Commentary Magazine


Topic: foreign policy

On Cuba, Rubio Runs Rings Around Obama

The week started off just fine for Marco Rubio, took a hit on Tuesday with the announcement that Jeb Bush is pushing forward with a presidential candidacy, and then improved vastly when the Florida senator got a gift from President Obama yesterday. Obama announced his move toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime, and though plenty of Republicans oppose this new policy, Rubio takes center stage for several reasons.

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The week started off just fine for Marco Rubio, took a hit on Tuesday with the announcement that Jeb Bush is pushing forward with a presidential candidacy, and then improved vastly when the Florida senator got a gift from President Obama yesterday. Obama announced his move toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime, and though plenty of Republicans oppose this new policy, Rubio takes center stage for several reasons.

First, Rubio’s Cuban heritage–his parents fled the island–gives the senator’s objections an authenticity most others lack. This is personal for him. Second, it turns the subject back not only to foreign policy, on which Rubio is more fluent than virtually any other elected politician in the country right now, but also on a specific subject that is right in his wheelhouse. Rubio’s expertise means that while Obama is stumbling through statements filled with straw men and defensive and shallow rationalizations, Rubio can step up to the microphone with almost no notice and run circles around Obama.

Which he did. Here is the video of Rubio’s press conference after yesterday’s announcement. The confidence and the command of the issues are almost unfair to Obama: the president is just completely out of his league on this. He followed up with an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which he points out that while there is a serious discussion to be had about the efficacy of America’s prevailing Cuba policy, that doesn’t justify what is obviously a naïve, poorly negotiated deal (an Obama specialty). Rubio writes:

The entire policy shift is based on the illusion—in fact, on the lie—that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people. Cuba already enjoys access to commerce, money and goods from other nations, and yet the Cuban people are still not free. They are not free because the regime—just as it does with every aspect of life—manipulates and controls to its own advantage all currency that flows into the island. More economic engagement with the U.S. means that the regime’s grip on power will be strengthened for decades to come—dashing the Cuban people’s hopes for freedom and democracy.

Of course, like all Americans, I am overjoyed for Alan Gross and his family after his release from captivity after five years. This American had been a hostage of the regime, and it was through his imprisonment that the Cuban regime again showed the world its cruel nature.

But the policy changes announced by President Obama will have far-reaching consequences for the American people. President Obama made it clear that if you take an American hostage and are willing to hold him long enough, you may not only get your own prisoners released from U.S. jails—as three Cuban spies were—you may actually win lasting policy concessions from the U.S. as well. This precedent places a new price on the head of every American, and it gives rogue leaders around the world more clear-cut evidence of this president’s naïveté and his willingness to abandon fundamental principles in a desperate attempt to burnish his legacy. There can be no doubt that the regime in Tehran is watching closely, and it will try to exploit President Obama’s naïveté as the Iranian leaders pursue concessions from the U.S. in their quest to establish themselves as a nuclear power.

Obama’s lack of knowledge about the world, and his refusal to take advice from anyone outside an inner circle that at this point could fit in a phone booth, is on full display in moments like this. And it also holds back his own side in these debates. As Rubio writes, there really is a debate to be had on U.S.-Cuba relations. But Obama is so clumsy and unknowledgeable that you wouldn’t know his side of this argument has merit. (It’s one reason why when Obama goes on speaking tours to promote a policy, that policy inevitably drops in popularity.)

Democrats need someone who understands foreign policy to step in at such times. Obama is just eroding whatever credibility they had.

Another reason Rubio benefits from this is that Obama needs Congress for some of the more significant parts of this policy shift. He needs the Senate, for example, to confirm an ambassador to Cuba. Rubio said he expects to be chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee next session. His message to the administration: “I anticipate we’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated and how you’ll get an embassy funded.”

Republicans should not underestimate how much this helps Rubio maintain a high profile in opposition to Obama. The president has two years left, and for those two years Rubio will be the most important figure standing between Obama and a yet another of his capitulations to foreign dictators. Even if Rubio doesn’t run for president, he will establish his power base in the Senate and put himself in line to set the GOP’s congressional tone on foreign policy. And Democrats will simply have to produce a better foreign-policy mind than Obama’s if they’re going to compete with him.

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The GOP’s Resurging Public Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feinstein Putting Petty Politics above National Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Obama’s Team, Personnel Is Not Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Micromanaging the Managers

In that hallowed Washington ritual known as the trial balloon, the White House today leaked word that Ashton Carter would probably be nominated as the next secretary of defense–assuming no one disapproves too much. And no one has, at least not yet.

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In that hallowed Washington ritual known as the trial balloon, the White House today leaked word that Ashton Carter would probably be nominated as the next secretary of defense–assuming no one disapproves too much. And no one has, at least not yet.

Ash Carter, whom I know slightly, is eminently qualified for the post, having served previously in the Obama administration as deputy secretary of defense and before that as under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. He earned high marks in both posts as a highly competent technocrat.

A physics Ph.D., Rhodes Scholar, and longtime Harvard professor, Carter is a rare commodity in a couple of important respects. First, despite his storied academic pedigree, he is said to be a tough manager who has a blunt-spoken way of expressing things, cutting through the usual bureaucratic obfuscation. Second, in a party that has increasingly leaned to the left, he is also a hawkish Democrat who once advocated a preemptive attack on North Korean missile sites–a suggestion too hawkish even for the George W. Bush administration.

Carter is a fine choice for secretary of defense; in fact he or Michele Flournoy should have gotten the job in the first place when Leon Panetta stepped down, instead of Chuck Hagel. But his selection will hardly fix what ails this administration’s abysmal foreign policy. In fact he may not be able to make much of an impact on the big policy questions at all, which appear to be entirely determined by the president in cooperation with a small coterie of White House aides who lack Carter’s defense-policy qualifications: officials such as Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, and Ben Rhodes. All three of Obama’s secretaries of defense complained about “micromanagement” from the White House and Carter, assuming he is nominated and confirmed, is probably going to be no different.

This administration will not come up with a course calibration on Syria, ISIS, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Israel, or a host of other topics where policy has gotten seriously off-kilter unless the president has a change of heart about his dovish ways. That is possible–Jimmy Carter had such a change of heart after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan–but so far Obama’s ideology has remained remarkably resistant to reality-based course corrections, and there is little reason to think that Ash Carter will have any more luck talking sense to the president than Hagel, Panetta, or Bob Gates did. Especially not if the White House coterie, backed by Vice President Biden, continues to give the president spectacularly bad advice.

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Obama Scapegoating Hagel

In describing why President Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, one senior official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “He wasn’t up to the job.”

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In describing why President Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, one senior official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “He wasn’t up to the job.”

I’m no fan of Mr. Hagel, but this comment is a bit much, don’t you think? After all, it wasn’t Mr. Hagel who referred to ISIS as the “jayvee team,” or erased the “red line” related to Syrian use of chemical weapons, or has been overmatched time and time again by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It wasn’t Mr. Hagel who failed to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, who failed to aid the Syrian Free Army when people like David Petraeus were urging that it be done, who sat on the sideline during the Iranian “Green Revolution” in Iran, who has so badly mishandled our relations with Egypt and Israel, and on whose watch Libya has collapsed. I could go on, but you get the point.

The problem with Mr. Obama’s national-security record is Mr. Obama, not Chuck Hagel. He is a chief executive of unrivaled incompetence; and for all of Chuck Hagel’s failings, he is virtually a Churchillian figure compared to the president he served.

Chuck Hagel is just the most recent in a long string of excuses and scapegoats offered up by Barack Obama and his courtiers. It’s always somebody else’s fault, never the president’s. Obama & Co. may believe Hagel wasn’t up to the job. But more and more of the nation recognizes that the real ineptitude is found in the former community-organizer-turned-commander-in-chief. Firing Chuck Hagel won’t change any of that.

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Is a National-Security Shakeup Coming?

So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

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So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

It is easy to see why Hagel has been jettisoned: the administration needs a scapegoat for the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy since the Carter administration. With ISIS and Putin on the march, while U.S. military capabilities deteriorate due to budget cuts, it has been pretty obvious for some time that the national-security team needed a dramatic overhaul. But firing Hagel is not going to fix the problems–not by a longshot. In fact the very reason he was so expendable was because he had so little influence: Unlike Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, or Valerie Jarrett, he was not a White House insider.

Instead Hagel (like General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was the good soldier, plodding ahead to carry out the president’s orders without question–no matter how little sense those orders made. As the New York Times noted: Hagel “spent his time on the job largely carrying out Mr. Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back American troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback.”

Indeed one of the few times that Hagel dared in public (or probably in private) to talk back to the president, he earned the ire of Obama and his loyalists for telling the truth. While Obama earlier this year was denigrating ISIS as the “JV team,” Hagel was calling them an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and saying “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” As the Times drily notes, “White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful”–Washington code words for the fact that Obama’s top aides were infuriated by Hagel’s truth-telling.

The immediate question is whether Obama will be able to stomach a stronger personality in the secretary of defense job–someone like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta. If so, Michele Flournoy or Ash Carter, both of whom served at the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration, could fill the job description. But if Obama were truly intent on a radical break with some of his failed policies he would opt for a true outsider like Joe Lieberman or David Petraeus or John Lehman.

Regardless of who fills the job at the Pentagon–or for that matter at State–the reality remains that in this administration all critical decisions are made in the White House by the president with a handful of loyalists who have little independent standing, knowledge, or credibility in national-security affairs. This has been a problem ever since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the point at which Obama stopped listening to independent advice and started acting on his own ideological worldview predicated on downsizing the American armed forces and retreating from the world.

If this were a parliamentary system, Obama would long ago have lost a vote of “no confidence” and been forced to step down. But because it’s a presidential system he will remain in power two more years. The firing of Hagel will be a positive step forward only if it signals a complete rethink of the president’s foreign policy a la Carter’s conversion to become a born-again hawk after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

The test of that will be to see how Obama deals with Iran now that nuclear talks have reached an impasse after a year. Will Obama allow the mullahs to drag out negotiations indefinitely while continuing to enjoy sanctions relief? Or will he clamp down with extra-tough sanctions and implement a plan to roll back Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen? My bet is that not much has changed in the president’s thinking beyond his desire to see a new, more credible face at the Pentagon, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

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George Will’s Dizzying Shift on the Iraq War

In his column today, George Will writes this:

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In his column today, George Will writes this:

The last eleven years have been filled with hard learning. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history, coincided with mission creep (“nation building”) in Afghanistan. Both strengthened what can be called the Republicans’ John Quincy Adams faction: America ”goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

On Iraq, he’s simply wrong. Because of the success of the surge, the Iraq war–unlike, say, the Vietnam War–was won. (For the record, the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War was around 58,000; in the Iraq War, it was around 4,500.) As Charles Krauthammer wrote:

Al-Qaeda in Iraq had been routed, driven to humiliating defeat by an Anbar Awakening of Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the infidel Americans. Even more remarkably, the Shiite militias had been taken down, with U.S. backing, by the forces of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They crushed the Sadr militias from Basra to Sadr City.

Al-Qaeda decimated. A Shiite prime minister taking a decisively nationalist line. Iraqi Sunnis ready to integrate into a new national government. U.S. casualties at their lowest ebb in the entire war. Elections approaching. Obama was left with but a single task: Negotiate a new status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) to reinforce these gains and create a strategic partnership with the Arab world’s only democracy.

But as Krauthammer argues, President Obama blew it by failing to secure the SOFA; and in blowing it, Mr. Obama lost the war. That failure is not attributable to what happened in 2003; it’s attributable to what happened in 2011.

I do want to add a few more thoughts on George Will and the Iraq war. Prior to it, there was no more articulate advocate for the war. In an October 8, 2002 interview with PBS’s Charlie Rose, for example, Will said:

I think the answer is that we believe, with reason, that democracy’s infectious. We’ve seen it. We saw it happen in Eastern Europe. It’s just — people reached a critical mass of mendacity under those regimes of the East block, and it exploded. And I do believe that you will see [in the Middle East] a ripple effect, a happy domino effect, if you will, of democracy knocking over these medieval tyrannies . . . Condoleezza Rice is quite right. She says there is an enormous condescension in saying that somehow the Arab world is just not up to democracy. And there’s an enormous ahistorical error when people say, “Well, we can’t go into war with Iraq until we know what postwar Iraq’s going to look like.” In 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, did we have a clear idea what we were going to do with postwar Germany? With postwar Japan? Of course not. We made it up as we went along, and we did a very good job. . . .

Mr. Will applauded bringing “instability” to the Middle East and countries like Egypt. “What is so wonderful about the stability of Egypt?” he asked. And when asked, “Do you think [Iraq] will be a quick and easy conflict, if it comes to that,” Mr. Will answered, “Fairly quick, yes.”

Will then said this about Afghanistan and nation-building:

[Afghanistan is], to put it mildly, a work in progress. The president, I think, admits this. This was part of his education as president, to say that his hostility to nation-building was radically revised when he saw what a failed nation, Afghanistan, a vacuum, gets filled with. Political nature abhors a vacuum, and when it fills up with the Taliban and the leakage of violence to these private groups, essentially, like al Qaeda, then you have to say, “Well, I’ve revised that. We’re going to have to get into the nation-building business.”

Will also distinguished between Afghanistan and Iraq when it comes to nation-building:

It’s different in Iraq because Iraq is a big, rich country with a middle class, with universities. . . .

He added:

But you know, regime change didn’t just arise as a subject recently. We did it in Grenada, Panama, Serbia. Would the world be better off if Milosevic were back in Serbia? Noriega in Panama? I don’t think so.

Mr. Will is a marvelous writer who helped shape my own political and philosophical views. I admire him, and it’s certainly fine for people to change their mind. But I do believe that now that he’s claiming Iraq is “the worst foreign-policy decision in U.S. history,” Will might want to admit from time to time that he believed, pre-Iraq war, it was a terrific and necessary idea.

Beyond that, it might be helpful, and it would certainly be interesting, for Mr. Will to explain his own fairly dramatic evolution on national security and foreign policy. He’s in a very different place philosophically than he was during the 1970s through the mid-2000s. (Let’s just say he was not then a member of the “John Quincy Adams faction” of the GOP.) Let me suggest, in a genuinely respectful way, that given his influential place in conservatism, Will owes us an explanation for these changes–and an explanation for why he now believes he got so much wrong then and why he’s so right now.

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Rand Paul’s Utopian Realism and 2016

Rarely is foreign policy decisive in a presidential election, and so it is that much less a factor in congressional midterms. The Iraq war provided an exception to this, both in George W. Bush’s second midterms and in Barack Obama’s election two years later. And although they have not resurfaced to quite that extent, foreign policy was still quite relevant to this week’s midterm elections, with implications for those seeking the presidency in 2016.

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Rarely is foreign policy decisive in a presidential election, and so it is that much less a factor in congressional midterms. The Iraq war provided an exception to this, both in George W. Bush’s second midterms and in Barack Obama’s election two years later. And although they have not resurfaced to quite that extent, foreign policy was still quite relevant to this week’s midterm elections, with implications for those seeking the presidency in 2016.

At Bloomberg View, Lanhee Chen (a top advisor to Mitt Romney) writes that foreign policy helped Republicans win over Asian-American voters on Tuesday. Chen looks at the exit polls, and notes that while “one should be careful about drawing too many conclusions from a sample of just 129 Asian respondents, the marked emphasis on foreign policy among these voters is still noteworthy – and outside the margin of error for the poll.”

And at the Daily Beast Eli Lake goes into detail on how the Republican wave, and specifically its takeover of the Senate majority, could impact American foreign policy going forward. Republicans elected young, promising hawks like Tom Cotton in Arkansas, and more importantly the GOP will take the chairmanships of the foreign-policy related Senate committees. “You could call it the neoconservatives’ revenge or the year of the hawks,” Lake writes. “But it has produced an interesting moment in Washington, where even the dovish side of the Republican Party now acknowledges the midterms were a win for their party’s American exceptionalists.”

One person who wasn’t happy was Ron Paul, who tweeted his wild apocalyptic take on the election. And one person who could not have been happy about that tweet was Paul’s son, Rand, who plans to run for president and therefore would benefit from his father declining to set his hair on fire in public every time a Republican says something nice about America’s role in the world.

More substantively, however, it raises the question of whether the midterms produced a wave Paul can ride to his party’s nomination or one that washed him out of contention. Paul has noticed that what appeared to be a noninterventionist moment in the GOP has not solidified into a major shift in conservative foreign-policy circles. And so it was Paul who has shifted.

At first that shift was mainly one of tone, and I am sympathetic to those who felt that this shift was being exaggerated by hawks who wanted to portray Paul as someone who decided that he couldn’t beat them so he joined them. But with Paul’s speech to the annual dinner of the Center for the National Interest, it’s clear Paul wants to be seen as shifting more than his tone. The key part of the speech was this:

The war on terror is not over, and America cannot disengage from the world.

President Obama claims that al Qaeda is decimated.  But a recent report by the RAND Corporation tracked a 58 percent increase over the last three years in jihadist terror groups.

To contain and ultimately defeat radical Islam, America must have confidence in our constitutional republic, our leadership, and our values.

To defend our country we must understand that a hatred of our values exists, and acknowledge that interventions in foreign countries may well exacerbate this hatred, but that ultimately, we must be willing and able to defend our country and our interests.

Prosecuting the war on terror is far more consequential than standing athwart hypothetical ground invasions. The war on terror is far more relevant to America’s day-to-day security maintenance because it involves the prevention of the multitude of threats to the American homeland. It’s also significant because of the noninterventionists’ much-feared renewed land war in the Middle East.

The possibility of putting “boots on the ground”–or additional boots on the ground, depending on how you look at it–in Iraq and elsewhere is not because America is interested in toppling the Iraqi government but in preserving it. The entity threatening to bring down allied governments is the network of Islamist terrorists, in this case specifically ISIS. The global war on terror, then, can be just as much about preventing additional land wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Rand Paul seems to understand this, if his speech is any indication. His supporters, especially his libertarian supporters who are once again looking to Gary Johnson, won’t like it. Others will, as James Poulos seeks to over at the Federalist, reimagine Paul’s limited policy aims as a broad and grand and ocean-deep set of assumptions about human nature. Aside from the unfortunate (but common) false characterizations about neoconservatives, Poulos interprets Rand Paul’s foreign policy as no less a utopian scheme than the strains of conservative foreign policy Poulos says Paul rejects. Elsewhere, Poulos credits Paul with ideas that neoconservatives have long been championing, such as the underestimated role of corruption in global affairs.

Suddenly, Paul’s unique approach to American foreign policy relies on nuance to even tell it apart from the status quo. That’s because Paul can read the polls, and he’s been watching the electorate he hopes to lead. One wonders, then, whether what will ultimately undo Paul is that he will have convinced his once-ardent supporters that he’s left their camp while failing to convince those who doubted him all along.

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Obama’s Foreign Policy After the Midterms

In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”

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In that Temple of Denial known as the White House, President Obama is no doubt telling himself that the voters just don’t get it–they are punishing him, he probably thinks, because they have not yet digested the fact that economic growth has picked up speed, ObamaCare implementation has gotten smoother, and Ebola has been contained. As one aide told the New York Times, “He doesn’t feel repudiated.”

He should, especially in national security which I am convinced was as important a factor in this election as it was in the 2006 midterm when, in the midst of Iraq War debacles, the Republicans lost control of the Senate. The president did himself incalculable damage when he set a “red line” for Syria last year but failed to enforce it. That created an image of weakness and indecision which has only gotten worse with the rise of ISIS and Putin’s expansionism in Ukraine.

The question now is whether the president will overcome his initial denials and squarely face the message that the voters were trying to send: He needs to change course. I will leave it to others to spell out what such a course change will mean in domestic policy, but when it comes to national-security policy he would do well to take all or some of the following steps:

  • Save the defense budget from the mindless cuts of sequestration, which are already hurting readiness and, if left unabated, risk another “hollow” military.
  • Impose tougher sanctions on Russia, freezing Russian companies entirely out of dollar-denominated transactions, while sending arms and trainers to Kiev and putting at least a Brigade Combat Team into each of the Baltic republics and Poland to signal that no more aggression from Putin will be tolerated.
  • Repeal the 2016 deadline for pulling troops out of Afghanistan and announce that any drawdown will be conditions based.
  • Increase the tempo of airstrikes against ISIS, and send a lot more troops to Iraq and Syria to work with indigenous groups–we need at least 15,000 personnel, not the 1,400 sent so far. This isn’t a call for U.S. ground combat troops, but we do need a lot more trainers, Special Operators, and support personnel, and they need to be free to work with forces in the field rather than being limited to working with brigade and division staffs in large bases far from the front lines.
  • Make clear that any deal with Iran will require the dismantlement of its nuclear facilities–not just a freeze that will leave it just short of nuclear weapons status.
  • End the rapprochement with Iran that has scared our closest allies in the Middle East, and make clear that the U.S. will continue its traditional, post-1979 role of containing Iranian power and siding with the likes of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE over Tehran. A good sign of such a commitment would be launching airstrikes on Iran’s proxy, Bashar al-Assad.
  • Get “fast track” authority from Congress and finish negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal with 11 Pacific Rim nations.

Sadly, the odds are that Obama won’t do any of this except for TPP. That will leave a Republican Congress seething in frustration but its ability to compel presidential actions in foreign policy will be highly limited–even with the addition of knowledgeable lawmakers such as Senator Tom Cotton, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, and with Senator John McCain, the GOP’s leading foreign-policy voice, taking over the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Lawmakers can demand that Obama submit any deal with Iran for Senate approval as a treaty and, if he refuses, they can vote to keep sanctions in place that Obama will try to suspend unilaterally–but in practice achieving this outcome will be very difficult because it will require veto-proof majorities in both houses. Democrats are happy to talk tough about Iran, but will they vote against their own president on an issue where he is sure to lobby hard? Lawmakers can also push for increases in the defense budget but this will undoubtedly require a deal with the White House in which the GOP would have to swallow higher domestic spending and/or tax increases that will be a hard sell on the right.

In the end Obama will retain tremendous discretion as commander-in-chief. We can only hope he will use his authority to stop the dissipation of American power and prestige that has occurred in recent years. He would do well to borrow a page from Jimmy Carter who became a born-again hawk after the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But given Obama’s history of stubborn adherence to ideology, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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“Greatness,” Humility, and the Presidency

It is rare that several seemingly unconnected stories on quite different topics can turn out, when read together, to make a cohesive and profound point on the nature the American presidency. But that is the case today. The first story is Jeff Shesol’s piece in the New Yorker on the newfound humility of the followers of President Obama, once the lightbringer and redeemer but now, astonishingly to them, human. And although there is a point hidden in this tale of political woe, it is a point Shesol misses.

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It is rare that several seemingly unconnected stories on quite different topics can turn out, when read together, to make a cohesive and profound point on the nature the American presidency. But that is the case today. The first story is Jeff Shesol’s piece in the New Yorker on the newfound humility of the followers of President Obama, once the lightbringer and redeemer but now, astonishingly to them, human. And although there is a point hidden in this tale of political woe, it is a point Shesol misses.

The piece is headlined “Obama and the End of Greatness.” The story is a close relative of the “America the ungovernable” narrative, in which failed Democratic presidents inspire liberal commentators to decide that if someone like Obama can’t succeed, the job is too difficult for one man. That narrative is false, of course; Obama is simply not very good at his job and has personality traits that compel him to lash out and blame others instead of changing course. The Shesol conceit is similar: Obama turned out not to be a great president but perhaps we don’t need or can’t have or shouldn’t expect great presidents at all.

This, too, is wrong. But it’s wrong in an interesting way. Obama was the one who raised expectations, and his followers merely echoed his vainglorious messianic pronouncements. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine the country agreeing on a “great” modern president if only because the two major parties have moved so far apart that they now view governing in completely different ways. Liberals would measure a great president according to how much legislation he passed giving himself and the government he leads, essentially, more power. Conservatives aren’t opposed to governing–as the left often accuses them of being–but rather see good governance from the executive in terms of devolving power back to the people.

Yet as humble as we should be about presidential greatness, a couple of other stories today indicate that letting Obama off the hook requires some sleight of hand. One story is on former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer’s interview with the Times of Israel on the U.S.-Israel relationship under Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although each is only one person overseeing a government that tends to get along quite well most of the time with the other, Kurtzer said:

The bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu “informs the entire relationship because bureaucracies and political systems tend to take their energy from the leadership,” Kurtzer told The Times of Israel on Tuesday in Jerusalem. “And if the two leaders are not getting along, as they don’t, then you’ve got a problem.”

This can be seen quite clearly in the case of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, as Obama personally intervened in what are usually lower-level interactions in order to suspend weapons transfers to Israel during wartime. But the point is a more general one: despite the media’s disdain for this particular criticism of Obama, there really is such a thing as leadership, and it really does affect the energy and attitude of other public servants. If anything this is even more the case under a Democrat, since–as we’ve seen with the IRS targeting and the manifold shenanigans of Eric Holder’s Justice Department, among others–the federal bureaucracy tends to share the left’s worldview and takes its cues from the top.

And the other story that brings all this together is Eliana Johnson’s preview of Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech tonight. Johnson was given an advance text of the speech, and writes about the realism Paul hopes to inject into American foreign policy. This is a familiar tune, but it’s understandable that Paul feels the need to address it again, since he still finds himself accused of isolationism that he vigorously denies. It will probably help–and is unlikely to hurt–to spell out in detail (if that’s what he intends to do) just how his policy instincts can be applied to specific threats.

But this part of Johnson’s story jumped out: “In the realm of foreign policy, however, Paul paints himself as hardheaded and rational. His lodestars are the Cold War strategist George F. Kennan and the Reagan-era secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger.” I would say, first of all, that Republicans unnerved by what they see as Bakerite instincts will probably not be overjoyed by references to Caspar Weinberger. But more important was the context Johnson provided to Kennan’s belief in prioritizing vital over peripheral interests:

At times, however, he found it difficult to distinguish between them, initially opposing the Truman Doctrine to aid free people resisting Communist expansion because the strategy was too universalistic, then changing his mind, saying he had underestimated the importance of psychological warfare, of pushing back against the Soviets even when vital American interests were not under attack.

This is a good example of something that is often overlooked. Kennan has achieved a kind of mythical stature, and it’s true he made important contributions to American diplomacy in the early Cold War years. However, Harry Truman was the visionary (perhaps along with Acheson), not Kennan. Truman’s understanding of how to build a stable, democratic postwar order was superior to Kennan’s, and it isn’t even close (this is perhaps because democracy wasn’t exactly Kennan’s guiding principle). Kennan may have been a distinguished intellectual, but Truman ran circles around him. Had Kennan’s vision been followed instead of Truman’s, we would be living in a far different, and more troublesome, world.

Which brings us back around to the question of presidential greatness, and gives us a fuller picture of why Obama is inspiring such defeatism among his fans and pessimism among the political class. Presidents govern the country they’ve inherited, and navigate the world as it is. Few faced greater challenges or disorder than Truman, and few acquitted themselves so superbly. The lesson for Obama, his fans, and those who seek to succeed him isn’t that greatness is impossible, but that it only seems that way when you’re looking for it in all the wrong places.

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Bobby Jindal: One Wonk to Rule Them All?

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

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Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is continuing to write the preamble to his 2016 presidential candidacy. In April, Jindal released a health-care reform plan. Last month, he offered an energy plan. And yesterday, in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he laid out his approach to defense policy. All of them have one thing in common: Jindal is not just part of the new breed of reform conservatives; he is hoping to be the first conservative wonk to win the Republican presidential nomination.

Jindal is obviously smart, experienced, and fluent in policy. He’s also taken on the kind of “happy warrior” persona Republicans should embrace: outrage is not the same thing as anger. And seems to understand the importance of perceived authenticity, so he’s dropped the faux-folksiness he once wore on his sleeve and appears more comfortable in his own skin. But for the revenge of the nerds to be successful, Jindal is going to have to overcome the key challenge posed by how Republicans and Democrats see American electoral politics today.

On the Republican side, few if any doubt Jindal’s obvious intelligence and undeniable competence. But in a wide-open race for the nomination, it will be crucial for each candidate to have their own base within the conservative movement. In this respect, Jindal’s identity as a jack of all trades is less beneficial than it first appears.

Jindal’s defense plan is hawkish, but Marco Rubio long beat him to the punch in terms of establishing his political identity as a learned advocate for a robust American presence in the world. If the party’s hawks are to latch onto any prospective candidate, Rubio is likely to be the one. Most of the party’s potential nominees are hawkish and even Rand Paul has embraced the plain fact that President Obama’s unthinking retrenchment has been a disaster. (So have the president’s Cabinet secretaries; no one wants to take any credit for Obama’s colossal mishandling of world affairs.)

The same is generally true of the other major streams of American conservatism, as I’ve written in the past. But Jindal’s official identification as a hawk does not change the calculus.

The other challenge for Jindal here is how the two parties have reacted to the failure of the Obama presidency. When Obama was a candidate, he was built up by the media and his supporters (but I repeat myself) as a very smart, nuanced thinker. When that turned out not to be true, and when it became clear he also didn’t have the intellectual curiosity necessary to remedy his broad lack of knowledge, the right and the left each reacted differently.

Conservatives responded by turning forcefully against the pretensions of the academic elite. Rule by experts was always under suspicion because of the folly of treating people as science experiments and the repellant culture of eugenics so many of the policies seek to legitimize. But with Obama it became perfectly clear that the experts weren’t actually experts. Liberals just pretended to know what they were talking about, and hid behind credentialism when questioned.

Who is better positioned to take advantage of the discovery that the professor has no clothes, someone like Jindal or someone like, say, Scott Walker, the successful reformist governor without even a college degree? To conservatives, the answer seems clear. They will almost surely end up nominating someone more knowledgeable than the current president, just because the bar is so low. But they would take special pleasure in nominating precisely the kind of politician who would be looked down upon by the Democrats but who would nonetheless run circles around their Democratic opponent intellectually.

Liberals responded to Obama’s failure in a different way: by reverting to the mean of left-liberal politics. Democratic Party politics is traditionally a method of organizing a coalition of interested parties in such a way as to reward them for their support. There is not much of a coherent ideological component outside of the extremely ideological character of the party’s positions on social and cultural issues. Ben Domenech touched on this in last month’s COMMENTARY by noting that:

History may ultimately consider Obama’s 2008 nomination as a representation not of progressivism’s resurgent appeal, but as its death rattle—a speed bump along the way to the Democratic Party’s becoming a fully corporatist, Clinton-owned entity. In practice, the party now resembles a protection racket with an army of volunteers, with friends who never suffer and enemies who never relax.

Political science has begun to catch up with this reality as well. In a recent paper, Matt Grossman and his coauthor David A. Hopkins studied the way Democrats and Republicans each seek to govern, and explain that Republicans tend to govern according to ideological principles while Democrats govern by rewarding constituencies. They write:

The partisan asymmetry in the governing style of political elites has its roots in the mass public. Party identifiers in the electorate perceive political choices differently: Republicans are more likely to reason ideologically whereas Democrats are more likely to think of politics as a competition among groups over benefits. This difference is durable over time.

The authors add that “Republican politicians and interest groups thus represent both their partisan base and a wider public majority when they think, speak, and act ideologically, advocating restrictions on government activity in a broad sense. By contrast, Democratic politicians and affiliated interests prefer to stress their advocacy of particular policies that have wider public support and that offer targeted benefits to members of their electoral coalition, placing themselves on the side of social groups favoring government action to ameliorate perceived disadvantages.”

That also helps explain the proliferation of put-upon groups in the constellation of liberal identity politics. If Democrats need more votes, they stoke resentment and create a new category for taxpayer-funded benefits. Their response to the revelation that their experts can’t be trusted, in other words, was to go back to inviting enough voters to raid the treasury to win national elections.

What does that mean for Jindal and the wonks? It means an uphill battle. Republicans believe they nominated a competent managerial technocrat last time around–and lost decisively. And Democrats aren’t particularly interested in intellectual prowess–they simply want to divide and conquer the electorate. Jindal is obviously qualified to be the nation’s chief executive. But it’s lonely out there for a wonk.

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Should University Scholars Face Travel Restrictions?

In 1996, when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, I received a university travel grant to conduct my dissertation research in Iran. All was going smoothly until a university administrator stepped in. While he knew absolutely nothing about Iran, he simply couldn’t conceive that a Jewish American should travel there. He called me in and concluded that he thought the whole thing should be reconsidered by administrators and lawyers. At the advice of a faculty member friend, I hopped on a plane before they could come to any agreement and went to Iran.

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In 1996, when I was a Ph.D. student at Yale, I received a university travel grant to conduct my dissertation research in Iran. All was going smoothly until a university administrator stepped in. While he knew absolutely nothing about Iran, he simply couldn’t conceive that a Jewish American should travel there. He called me in and concluded that he thought the whole thing should be reconsidered by administrators and lawyers. At the advice of a faculty member friend, I hopped on a plane before they could come to any agreement and went to Iran.

The simple fact is that Iran is a far more dangerous place for Iranian-Americans (whom the Tehran regime insists travel on Iranian passports) than people like me who have no family connection to the country. Not everything inside the Islamic Republic went smoothly, but the Iranian archives in my experience were generally more receptive to me than the Carter Library in Atlanta was, when I was researching my recent book which touched upon Carter’s attitudes toward North Korea. In the end, my dissertation ended up sharing Yale’s top prize. Needless to say, ignoring the hand-wringing of Yale administrators was a good choice.

In the 15 years since I submitted my dissertation, the situation of those seeking to conduct research in the world’s hotspots has gotten worse, not only for Yale but almost every other university. The problem isn’t the students, but rather administrators and lawyers. At most universities, there has been administrative mitosis, with deanships, assistant deanships, assistant provostships, multiple registrars, department directors, council coordinators, and various counselors proliferating and subdividing. Each must regulate and expand domains in order to make work. Rather than advance up an academic ladder, alas, too many faculty members end up seeking the far more lucrative administrative track. Add into the noxious mix the lawyers, and dysfunction boils over. Rather than raise a generation of young adults, the university lawyers’ notion of in loco parentis represses individual accountability and responsibility.

Too often, academic research and risk-adverse lawyering are mutually exclusive. I’ve been fortunate over the past few years to participate in the Alexander Hamilton Society, which takes national security and foreign policy thinkers to college campuses and has them talk to students and debate with faculty. (This semester, for example, I’ve been to Stetson University, Washington College, and will be heading to Holy Cross tomorrow and Northwestern next week.) At many campuses, students and faculty say that university administrators and lawyers refuse to fund or, in some cases, even allow research in areas in which there are active State Department warnings.

Here’s the problem: Not only are State Department warnings notoriously broad—they seldom specify districts and cities and instead paint with a broad brush, the equivalent of confusing downtown Detroit with rural Nebraska—but, more to the point, it’s the world’s trouble spots which are the most important to research. Sure, with tongue in cheek, I’d say that if I could do my Ph.D. work all over again, maybe I’d be tempted to study the effect of Club Meds on local economies, but I’d much rather have universities churning out scholars of Iraqi, Iranian, Yemeni, Chinese, Korean, or Venezuelan studies. At some point, universities are going to have to choose which they should prioritize: real academic study or the zero-risk policies that their in-house counsels advise, and by which their in-house counsels’ careers too often were shaped. Perhaps at some point, a student or professor will be hurt or worse in a third-world country. That would be tragic. And their grieving family might even take the university to court for allowing their loved one to travel to a far-off, dangerous land. But until universities stand up and fight for their academic freedom, they are destined to become second-class coffee klatches rather than intellectual engines relevant to contemporary world international studies.

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Is Rubio Not Ready or Just Willing to Think?

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is not very happy with one of his Republican colleagues. During the course of an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes published today in which he floated the possibility of running for president, Graham dismissed the possibility that Florida’s Marco Rubio should also be considered for the Republican nomination. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious about 2016 but his criticism of Rubio, who, as Hayes pointed out, is at least as strong a voice on foreign policy as Graham, deserves a thorough examination.

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South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham is not very happy with one of his Republican colleagues. During the course of an interview with the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes published today in which he floated the possibility of running for president, Graham dismissed the possibility that Florida’s Marco Rubio should also be considered for the Republican nomination. It’s hard to tell if he’s serious about 2016 but his criticism of Rubio, who, as Hayes pointed out, is at least as strong a voice on foreign policy as Graham, deserves a thorough examination.

The possibility of a Rubio candidacy came up in this context because if the Republican Party were really turning back to its roots as a bulwark of support for national security and away from the isolationist wing led by Senator Rand Paul, then Rubio would appear to be one of the obvious choices as leader. While Graham and his pal Senator John McCain have been the loudest voices on behalf of interventionist policies, no one in the Senate has been as eloquent on the need for a coherent and strong U.S. foreign policy than Rubio.

But while McCain praised Rubio Graham gave his younger colleague the back of his hand in his conversation with Hayes:

I asked Graham about Rubio. Hasn’t he been making many of the arguments you’d be likely to make? Graham wasn’t impressed. “He’s a good guy, but after doing immigration with him—we don’t need another young guy not quite ready,” said Graham. “He’s no Obama by any means, but he’s so afraid of the right, and I’ve let that go.”

Graham’s problem with Rubio stems from the fact that after joining the bipartisan group backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, Rubio eventually backed away from the legislation once it stalled in the House. While McCain, Graham and the other members of the bipartisan gang of eight that championed the reform package have stuck to their plan, Rubio now says that conservatives who demanded that the border security portion of the bill be done first before any changes in the immigration system — especially the effort to legalize illegal immigrants and/or grant them a path to citizenship — should be implemented.

For Graham, who is being pushed to think about running for president by his friend McCain, this shift by Rubio shows he doesn’t have the right stuff.

Graham is right to note that Rubio hasn’t always looked like a future president in the past two years. While, as McCain notes, his record on foreign policy has been “very impressive,” there have been moments when he looked uncertain and a bit too interested in tagging along with Republican elements who don’t share his views. The beating he took from the party’s hardliners on immigration did take a toll. But Graham is wrong to castigate Rubio for rethinking his stand on the reform bill. If anything, his willingness to react to events and draw conclusions from them rather than doggedly stick to an ideological position that had been mistaken is a sign of maturity, not inexperience.

The surge of illegals over the border in Texas this year showed that rather than fixing the immigration system, the talk of granting illegals a path to citizenship without first securing the border had created a new incentive for people to cross the border. Moreover President Obama’s threats, renewed last night, to act unilaterally to trash the rule of law and legalize illegals shows that this administration can’t be trusted to enforce any immigration law passed by Congress.

By adjusting his position, Rubio opened himself up to charges of being a flip-flopper and abandoning his positions in order to curry favor with conservatives. But in doing so, he also demonstrated an ability to address difficult issues soberly and in a manner that enables him to make decisions based on reality rather than an ideological position. That’s pretty much the opposite of the pattern demonstrated by Barack Obama, that Graham rightly disdains.

Graham’s chances of winning the Republican nomination are virtually non-existent. While he’s part of the GOP mainstream on foreign policy, no one who has spent so much time offending the party’s base is going to be its standard bearer in 2016. By contrast, though Rubio made a lot of enemies because of his immigration stand, as a former Tea Party insurgent, he has a lot better chance of reconciling with the conservative base than Graham.

But what’s really interesting about this discussion is that while earlier in the year it looked as if the GOP presidential field would not have any strong entries that championed a strong foreign policy, now the roster of potential candidates representing that point of view seems to be getting crowded. Potential symbolic candidacies like those of Rep. Peter King and former UN Ambassador John Bolton may be joined by Rubio and Graham as well as Senator Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum, both of whom also share many of the views espoused by McCain and other GOP hawks.

Graham’s carping about Rubio notwithstanding, the real news here is that as the isolationist moment in American politics ends, the GOP’s natural leaders on foreign policy are reasserting themselves.

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Rand Paul Wants to Know Why All These Straw Men Are So Mean to Him

Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

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Rand Paul, in danger of getting tagged with the dreaded “flip-flopper” label, is pushing back on critics who claim he’s been inconsistent on foreign policy. Specifically, the issue revolves around Syria, where he once opposed intervention and now supports it to battle ISIS. On this, Paul is right: the situation has changed, and many of those disinclined to intervene on behalf of the Syrian rebels–several of us here at COMMENTARY among them–believe the emergence of ISIS presents a threat that must be defeated, or at the very least contained. So why is Paul meeting such a tough audience?

Indeed, interventionists have reason to cheer Paul’s about-face: he will drag anti-interventionists, kicking and screaming if necessary, along with him because there is no more libertarian first-tier GOP candidate than Paul. But for those who have paid attention to Paul over these last few years, it’s actually quite easy to understand why he doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt more often, and why, specifically, Paul’s previous opposition to intervention was treated as an ideological marker. It’s because Paul has always chosen to present his views in starkly ideological terms while being thoroughly dishonest, repeatedly and unapologetically, about those with whom he disagrees.

In fairness to Paul, here’s his side of the Syria story from an interview he gave to the Federalist:

The thing that I in some ways laugh at, because nobody seems to get this, is that I spent the past five years in public life telling everyone that “hey, I’m not an isolationist” … and when they find out I’m not, they say I’ve switched positions, because I’m not the position they were saying I was. You know what I mean? So for five years they’ve been accusing me of being something that I say I’m not. And then when they find out I’m really not, they say I’ve changed my position. You can see how it’s a little bit frustrating for me.

In the same interview, he also explains his support for striking ISIS as a defense not only of American interests but primarily of America itself:

With ISIS, they’re beheading American citizens, they’ve actively said that if they can, and when they can, they’ll come to New York. They’re within, I think a day’s march or a day’s drive of Erbil and the consulate there. I think that they probably would be repelled in Baghdad, but they could be a threat to Baghdad. I think ultimately if left to their own devices, they could organize the same way Al-Qaeda organized in Afghanistan, and if given a safe haven that they could be a real threat to us at home.

All fair enough, though if anything Paul understates the case for intervention here. But there was an earlier line in his answer that caught my attention. He said: “In general, if you look throughout the Middle East, you’ll find it’s a complicated area with complicated movements on all sides ….” Ah, complexity. Now we’re getting somewhere.

It is complexity that has been absent from the way Paul so often describes his colleagues and ideological opponents. Paul is perhaps the one Republican who can compete with Barack Obama for the obsessive use of straw men. Paul is an intelligent man, but he has written some ostentatiously unintelligent things. Here is how he opens a piece he wrote for National Review Online defending his foreign-policy outlook:

The knives are out for conservatives who dare question unlimited involvement in foreign wars.

In one sentence, Paul deploys the warmongering straw man and displays a petulant sense of victimhood. But it actually gets worse. Here’s the next sentence:

Foreign policy, the interventionist critics claim, has no place for nuance or realism. You are either for us or against us. No middle ground is acceptable. The Wilsonian ideologues must have democracy worldwide now and damn all obstacles to that utopia. I say sharpen your knives, because the battle once begun will not end easily.

Holy moly, that’s some sandwich-board sloganeering right there, sliding into the redemptive politics of messianic paranoia. If only that were the rare outlier. Unfortunately, it’s not. Even after coming around to the fact that the interventionists are right about ISIS, Paul offers this childish dig at those who were right before he realized it:

There’s no point in taking military action just for the sake of it, something Washington leaders can’t seem to understand.

Yes, Rand Paul wants to take military action against ISIS. Many of his colleagues in the Senate want to do exactly the same thing. But Rand Paul, alone among them, has good reasons for it. Everyone else simply likes to bomb things because of how much they love war. Only Rand Paul has a reasonable justification for the war he and his colleagues want. Even when he agrees with other Republicans, Paul just can’t avoid assuming the worst intentions on the part of his colleagues.

He’s also shown a tendency toward indefensibly credulous thinking. At times, this just shows poor judgment, such as the fact that he apparently still buys into a completely debunked rumor about John McCain and ISIS. Other times, it’s conventional anti-interventionist groupthink about what “neocons” are doing with “your money.”

If Rand Paul has begun opening up his worldview to embrace the complexity of global politics, all the better. It might one day prevent him from sanctimoniously attributing the worst intentions even to those he agrees with while maniacally setting fire to fields of straw men. Until that day arrives, his wounded victim act will remain utterly unconvincing.

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Don’t Call It a Comeback: Interventionism Was Hiding in Plain Sight

A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

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A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

As the New York Times reports, the troops will help with the construction of medical treatment facilities, distribution of aid, and will take the reins in coordinating a regional response. The administration expects to deploy as many as 3,000 to Africa in the effort. Some health experts are calling for an even greater response from the U.S., saying the focus on Liberia is not enough; Sierra Leone and Guinea are also in dire need.

If the crisis worsens, so will disorder, border chaos, and perhaps even a refugee crisis of sorts, not to mention the need to protect all these treatment centers and medical storage facilities. This is not an overnight mission, nor a relatively quiet one like sending forces to help track down African warlords, as we have also been doing.

So that’s one kind of military intervention–to fight a disease epidemic across the ocean. The other major story today was on the administration’s shaky attempts to wrangle support for military intervention in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS.

The plan is to use airpower to hit ISIS from above. But there are a couple of ways this could escalate. First is the possibility that since the U.S. is not coordinating attacks in Syria with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Assad’s forces could target U.S. aircraft. As the AP reported, “The United States would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air defenses if he were to go after American planes launching airstrikes in his country, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.”

Another complication is the fact that no one seems to believe airstrikes alone would be enough to accomplish the mission–though the mission itself isn’t quite clear enough for some of the members of Congress on the fence about the plan. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about mission creep and said success may, in fact, require boots on the ground in Iraq. “My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” Dempsey said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

We should also not forget that on his recent trip to Estonia attempting to counter Russian aggression, “Obama also announced the US would send more air force units and aircraft to the Baltics, and called Estonia’s Amari air base an ideal location to base those forces.” The U.S. has since repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to protecting NATO allies in the region, but it hasn’t stopped Russia from sending veiled threats it may test that promise.

So to sum up: we’re sending troops to one, and possibly three or more, African countries to deal with Ebola; we’re sending the Air Force to the Baltics, with promises to confront Russia with more troops if need be; and we’re contemplating the possibility of sending troops to Iraq while striking at one, possibly two sides in a three-way Syrian civil war while arming the third side, which may or may not have agreed to a truce with one of the sides we’re bombing.

How is it that the American public can be war-weary and also quite clearly interventionist at the same time? The answer is: piece by piece. Americans are tired, in an abstract way, of “policing” the world and fighting open-ended military campaigns. But the individual issues here scramble that message.

According to Rasmussen, half the country is worried about Ebola. According to the Washington Post/ABC poll, most are concerned about ISIS, and thus by clear majorities support airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. That same Post/ABC poll finds more than 40 percent think Obama has been “too cautious” on countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. That might be because, according to Pew, Americans see Russia as the country’s top looming threat.

In other words, when Americans’ retrenchment instincts clash with real-world crises, their concern for the latter tends to win out. And that’s also why we suddenly see a diverse coalition of hawks, at least on the right. Those who prefer less intervention may be learning from the Obama administration’s bungled retreat from the world stage that there is such a thing as a power vacuum, and nature does indeed abhor it.

A stable world order promoted by American power can in many cases make later military intervention unnecessary. Intervention is sometimes the most rational response from noninterventionists.

And as the Ted Cruz-IDC dustup has shown, Americans tend to be a diverse country full of people who strongly believe the United States has a responsibility to protect various at-risk populations around the globe. Here, for example, is the closing sentence of Ross Douthat’s column on the controversy from Sunday:

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

This is, I find, a strong argument for intervention. It’s also an argument, however unintended, for intervention that never materialized in Darfur, and perhaps the consideration of such in Burma, where the Rohingya Muslims might very well be the target of such a campaign. And it’s an argument for intervention in a broad array of crises. It is, in fact, a neat summation of Samantha Power’s foreign-policy philosophy. Douthat sounds about as much a realist here as John McCain is.

And Douthat’s not wrong about the need to save the besieged Christians of the Middle East! That’s the point. There are times when the United States is treaty-bound to intervene on behalf of allies. And there are times when the United States must intervene out of strategic interest. And there are times when the United States seems obligated to intervene out of sheer moral responsibility.

It all adds up to an active, interventionist American role in the world. And the support for that foreign policy goes on periodic hiatus, but it always returns.

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

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President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

What is truly disturbing about this president is that this not a one-off gaffe. Rather, it is part of a long and disturbing series of remarks by the president and his top aides who, while trying to explain and defend their foreign-policy thinking, have caused a major crisis of confidence in their ability to handle the nation’s foreign policy.

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

The New Yorker, May 2, 2011: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ ”

President Obama’s interview with David Remnick, the New Yorker, January 7, 2014: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The president’s press conference in the Philippines, April 28, 2014: “My job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it… That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Politico, June 1: “Forget The New Yorker’s ‘leading from behind,’ and even President Barack Obama’s own ‘singles … doubles.’ The West Wing has a preferred, authorized distillation of the president’s foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’ ”

Leading from behind… Getting our paragraph right… Hitting singles and doubles… Not doing “stupid shit”: The more the president and his foreign-policy deep thinkers talk, the bigger a hole they dig for themselves.

Even liberals are scathing in denouncing these risible attempts to lay out a foreign-policy doctrine. As Hillary Clinton says, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Or as Maureen Dowd wrote, “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.”

Little wonder, then, that in a Pew poll conducted even before Obama made his “no strategy” comment, 54 percent of respondents said last week that the president isn’t “tough enough” on foreign policy. You can bet that’s a view shared by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-un, and other key American adversaries.

That the president is so ham-handed in trying to defend his foreign-policy conduct is all the more puzzling in that he is supposedly a great orator–at least he won the White House (and a Nobel Peace Prize, lest we forget) based largely on the power of his inspirational words. But at the end of the day there is a limit to how much any orator, no matter how gifted, can say to defend the indefensible or explain the inexplicable. We have now reached that point and beyond. It is high time for Obama to stop talking and start acting. At this point the only thing that can reverse the crippling decline of American credibility is tough, unexpected action–say bombing the Iranian nuclear complex if talks fall through, or mounting an all-out campaign to destroy ISIS, or sending military aid to Ukraine and positioning U.S. troops in the Baltic republics.

You may well observe that these are all military actions. Am I suggesting that Obama become a militarist–a warmonger of the kind he plainly despises? Not at all. Not one of these policy options will send American ground troops into combat. All can be executed with a limited degree of risk without becoming “another Iraq,” the bogeyman that the president most wants to avoid.

And if Obama had acted tougher to begin with–if, for example, he had done more to aid the Syrian opposition or to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–such drastic actions would not now be necessary. But American credibility has sunk so low that it is now crucially important to show that there is more to our foreign policy than empty verbiage from the White House–especially when the more of that verbiage that we hear, the less confidence the world has that we know what we’re doing.

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Has Rand Paul’s Moment Passed?

This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

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This should be the moment when Senator Rand Paul’s rise to the top of the list of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls should be halted. With foreign terror threats like ISIS that have grown precisely because of an American attempt to disengage from the Middle East, Paul’s neo-isolationist approach has been exposed as hopelessly shortsighted. But the Kentucky senator’s featured appearance on Meet the Press on Sunday revealed him to be, if anything, more confident than ever about his 2016 chances. Is he right?

Paul scored a public relations coup by getting NBC to send a camera crew and reporter to Guatemala to observe him performing free eye surgeries. This kind of publicity is priceless as was the opportunity to draw attention to the senator’s grandstanding on the border crisis while in Central America. He also got the chance to lambaste the government’s sending of heavy weaponry to local police departments that was highlighted by events in Ferguson, Missouri. But the headline of the segment was his boast that the American public now agrees more with him about foreign policy than mainstream Republicans or even Democrats like Hillary Clinton who rightly say that what’s happening in Iraq is the result of the Obama administration’s failure to act in Syria before groups like ISIS had the chance to get going:

I think the American public is coming more and more to where I am, and that those– people, like Hillary Clinton, who, she fought her own war, Hillary’s War, you know, people are gonna find that, and I think that’s what scares the Democrats the most, is that in a general election, were I to run, there’s gonna be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, “You know what, we are tired of war. We’re worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war, because she’s so gung-ho.”

If you wanna see a transformational election in our country, let the Democrats put forward a war hawk like Hillary Clinton, and you’ll see a transformation like you’ve never seen.

In other words, Paul believes that Americans are so war weary from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that they are incapable of drawing conclusions from recent events. He’s not alone in thinking that. As Chris Cillizza noted in the Washington Post, a raft of polls taken earlier in the year all support the notion that Americans want a less aggressive foreign policy and are opposed to any further involvement in Middle East conflicts, like the potential wars that a “hawk” like Clinton might get the U.S. into.

Cillizza notes that these attitudes are far less popular among Democrats than Republicans, who, on the whole, remain faithful to their party’s traditional posture that deplores a more “narrow role in world affairs.” But, as Cillizza says, just because the GOP has been the standard bearer for a strong America in the recent past and Democrats the party of retreat, doesn’t mean that will always be the case.

But, as we have noted here before, Paul’s problem is that the Obama administration’s disastrous mistakes abroad have made it far less safe to assume that fears about terrorism and the decline of U.S. influence will no longer dictate attitudes about foreign affairs. While Clinton will, at least in theory, stand to benefit from being seen as someone who can implement a rational course correction from Obama’s path (so long as, that is, voters forget that she was his secretary of state for four years), Paul is actually offering an even more extreme version of Obama’s foreign-policy vision that has left the world a chaotic mess.

The crises in the Middle East in which Obama’s follies have played a not insignificant role in exacerbating conflicts in Gaza and Iraq and with the Russian assault on Ukraine proceeding may be just the start. Barring an unlikely complete transformation of the Obama administration over the course of the next two years, the odds are that America’s foreign-policy woes will grow rather than recede. That will make it harder to sell Republican primary voters, let alone the rest of the country, on Paul’s brand of isolationism. The unique moment in history in which an opening for a Republican who was actually to the left of Obama on foreign affairs may have already come to an end.

Nor, as I wrote here last week when discussing Paul’s efforts to present himself as a friend of Israel despite opposing aid to the embattled Jewish state, do polls give Republicans much reason to believe that there will be, as the senator says, a surge of young Democratic voters coming over to their side if Paul is the GOP candidate.

But mainstream Republicans who have observed the way the murder of James Foley and the general feeling of crisis have affected the public mood should not be too confident about Paul’s inability to win the nomination in 2016. As his clever stage management of the trip to Guatemala as well as past coups such as his drone filibuster in 2013 proved, the Kentucky senator is a formidable politician. His willingness to reach out to groups that have little reason to back him such as blacks, Hispanics, and supporters of Israel does more than show his ambition to expand the base of extremist libertarians. It illustrates a political vision that seeks to establish him as a genuine front-runner and plausible option for president.

It is far too early to project how this will play out in 2016. But the point here is that Paul’s ability to generate positive press from even the liberal mainstream media just at the moment when his views about the world are being discredited by events ought to scare his potential opponents. The follies of the Obama presidency may make it safe for conservatives to espouse their traditional support for a strong foreign policy in 2016 in a way that was harder to do in 2012. Yet anyone in the GOP who underestimates Rand Paul’s sheer political talent will be making a big mistake.

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Obama’s Hubris is His Undoing

Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

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Historians will have the rest of the century to unravel the mess that is the Barack Obama presidency. While they can explore these years of foreign policy disaster and domestic malaise at leisure, the rest of us have 29 more months to see just how awful things can get before he slides off to a lucrative retirement. But those who want to start the post-mortem on this historic presidency would do well to read Jackson Diehl’s most recent Washington Post column in which he identifies Obama’s hubris as the key element in his undoing.

As our Pete Wehner wrote earlier today, the president’s reactions to what even Chuck Hagel, his less-than-brilliant secretary of defense, has rightly called a world that is “exploding all over” by blaming it all on forces that he is powerless to control. As Pete correctly pointed out, no one is arguing that the president of the United States is all-powerful and has the capacity to fix everything in the world that is out of order. But the problem is not so much the steep odds against which the administration is currently struggling, as its utter incapacity to look honestly at the mistakes it has made in the past five and half years and to come to the conclusion that sometimes you’ve got to change course in order to avoid catastrophes.

As has been pointed out several times here at COMMENTARY in the last month and is again highlighted by Diehl in his column, Obama’s efforts to absolve himself of all responsibility for the collapse in Iraq is completely disingenuous. The man who spent the last few years bragging about how he “ended the war in Iraq” now professes to have no responsibility for the fact that the U.S. pulled out all of its troops from the conflict.

Nor is he willing to second guess his dithering over intervention in Syria. The administration spent the last week pushing back hard against Hillary Clinton’s correct, if transparently insincere, criticisms of the administration in which she served, for having stood by and watched helplessly there instead of taking the limited actions that might well have prevented much of that country — and much of Iraq — from falling into the hands of ISIS terrorists.

The same lack of honesty characterizes the administration’s approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and the nuclear negotiations with Iran, two topics that Diehl chose not to highlight in his piece.

Obama wasted much of his first term pointlessly quarreling with Israel’s government and then resumed that feud this year after an intermission for a re-election year Jewish charm offensive. This distancing from Israel and the reckless pursuit of an agreement when none was possible helped set up this summer’s fighting. The result is not only an alliance that is at its low point since the presidency of the elder George Bush but a situation in which the U.S. now finds itself pushing the Israelis to make concessions to Hamas as well as the Palestinian Authority, a state of affairs that guarantees more fighting in the future and a further diminishment of U.S. interests in the region.

On Iran, Obama wasted years on feckless engagement efforts before finally accepting the need for tough sanctions on that nation to stop its nuclear threat. But the president tossed the advantage he worked so hard to build by foolishly pursuing détente with Tehran and loosening sanctions just at the moment when the Iranians looked to be in trouble.

On both the Palestinian and the Iranian front, an improvement in the current grim prospects for U.S. strategy is not impossible. But, as with the situation in Iraq, it will require the kind of grim soul-searching that, as Diehl points out, George W. Bush underwent in 2006 before changing both strategy and personnel in order to pursue the surge that changed the course of the Iraq War. Sadly, Obama threw away the victory he inherited from Bush. If he is to recover in this final two years in office the way Bush did, it will require the same sort of honesty and introspection.

But, unfortunately, that seems to be exactly the qualities that are absent from this otherwise brilliant politician. Obama is a great campaigner — a talent that is still on display every time he takes to the road to blame Republicans for the problems he created — and is still personally liked by much of the electorate (even if his charms are largely lost on conservative critics such as myself). But he seems incapable of ever admitting error, especially on big issues. At the heart of this problem is a self-regard and a contempt for critics that is so great that it renders him incapable of focusing his otherwise formidable intellect on the shortcomings in his own thinking or challenging the premises on which he has based his policies.

Saying you’re wrong is not easy for any of us and has to be especially hard for a man who has been celebrated as a groundbreaking transformational figure in our history. But that is exactly what is required if the exploding world that Obama has helped set in motion is to be kept from careening even further out of control before his presidency ends. The president may think he’s just having an unlucky streak that he can’t do a thing about. While it is true that America’s options are now limited (largely due to his mistakes) in Syria and Iraq, there is plenty he can do to prevent things from getting worse there. It is also largely up to him whether Iran gets a nuclear weapon or Hamas is able to launch yet another war in the near future rather than being isolated. But in order to do the right things on these fronts, he will have to first admit that his previous decisions were wrong. Until he shed the hubris that prevents him from doing so, it will be impossible.

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Obama Still Feeling Sorry for Himself

Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

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Under a barrage of criticism for how he’s mishandled American foreign policy, President Obama is once again feeling sorry for himself.

“Apparently,” he said at a press conference earlier this month, “people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

About this answer, I’d say several things, starting with this one: When he ran for president, he spoke as if America did control everything in the world and therefore that everything that went wrong in the world was the fault of his predecessor. In other words, Mr. Obama spoke in exactly the terms he now complains his critics do. Having been humiliated by events, President Obama is now telling us that the world is a mighty complicated place – who knew? — and American power is so darn limited. In other words: Don’t blame me. I’m only the president. What on earth can I do?

Second, it wasn’t Mr. Obama’s critics, but Mr. Obama himself, who set the soaring expectations of what would be achieved if he were elected president. It is Mr. Obama, not others, who claimed his candidacy would “ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest.” (Just in case the point was lost on us, Mr. Obama ended by saying, “Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can.”)

But that’s not all.

Mr. Obama spoke about how his presidency would “heal the planet” and stop the rise of the oceans. He would usher in unprecedentedly good relations with the world, including the Arab and Islamic world. The president promised a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world. There would be extraordinary strides taken toward peace between Israel and Palestinians. Relations with Russia would be “reset.” He’d successfully pivot to Asia. America would work cooperatively with China. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would end responsibly. The tide of war would recede. He would usher in an era of “smart diplomacy.” Apparently Mr. Obama has forgotten he said all this. We’ll do him the favor of reminding him.

Mr. Obama, in his statement during the press conference earlier this month, is also employing a favorite device of his: creating straw men as a way to discredit serious criticisms of him. No one I know assumes the United States is omnipotent. As a friend of mine put it, he’s content to hold the president to a much more pedestrian standard: has the actions Obama taken and, more importantly, the actions he has not taken, made the challenges he faced worse or better?  By that very modest standard, he told me, Mr. Obama has utterly failed.

“I certainly do not think President Obama is responsible for all of the world crises that have taken place during his time in office,” my former White House colleague William C. Inboden, told the New York Times’ Peter Baker. “But he is responsible for actions and attitudes he took that have contributed to some of those crises — and he is also responsible for how he responds, or fails to respond.”

Just so.

The president is desperately trying to escape blame for his failures. But those days are long gone. I would hope that someone in the president’s inner circle, who has standing in his life, would urge him to at least conduct himself in a manner that doesn’t come across as petulant, thin-skinned, and undignified. But that appears to be asking too much of Mr. Obama. He is not emotionally equipped to handle failure with even minimal grace.

His presidency is going down; and he’s determined to look small-minded and bad-tempered in the process.

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