’s view. “There would still be huge questions about what happens in Gaza,” the president says, “but I actually think Hamas would be greatly damaged by the prospect of real peace.” Really! Unlike Abbas, who has not faced Palestinian voters since 2004, Hamas actually won a free election in the past decade and its unquestioned commitment to Israel’s destruction is clearly shared by the people who live under its aegis. They do not want peace.

All of this is folderol, anyway, because the president clearly thinks peace is solely Israel’s to make, and basically, Binyamin Netanyahu should listen to Obama’s mother and rip off the band-aid: “One of the things my mom always used to tell me and I didn’t always observe, but as I get older I agree with — is if there’s something you know you have to do, even if it’s difficult or unpleasant, you might as well just go ahead and do it, because waiting isn’t going to help. When I have a conversation with Bibi, that’s the essence of my conversation: If not now, when? And if not you, Mr. Prime Minister, then who?”

Now that’s some chutzpah right there, because of course the president is invoking the words of Hillel, the ancient Jewish sage, as a rhetorical tool against the Israeli prime minister. Of course, Obama leaves out the key words of Hillel’s famed plaint, which are: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” Israel must be for itself, because there is almost no country left in the world that will be for it; while the president says the American commitment to Israel is “rock-solid,” clearly he does not believe it will necessarily be so in the future…nor should it be.

Says the president of Netanyahu, “if he does not believe that a peace deal with the Palestinians is the right thing to do for Israel, then he needs to articulate an alternative approach. And as I said before, it’s hard to come up with one that’s plausible.” That’s ridiculous. A peace deal with the Palestinians is of course the right thing to do for Israel. But if there can be no peace deal, or can be no peace deal that does not pose a severe danger to Israel’s survival, then it is not the right thing to do.

The only “plausible” thing to do is to challenge the Palestinians to cure themselves of their psychotic political culture and become a rational actor with whom a true peace can be made. Is that a tragedy? It sure is. Sometimes there are tragedies, and they must be faced realistically, not wished away.

One thing that cannot be wished away is the president’s insistence on placing the burdens on Israel. This is something else his apologists can no longer wish away.

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Obama, Ukraine and the Price of Weakness

There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

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There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

A world in which dictators do as they like despite clear American warnings — as President Obama did first in Syria and then again this week about attacks on Ukraine — is not only a far more dangerous place. It also creates a dynamic in which every such American warning or diplomatic initiative is discounted as mere rhetoric, even if those daring to defy the United States are not so well situated as Putin is with his bold stroke in the Crimea. That is especially true with regards to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of the U.S. diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are starkly different from those in the territories of the former Soviet Union. But the basic formula of a bold rogue regime that has no reason to fear the threats or the blandishments of either the U.S. or Europe is present in the P5+1 talks. Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy. The Obama administration gave up the formidable military, political and economic leverage they had over Iran last fall by signing an interim agreement with Iran that gave Tehran what it wanted in terms of recognizing their right to enrich uranium as well as loosening sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. If the Iranians had good reason to think they had nothing to fear from the Obama administration before this latest humiliation of the president at the hands of Putin, their conviction that they can be as tough as they like with him without worrying about a strong American response can only be greater today.

It is too late to save Ukraine from the theft of its territory. But it is not too late to reverse the U.S. retreat from the world stage that has been going on in the last years. President Obama can begin to regain some of his credibility by taking a strong stand on sanctions against Russia and sticking to it. But if he doesn’t no one should be under the illusion that it won’t affect Obama’s ability to prevail in the Iran talks. The cost of Obama-style weakness and isolationism will not be cheap, either for U.S. allies or for an American people who must now understand what it is like to live in a world where no one respects or fears their government.

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