Commentary Magazine


Topic: Clinton

The Slap Heard Round the World

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has. Read More

It is amazing that the political revolution now sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa was started by a 26-year-old unemployed Tunisian man who self-immolated.

On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a university graduate whose fruits-and-vegetables market stand was confiscated by police because it had no permit, tried to yank back his apples. He was slapped in the face by a female municipal inspector and eventually beaten by her colleagues. His later appeals were ignored. Humiliated, he drenched himself in paint thinner and set himself on fire. He died on January 4.

That incident was the spark that set ablaze the revolution that overthrew President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia for more than two decades — and that, in turn, spread to Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign of power is about to end. Anti-government protests are also happening in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere. It’s hard to tell where all this will end; but how it began may rank among the more extraordinary hinge moments in history. It may come to be known as the Slap Heard Round the World.

How hopeful or fearful one feels about the unfolding events in Egypt depends in large measure on which revolutionary model one believes applies to this situation. Is it the French, Russian, or Iranian revolution, which ended with the guillotine, gulags, and an Islamic theocracy; or the American Revolution and what happened in the Philippines, South Korea, Indonesia, Chile, and Argentina, authoritarian regimes that made a relatively smooth transition to self-government? Or is it something entirely different? Here it’s worth bearing in mind the counsel of Henry Kissinger, who wrote, “History is not … a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims. It can illuminate the consequences of actions in comparable situations, yet each generation must discover for itself what situations are in fact comparable.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the driving force of events in Egypt are tied to the universal human desire for liberty and free elections, for an end to political corruption and oppression. What the 2002 Arab Human Development Report called a “freedom deficit” in the Middle East is at the core of the unrest. Events seem to be vindicating those who said that siding with the forces of “stability” [read: dictatorships] rather than reform was unwise and ultimately unsustainable. At some point the lid would blow. Now it has.

The danger is that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is hostile to Israel and close to Hamas, hijacks the revolution. The goal of U.S policy must therefore be to influence this revolution, to the degree we can, in a way that advances U.S. interests and American ideals. This means taking an active role, both publicly and behind the scenes, in support of those who stand for liberal democracy (for more, see here).

The hour has grown quite late. As Max Boot points out, the equivocation of the Obama administration needs to end. Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading Egyptian dissident who appears to be rapidly gaining power, is right when he said the United States is “losing credibility by the day” by its support for the Egyptian dictator. Mr. Mubarak is, politically speaking, a Dead Man Walking. There is still time, but not much time, for the president to get on the right side of this revolution and the right side of history. Secretary of State Clinton’s comments yesterday, in which she called for an “orderly transition” to a representative government, were certainly an improvement from where the administration was last week, when she was assuring the world of the staying power of Mr. Mubarak and Vice President Biden was declaring, against three decades of evidence, that the Egyptian president was not a dictator.

Having worked in three administrations and in the White House during a series of crises, I have some sympathy for how difficult it is to navigate through roiling waters, when one has to act on incomplete information in the midst of chaotic and constantly changing events, the outcome of which is impossible to know. In that respect, the Obama administration deserves some empathy. It’s never as easy to guide events when you’re in government as it is to critique events when you’re outside of government.

Still, as my former colleague William Inboden has written, it seems to me that the Obama administration can be held responsible for two important errors: (a) its failure to anticipate what is happening in Egypt and prepare contingency plans. and (b) its neglect of human rights, democracy, and economic reform in Egypt for the previous two years. “These failures should be front and center in any post-mortem policy review,” Professor Inboden writes. “The Mubarak regime’s brittleness and Egypt’s stagnation have long been apparent to many observers.” But not, apparently, to the Obama administration, which seems to have been caught completely off guard. If the spark that set the region afire was impossible to anticipate, the dry tinder of the region was not.

One Arab nation that so far hasn’t been convulsed by the political revolution now sweeping the Middle East is Iraq — the one Arab nation whose government is legitimate, the produce of free elections and political compromise, and that has the consent of the people. When it came to Iraqi democracy, most of the foreign-policy establishment assured us that self-government there could never take root, that Iraq would simply be a pawn of Iran, that the ethnic divisions in Iraq were too deep to overcome, and that (as Joe Biden argued at the time) the only solution was partition. At this stage, it’s reasonable to conclude that these judgments were quite wrong. And while one can certainly debate whether the Iraq war was worth the blood, treasure, and opportunities it cost, it appears as if the Egyptian people, and not only the Egyptian people, are longing for what the people of Iraq have embraced: self-government. It isn’t perfect by any means — but for the Arab Middle East, it is a model for other nations to aspire.

(h/t: Victor Davis Hanson)

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‘Getting Out in Front’ on Egypt?

The administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis — as typified by the bizarre set of mixed messages sent by Secretary of State Clinton yesterday as she wandered without point from Sunday morning show to Sunday morning show — has demonstrated a stunning lack of elementary preparation or thinking on a matter that has been under discussion among serious Egypt-watchers for at least six years now. That said, the demand that the administration “get out in front” on the need for democratic change with extreme haste is more a result of the increasingly hysterical tempo of the news in the age of Twitter than it is a central need for U.S. foreign policy.

The idea that Egyptians will like us better and that their new government will be friendlier to us because we said X on Sunday rather than on Wednesday is wishful thinking. A country of 80 million people with a complex economic and political structure and a radical Islamist wing will not make its future foreign-policy decisions based on when the U.S. said what. That might change if the army really opens fire on protesters and we do not instantly divide ourselves from Mubarak, or if we’re seen taking significant steps to bolster Mubarak’s regime, but that’s not the situation on the ground at present and looks unlikely to be the situation going forward.

Like many who supported the Bush push to open these closed societies to democratic change, I’m delighted to see the realists who pooh-poohed the agenda as unrealistic and foolish made to look unrealistic and foolish themselves — since if Mubarak had embraced rather than rejected the democracy agenda to the knowing nods of the foreign-policy cognoscenti, he might have ended his days as a hero of his nation rather than as a despised and rejected despot. And the fact that the Obama administration has come through two years without a clue when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East should be sobering for everybody.

But at this point, whatever part the U.S. plays in the Mubarak endgame is likely to be very, very minor. What our refusal to speak out forthrightly against dictatorships and for popular change says about us is more the issue.

The administration’s handling of the Egypt crisis — as typified by the bizarre set of mixed messages sent by Secretary of State Clinton yesterday as she wandered without point from Sunday morning show to Sunday morning show — has demonstrated a stunning lack of elementary preparation or thinking on a matter that has been under discussion among serious Egypt-watchers for at least six years now. That said, the demand that the administration “get out in front” on the need for democratic change with extreme haste is more a result of the increasingly hysterical tempo of the news in the age of Twitter than it is a central need for U.S. foreign policy.

The idea that Egyptians will like us better and that their new government will be friendlier to us because we said X on Sunday rather than on Wednesday is wishful thinking. A country of 80 million people with a complex economic and political structure and a radical Islamist wing will not make its future foreign-policy decisions based on when the U.S. said what. That might change if the army really opens fire on protesters and we do not instantly divide ourselves from Mubarak, or if we’re seen taking significant steps to bolster Mubarak’s regime, but that’s not the situation on the ground at present and looks unlikely to be the situation going forward.

Like many who supported the Bush push to open these closed societies to democratic change, I’m delighted to see the realists who pooh-poohed the agenda as unrealistic and foolish made to look unrealistic and foolish themselves — since if Mubarak had embraced rather than rejected the democracy agenda to the knowing nods of the foreign-policy cognoscenti, he might have ended his days as a hero of his nation rather than as a despised and rejected despot. And the fact that the Obama administration has come through two years without a clue when it comes to foreign policy in the Middle East should be sobering for everybody.

But at this point, whatever part the U.S. plays in the Mubarak endgame is likely to be very, very minor. What our refusal to speak out forthrightly against dictatorships and for popular change says about us is more the issue.

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LIVE BLOG: Painful SOTU Memories

Recalling the 1996 SOTU, as John has done, brings to mind Joe Lieberman’s quip after one of Clinton’s speeches: “At least he finished before Letterman.”

Recalling the 1996 SOTU, as John has done, brings to mind Joe Lieberman’s quip after one of Clinton’s speeches: “At least he finished before Letterman.”

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Pre-Speech Thoughts

1. Obama’s text is 6,700 words. Clinton’s 1996 SOTU was, if I count right, 500 words shorter. And it took an hour and 15 minutes. Bush in 2004: 5,400 words.

2. Obama is citing the roaring recovery of the stock market, and indeed, it is an indicator of something important: its recovery was due to the pricing in of the 2010 anti-Obama tsunami and the extension of the tax cuts.

3. He can continue to try to make the case that government spending is equivalent to private-sector investment, but it didn’t work for him before, to put it mildly. And at a time when his poll numbers were much higher.

1. Obama’s text is 6,700 words. Clinton’s 1996 SOTU was, if I count right, 500 words shorter. And it took an hour and 15 minutes. Bush in 2004: 5,400 words.

2. Obama is citing the roaring recovery of the stock market, and indeed, it is an indicator of something important: its recovery was due to the pricing in of the 2010 anti-Obama tsunami and the extension of the tax cuts.

3. He can continue to try to make the case that government spending is equivalent to private-sector investment, but it didn’t work for him before, to put it mildly. And at a time when his poll numbers were much higher.

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The Berlin-Rome-Tehran Axis

One of those dirty secrets that broad swaths of European media and politicians avoid like the plague is the ways in which European countries are propping up Tehran’s regime and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah via their pro-Iranian trade policies. Last year, Italy and Germany turned out to be Europe’s major economic respirators for Iran’s stagnating economic system, with an overall joint business volume of 10 billion euros.

Last summer, the EU signed off on watered-down economic sanctions targeting Iran. Nevertheless, the EU did awaken from its slumber and banned the delivery of crucial energy technology to the Islamic Republic. Whereas the more robust U.S. sanctions prohibit the acquisition of Iranian gas and crude oil, European countries are permitted to consume vast amounts of the stuff. Iran’s lifeline is the sale of its crude oil, and Italy has an Iranian oil addiction, with imports mushrooming by 90 percent in 2010.

Traditionally, Germany has  been Europe’s No. 1 trade partner with Iran. During the second Bush administration, U.S. diplomats urged German engineering firms and banks to end their flourishing deals with Iran. Bush had some striking successes, such as major German financial institutions like Deutsche Bank shutting down their Iranian operations. Bush twisted arms in Germany.

President Obama is limping on both legs in trying to convince Chancellor Angela Merkel to shut down Iranian banks in Germany. Last summer, he called Merkel to persuade her to pull the plug on the Hamburg-based European-Iranian trade bank, an entity that was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department because of its involvement in Iran’s illicit nuclear-proliferation and ballistic-missile program. Merkel simply snubbed Obama.

Despite Merkel’s promises to the Israeli Knesset in 2008 and to the U.S. Congress in 2009 that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable“ and that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program must be stopped, business as usual takes priority over the so-called German-Israeli special relationship and defending Western and global security.

It seems that the time is ripe for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to flex their diplomatic muscles and publicly urge Rome and Berlin to implement unilateral sanctions against Iran, as Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are a making a mockery of President Obama’s multilateral effort to isolate the Islamic Republic.

One of those dirty secrets that broad swaths of European media and politicians avoid like the plague is the ways in which European countries are propping up Tehran’s regime and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah via their pro-Iranian trade policies. Last year, Italy and Germany turned out to be Europe’s major economic respirators for Iran’s stagnating economic system, with an overall joint business volume of 10 billion euros.

Last summer, the EU signed off on watered-down economic sanctions targeting Iran. Nevertheless, the EU did awaken from its slumber and banned the delivery of crucial energy technology to the Islamic Republic. Whereas the more robust U.S. sanctions prohibit the acquisition of Iranian gas and crude oil, European countries are permitted to consume vast amounts of the stuff. Iran’s lifeline is the sale of its crude oil, and Italy has an Iranian oil addiction, with imports mushrooming by 90 percent in 2010.

Traditionally, Germany has  been Europe’s No. 1 trade partner with Iran. During the second Bush administration, U.S. diplomats urged German engineering firms and banks to end their flourishing deals with Iran. Bush had some striking successes, such as major German financial institutions like Deutsche Bank shutting down their Iranian operations. Bush twisted arms in Germany.

President Obama is limping on both legs in trying to convince Chancellor Angela Merkel to shut down Iranian banks in Germany. Last summer, he called Merkel to persuade her to pull the plug on the Hamburg-based European-Iranian trade bank, an entity that was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department because of its involvement in Iran’s illicit nuclear-proliferation and ballistic-missile program. Merkel simply snubbed Obama.

Despite Merkel’s promises to the Israeli Knesset in 2008 and to the U.S. Congress in 2009 that Israel’s security is “non-negotiable“ and that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program must be stopped, business as usual takes priority over the so-called German-Israeli special relationship and defending Western and global security.

It seems that the time is ripe for President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton to flex their diplomatic muscles and publicly urge Rome and Berlin to implement unilateral sanctions against Iran, as Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are a making a mockery of President Obama’s multilateral effort to isolate the Islamic Republic.

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Israeli Shakeup Another Setback for Obama

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East. Read More

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to break away from the Labor Party and form his own centrist faction is a boost to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. With the remaining members of Labor now shifted to the opposition, Netanyahu has rid his coalition of several Knesset members who are opposed to his policies. In the long run, Barak’s new party will, as David Hazony noted yesterday, provide unwanted competition for the largest opposition party, Kadima, making the path to power for it and its leader, Tzipi Livni, far more difficult.

Livni is understandably upset about this development and vented her spleen today in some over-the-top comments when she complained that Barak’s decision was “the dirtiest act in history.” Given the fact that party-jumping has been a staple of Israeli politics throughout the country’s short history, it’s hard to make an argument that this understandable breakup between the centrists and the old leftists in Labor is any kind of a scandal. It is just the belated recognition on the part of Barak that he is better off letting Labor’s far-left activists merge with what remains of those factions that were to Labor’s left rather than sticking with them. Labor was once Israel’s dominant and natural party of government, but today it is as bankrupt — and obsolete — as the kibbutzim that symbolized the country’s socialist dreams.

But while Livni is the biggest Israeli loser in this transaction, there’s little doubt that it is just as much of a blow to President Barak Obama and his unrealistic approach to the Middle East.

From the moment he took office, Obama has sought to overturn the cozier relationship that existed between Washington and Jerusalem under his predecessor. Throughout his first year in office, Obama seemed to be aiming at unseating Netanyahu, who had been elected weeks after the president was sworn in. By picking pointless fights over settlements and Jewish building in Jerusalem, Obama sought to destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition and hoped Livni would soon replace him. But his ill-considered attacks merely strengthened Netanyahu, who wisely sought to avoid a direct confrontation with his country’s only ally. It was already obvious that, far from collapsing, Netanyahu’s government would survive to the end of its four-year term or close to it. While the outcome of the next Israeli election that will probably occur in 2013 is as difficult to predict as that of Obama’s own re-election effort in 2012, Barak’s move renders the hopes of Livni — the Israeli leader whom both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton continue to treat as America’s favorite Israeli — less likely.

That means Obama is going to have to spend the rest of his term continuing to try to learn to live with the wily Netanyahu. Both Obama and the Palestinian Authority have spent the past two years acting as if they were just waiting around for a new weaker-willed Israeli government to materialize that would then magically create the circumstances under which peace would be achieved. As Barak-faction member Einat Wilf told the New York Times today, “I don’t belong to the camp that believes Israel is solely responsible for the failure of these negotiations. The Palestinians bear responsibility for not entering the talks. Some people have sent them a message to wait around for a new government.”

Barak’s move makes it clear that isn’t going to happen. While Israel’s critics will lament this development, it is high time that Americans accept the fact that the verdict of the Jewish state’s voters must be respected and that the Israeli consensus that has developed about the futility of further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians is entirely justified.

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The China Show

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama is about to get tough on China. Helene Cooper quotes Clinton administration national-security expert David Rothkopf, who says, “There’s been this well-orchestrated and clearly well thought-out campaign, over the past two weeks, involving the secretary of state, Treasury, defense and commerce making strong statements regarding currency, the trade imbalance, human rights and China’s military stance.” Cooper notes: “The more assertive strategy comes after Mr. Obama was criticized as appearing to kowtow to China in his visit there in 2009, and then again for allowing Beijing to get the upper hand against the United States at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Seoul late last year.”

A genuine policy shift is certainly welcome, but this is not it. The administration’s new approach on China will likely fail because it is compartmentalized. Without a bold change in America’s larger foreign policy, these feints amount to no more than fleeting imitations of power. Why would Hu Jintao concern himself with a one-day human-rights condemnation from an administration that has spent two straight years softening its human-rights rhetoric? Why would Hu fear the retaliation of a president who is so mild on international trade that now, as the Times puts it, “corporate leaders are pressing” him to “take a tougher stance”? Why would Beijing be concerned with a narrow and localized military investment boost pledged by a White House that has sworn to shrink America’s military posture around the globe?

America cannot simultaneously apologize and intimidate. So long as there remains no connection between this week’s slapdash simulation of American confidence and long-term American policy, we are negotiating without credibility. Which will prove no more effective than asking nicely.

According to the New York Times, Barack Obama is about to get tough on China. Helene Cooper quotes Clinton administration national-security expert David Rothkopf, who says, “There’s been this well-orchestrated and clearly well thought-out campaign, over the past two weeks, involving the secretary of state, Treasury, defense and commerce making strong statements regarding currency, the trade imbalance, human rights and China’s military stance.” Cooper notes: “The more assertive strategy comes after Mr. Obama was criticized as appearing to kowtow to China in his visit there in 2009, and then again for allowing Beijing to get the upper hand against the United States at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Seoul late last year.”

A genuine policy shift is certainly welcome, but this is not it. The administration’s new approach on China will likely fail because it is compartmentalized. Without a bold change in America’s larger foreign policy, these feints amount to no more than fleeting imitations of power. Why would Hu Jintao concern himself with a one-day human-rights condemnation from an administration that has spent two straight years softening its human-rights rhetoric? Why would Hu fear the retaliation of a president who is so mild on international trade that now, as the Times puts it, “corporate leaders are pressing” him to “take a tougher stance”? Why would Beijing be concerned with a narrow and localized military investment boost pledged by a White House that has sworn to shrink America’s military posture around the globe?

America cannot simultaneously apologize and intimidate. So long as there remains no connection between this week’s slapdash simulation of American confidence and long-term American policy, we are negotiating without credibility. Which will prove no more effective than asking nicely.

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A ‘Historic Opportunity’ in Tunisia

The Washington Post has a typically excellent editorial on the situation in Tunisia. The Post, with deputy editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl in the lead, has long been a courageous voice in the wilderness championing the embattled cause of Arab democracy. Now the Post editors write that the Jasmine Revolution presents a “historic opportunity”:

Though the revolution has no clear leaders and organized opposition parties are weak, the country is in other respects ready for a democratic transition. Its population is relatively well educated and its middle class substantial, and its women are emancipated by regional standards; Islamic fundamentalist forces are not as strong as they are in Algeria or Egypt. The constitution calls for fresh presidential elections in 60 days, and the country’s interim president indicated that calendar would be respected. The United States can join with France and the European Union in supporting and even helping to organize truly fair elections and in pushing back against those in Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, who will seek a quick restoration of autocracy.

Good advice.

The Obama administration came into office disdainful of President Bush’s pursuit of democracy in the Middle East. Now some senior officials may be having a change of heart, as witnessed by Secretary of State Clinton’s recent speech taking Arab states to task for not doing more to reform themselves. We shouldn’t get our hopes up — an awful lot can still go wrong in Tunisia. Certainly in the past we have seen hopes of democracy in the region dashed (Lebanon) or delayed (Iraq). But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and Tunisia offers a great opportunity for the United States to show that it will stand with the Arab people, not just with their corrupt, unelected rulers.

The Washington Post has a typically excellent editorial on the situation in Tunisia. The Post, with deputy editorial-page editor Jackson Diehl in the lead, has long been a courageous voice in the wilderness championing the embattled cause of Arab democracy. Now the Post editors write that the Jasmine Revolution presents a “historic opportunity”:

Though the revolution has no clear leaders and organized opposition parties are weak, the country is in other respects ready for a democratic transition. Its population is relatively well educated and its middle class substantial, and its women are emancipated by regional standards; Islamic fundamentalist forces are not as strong as they are in Algeria or Egypt. The constitution calls for fresh presidential elections in 60 days, and the country’s interim president indicated that calendar would be respected. The United States can join with France and the European Union in supporting and even helping to organize truly fair elections and in pushing back against those in Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world, who will seek a quick restoration of autocracy.

Good advice.

The Obama administration came into office disdainful of President Bush’s pursuit of democracy in the Middle East. Now some senior officials may be having a change of heart, as witnessed by Secretary of State Clinton’s recent speech taking Arab states to task for not doing more to reform themselves. We shouldn’t get our hopes up — an awful lot can still go wrong in Tunisia. Certainly in the past we have seen hopes of democracy in the region dashed (Lebanon) or delayed (Iraq). But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying, and Tunisia offers a great opportunity for the United States to show that it will stand with the Arab people, not just with their corrupt, unelected rulers.

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Defense Cuts Invite Someone to Test Our Will — and Power

My editorial in the new Weekly Standard criticizing plans to cut back defense, and especially to cut back ground forces, has sparked a fair amount of Internet chatter. Leaving aside the vast volume of ad hominem attacks (one of which I dealt with in my last post), much of the criticism has focused on two sentences.

Complaining about the 32 percent decline in army strength between 1991 and 2001, I wrote: “That 32 percent decline in active-duty strength severely limited our options for a military response to 9/11, practically dictating that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million.”

Then, suggesting that President Obama cannot be certain that there will not be some contingency in the near future that will require large ground forces, I wrote: “How certain is he that Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia won’t be the staging ground for another 9/11, thereby requiring another massive commitment of U.S. troops?”

Regarding the first point: critics say that Bush and his civilian and military officials decided to send a small force to Afghanistan and then Iraq not because of force constraints but because they were wedded to the ideology of the “small footprint.” There is a great deal of merit in this assertion, but even if they had been convinced that sending a large force was the way to go, they would have been hard-pressed to do so because of the post–Cold War cuts in army strength. Indeed as the Iraq war went along, it became clear that our force was too small to get the job done, but senior generals such as Casey and Abizaid did not push Rumsfeld to send more troops, in part because they thought there simply were not enough army troops available and they didn’t want to “break” the army. I recognize that they had other reasons for preferring to keep the force too small, but this was certainly a major part of their calculus.

Finally, in late 2006, Bush decided to disregard their (bad) advice and send more troops. He was able to send only five brigades when the architects of the surge had hoped for eight or nine at least. But there were only five available and even that was a stretch. Increasing our troop strength by just 30,000 required placing a huge strain on the force; many units were extended from 12-month deployments to 18 months, a long time to be in combat. Luckily, the five-brigade surge proved sufficient, but what if the situation had been so bad that we really needed eight or nine? In that case, we would have lost the war. That’s a risk we shouldn’t have to run.

Indeed, even as we were winning in Iraq, we were losing in Afghanistan, because we didn’t have enough troops to adequately garrison both countries. In the 1990s, it never occurred to force planners from the Bush and Clinton administrations that we would be making such large ground-force commitments, so they did not create an army big enough to handle such commitments. Today we are hearing the same refrain we heard back then: that there is scant chance we will fight a major ground war in the future, so why bother preparing for one? Unfortunately, history has a tendency to make a mockery of such certainties, in part because our very unreadiness to fight increases the odds that we will have to do so by encouraging potential enemies to test our will.

My editorial in the new Weekly Standard criticizing plans to cut back defense, and especially to cut back ground forces, has sparked a fair amount of Internet chatter. Leaving aside the vast volume of ad hominem attacks (one of which I dealt with in my last post), much of the criticism has focused on two sentences.

Complaining about the 32 percent decline in army strength between 1991 and 2001, I wrote: “That 32 percent decline in active-duty strength severely limited our options for a military response to 9/11, practically dictating that the forces sent to Afghanistan and Iraq would be too small to pacify two countries with a combined population of nearly 60 million.”

Then, suggesting that President Obama cannot be certain that there will not be some contingency in the near future that will require large ground forces, I wrote: “How certain is he that Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia won’t be the staging ground for another 9/11, thereby requiring another massive commitment of U.S. troops?”

Regarding the first point: critics say that Bush and his civilian and military officials decided to send a small force to Afghanistan and then Iraq not because of force constraints but because they were wedded to the ideology of the “small footprint.” There is a great deal of merit in this assertion, but even if they had been convinced that sending a large force was the way to go, they would have been hard-pressed to do so because of the post–Cold War cuts in army strength. Indeed as the Iraq war went along, it became clear that our force was too small to get the job done, but senior generals such as Casey and Abizaid did not push Rumsfeld to send more troops, in part because they thought there simply were not enough army troops available and they didn’t want to “break” the army. I recognize that they had other reasons for preferring to keep the force too small, but this was certainly a major part of their calculus.

Finally, in late 2006, Bush decided to disregard their (bad) advice and send more troops. He was able to send only five brigades when the architects of the surge had hoped for eight or nine at least. But there were only five available and even that was a stretch. Increasing our troop strength by just 30,000 required placing a huge strain on the force; many units were extended from 12-month deployments to 18 months, a long time to be in combat. Luckily, the five-brigade surge proved sufficient, but what if the situation had been so bad that we really needed eight or nine? In that case, we would have lost the war. That’s a risk we shouldn’t have to run.

Indeed, even as we were winning in Iraq, we were losing in Afghanistan, because we didn’t have enough troops to adequately garrison both countries. In the 1990s, it never occurred to force planners from the Bush and Clinton administrations that we would be making such large ground-force commitments, so they did not create an army big enough to handle such commitments. Today we are hearing the same refrain we heard back then: that there is scant chance we will fight a major ground war in the future, so why bother preparing for one? Unfortunately, history has a tendency to make a mockery of such certainties, in part because our very unreadiness to fight increases the odds that we will have to do so by encouraging potential enemies to test our will.

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Left Shamelessly Seeks to Exploit Arizona Tragedy

The shooting in Arizona is the sort of thing that obligates all sides in political debates to call a timeout. Right now our collective prayers are with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her family as she struggles for life, as well as with the families of those who were murdered in this senseless evil attack. But acting in the spirit of Rahm Emanuel’s belief that a crisis shouldn’t go to waste, some on the left are determined to exploit this tragedy to advance their own partisan interests.

One example is a post by the New Yorker’s George Packer, who writes today that “It doesn’t matter why he did it.” The “he” is the alleged Arizona murderer Jared Loughner, a mentally unstable creature who thinks that the government is imposing “mind control” on the public via “grammar.”

Packer concedes that Loughner is not an advocate of any coherent ideology or movement that has any real link to anything that is part of contemporary political debates, including the Tea Party activists. But to him that is irrelevant, because conservative activists and pundits have spent the last two years criticizing President Obama and his policies, making violence inevitable.

It is true that a few people on the margins have indulged in rhetoric that can be termed attempts at the “delegitimization” of Obama, including those who have irrationally focused on myths about the president’s birthplace and religion. But on the left it has become a piece of conventional wisdom that all conservatives are somehow guilty of rhetoric that crosses the bounds of decency. Indeed, so sensitive are Packer and those who think like him that even the public reading of the Constitution this past week by members of Congress (an exercise that included Rep. Giffords, who proudly read the First Amendment) is “an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress.”

Speaking in the same spirit, the National Jewish Democratic Council asserted: “It is fair to say — in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric — that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.”

Both Packer’s post and the NJDC statement reflect the liberal talking point of the last two years that has sought to maintain the pretense that the Tea Party and other fervent critics of Obama were nothing more than hate-filled nut cases rather than merely citizens who were asserting their constitutional right of dissent. But as the election in November proved, the Tea Party turned out in many respects to be more representative of mainstream America than the media and other elites who branded them as extremists.

It is true that the political debate in this country over the last two years has been heated, with President Obama and congressional Democrats being subjected to some particularly tough rhetoric. But the level of nastiness directed at Obama was no greater than the vicious attacks that had been leveled at President Bush, who along with Dick Cheney and other administration figures was regularly vilified not only by demonstrators but also by mainstream liberal politicians. Indeed, Packer acts as though left-wing talk-show hosts like Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz, who repeatedly seek to delegitimize Republicans and conservatives, didn’t exist. And it is not as if Republicans receive no threats; some, like Rep. Eric Cantor, the new House majority leader, have also been subjected to this sort of indecent behavior.

Despite all this, Packer and the NJDC are determined to use the tragedy in Arizona to resurrect this failed effort to besmirch conservatives and other Obama critics as violent haters. There is, after all, a precedent for this sort of thing. In 1995, President Clinton used the Oklahoma City bombing to strike back at his critics, including radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, even though Limbaugh and others critical of Clinton had nothing to do with the lunatics who perpetrated that crime.

Calls for civil debate are always appropriate, but those who wish to use this terrible crime to attempt to silence their opponents or to stifle legitimate public debate or activism are the ones who are crossing the bounds of decency today.

The shooting in Arizona is the sort of thing that obligates all sides in political debates to call a timeout. Right now our collective prayers are with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her family as she struggles for life, as well as with the families of those who were murdered in this senseless evil attack. But acting in the spirit of Rahm Emanuel’s belief that a crisis shouldn’t go to waste, some on the left are determined to exploit this tragedy to advance their own partisan interests.

One example is a post by the New Yorker’s George Packer, who writes today that “It doesn’t matter why he did it.” The “he” is the alleged Arizona murderer Jared Loughner, a mentally unstable creature who thinks that the government is imposing “mind control” on the public via “grammar.”

Packer concedes that Loughner is not an advocate of any coherent ideology or movement that has any real link to anything that is part of contemporary political debates, including the Tea Party activists. But to him that is irrelevant, because conservative activists and pundits have spent the last two years criticizing President Obama and his policies, making violence inevitable.

It is true that a few people on the margins have indulged in rhetoric that can be termed attempts at the “delegitimization” of Obama, including those who have irrationally focused on myths about the president’s birthplace and religion. But on the left it has become a piece of conventional wisdom that all conservatives are somehow guilty of rhetoric that crosses the bounds of decency. Indeed, so sensitive are Packer and those who think like him that even the public reading of the Constitution this past week by members of Congress (an exercise that included Rep. Giffords, who proudly read the First Amendment) is “an assault on the legitimacy of the Democratic Administration and Congress.”

Speaking in the same spirit, the National Jewish Democratic Council asserted: “It is fair to say — in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric — that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.”

Both Packer’s post and the NJDC statement reflect the liberal talking point of the last two years that has sought to maintain the pretense that the Tea Party and other fervent critics of Obama were nothing more than hate-filled nut cases rather than merely citizens who were asserting their constitutional right of dissent. But as the election in November proved, the Tea Party turned out in many respects to be more representative of mainstream America than the media and other elites who branded them as extremists.

It is true that the political debate in this country over the last two years has been heated, with President Obama and congressional Democrats being subjected to some particularly tough rhetoric. But the level of nastiness directed at Obama was no greater than the vicious attacks that had been leveled at President Bush, who along with Dick Cheney and other administration figures was regularly vilified not only by demonstrators but also by mainstream liberal politicians. Indeed, Packer acts as though left-wing talk-show hosts like Keith Olbermann and Ed Schultz, who repeatedly seek to delegitimize Republicans and conservatives, didn’t exist. And it is not as if Republicans receive no threats; some, like Rep. Eric Cantor, the new House majority leader, have also been subjected to this sort of indecent behavior.

Despite all this, Packer and the NJDC are determined to use the tragedy in Arizona to resurrect this failed effort to besmirch conservatives and other Obama critics as violent haters. There is, after all, a precedent for this sort of thing. In 1995, President Clinton used the Oklahoma City bombing to strike back at his critics, including radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, even though Limbaugh and others critical of Clinton had nothing to do with the lunatics who perpetrated that crime.

Calls for civil debate are always appropriate, but those who wish to use this terrible crime to attempt to silence their opponents or to stifle legitimate public debate or activism are the ones who are crossing the bounds of decency today.

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Two Very Different GOP Responses to DADT Repeal

Two stories from yesterday highlight very different reactions to the recent Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, from two prominent Republican lawmakers who both fought to keep the policy in place.

The first one focuses on John McCain, who helped lead the charge against the repeal in the Senate. Now that the repeal passed, McCain has promised to do all he can to help the troops deal with the new challenge successfully:

“I think I have to do everything I can to make sure that the impact on morale, retention, recruitment and battle effectiveness of the military is minimized as much as possible,” the Arizona Republican and Vietnam war hero said on Fox Business.

“It’s the law. I’ve got to do whatever I can to help the men and women who are serving, particularly in combat, cope with this situation.”

McCain has supported “don’t ask, don’t tell” since it was put in place under then-President Clinton, but the 2008 GOP presidential contender said last year he would consider endorsing the repeal if the military leadership decided that was best.

Compare that to the reaction of Rep. Joe Wilson, the incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee military personnel panel, who said he will work to find ways to reinstate the policy:

The new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel panel says he will hold hearings to look at the Pentagon’s plans allow openly gay people to serve, and he will look for chances to reinstate the ban lifted by Congress in December.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who became the personnel subcommittee chairman on Wednesday when the 112th Congress convened, said it was “irresponsible” for Congress to repeal the ban on openly gay service members without giving the House of Representatives time to hold hearings into what is involved in changing the law and how the change might effect current and future service members.

I understand some people are still nervous about the impact of the DADT changes, but I honestly can’t think of a worse way to respond to the repeal than what Wilson is proposing. Now that Congress has made its decision on the matter, lawmakers need to trust that the institutions of our military will handle the implementation process appropriately and responsibly. Does anyone really believe that members of Congress have a better grasp on how to impose these policy changes than the current military leadership? Read More

Two stories from yesterday highlight very different reactions to the recent Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, from two prominent Republican lawmakers who both fought to keep the policy in place.

The first one focuses on John McCain, who helped lead the charge against the repeal in the Senate. Now that the repeal passed, McCain has promised to do all he can to help the troops deal with the new challenge successfully:

“I think I have to do everything I can to make sure that the impact on morale, retention, recruitment and battle effectiveness of the military is minimized as much as possible,” the Arizona Republican and Vietnam war hero said on Fox Business.

“It’s the law. I’ve got to do whatever I can to help the men and women who are serving, particularly in combat, cope with this situation.”

McCain has supported “don’t ask, don’t tell” since it was put in place under then-President Clinton, but the 2008 GOP presidential contender said last year he would consider endorsing the repeal if the military leadership decided that was best.

Compare that to the reaction of Rep. Joe Wilson, the incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee military personnel panel, who said he will work to find ways to reinstate the policy:

The new Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s military personnel panel says he will hold hearings to look at the Pentagon’s plans allow openly gay people to serve, and he will look for chances to reinstate the ban lifted by Congress in December.

Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who became the personnel subcommittee chairman on Wednesday when the 112th Congress convened, said it was “irresponsible” for Congress to repeal the ban on openly gay service members without giving the House of Representatives time to hold hearings into what is involved in changing the law and how the change might effect current and future service members.

I understand some people are still nervous about the impact of the DADT changes, but I honestly can’t think of a worse way to respond to the repeal than what Wilson is proposing. Now that Congress has made its decision on the matter, lawmakers need to trust that the institutions of our military will handle the implementation process appropriately and responsibly. Does anyone really believe that members of Congress have a better grasp on how to impose these policy changes than the current military leadership?

Not to mention that holding hearings and investigations will only serve to complicate and drag out the process even more:

Armed services committee aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said hearings will focus on implementation issues, from housing to benefits to changes in criminal laws — which would have the effect of slowing down the change.

The Republican argument for keeping DADT in place was that our military shouldn’t have to deal with a major policy change while embroiled in two wars. Now that the ban has been lifted, McCain is taking the correct approach by offering to help ensure that the transition goes as smoothly as possible. Wilson’s proposals will only impede that effort, creating additional hurtles for our troops.

I know I keep returning to what Bill Kristol wrote in late December, but his advice to conservatives on this issue was dead-on: “Don’t fret, don’t whine.” Now that DADT’s been lifted, there’s no point in harping on it. There are more important battles out there to fight, more damaging policies that need to be repealed (ObamaCare being a perfect example). Congress had its say on the matter; now it’s time for lawmakers to step back and let our military take it from here.

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Bush’s Book Triumph

According to the UK’s Daily Mail, President George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points, has sold 2 million copies since it was released early last month. By way of comparison, President Clinton’s memoir, My Life, has sold 2.2 million since it was published in 2004. A spokesman for Crown, which published Decision Points, called the performance “remarkable” and said that he could not think of any other non-fiction hardback book that has sold even a million copies in 2010.

At the end of the Bush presidency, some people argued that no publisher worth its salt would publish Bush’s memoir — and if it did, Bush should be paid much less than Clinton. The argument was that Bush was terribly unpopular and no one would have any interest in revisiting the Bush years. There was even speculation by a few that if Decision Points leaked out prior to the 2010 mid-term election, it would damage GOP prospects of taking back the House. And there were even a few who believed that Democrats who ran against Mr. Bush after his presidency would triumph (for example, the New York Times‘s Paul Krugman thought running against Bush would be the path to victory for Jon Corzine against Chris Christie).

All of this turned out to be complete nonsense. President Bush’s memoir is extremely well done, particularly for a presidential memoir (they tend to be poorly written and not terribly revealing). It provides readers with keen insights into the decision-making process that defined the Bush presidency, from stem cells to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Freedom Agenda to AIDS and malaria initiatives and much more.

As has often been the case with this two-term president, Mr. Bush’s critics misunderestimated him. His presidency is in the process of undergoing a significant reevaluation; the success of Decision Points is simply more testimony to this.

According to the UK’s Daily Mail, President George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points, has sold 2 million copies since it was released early last month. By way of comparison, President Clinton’s memoir, My Life, has sold 2.2 million since it was published in 2004. A spokesman for Crown, which published Decision Points, called the performance “remarkable” and said that he could not think of any other non-fiction hardback book that has sold even a million copies in 2010.

At the end of the Bush presidency, some people argued that no publisher worth its salt would publish Bush’s memoir — and if it did, Bush should be paid much less than Clinton. The argument was that Bush was terribly unpopular and no one would have any interest in revisiting the Bush years. There was even speculation by a few that if Decision Points leaked out prior to the 2010 mid-term election, it would damage GOP prospects of taking back the House. And there were even a few who believed that Democrats who ran against Mr. Bush after his presidency would triumph (for example, the New York Times‘s Paul Krugman thought running against Bush would be the path to victory for Jon Corzine against Chris Christie).

All of this turned out to be complete nonsense. President Bush’s memoir is extremely well done, particularly for a presidential memoir (they tend to be poorly written and not terribly revealing). It provides readers with keen insights into the decision-making process that defined the Bush presidency, from stem cells to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the Freedom Agenda to AIDS and malaria initiatives and much more.

As has often been the case with this two-term president, Mr. Bush’s critics misunderestimated him. His presidency is in the process of undergoing a significant reevaluation; the success of Decision Points is simply more testimony to this.

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Exemptions Granted by U.S. Prove Iran Sanctions Won’t Work

Those aware of the profound nature of the threat that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose to the West and to Israel have long been assured by the Washington foreign policy establishment that if diplomacy fails to persuade Tehran to behave, international sanctions provide the leverage that can solve the problem. Well, after two years of an administration dedicated to “engagement,” even President Obama seems to know diplomacy won’t work. So that leaves us with sanctions.

Amassing an international coalition to back the sort of economic sanctions that could bring Iran to heel has proven beyond the capacity of the United States. Even if our European allies are now prepared to think about tough sanctions, the Chinese and the Russians are not. So the best President Obama could do was to get the United Nations to pass a set of mild sanctions this past year that didn’t impress the Iranians. We knew that the confidence of the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime as they faced down the West was due to its knowledge that Russia and China would never allow serious sanctions to be passed. We also knew that Tehran felt it could count on its Western European business partners to ensure that the West was sufficiently divided on the need to enforce sanctions, let alone resort to force to prevent Tehran from achieving their nuclear ambitions.

But today we learned another reason why the Iranians were so confident about their chances for victory: the United States government has been allowing a vast number of companies to evade the existing sanctions and to do literally billions of dollars in business with Iran. Read More

Those aware of the profound nature of the threat that an Iranian nuclear weapon would pose to the West and to Israel have long been assured by the Washington foreign policy establishment that if diplomacy fails to persuade Tehran to behave, international sanctions provide the leverage that can solve the problem. Well, after two years of an administration dedicated to “engagement,” even President Obama seems to know diplomacy won’t work. So that leaves us with sanctions.

Amassing an international coalition to back the sort of economic sanctions that could bring Iran to heel has proven beyond the capacity of the United States. Even if our European allies are now prepared to think about tough sanctions, the Chinese and the Russians are not. So the best President Obama could do was to get the United Nations to pass a set of mild sanctions this past year that didn’t impress the Iranians. We knew that the confidence of the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime as they faced down the West was due to its knowledge that Russia and China would never allow serious sanctions to be passed. We also knew that Tehran felt it could count on its Western European business partners to ensure that the West was sufficiently divided on the need to enforce sanctions, let alone resort to force to prevent Tehran from achieving their nuclear ambitions.

But today we learned another reason why the Iranians were so confident about their chances for victory: the United States government has been allowing a vast number of companies to evade the existing sanctions and to do literally billions of dollars in business with Iran.

A story on the front page of today’s New York Times informs us that a “little known office of the Treasury Department has granted more than 10,000 licenses” allowing Americans to trade with Iran and other blacklisted countries. The companies that have gained these exemptions include some of the biggest, such as Kraft Food and Pepsi as well as major banks. While the purpose of the statute that allows for exemptions was to provide humanitarian aid, the Obama administration has let things like chewing gum, sports equipment and even hot sauce be sold to Iran. Even worse, it has allowed an American company to “bid on a pipeline job that would have helped Iran sell natural gas to Europe, even though the United States opposes such projects. Several other American businesses were permitted to deal with foreign companies believed to be involved in terrorism or weapons proliferation.”

An administration spokesman claimed that focusing on the vast number of exemptions “misses the forest for the trees,” since “no one can doubt that we are serious about this.” But as even former Clinton administration official Stuart Eizenstat told the Times, “When you create loopholes like this that you can drive a Mack truck through, you are giving countries something for nothing, and they just laugh in their teeth. I think there have been abuses.”

The loopholes in the law are bad enough. But, as the Times reports, they are widened by the influence of politicians who seek to grant favors to local businesses and contributors. In one instance, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) intervened to force the Treasury office to allow a company owned by one of his contributors to do business with a Chinese firm that had been banned for its role in selling missile technology to Iran and Pakistan.

The point here is not so much the corruption of our political system. Rather it is that as much as we doubted the determination of our allies to enforce sanctions, the United States government has shown itself to be equally incapable of getting tough with Iran. While concerned citizens can pray that clandestine operations, such as the Stuxnet virus, will undermine Iran’s nuclear program, the fact remains that the countdown toward an Iranian nuke proceeds. Though it was common knowledge that this administration, like its predecessor led by George W. Bush, seemed to lack the will to fully confront Iran, we didn’t know just how much our own government was allowing the existing sanctions to be flouted. In light of these revelations, it’s clear that sanctions will never work to halt the march of this terror sponsor toward nuclear capability. After reading this shocking story, there’s little doubt that Ahmadinejad and his tyrannical Islamist confederates are laughing at us.

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Lessons of the Peace Process: The Missing Reflection

The final chapter of Dennis Ross’s 800-page book on the Oslo Process (The Missing Peace) is entitled “Learning the Lessons of the Past and Applying Them to the Future.” Among his lessons was a warning that the process can become “essentially an end in itself” — self-sustaining because there is never a right time to disrupt it. He concluded that less attention should have been paid to the negotiators and more to preparing their publics for compromise. With respect to the Palestinians, it is a lesson still unlearned.

The lessons the Bush administration drew from the Clinton experience were that Arafat was an obstacle to peace; the Palestinian Authority needed new leadership and democratic institutions; and peace could be achieved only in phases, not all at once. Bush endorsed a Palestinian state in 2002; arranged the three-phase Roadmap in 2003; assured Israel in 2004 of the U.S. commitment to defensible borders; facilitated the Gaza withdrawal in 2005; began moving the parties in 2006 to final status negotiations; and sponsored the Annapolis Process in 2007-08, which produced another Israeli offer of a state and another Palestinian rejection. In the meantime, the Palestinians elected Hamas — an inconvenient fact that peace processors simply ignore.

There were multiple lessons to be drawn from the successive failures of Clinton and Bush, but Obama did not pause to consider them. He appointed George Mitchell on his second day in office and sent him immediately to the Middle East on the first of an endless series of trips. He sought a total Israeli construction freeze and reciprocal Arab concessions — getting nothing from the Arabs but obtaining a one-time Israeli moratorium, which produced nothing. The administration has tried “proximity talks,” followed by “direct talks,” and now “parallel talks.”

The process has produced an endless supply of names for unproductive procedures, but not much else. It has become essentially an end in itself, and it is time, once again, to learn the lessons of the past so we can apply them to the future. Aaron David Miller and Jennifer Rubin have produced about seven between them.

But the most relevant lesson may be the one Obama disregarded when he rushed into his own peace process. In a December 2008 article, Obama’s erstwhile adviser Robert Malley urged him to slow down and reflect on “the reasons for recurring failures, the effectiveness of U.S. mediation, the wisdom and realism of seeking a comprehensive, across-the-board settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even the centrality of that conflict to US interests.”

The Palestinian goal seems less to obtain a state (they have repeatedly rejected one) than to reverse history: a return to the 1967 lines would reverse the 1967 war; a “right of return” would reverse the 1948 one; and controlling the Old City (aka East Jerusalem) would reverse the history before that. At the end of his book, Ross describes the Oval Office meeting where Arafat rejected the Clinton Parameters, with Arafat denying that the Temple ever existed in Jerusalem. Ten years later, the PA denies any Jewish connection to the Western Wall. Not only has the PA taken no steps to prepare its public for peace; its maps and media presume Israel does not exist.

In thinking about the recurring failures of the peace process, it is time to reflect on that.

The final chapter of Dennis Ross’s 800-page book on the Oslo Process (The Missing Peace) is entitled “Learning the Lessons of the Past and Applying Them to the Future.” Among his lessons was a warning that the process can become “essentially an end in itself” — self-sustaining because there is never a right time to disrupt it. He concluded that less attention should have been paid to the negotiators and more to preparing their publics for compromise. With respect to the Palestinians, it is a lesson still unlearned.

The lessons the Bush administration drew from the Clinton experience were that Arafat was an obstacle to peace; the Palestinian Authority needed new leadership and democratic institutions; and peace could be achieved only in phases, not all at once. Bush endorsed a Palestinian state in 2002; arranged the three-phase Roadmap in 2003; assured Israel in 2004 of the U.S. commitment to defensible borders; facilitated the Gaza withdrawal in 2005; began moving the parties in 2006 to final status negotiations; and sponsored the Annapolis Process in 2007-08, which produced another Israeli offer of a state and another Palestinian rejection. In the meantime, the Palestinians elected Hamas — an inconvenient fact that peace processors simply ignore.

There were multiple lessons to be drawn from the successive failures of Clinton and Bush, but Obama did not pause to consider them. He appointed George Mitchell on his second day in office and sent him immediately to the Middle East on the first of an endless series of trips. He sought a total Israeli construction freeze and reciprocal Arab concessions — getting nothing from the Arabs but obtaining a one-time Israeli moratorium, which produced nothing. The administration has tried “proximity talks,” followed by “direct talks,” and now “parallel talks.”

The process has produced an endless supply of names for unproductive procedures, but not much else. It has become essentially an end in itself, and it is time, once again, to learn the lessons of the past so we can apply them to the future. Aaron David Miller and Jennifer Rubin have produced about seven between them.

But the most relevant lesson may be the one Obama disregarded when he rushed into his own peace process. In a December 2008 article, Obama’s erstwhile adviser Robert Malley urged him to slow down and reflect on “the reasons for recurring failures, the effectiveness of U.S. mediation, the wisdom and realism of seeking a comprehensive, across-the-board settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or even the centrality of that conflict to US interests.”

The Palestinian goal seems less to obtain a state (they have repeatedly rejected one) than to reverse history: a return to the 1967 lines would reverse the 1967 war; a “right of return” would reverse the 1948 one; and controlling the Old City (aka East Jerusalem) would reverse the history before that. At the end of his book, Ross describes the Oval Office meeting where Arafat rejected the Clinton Parameters, with Arafat denying that the Temple ever existed in Jerusalem. Ten years later, the PA denies any Jewish connection to the Western Wall. Not only has the PA taken no steps to prepare its public for peace; its maps and media presume Israel does not exist.

In thinking about the recurring failures of the peace process, it is time to reflect on that.

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RE: The Bracing Realism of Richard Holbrooke

Max Boot’s appreciation of Richard Holbrooke called to mind a sense among the military officers working the Balkans problems in 1995 that Holbrooke was “old school.” Most of us had come of age professionally in the Reagan and the Bush 41 years. We were accustomed to dealing with diplomatic envoys of awe-inspiring preparedness and a certain very American style: hard to describe in few words, but entailing a reliable and irreducible simplicity when it came to our common objectives. That quality could be combined with crustiness and high-handedness, but it was not unwelcome: you could do business with it.

Clinton appointees were a different story. With their penchant for triangulation and interpolation, they tended to produce shifting objectives and temporary principles. Guidance changed regularly. There were times when the U.S. forces working the Balkans problem — I was stationed at a headquarters in Italy from 1992 to 1995 — had the unnerving sense that our political leaders in Washington didn’t have our backs.

Holbrooke, however, seemed to embody the style of an older generation of U.S. diplomats and negotiators. “Scoop Jackson Democrat” was a popular shorthand for describing him. He knew, understood, and appreciated the military way of perceiving a geopolitical problem — unlike many Clinton officials who were actively offended by the “military mindset.”

A good friend of mine went with him as a briefer on a helicopter tour of Bosnia and Croatia, early in Holbrooke’s lengthy orientation from the U.S. and NATO chains of command in the Balkans theater. When I asked afterward how the briefing went, my friend laughed and said, “Well, basically, he briefed me.” Expanding on that, he recounted that Holbrooke had broken into his spiel in the first few minutes, preferring to explain what he considered important and then engaging my friend in a level of discourse that picked his brain on complex topics.

“Guy knows what he’s doing,” concluded my friend. Not every civilian diplomat leaves that impression with the military. I haven’t agreed with all of Holbrooke’s ideas on “AfPak” since he took on that portfolio, but I am very sorry to see the Obama administration lose him. His entry onto the stage in the Balkans conflict brought a sense of order and purpose that was very welcome to the U.S. military in Europe, weary from several years of experimental and ineffective multilateralism. Richard Holbrooke was old school, in the best sense, and he will be missed.

Max Boot’s appreciation of Richard Holbrooke called to mind a sense among the military officers working the Balkans problems in 1995 that Holbrooke was “old school.” Most of us had come of age professionally in the Reagan and the Bush 41 years. We were accustomed to dealing with diplomatic envoys of awe-inspiring preparedness and a certain very American style: hard to describe in few words, but entailing a reliable and irreducible simplicity when it came to our common objectives. That quality could be combined with crustiness and high-handedness, but it was not unwelcome: you could do business with it.

Clinton appointees were a different story. With their penchant for triangulation and interpolation, they tended to produce shifting objectives and temporary principles. Guidance changed regularly. There were times when the U.S. forces working the Balkans problem — I was stationed at a headquarters in Italy from 1992 to 1995 — had the unnerving sense that our political leaders in Washington didn’t have our backs.

Holbrooke, however, seemed to embody the style of an older generation of U.S. diplomats and negotiators. “Scoop Jackson Democrat” was a popular shorthand for describing him. He knew, understood, and appreciated the military way of perceiving a geopolitical problem — unlike many Clinton officials who were actively offended by the “military mindset.”

A good friend of mine went with him as a briefer on a helicopter tour of Bosnia and Croatia, early in Holbrooke’s lengthy orientation from the U.S. and NATO chains of command in the Balkans theater. When I asked afterward how the briefing went, my friend laughed and said, “Well, basically, he briefed me.” Expanding on that, he recounted that Holbrooke had broken into his spiel in the first few minutes, preferring to explain what he considered important and then engaging my friend in a level of discourse that picked his brain on complex topics.

“Guy knows what he’s doing,” concluded my friend. Not every civilian diplomat leaves that impression with the military. I haven’t agreed with all of Holbrooke’s ideas on “AfPak” since he took on that portfolio, but I am very sorry to see the Obama administration lose him. His entry onto the stage in the Balkans conflict brought a sense of order and purpose that was very welcome to the U.S. military in Europe, weary from several years of experimental and ineffective multilateralism. Richard Holbrooke was old school, in the best sense, and he will be missed.

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The Bracing Realism of Richard Holbrooke

Richard Holbrooke was, as the obits have it, a “giant of diplomacy.” Indeed, he has a claim to being one of the most influential diplomats in American history who never became secretary of state — a job he should have been given by President Clinton. He is edged out by George Kennan in the annals of American diplomatic history, but his achievement in hammering out the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the war in Bosnia is as impressive as any feat of negotiations in the post–World War II era.

He was much less successful in his latest job as the administration’s chief “AfPak” envoy. Why is that? Part of the reason was his mistake in alienating Hamid Karzai; an American envoy’s job is to talk tough behind the scenes but to preserve relations with an important allied head of state. Holbrooke, inexplicably, failed to do that. But most of the blame does not accrue to Holbrooke. The problem was that in Bosnia, the skillful use of force had set the conditions for diplomatic success — something that has not yet occurred in Afghanistan.

By the time Holbrooke was called upon to negotiate an end to the Bosnian fighting, the combatants had been exhausted and Serbian attempts at aggrandizement had been stymied, first by a Croatian offensive, then by NATO bombing. They were ready to cut a deal. Not so the Taliban and their sponsors in Islamabad. General David Petraeus has only now launched in earnest the military operations necessary to frustrate Taliban designs and compel elements of the group to negotiate or face annihilation. Without the effective use of force, not even a diplomat as supremely skilled as Holbrooke could achieve success.

A personal note: I knew Holbrooke slightly and liked him. I realize he had a reputation in Washington for being abrasive and egotistical; that reputation probably cost him the secretary of state job that he coveted and had earned. But effective diplomats can’t afford to be shrinking violets. Sure, Holbrooke had an outsize personality, but so did Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and other diplomatic superstars. Like them, Holbrooke also had enormous reservoirs of intelligence , savvy, and learning. And like them, he was a skilled writer; his memoir of the Dayton peace process was a classic. One of many regrets about his premature passing is that the world will be denied his memoirs.

He was a liberal but a tough-minded one — one of the last prominent hawks in the Democratic Party. He was, in short, a “neo-liberal,” which isn’t so far removed from a “neo-conservative,” a label that I teased him with and that he naturally resisted. The country as a whole will miss him, and so in particular will the Democratic Party, which could use more of his bracing realism in its counsels.

Richard Holbrooke was, as the obits have it, a “giant of diplomacy.” Indeed, he has a claim to being one of the most influential diplomats in American history who never became secretary of state — a job he should have been given by President Clinton. He is edged out by George Kennan in the annals of American diplomatic history, but his achievement in hammering out the 1995 Dayton Accords ending the war in Bosnia is as impressive as any feat of negotiations in the post–World War II era.

He was much less successful in his latest job as the administration’s chief “AfPak” envoy. Why is that? Part of the reason was his mistake in alienating Hamid Karzai; an American envoy’s job is to talk tough behind the scenes but to preserve relations with an important allied head of state. Holbrooke, inexplicably, failed to do that. But most of the blame does not accrue to Holbrooke. The problem was that in Bosnia, the skillful use of force had set the conditions for diplomatic success — something that has not yet occurred in Afghanistan.

By the time Holbrooke was called upon to negotiate an end to the Bosnian fighting, the combatants had been exhausted and Serbian attempts at aggrandizement had been stymied, first by a Croatian offensive, then by NATO bombing. They were ready to cut a deal. Not so the Taliban and their sponsors in Islamabad. General David Petraeus has only now launched in earnest the military operations necessary to frustrate Taliban designs and compel elements of the group to negotiate or face annihilation. Without the effective use of force, not even a diplomat as supremely skilled as Holbrooke could achieve success.

A personal note: I knew Holbrooke slightly and liked him. I realize he had a reputation in Washington for being abrasive and egotistical; that reputation probably cost him the secretary of state job that he coveted and had earned. But effective diplomats can’t afford to be shrinking violets. Sure, Holbrooke had an outsize personality, but so did Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, and other diplomatic superstars. Like them, Holbrooke also had enormous reservoirs of intelligence , savvy, and learning. And like them, he was a skilled writer; his memoir of the Dayton peace process was a classic. One of many regrets about his premature passing is that the world will be denied his memoirs.

He was a liberal but a tough-minded one — one of the last prominent hawks in the Democratic Party. He was, in short, a “neo-liberal,” which isn’t so far removed from a “neo-conservative,” a label that I teased him with and that he naturally resisted. The country as a whole will miss him, and so in particular will the Democratic Party, which could use more of his bracing realism in its counsels.

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RE: Reassessing the Bush Presidency

I am so pleased that Pete linked to the video of Dick Cheney’s remarks. If you read the mainstream news accounts, you would have the sense that all he did was take a gentle poke at Obama — declaring the presidential center to be the “only-shovel ready project” in the country. What is interesting is that most of the seven minutes of remarks focused on George W. Bush, the man — a self-effacing, decent, “stand-up guy,” as Cheney described him. It’s important and not incidental to his legacy for a few reasons.

It is, quite frankly, a model of presidential behavior that has become obscured — by Clinton’s personal scandals, by Nixon’s criminality, and by Obama’s stand-offish partisanship. We expect our presidents to rise above the fray and not return invective in kind. Bush did this, unlike his successor, and it is a standard by which we should evaluate candidates and presidents.

Moreover, it was a fundamental part of his presidency and the substantive decisions he made. Why did he make such an effort to distinguish Islamic terrorists from ordinary, loyal American Muslims? Why did he refuse to cut and run in Iraq? Why did he hold allies dear and stand up to despots? It all comes, I would suggest, from a inner decency based on his religious faith. This is not to say that nonreligious people can’t be just as honorable. That’s not the point. The issue here is to understand why Bush would, for example, refuse to give in to anti-immigration sentiment, would put so much stock in faith-based programs, and would make the freedom agenda central to his foreign policy. All of these are reflections of his core personality.

Why was he so misunderstood? It wasn’t simply that liberal critics despised his policies. It is that they never “got” or took seriously his inner motives. They preferred to concoct arm-chair-psychology fictions about his relationship with his father or to paint him as a know-nothing.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the media didn’t report on the central message of Cheney’s speech. Many of those reporters consider it a fluff or boilerplate message. But once again, they miss the most important point — the explanation for who Bush is and why he did what he did. The media has a remarkable ability to ignore the obvious.

I am so pleased that Pete linked to the video of Dick Cheney’s remarks. If you read the mainstream news accounts, you would have the sense that all he did was take a gentle poke at Obama — declaring the presidential center to be the “only-shovel ready project” in the country. What is interesting is that most of the seven minutes of remarks focused on George W. Bush, the man — a self-effacing, decent, “stand-up guy,” as Cheney described him. It’s important and not incidental to his legacy for a few reasons.

It is, quite frankly, a model of presidential behavior that has become obscured — by Clinton’s personal scandals, by Nixon’s criminality, and by Obama’s stand-offish partisanship. We expect our presidents to rise above the fray and not return invective in kind. Bush did this, unlike his successor, and it is a standard by which we should evaluate candidates and presidents.

Moreover, it was a fundamental part of his presidency and the substantive decisions he made. Why did he make such an effort to distinguish Islamic terrorists from ordinary, loyal American Muslims? Why did he refuse to cut and run in Iraq? Why did he hold allies dear and stand up to despots? It all comes, I would suggest, from a inner decency based on his religious faith. This is not to say that nonreligious people can’t be just as honorable. That’s not the point. The issue here is to understand why Bush would, for example, refuse to give in to anti-immigration sentiment, would put so much stock in faith-based programs, and would make the freedom agenda central to his foreign policy. All of these are reflections of his core personality.

Why was he so misunderstood? It wasn’t simply that liberal critics despised his policies. It is that they never “got” or took seriously his inner motives. They preferred to concoct arm-chair-psychology fictions about his relationship with his father or to paint him as a know-nothing.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the media didn’t report on the central message of Cheney’s speech. Many of those reporters consider it a fluff or boilerplate message. But once again, they miss the most important point — the explanation for who Bush is and why he did what he did. The media has a remarkable ability to ignore the obvious.

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Economic Growth as a Way out of Debt

The New York Times today has a front-page news analysis that reports on a startling (at least at the Times) idea to cut the deficit and thus tame the rapidly rising national debt: economic growth. Who knew?

This has, of course, been tried with great success before. In 1946, the national debt stood at $269 billion. That was almost 130 percent of GDP. Fifteen years later, the debt had risen a little (to $288 billion), but that was only 56 percent of GDP, thanks to the enormous growth in the American economy in the post-war era.

As the Times article points out, economic growth was one of the major components behind eliminating the deficits in the 1990s. The growth produced a gusher of federal tax revenues, which rose from $1.031 trillion in 1990 to $2.025 trillion in 2000, a 96 percent increase. But it was spending restraint after the election of a Republican Congress in 1994 that really turned the trick. Federal outlays were $1.460 trillion in 1994 and $1.789 trillion in 2000, a mere 22 percent increase, while federal revenues rose 61 percent in those years. A similar ratio of revenue growth to spending growth would bring the deficits down to a manageable level within a very few years.

The author, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, is discussing a new plan, released today, that has been developed by the Bipartisan Policy Center under co-chairs Alice Rivlin, a former head the OMB under President Clinton, and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici. It can be found here. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it has some sensible suggestions about taxes and one terrible idea, a 6.5 percent “Debt Reduction Sales Tax.” As money is fungible, there is no way to dedicate a portion of federal revenues to debt reduction. It would simply be another federal tax, and a regressive one at that.

Leonhardt acknowledges that the tax code is a big part of the problem:

Today’s tax code is a thicket of deductions, credits and loopholes that force people to change their behavior and waste time trying to avoid too large of a tax bill. A tax code with fewer deductions and lower rates — which, to be clear, is not the same thing as a tax cut — would instead let businesses and households focus on being as productive as possible. The potential to make good money would drive more decisions, and the ability to qualify for a tax break would drive fewer.

If this sounds familiar, it is because this was the very heart of Reaganomics 30 years ago. It is amusing that Leonhardt takes pains to ensure Times readers, before they come down with the vapors, that not all tax-rate reductions are tax cuts.

Along with the Bowles-Simpson plan, this one is worthy of study.

The New York Times today has a front-page news analysis that reports on a startling (at least at the Times) idea to cut the deficit and thus tame the rapidly rising national debt: economic growth. Who knew?

This has, of course, been tried with great success before. In 1946, the national debt stood at $269 billion. That was almost 130 percent of GDP. Fifteen years later, the debt had risen a little (to $288 billion), but that was only 56 percent of GDP, thanks to the enormous growth in the American economy in the post-war era.

As the Times article points out, economic growth was one of the major components behind eliminating the deficits in the 1990s. The growth produced a gusher of federal tax revenues, which rose from $1.031 trillion in 1990 to $2.025 trillion in 2000, a 96 percent increase. But it was spending restraint after the election of a Republican Congress in 1994 that really turned the trick. Federal outlays were $1.460 trillion in 1994 and $1.789 trillion in 2000, a mere 22 percent increase, while federal revenues rose 61 percent in those years. A similar ratio of revenue growth to spending growth would bring the deficits down to a manageable level within a very few years.

The author, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt, is discussing a new plan, released today, that has been developed by the Bipartisan Policy Center under co-chairs Alice Rivlin, a former head the OMB under President Clinton, and former Republican Senator Pete Domenici. It can be found here. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it has some sensible suggestions about taxes and one terrible idea, a 6.5 percent “Debt Reduction Sales Tax.” As money is fungible, there is no way to dedicate a portion of federal revenues to debt reduction. It would simply be another federal tax, and a regressive one at that.

Leonhardt acknowledges that the tax code is a big part of the problem:

Today’s tax code is a thicket of deductions, credits and loopholes that force people to change their behavior and waste time trying to avoid too large of a tax bill. A tax code with fewer deductions and lower rates — which, to be clear, is not the same thing as a tax cut — would instead let businesses and households focus on being as productive as possible. The potential to make good money would drive more decisions, and the ability to qualify for a tax break would drive fewer.

If this sounds familiar, it is because this was the very heart of Reaganomics 30 years ago. It is amusing that Leonhardt takes pains to ensure Times readers, before they come down with the vapors, that not all tax-rate reductions are tax cuts.

Along with the Bowles-Simpson plan, this one is worthy of study.

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He’s Perfect — Why Change?

Jonathan Last’s must-read piece on Obama eschews exotic or fanciful explanations for the president’s mindset and precipitous fall to earth. It’s not anti-colonialism that motivates him, or imitation of his absent father that propelled him to the White House. He’s not a secret Muslim. He is, rather, an egomaniac, Last posits. He’s got a ton of evidence for this, mostly in the form of cringe-inducing statements from Obama’s own lips.

This raises a few critical issues. First, the vanity explanation accounts for his super-sensitivity to criticism. Nothing provokes Obama like doubts about his sincerity (the trigger for his belated outburst against Rev. Jeremiah Wright) or his wisdom. He has so many “enemies,” as he referred to Republicans — Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce, Rush Limbaugh, the news cycle, etc. — because he was so unaccustomed to criticism and so removed from rational evaluation of his abilities and positions. No wonder he is so angry at, and disdainful of, the American people. They are, unlike the sycophants who helped manufacture The Ego, no longer enamored of him. Nor is this president given to self-deprecating humor, for not even self-criticism in jest is tolerable.

Second, the colossal failure of his international endeavors, specifically his Muslim Outreach, is traceable to the faulty notion that one can construct a nation’s foreign policy based on the persona of its president. It sounds daft — why would the Israelis and Palestinian simply reach a deal because Obama has arrived on the scene? Why would the mullahs be enticed to curb their nuclear and hegemonic ambitions because he allegedly “understands” the Muslim World? The Ego has made hash out of foreign policy because he believes, as the saying goes, that the world revolves around him. He can’t imagine that rivals, foes, and allies are immune to his charms.

Most important, the vanity surplus would be less of a hindrance if he were an innovative policy wonk or a savvy analyst of the American electorate. This was the Bill Clinton model — an outsized ego and an utter lack of self-discipline, but an inventive mind able to zig-zag his way through choppy political waters. His intuitive understanding of his fellow citizens allowed him to maintain a bond with the American people. If Obama were as intellectually nimble as Clinton or as simpatico with the American people as Ronald Reagan or as steeped in common sense as Harry Truman, he wouldn’t be in such dire straits. It’s not merely the vanity that’s the problem. His undoing has been vanity that is divorced from his abilities and unaccompanied by executive skills or a well-developed knowledge of economics and international relations.

If Obama is ungracious (toward his predecessor), oblivious (to the desires of the voters), and frustrated (by the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ refusal to make a deal under his auspices), it is because he is unable to grasp that it’s not all about him. But the good news is that, as he reportedly did in the Senate, he may conclude that being president is really “so boring.” (He certainly doesn’t seem to be having fun, does he?) In that case, he might not really care all that much about trying to ingratiate himself with the voters. It very well might not be “worth it” in his mind to temper his views in order to get a second term. Freed from the burdens of the presidency he then might do what he loves best — write books and give speeches about himself. Or maybe he can give speeches about writing books about himself.

Jonathan Last’s must-read piece on Obama eschews exotic or fanciful explanations for the president’s mindset and precipitous fall to earth. It’s not anti-colonialism that motivates him, or imitation of his absent father that propelled him to the White House. He’s not a secret Muslim. He is, rather, an egomaniac, Last posits. He’s got a ton of evidence for this, mostly in the form of cringe-inducing statements from Obama’s own lips.

This raises a few critical issues. First, the vanity explanation accounts for his super-sensitivity to criticism. Nothing provokes Obama like doubts about his sincerity (the trigger for his belated outburst against Rev. Jeremiah Wright) or his wisdom. He has so many “enemies,” as he referred to Republicans — Fox News, the Chamber of Commerce, Rush Limbaugh, the news cycle, etc. — because he was so unaccustomed to criticism and so removed from rational evaluation of his abilities and positions. No wonder he is so angry at, and disdainful of, the American people. They are, unlike the sycophants who helped manufacture The Ego, no longer enamored of him. Nor is this president given to self-deprecating humor, for not even self-criticism in jest is tolerable.

Second, the colossal failure of his international endeavors, specifically his Muslim Outreach, is traceable to the faulty notion that one can construct a nation’s foreign policy based on the persona of its president. It sounds daft — why would the Israelis and Palestinian simply reach a deal because Obama has arrived on the scene? Why would the mullahs be enticed to curb their nuclear and hegemonic ambitions because he allegedly “understands” the Muslim World? The Ego has made hash out of foreign policy because he believes, as the saying goes, that the world revolves around him. He can’t imagine that rivals, foes, and allies are immune to his charms.

Most important, the vanity surplus would be less of a hindrance if he were an innovative policy wonk or a savvy analyst of the American electorate. This was the Bill Clinton model — an outsized ego and an utter lack of self-discipline, but an inventive mind able to zig-zag his way through choppy political waters. His intuitive understanding of his fellow citizens allowed him to maintain a bond with the American people. If Obama were as intellectually nimble as Clinton or as simpatico with the American people as Ronald Reagan or as steeped in common sense as Harry Truman, he wouldn’t be in such dire straits. It’s not merely the vanity that’s the problem. His undoing has been vanity that is divorced from his abilities and unaccompanied by executive skills or a well-developed knowledge of economics and international relations.

If Obama is ungracious (toward his predecessor), oblivious (to the desires of the voters), and frustrated (by the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ refusal to make a deal under his auspices), it is because he is unable to grasp that it’s not all about him. But the good news is that, as he reportedly did in the Senate, he may conclude that being president is really “so boring.” (He certainly doesn’t seem to be having fun, does he?) In that case, he might not really care all that much about trying to ingratiate himself with the voters. It very well might not be “worth it” in his mind to temper his views in order to get a second term. Freed from the burdens of the presidency he then might do what he loves best — write books and give speeches about himself. Or maybe he can give speeches about writing books about himself.

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Verging on Irrelevancy

When looking for hopeful signs of a move to the center by the Obama administration, observers point to the about-face on the 2011 troop-withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan and to possible acquiescence in extending the Bush tax cuts. But is there progress on the latter front?

The New York Post editors observe:

Meanwhile, in the White House, the left hand seems not to know what the far left hand is doing. Within hours yesterday, senior adviser David Axelrod gave contradictory statements on the question of extending the Bush-era tax cuts. …

We have to deal with the world as we find it,” Axelrod told the Huffington Post. “The world of what it takes to get this done.” He continued: “There are concerns [over multiple temporary extensions for the wealthy], but I don’t want to trade away security for the middle class in order to make that point.” …

Except, Axelrod then did a 180-degree turn, later telling National Journal: “We’re willing to discuss how we move forward. But we believe that it’s imperative to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, and don’t believe we can afford a permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthy.”

It’s not hard to understand why “Axelrod [is] talking out of both sides of his face.” The White House doesn’t know what it wants to do and what it can get away with. Message control has broken down, so aides now freelance, trying to push the president in one direction or another. Not only does this create uncertainty for investors, employers, and consumers, but it also suggests that the president is an observer in his own administration.

Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum; with a shrinking presidency, others (advisers, Congress, 2012 contenders, wanna-be primary opponents, etc.) will rush forward to fill the void. After the 1994 midterms, Clinton memorably declared that the president was still relevant — and then proved it to be the case. So Obama had better get out of his funk and decide which direction he wants to go in the next two years. Otherwise, he will become increasingly irrelevant at home and dangerously ineffective overseas.

When looking for hopeful signs of a move to the center by the Obama administration, observers point to the about-face on the 2011 troop-withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan and to possible acquiescence in extending the Bush tax cuts. But is there progress on the latter front?

The New York Post editors observe:

Meanwhile, in the White House, the left hand seems not to know what the far left hand is doing. Within hours yesterday, senior adviser David Axelrod gave contradictory statements on the question of extending the Bush-era tax cuts. …

We have to deal with the world as we find it,” Axelrod told the Huffington Post. “The world of what it takes to get this done.” He continued: “There are concerns [over multiple temporary extensions for the wealthy], but I don’t want to trade away security for the middle class in order to make that point.” …

Except, Axelrod then did a 180-degree turn, later telling National Journal: “We’re willing to discuss how we move forward. But we believe that it’s imperative to extend the tax cuts for the middle class, and don’t believe we can afford a permanent extension of tax cuts for the wealthy.”

It’s not hard to understand why “Axelrod [is] talking out of both sides of his face.” The White House doesn’t know what it wants to do and what it can get away with. Message control has broken down, so aides now freelance, trying to push the president in one direction or another. Not only does this create uncertainty for investors, employers, and consumers, but it also suggests that the president is an observer in his own administration.

Like nature, politics abhors a vacuum; with a shrinking presidency, others (advisers, Congress, 2012 contenders, wanna-be primary opponents, etc.) will rush forward to fill the void. After the 1994 midterms, Clinton memorably declared that the president was still relevant — and then proved it to be the case. So Obama had better get out of his funk and decide which direction he wants to go in the next two years. Otherwise, he will become increasingly irrelevant at home and dangerously ineffective overseas.

Read Less




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