Commentary Magazine


Topic: foreign policy

Explaining Politics to the Political Scientists

Julia Azari, an assistant political science professor at Marquette, has a column in Politico Magazine that begins with a rather simple premise: President Obama’s conservative critics sometimes call him too weak and sometimes call him too strong. Isn’t this, Professor Azari asks, contradictory? Specifically, the question is centered on the fact that conservatives think Obama’s foreign policy is too timid, but his domestic policy is heavyhanded, overly bureaucratized and centralized, and sometimes unconstitutional and antidemocratic.

Azari wonders why that is. She’ll be cheered to know there is a very easy answer to this, and it’s one nearly anyone could answer: this is precisely how our system of government was designed. That is, the president is the commander in chief, and has far more latitude to conduct foreign policy than domestic policy. Therefore, when he tries to institute liberal experiments on domestic policy, he runs into the United States Congress, a coequal branch of the government. When he doesn’t get his way, he can be tempted to go around Congress.

Azari suspects this is the answer–that the Constitution has something to do with it, and several paragraphs in answers her own question:

Being seen as simultaneously too strong and too weak is a structural condition for presidents. The framers of the Constitution debated about how to design an executive strong enough to protect the country, but still constrained by the rule of law. Writing from the vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, the political scientist Richard Neustadt argued that when presidents resort to unilateral “command,” it means their efforts to persuade others have failed. In this sense, it would certainly be possible for the president to both lack the necessary strength to govern and to have the capacity to use the powers of the office in excessive and even constitutionally questionable ways– in both foreign and domestic policy.

But with regard to Obama, Azari quickly rejects the obviously correct answer because it would make Obama’s opponents sound so reasonable. So Azari must venture bravely forth, beyond the safe compound of political science and into the fire swamp of irrational, malicious gibberish:

Read More

Julia Azari, an assistant political science professor at Marquette, has a column in Politico Magazine that begins with a rather simple premise: President Obama’s conservative critics sometimes call him too weak and sometimes call him too strong. Isn’t this, Professor Azari asks, contradictory? Specifically, the question is centered on the fact that conservatives think Obama’s foreign policy is too timid, but his domestic policy is heavyhanded, overly bureaucratized and centralized, and sometimes unconstitutional and antidemocratic.

Azari wonders why that is. She’ll be cheered to know there is a very easy answer to this, and it’s one nearly anyone could answer: this is precisely how our system of government was designed. That is, the president is the commander in chief, and has far more latitude to conduct foreign policy than domestic policy. Therefore, when he tries to institute liberal experiments on domestic policy, he runs into the United States Congress, a coequal branch of the government. When he doesn’t get his way, he can be tempted to go around Congress.

Azari suspects this is the answer–that the Constitution has something to do with it, and several paragraphs in answers her own question:

Being seen as simultaneously too strong and too weak is a structural condition for presidents. The framers of the Constitution debated about how to design an executive strong enough to protect the country, but still constrained by the rule of law. Writing from the vantage point of the mid-twentieth century, the political scientist Richard Neustadt argued that when presidents resort to unilateral “command,” it means their efforts to persuade others have failed. In this sense, it would certainly be possible for the president to both lack the necessary strength to govern and to have the capacity to use the powers of the office in excessive and even constitutionally questionable ways– in both foreign and domestic policy.

But with regard to Obama, Azari quickly rejects the obviously correct answer because it would make Obama’s opponents sound so reasonable. So Azari must venture bravely forth, beyond the safe compound of political science and into the fire swamp of irrational, malicious gibberish:

Instead, there’s a case to be made that this dual narrative is specific to the Obama presidency. Subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages about Obama’s nationality and masculinity are rife in these critiques. Comparing Putin and Obama, Sarah Palin famously commented that Obama wears “mom jeans.” On matters abroad, the implication—as with the Bergdahl case—is often that Obama demonstrates excessive sympathy for foreigners at the expense of American interests. Dictatorship narratives often include either Soviet or Nazi imagery. The factor tying the two narratives together is the idea that Obama’s very loyalties are suspect. In other words, dictatorship and weakness are both logical extensions of the claim, prevalent in some conservative circles, that Obama is not quite one of us and not an appropriate symbol of American identity.

Now, you might be tempted to steer Azari back to the land of the lucid. Republicans have accused other Democratic presidents in the past of being weak on national security, and Barack Obama himself ran–twice–on a platform that consisted, essentially, of accusing his Republican opponent of being too chicken to invade nuclear-armed Islamist countries in Central Asia. So, no, I don’t think it’s the “mom jeans” thing.

Nor is this new. Was Truman–a Democrat, by the way–accusing Eisenhower of being a feminine foreigner when he mocked Ike’s attitude toward the Soviet Union as all talk? One thinks not. (Ike was president at the time, too; Truman had already left office.) The supposed contradiction of weak on foreign affairs and statist at home is not only not mutually exclusive, as Azari seems to realize, but not unique to Obama either. Just as Azari names conservative pundits who make both accusations of Obama, she can easily dig up liberal pundits accusing George W. Bush of–in the same monologue–being a fascist and being stupid and un-American and guided by the political doctrines of our enemies.

There’s been something of a cottage industry for liberal institutions to believe–against all evidence and history–that there’s something unprecedented (as the president might say) about the partisan rancor aimed at Barack Obama. What is actually unique is the aggressiveness of the defensive posture the media and academy have taken when it comes to criticism of this president.

Read Less

Is Gladstone a Model for the GOP?

In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.

Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.

In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

Read More

In the Saturday Wall Street Journal, John Micklethwaite and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist had an article, based on their new book The Fourth Revolution, putting forward William Ewart Gladstone–the Grand Old Man of Victorian politics–as a role model for 21st century Republicans.

Their effort to revive Gladstone’s reputation can only be cheered by anyone interested in 19th century British politics (which I confess is one of my quirkier interests) and the proposals they put forward for improving the effectiveness of government while reducing its cost appear laudable. But I was struck by the complete absence of a discussion of foreign policy where Gladstone left a large imprint with his once-famous Midlothian campaign of 1880. As a parliamentary candidate and leader of the Liberal Party, he campaigned against what he saw as the imperialist excesses of the Tories in places such as southern Africa and Afghanistan where, in the First Boer War and the Second Afghan War, respectively, Britain was then suffering embarrassing reverses.

In his campaign Gladstone laid out the principles of what was then known as a Little England policy and today would be called non-interventionism. Among his principles: “1. The first thing is to foster the strength of the Empire by just legislation and economy at home. 2. My second principle of foreign policy is this: peace. 3. In my opinion the third sound principle is this to strive to cultivate and maintain, ay, to the very uttermost, what is called the concert of Europe; to keep the Powers of Europe in union together. 4. My fourth principle is that you should avoid needless and entangling engagements. 5. My fifth principle is this, gentlemen, to acknowledge the equal rights of all nations. 6. And that sixth (principle) is, that in my opinion foreign policy, subject to all the limitations that I have described, the foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom.”

Gladstone was certainly no isolationist. He criticized the Tories for not doing more about the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of Christians in Bulgaria, and as prime minister he oversaw the virtual annexation of Egypt in 1882. But, contradictory as his thinking often appears, he was less imperialist than his Conservative rivals such as Disraeli and Salisbury.

No matter how much Disraeli and Gladstone, in particular, were often ranged against each other on matters of policy both domestic and foreign, they shared in the Victorian consensus that Britain needed to keep defense spending low so as not to be a burden on the people’s purses or liberties. Britain spent enough to maintain the world’s largest navy but even its naval hegemony was increasingly challenged by a German naval buildup in the early 20th century. Meanwhile the British army remained tiny, fit only for imperial campaigning.

This was all part of a strategy that today is called “offshore balancing”: British policymakers vowed they could safeguard their interests by controlling the seas without having to intervene in a major land war in Europe. This is the same strategy that many urge on the U.S. today–in fact a strategy that the Obama administration seems to be implementing as we downsize our army to the lowest level since 1940. Yet all it takes is a passing familiarity with British history to see how delusional and self-destructive this policy can be.

The very fact that Britain lacked an army capable of fighting the armies of Europe meant that Britain was unable to deter German aggression in either 1914 or 1939. Indeed the British aversion to land warfare called into doubt its commitments to allies such as Belgium and France and led German militarists to gamble they could overrun Europe without major hindrance from London. In the event, the German calculation was wrong–Britain’s entry into both World War I and World War II was a key obstacle to German designs. But Britain paid a huge price for not being able to deter German aggression in the first place.

Worried about spending too much on defense, the Victorians and their successors spent too little, and wound up having their country and their empire bled dry in conflagrations that might have been avoided if Britain had done more to defend itself and its allies. There is an important lesson here for present-day Republicans who focus only on reducing the size of government. They should not forget that government’s first duty is to defend the country and if it is unable to do that–or even if it is able to do so but only after a long, costly struggle that might have been avoided–then short-term cost savings on defense will prove ephemeral. In the end military weakness is far more costly than military strength. That was a lesson that Gladstone and other Victorian titans ignored and that their would-be successors should heed.

Read Less

Obama Hopelessly Out of His Depth

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, including today, I’ve heard Barack Obama talk about what we owe our veterans–about how what’s happening to them in the VA scandal is intolerable, how reforms to the system are urgently needed, how the problems need to be fixed, and how we need to do right by our veterans across the board.

It’s a scathing criticism of the status quo, really, a harsh indictment of those in power and a powerful theme for a candidate to run on.

What I find rather odd, however, is that this critique is being offered by a man who is serving his second term as president. It’s being offered, in fact, by a man who was identifying these VA problems long before he first ran for president. Yet they’ve worsened on his watch. And he wants us to know he’s mighty outraged about it.

Which zeroes in on one of the problems of the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama appears to like the perks of office. (His golf game has certainly improved.) He clearly loves the prestige of being president. And he likes to talk a lot about what should be done about things like the mistreatment of our veterans in VA hospitals, income inequality, rising poverty, higher health-care premiums and deductibles, chronic unemployment, and the exploding debt. Mr. Obama can often be heard lamenting the polarized state of our politics, hyper-partisanship, and the failure of both sides to work together. He is eager to make known his unhappiness with the aggressive acts of Russia, the brutality we’re seeing in Syria, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, and much more.

Read More

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, including today, I’ve heard Barack Obama talk about what we owe our veterans–about how what’s happening to them in the VA scandal is intolerable, how reforms to the system are urgently needed, how the problems need to be fixed, and how we need to do right by our veterans across the board.

It’s a scathing criticism of the status quo, really, a harsh indictment of those in power and a powerful theme for a candidate to run on.

What I find rather odd, however, is that this critique is being offered by a man who is serving his second term as president. It’s being offered, in fact, by a man who was identifying these VA problems long before he first ran for president. Yet they’ve worsened on his watch. And he wants us to know he’s mighty outraged about it.

Which zeroes in on one of the problems of the Obama presidency. Mr. Obama appears to like the perks of office. (His golf game has certainly improved.) He clearly loves the prestige of being president. And he likes to talk a lot about what should be done about things like the mistreatment of our veterans in VA hospitals, income inequality, rising poverty, higher health-care premiums and deductibles, chronic unemployment, and the exploding debt. Mr. Obama can often be heard lamenting the polarized state of our politics, hyper-partisanship, and the failure of both sides to work together. He is eager to make known his unhappiness with the aggressive acts of Russia, the brutality we’re seeing in Syria, the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons, and much more.

But when it comes to actual, measurable achievements–when it comes to effectively dealing with our problems rather than simply talking about them–Mr. Obama is hopelessly out of his depth.  

In saying this I’m not asking anyone to measure the president against some imaginary and impossible standard of perfection. I’m simply asking people to judge him by his own words, his own promises, his own commitments. It’s not simply that Mr. Obama hasn’t achieved what he said he would; it’s that so many things have, by any reasonable and empirical standard, gotten worse, and often a good deal worse, since Obama took office. Mr. Obama has fallen short on virtually every front and on virtually every issue. He is simply awful when it comes to governing.

He would, however, be a fine addition to the Meet the Press roundtable.

Read Less

What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

Read More

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

Read Less

Obama Overstates Stability in Ukraine

In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

Read More

In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

Meanwhile a full-blown civil war appears to be growing in eastern Ukraine where, despite Vladimir Putin’s slightly less belligerent rhetorical approach of late, his minions continue to fight to prevent the re-establishment of central authority. The latest news is that separatists used a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a helicopter carrying 14 Ukrainian soldiers including a general. This comes just a few days after a major battle for control of Donetsk’s airport, which had been seized by rebels, left more than 50 people dead. “Many of those killed in the fighting were Russian citizens fighting on the rebel side,” the New York Times notes, which would not be the case if Putin were truly interested in respecting Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ukraine faces massive challenges to ward off Russian aggression while dealing with corruption and other internal problems. It’s good that the country just held a presidential election, but Obama should know better than to cite a vote as a sign that everything is getting better–that was the mistake George W. Bush repeatedly made in Iraq.

Ukraine still needs lots of aid if it is to remain whole and free, and the U.S. has not been providing it. Neither have our allies. The Obama administration, for example, is still refusing to provide any military supplies beyond MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). As is so often the case, President Obama seems to prefer giving a fancy speech to implementing a substantive policy.

Read Less

Obama’s Fantasy World

In his speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama attempted to lay out his vision for America and the world in the years to come. 

The address was notable for several things, beginning with what is by now Mr. Obama’s almost comical use of straw men, with the president creating one imaginary critic and sham argument after another. (Max Boot recounts them here; the Washington Post does so here.) What was also apparent in this speech was another Obama trait: prickliness and pettiness, in this case using a military academy commencement ceremony to mock his critics. “Those who argue … that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president asserted. (More about that claim later.)

The West Point address also revealed an extraordinary category error by America’s commander in chief. Mr. Obama seems to think “winding down” a war is synonymous with success. They can actually be antonyms, as in Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama wants his legacy to be that he ended two wars. It may well be that his legacy is that he lost two wars.

Read More

In his speech at West Point yesterday, President Obama attempted to lay out his vision for America and the world in the years to come. 

The address was notable for several things, beginning with what is by now Mr. Obama’s almost comical use of straw men, with the president creating one imaginary critic and sham argument after another. (Max Boot recounts them here; the Washington Post does so here.) What was also apparent in this speech was another Obama trait: prickliness and pettiness, in this case using a military academy commencement ceremony to mock his critics. “Those who argue … that America is in decline, or has seen its global leadership slip away – are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics,” the president asserted. (More about that claim later.)

The West Point address also revealed an extraordinary category error by America’s commander in chief. Mr. Obama seems to think “winding down” a war is synonymous with success. They can actually be antonyms, as in Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. President Obama wants his legacy to be that he ended two wars. It may well be that his legacy is that he lost two wars.

In his speech Mr. Obama could not defend his actual record, which is (perhaps with the exception of Burma) ruinous. So he opted for a “vision” speech. But the problem here is that the president didn’t lay out a vision so much as invoked a myth. He doesn’t seem to realize that false claims, repeated ad nauseam, don’t become more true. And what are the (related) false claims the president kept reciting like an incantation? Let the president speak for himself:

America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of the world…. the United States is and remains the one indispensable nation…  The question we face, the question each of you will face, is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead… Here’s my bottom line:  America must always lead on the world stage.

But of course during the Obama Era the United States has not led, and intentionally so. As an Obama adviser told the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza in 2011, the closest thing to a doctrine animating the Obama foreign policy is “leading from behind.” Here is the relevant paragraph from the Lizza story

Nonetheless, Obama may be moving toward something resembling a doctrine. One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as “leading from behind.” That’s not a slogan designed for signs at the 2012 Democratic Convention, but it does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding. It’s a different definition of leadership than America is known for, and it comes from two unspoken beliefs: that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world. Pursuing our interests and spreading our ideals thus requires stealth and modesty as well as military strength. “It’s so at odds with the John Wayne expectation for what America is in the world,” the adviser said. “But it’s necessary for shepherding us through this phase.”

So there you have it. The Obama administration, by its own admission, believes the relative power of the U.S. is declining. There’s no word yet on when Mr. Obama will indict himself for either misreading history or engaging in partisan politics. 

America in decline has been the operating premise of the Obama administration from Day One; “leading from behind” is how they have sought to manage that decline. But the president, having been hammered for being both weak and inept, is now personally leading a PR campaign to twist things around. He wants you to believe that leading from behind is really leading from ahead. And if you are Barack Obama, post-modernist, facts are subordinated to “narrative.” Truth is not an objective account of the way things are; it is what proves most helpful in interpreting events. (See “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan, period.”) Which means the president thinks he can make things up–that he can reinvent reality–as he goes along. What he’s finding out is he can’t. In the end, reality catches up to all of us. Even Barack Obama.

Read Less

Obama vs. His Imagined Critics

In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

Read More

In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

* “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

* “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

*“As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers – no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As President, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war [in Syria], and I believe that is the right decision.”

*“Of course, skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.”

I wonder if Obama or his speechwriters could possibly identify a single person who thinks that it’s a good idea to invade “every country that harbors terrorist networks,” or who thinks that putting American troops into Syria is the way to go, or who argues that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” 

Maybe there is such a person out there but I have yet to meet him or her, much less to find a large movement espousing such views. What Obama is doing here is caricaturing criticism of his foreign policy so he can rebut it more easily. In particular he is conflating “tough action” with “military action” and “military action” with “boots on the ground.”

No one is arguing that we should bomb Russia but many (including me) are arguing that we need a tougher response to Russian aggression to include more wide-ranging sanctions and the stationing of U.S. troops in NATO frontline states. 

Likewise, no one is arguing for sending troops to Syria. But many have been arguing for stepping up assistance to the Syrian opposition and employing air strikes if necessary to aid their campaign to overthrow the Iranian-supported Assad regime. 

Obama himself used just such a combination of covert aid and air strikes to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya—as Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo and as George W. Bush did initially in Afghanistan. This is a relatively low-cost way to project American military power that doesn’t risk putting troops on the ground. But to listen to the West Point address you would think this option doesn’t exist—the only choices Obama seems to recognize now are either diplomatic posturing or a massive, Iraq-style ground invasion.

Finally, no one I know of seriously thinks that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” What many (including me) argue is that, while we should try to utilize multilateral institutions where possible, we should not hold our policy hostage to a failure to win agreement at the UN Security Council—as Obama seems to be doing in the case of Syria and Iran.

In rebutting his many critics, Obama would be more persuasive if seriously engaged their arguments instead of rebutting arguments that no one is making in the real world.

Read Less

White House Can’t Regain a Deterrence It Never Had

The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

Read More

The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

Deterrence, of course, is all about the perception of power. It hinges on convincing adversaries that, with force, guile or economic isolation, you can make them think twice about acting against American interests. And if there is a common element to the complaints being voiced these days about Mr. Obama, it is that he is on the verge of losing the momentum he gained in the first term when his “light footprint” strategy — the substitution of high technology and laser-focused action for brute force — created its own, subtle deterrent effect.

Whatever one’s view of the morality of using drones, the strikes in Pakistan during Mr. Obama’s first term — nearly a sixfold increase over the Bush years — wiped out Al Qaeda’s central command. Then there were the cyberstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the first use of a digital weapon that, with a few keyboard strokes, blew up roughly 1,000 centrifuges and delayed the Iranian program by upward of a year. And of course there was the Navy SEAL mission to kill Osama bin Laden three years ago; the primary mission was to settle scores with the most wanted terrorist on the planet, but the secondary effect was to amplify the message that if you attacked the United States, sooner or later you would be hunted down.

One of the problems with this story is the task of proving a negative. So the Times absurdly asserts that the Obama strategy “created its own, subtle deterrent effect” without offering anything to back it up. It’s fair enough to respond that the public doesn’t generally know what’s been deterred, but for an administration accused of weakness that begins to sound like the embarrassing “saved or created” formulation it used with regard to jobs (which the media also parroted, much to its own discredit). It sounds even more farfetched when you remember the paragraphs immediately preceding that declaration:

[French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius] went on to argue that in failing to enforce red lines with Syria, by backing away from a military strike that he threatened if the country used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama made an error that he is paying for to this day.

A few days later a top Southeast Asian official looked up from his lunch and asked, “If you were running China today, would you be convinced there is anything that America would take the risk of casualties to protect?” Certainly not some uninhabited islands off Japan, he added, referring to one of the several disputed territories China is aggressively claiming as its own.

In other words, the Obama administration’s “deterrent effect” is not so much “subtle” as nonexistent. And if the administration wants to build a true deterrent effect, Syria is the wrong place to look. Had the president hit Bashar al-Assad’s regime directly after it used chemical weapons, it might have established some deterrent to other dictators contemplating the use of chemical weapons. (Though it raises the question of whether we ought to spend our time building deterrence against the method by which dictators kill rather than the killing itself.)

But the president balked. Giving more assistance to the rebels, after they have lost so much momentum and after the administration has suggested its desire to see a stalemate instead of a victory by either side, is unlikely to make much of a difference and it’s certainly not going to establish deterrence. Just who and what behavior would such token gestures deter?

The president, according to the Times, wants to build the case for more intervention in Syria on the grounds that it’s no longer just a humanitarian crisis but one that poses a threat to Western security. That’s true–and it’s about time. But the declaration that he doesn’t want to intervene in humanitarian catastrophes and that he’ll intervene, ever so mildly, in other conflicts years after they begin means he’s not threatening to deter either kind.

Read Less

Americans’ Foreign-Policy Contradictions

There is an interesting anomaly in the new Wall Street Journal poll. The headline finding is that most Americans want to pull away from the world: “The 47% of respondents who called for a less-active role in world affairs marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997 and 1995.” On the other hand respondents disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, making the president’s approval rating in foreign policy worse than in economic policy (where 42 percent approve of his conduct). 

How can this be, given that Obama’s foreign policy is all about having America take a less-active role in the world? Isn’t Obama giving the public what it wants? The answer, I believe, is that most Americans are ambivalent. On the one hand, they like the idea of doing less, and that impulse has been reinforced by five years of presidential rhetoric about “nation building begins at home” and “the tide of war is receding.” On the other hand, most Americans also want a vigorous defense of American interests abroad and they are uneasy about the image of weakness we currently project. 

Read More

There is an interesting anomaly in the new Wall Street Journal poll. The headline finding is that most Americans want to pull away from the world: “The 47% of respondents who called for a less-active role in world affairs marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997 and 1995.” On the other hand respondents disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, making the president’s approval rating in foreign policy worse than in economic policy (where 42 percent approve of his conduct). 

How can this be, given that Obama’s foreign policy is all about having America take a less-active role in the world? Isn’t Obama giving the public what it wants? The answer, I believe, is that most Americans are ambivalent. On the one hand, they like the idea of doing less, and that impulse has been reinforced by five years of presidential rhetoric about “nation building begins at home” and “the tide of war is receding.” On the other hand, most Americans also want a vigorous defense of American interests abroad and they are uneasy about the image of weakness we currently project. 

The pollsters read two questions to those surveyed and asked them which one more closely reflected their view of the world. “Statement A: We need a president who will present an image that America has a more open approach and is willing to negotiate with friends and foes alike. Statement B: We need a president who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.” It turns out that Statement B–reflecting a desire to show strength–won 55 percent support, whereas Statement A–calling for a more “open approach,” whatever that means–won the support of only 39 percent. The number opting for strength actually increased by five points since the question was asked in 2008 at the conclusion of the Bush presidency. 

Further buttressing the impression that Americans respond to strength, respondents disapproved of Obama’s weak handling of the Ukraine crisis by a margin of 45 percent to 37 percent. 

My takeaway? Americans may have mixed impulses in foreign policy but they are not dedicated isolationists. In fact they are ready to be led toward a stronger and more active foreign policy–a project that is likely to await Obama’s successor, whoever he or she may be.

Read Less

A Bad Metaphor, But an Even Worse Excuse

Apparently the criticism of his foreign policy is beginning to sting President Obama. But he is not going to convince any skeptics with the tortuous defense of his record that he and his spinmeister, Ben Rhodes, put forth on their Asian trip.

“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” Obama said at a news conference. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Thank you, Mr. President, for setting up every late night comedian for jokes about how you’re shanking balls or whiffing strikeouts.

To further defend the indefensible–namely his foreign-policy record–Obama reverted to the old caricature of himself as the peacemaker and his critics as warmongers:

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

Read More

Apparently the criticism of his foreign policy is beginning to sting President Obama. But he is not going to convince any skeptics with the tortuous defense of his record that he and his spinmeister, Ben Rhodes, put forth on their Asian trip.

“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” Obama said at a news conference. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Thank you, Mr. President, for setting up every late night comedian for jokes about how you’re shanking balls or whiffing strikeouts.

To further defend the indefensible–namely his foreign-policy record–Obama reverted to the old caricature of himself as the peacemaker and his critics as warmongers:

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser who no doubt helped formulate the above attack line, chimed in with a line of his own: “If we took all of the actions that our critics have demanded, we’d lose count of the number of military conflicts that America would be engaged in.”

Talk about swinging–and missing–at a straw man! (Yes those are the kinds of mixed metaphors that Obama’s baseball analogy elicits.) This is a pretty poor excuse for the drift of the world on Obama’s watch.

There hasn’t been a substantial foreign-policy victory since Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gaddafi were killed in 2011. As I note in the Wall Street Journal today, “Hopes for a peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians have been dashed, the civil war continues to rage in Syria, chaos engulfs Libya, Russia has invaded Ukraine and China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has leaders in Japan and the Philippines drawing analogies to the 1930s.”

That’s actually only a partial listing of the setbacks we have suffered. I had no room to list other bad news: the emergence of a new military dictatorship in Egypt, a crackdown on civil liberties in Turkey, growing instability in Lebanon, new reports of chemical-weapons use in Syria, advances of Islamic insurgents in Pakistan, crumbling economic sanctions on Iran in return for empty promises to slow down their nuclear program, new North Korean belligerence, and declining American credibility from allowing red lines to be crossed from Syria to Crimea and (an overlooked issue) from allowing our defense budget to be slashed precipitously.

Perhaps worst of all is the resurgence of al-Qaeda. As the New York Times notes today: “Experts and officials are beginning to speak of a vast territory that stretches from Aleppo in Syria through Anbar Province and up to the doorstep of Baghdad that is controlled by Islamist extremists.”

To be sure, not all of this can be laid at Obama’s doorstep. Some of it would have happened no matter who was president–although it’s hard to imagine despots like Putin and Assad taking advantage of a President McCain the way they have taken advantage of President Obama.

The downward spiral of Iraq and Syria is  a particularly avoidable and inter-related tragedy that might well have been avoided if (a) we had kept troops in Iraq after 2011 and (b) if we had done more to provide arms and air power to the secular Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. This would not have embroiled America in any new ground wars and in fact it would have prevented wars from getting much worse in both countries, to the detriment of America’s interests and those of our allies.

In other countries–such as Ukraine and Egypt–not even Obama can accuse his critics of advocating the use of military force. What those of us who are critical of the administration’s foreign policy advocate is the robust use of all the levers at America’s disposal, which in the case of Ukraine means we should have imposed much more wide-ranging economic sanctions on Russia and in the case of Egypt that we should have done a much more principled and robust job of defending civil liberties whether they were threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood or the military.

Perhaps the most unconvincing defense that Ben Rhodes offered was this: “There is a tendency to view all of American foreign policy through the prism of the most difficult crisis of the day, rather than taking the longer view.”

Sorry, Mr. Rhodes: U.S. presidents are judged on how they handle crises. FDR was judged on his record after Pearl Harbor, Truman on his record after the start of the Cold War, JFK on his record in the Cuban Missile Crisis, LBJ on Vietnam, Carter on the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the invasion of Afghanistan, George H.W. Bush on the invasion of Kuwait, George W. Bush on 9/11, and so on.

Obama has been judged and found wanting and lame baseball metaphors are not going to save his record from the critical scrutiny it is now rightly receiving.

Read Less

Reality Is Crushing the Obama Presidency

Yesterday I wrote a piece on President Obama’s staggering record of failure, including in the foreign-policy arena. 

Events in the last 24 hours appear to reinforce my case.  

Here is a story from the front page of today’s New York Times, hardly a right-wing outlet. It’s worth quoting at length:

President Obama encountered setbacks to two of his most cherished foreign-policy projects on Thursday, as he failed to achieve a trade deal that undergirds his strategic pivot to Asia and the Middle East peace process suffered a potentially irreparable breakdown.

Mr. Obama had hoped to use his visit here to announce an agreement under which Japan would open its markets in rice, beef, poultry and pork, a critical step toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed regional trade pact. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not able to overcome entrenched resistance from Japan’s farmers in time for the president’s visit.

In Jerusalem, Israel’s announcement that it was suspending stalemated peace negotiations with the Palestinians, after a reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the militant group Hamas, posed yet another obstacle to restarting a troubled peace process in which Secretary of State John Kerry has been greatly invested.

The setbacks, though worlds apart in geography and history, speak to the common challenge Mr. Obama has had in translating his ideas and ambitions into enduring policies. He has watched outside forces unravel his best-laid plans, from resetting relations with Russia to managing the epochal political change in the Arab world. On Thursday, as Russia staged military exercises on the border with Ukraine, Mr. Kerry denounced broken promises from the Kremlin but took no specific action.

This is incompetence on stilts.

Read More

Yesterday I wrote a piece on President Obama’s staggering record of failure, including in the foreign-policy arena. 

Events in the last 24 hours appear to reinforce my case.  

Here is a story from the front page of today’s New York Times, hardly a right-wing outlet. It’s worth quoting at length:

President Obama encountered setbacks to two of his most cherished foreign-policy projects on Thursday, as he failed to achieve a trade deal that undergirds his strategic pivot to Asia and the Middle East peace process suffered a potentially irreparable breakdown.

Mr. Obama had hoped to use his visit here to announce an agreement under which Japan would open its markets in rice, beef, poultry and pork, a critical step toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the proposed regional trade pact. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not able to overcome entrenched resistance from Japan’s farmers in time for the president’s visit.

In Jerusalem, Israel’s announcement that it was suspending stalemated peace negotiations with the Palestinians, after a reconciliation between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the militant group Hamas, posed yet another obstacle to restarting a troubled peace process in which Secretary of State John Kerry has been greatly invested.

The setbacks, though worlds apart in geography and history, speak to the common challenge Mr. Obama has had in translating his ideas and ambitions into enduring policies. He has watched outside forces unravel his best-laid plans, from resetting relations with Russia to managing the epochal political change in the Arab world. On Thursday, as Russia staged military exercises on the border with Ukraine, Mr. Kerry denounced broken promises from the Kremlin but took no specific action.

This is incompetence on stilts.

Mr. Obama’s failures are piling up one after another, in foreign policy and on the domestic side, to the point that they are now well beyond dispute. Blaming his predecessor became passé a couple of years ago. Blaming Republicans for his foreign-policy failures, and the failures of the Affordable Care Act, is absurd. And so the best the president and his allies can do at this stage is to (a) invert reality (for example, explaining that Russia’s aggression and our timidity are evidence of its weakness and our strength) and/or (b) explain away each failure as the fault not of themselves but of the stars.

That won’t be nearly enough. At some point the excuses grow tiresome and unconvincing, and the bill comes due.  

We are at that stage in the Obama presidency. Reality is crushing his presidency. And there’s nothing America’s most famous former community organizer seems able to do about it.

This is not an easy time for anyone who reveres this nation.

Read Less

Obama’s Staggering Record of Failure

 In advance of President Obama’s four-nation Asian tour this week, the Washington Post published an article saying this:

President Obama’s bid to focus U.S. attention on Asia has failed to meet the lofty expectations he set three years ago in a grand pronouncement that the new emphasis would become a pillar of his foreign policy.

The result, as Obama prepares to travel to the region… has been a loss of confidence among some U.S. allies about the administration’s commitment at a time of escalating regional tensions. Relations between Japan and South Korea are at one of the lowest points since World War II, and China has provoked both with aggressive actions at sea despite a personal plea to Beijing from Vice President Biden in December.

The same story could be said of the Obama presidency on issue after issue, in foreign policy and on domestic matters. The lofty expectations and grand pronouncements of Obama–unmatched by any presidential candidate in my lifetime–have crashed against reality time and time again.

Read More

 In advance of President Obama’s four-nation Asian tour this week, the Washington Post published an article saying this:

President Obama’s bid to focus U.S. attention on Asia has failed to meet the lofty expectations he set three years ago in a grand pronouncement that the new emphasis would become a pillar of his foreign policy.

The result, as Obama prepares to travel to the region… has been a loss of confidence among some U.S. allies about the administration’s commitment at a time of escalating regional tensions. Relations between Japan and South Korea are at one of the lowest points since World War II, and China has provoked both with aggressive actions at sea despite a personal plea to Beijing from Vice President Biden in December.

The same story could be said of the Obama presidency on issue after issue, in foreign policy and on domestic matters. The lofty expectations and grand pronouncements of Obama–unmatched by any presidential candidate in my lifetime–have crashed against reality time and time again.

It’s not simply that Mr. Obama has fallen short of what he promised; it’s that he has been, in so many respects, a failure. Choose your metrics. Better yet, choose Mr. Obama’s metrics: Job creation. Economic growth. Improving our health-care system. Reducing the debt. Reducing poverty. Reducing income inequality. Slowing the rise of the oceans. Healing the planet. Repairing the world. The Russian “reset.” Peace in the Middle East. Red lines in Syria. Renewed focus on Afghanistan. A new beginning with the Arab world. Better relations with our allies. Depolarizing our politics. Putting an end to the type of politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.” Working with the other party. Transparency. No lobbyists working in his administration. His commitment to seek public financing in the general election. The list goes on and on.

By now, nearly five and a half years into the Obama presidency, objective people can draw reasonable conclusions, among which are these: Barack Obama was among the least prepared men to ever serve as presidency. It shows. He has been overmatched by events right from the start. He is an excellent campaigner but unusually inept when it comes to governing.

By temperament and experience, based on skill set and ability, Mr. Obama is much better equipped to be a community organizer than to be president of the United States. 

For the sake of our nation and much of the world, I wish he had stayed on Chicago’s South Side.

Read Less

Dems Realizing Hillary’s Record Matters

Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential candidacy rests on two pillars: gender and resume. Just as electing the first African-American galvanized the country in 2008, Democrats think, and not without reason, that nominating the putative first female president would, in and of itself, be a conclusive argument in 2016. But at the same time, Clinton is also running on what is now a rather lengthy resume as a first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Yet after years of basking in the almost universal adulation of the mainstream media during her four years at Foggy Bottom, some rather pointed questions are starting to be asked about what it is she did–or didn’t do–while serving as the chief architect of American foreign policy.

As a front-page New York Times feature on the subject points out today, the crisis in Ukraine and the attention being given to other foreign-policy quagmires, such as Iran and the Middle East peace process, are forcing Democrats to ask themselves a question they had hoped not to have to ask, let alone answer: does Hillary’s record in office matter? Defining Clinton’s “legacy in progress” is a delicate question for the Times, and the story does its best to pose it in a sympathetic manner.

But while it might have once seemed plausible to think that she could merely coast to the presidency by touting her frequent flyer miles earned as secretary of state and mouth meaningless jargon about “soft power,” the unraveling of Obama administration foreign policy during a disastrous second term is bound to have an impact on her ability to win a general election. Though many Democrats see her as too hawkish for their taste, her farcical Russian “reset” and the failure of her attempts to appease Vladimir Putin are looking like a distinct political liability right now. The chances of another explosion in the Middle East and the fact that Iran is much closer to a nuclear weapon (developments made far more likely by her incompetent successor, John Kerry) are also undermining Clinton’s resume narrative. While none of this is likely to derail her coronation by the Democrats or encourage a serious primary opponent, the Times piece indicates that the media establishment is aware that she is a far more flawed candidate than many liberals are willing to admit.

Read More

Hillary Clinton’s likely presidential candidacy rests on two pillars: gender and resume. Just as electing the first African-American galvanized the country in 2008, Democrats think, and not without reason, that nominating the putative first female president would, in and of itself, be a conclusive argument in 2016. But at the same time, Clinton is also running on what is now a rather lengthy resume as a first lady, U.S. senator, and secretary of state. Yet after years of basking in the almost universal adulation of the mainstream media during her four years at Foggy Bottom, some rather pointed questions are starting to be asked about what it is she did–or didn’t do–while serving as the chief architect of American foreign policy.

As a front-page New York Times feature on the subject points out today, the crisis in Ukraine and the attention being given to other foreign-policy quagmires, such as Iran and the Middle East peace process, are forcing Democrats to ask themselves a question they had hoped not to have to ask, let alone answer: does Hillary’s record in office matter? Defining Clinton’s “legacy in progress” is a delicate question for the Times, and the story does its best to pose it in a sympathetic manner.

But while it might have once seemed plausible to think that she could merely coast to the presidency by touting her frequent flyer miles earned as secretary of state and mouth meaningless jargon about “soft power,” the unraveling of Obama administration foreign policy during a disastrous second term is bound to have an impact on her ability to win a general election. Though many Democrats see her as too hawkish for their taste, her farcical Russian “reset” and the failure of her attempts to appease Vladimir Putin are looking like a distinct political liability right now. The chances of another explosion in the Middle East and the fact that Iran is much closer to a nuclear weapon (developments made far more likely by her incompetent successor, John Kerry) are also undermining Clinton’s resume narrative. While none of this is likely to derail her coronation by the Democrats or encourage a serious primary opponent, the Times piece indicates that the media establishment is aware that she is a far more flawed candidate than many liberals are willing to admit.

Clinton ran for president in 2008 as the more responsible of the two leading Democrats on foreign policy and lost, in no small measure, because Barack Obama positioned himself to her left on the war in Iraq as well as the war on Islamist terror. Yet once he appointed her as secretary of state, Clinton became the person delegated to execute his policies rather than her own. That contradiction has led to furious efforts on the part of Clinton supporters to depict her as the hawk in administration councils who urged the president to order the strike on Osama bin Laden as well as to intervene in Libya. This is exactly the profile Clinton will find useful in a general election—as opposed to a Democratic primary—but it is undermined by the fact that Clinton was the front for Obama policies that not only didn’t work, but which arguably set the stage for genuine disasters.

Obama administration defenders claim that the failure of the Bush administration to stop Putin’s Georgia adventure in 2008 demonstrates that the 44th president is not to blame for the mess in the Ukraine. But it needs to be remembered that when Ukrainians rose up in revolt in 2004-5 against the same Putin puppet in Kiev, Moscow didn’t intervene. It was only after Clinton demonstrated to Russia that the U.S. was no longer interested in opposing its adventurism and would give them a veto over efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program that Putin felt emboldened to strike.

Democrats may have believed that Clinton’s exasperated reply to questions about the lies told about the Benghazi terrorist attack—What does it matter?—was enough to ignore conservative sniping about a disaster that took place on her watch. But the violence in Ukraine and the possibility that worse is to come there and perhaps also in the Middle East only add to the doubts about her supposedly inevitable progression to an inauguration in January 2017. Now that she is re-entering the political fray, her poll numbers are beginning to decline. Stuck between her pose as the Democratic hawk and the reality of the failure of her efforts at appeasement, Clinton can no longer skate by with talk about flying about the world promoting American values.

If even the New York Times cannot assemble a coherent argument for her time as secretary of state as a success, then that is a poor omen for a general election in which she will have to account not only for her own political baggage but also the failures of a lame duck and increasingly unpopular Obama administration. Gender may remain a Clinton trump card in 2016, but the resume she built up so carefully over the last decade and a half since her husband left the White House is looking more like a problem than an asset.

Read Less

Are Neoconservatives Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview?

Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

Read More

Earlier this week, Reihan Salam used his Slate column to explain why he’s “Still a Neocon.” In the course of his column, Salam defined neoconservatism in generally mainstream and positive terms, and so leftists and paleocons immediately and predictably took offense. What gives neoconservatives the right to define their own ideology, they wondered, and proceeded to explain to Salam who he really is and what he really thinks. (Spoiler: they respect him too much to admit he’s a neocon.)

Few things are quite as devoid of self-awareness as critics of neoconservatism complaining that neoconservatives define the term too broadly. (Salam’s colleague Joshua Keating’s response is crowned with a photo of Dick Cheney, which tells you something about the left’s understanding of conservative policy currents.) Nonetheless, while many of the responses fell into this category, some were certainly thoughtful attempts to advance the conversation. Last week, David Harsanyi raised reasonable objections to mischaracterizations of Rand Paul’s libertarian-leaning foreign policy. This time, though, in a good-faith piece on his own falling out with neoconservative ideology Harsanyi falls into the trap of mischaracterizing neoconservatism with regard to the Iraq war. Harsanyi writes:

As I understand it, contemporary neoconservatism is a philosophy that advocates the promotion of “democracy” and liberal ideals abroad – and one that isn’t shy about using military power to achieve those goals. It’s a doctrine that is far more hawkish than the one Salam describes. The central argument of the neocons in the early 2000s was that an invasion of Iraq would result in the spreading of democratic values across the Middle East; ideals that would be embraced by the people and transform once-bellicose adversaries into reliable allies. For a time, regrettably, I supported the Iraq War because I naively bought into the notion that the United States could turn a neighborhood of authoritarian regimes into a peaceful, economically integrating Middle East. (I also believed one of these regimes had WMDs). As it turned out social engineering doesn’t work abroad either.

The paragraph compresses the timeline of neoconservative thinking on Iraq. Yes, democracy promotion was part of the nation-building strategy in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But it’s misleading to suggest that the desire to spread democracy was the reason we invaded Iraq. As Harsanyi notes, there were the widespread fears of weapons of mass destruction, which themselves came after (chronologically speaking) other concerns. The first Gulf war ended with a formal ceasefire agreement, the terms of which Saddam steadily began violating. After the breakdown of the ceasefire, Saddam’s forces started firing on American aircraft patrolling a no-fly zone. Then came the worries over WMD.

The timeline is crucial to understanding the thought process taking place inside the Bush administration on how to handle Saddam and what to do about Iraq. In the event Saddam was to be overthrown by an American-led effort, what should replace him? Here I’ll quote from Doug Feith’s memoir, War and Decision, about the various alternatives being proffered and their merits, including replacing Saddam without a wholesale transfer of institutional power, referred to as “Saddamism without Saddam”:

Suppose we could bring about Saddam’s replacement by Iraqis who would preserve Sunni control—the most likely candidates, given their predominance in the Baathist regime. Even aside from whether the American people would tolerate their government’s installing a new dictatorship in Iraq, the deck would be stacked against that new regime. The Kurds and the Shia are 80 to 85 percent of the Iraqi population. What if one or both of those groups seized the opportunity to rebel? What would be America’s responsibility and response? In the hope of achieving stability, could we support the dictatorship in crushing a rebellion for majority rule? It was not America’s proudest moment when we watched Saddam crush the Shiites after Desert Storm in 1991. Now we would be standing by in favor of leaders we had helped install.

Saddamism without Saddam was rejected, and rightfully so. Now, you can use this information to argue that the war should have been avoided and Saddam left in power, if you’re so inclined. But it’s incorrect to suggest that neoconservative supporters of the Iraq war chose to spread democracy by the sword and then fixed their target, or that the Iraq war demonstrates that neoconservatives believe the cause of spreading democracy is sufficient to justify the invasion and occupation of another country.

In 1976, Irving Kristol attempted to define a “neoconservative” worldview. Kristol famously thought of neoconservatism as a “persuasion,” and he didn’t particularly care what it was called. (He said he would not have been surprised had the term given to his worldview changed over time.) “In foreign policy, neoconservatism believes that American democracy is not likely to survive for long in a world that is overwhelmingly hostile to American values, if only because our transactions (economic and diplomatic) with other nations are bound eventually to have a profound impact on our own domestic economic and political system,” he wrote.

How we help foster a world that isn’t overwhelmingly hostile to American values is a complex question that requires an array of policy choices, but isn’t well served by deep retrenchment, which is what Salam appears to be warning against most of all. Neoconservatism’s critics would benefit greatly from exploring more of those policy choices than just massive demonstrations of military force.

Read Less

Immigration Debate Is Just Getting Started

Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

Read More

Nearly every question of how a Republican politician’s stand will affect the 2016 presidential primaries must be qualified with “it depends who else runs.” And so it is with Jeb Bush’s comments on immigration. Although conservatives have more objections to Bush than on immigration, other issues–such as the Common Core, for example–just don’t have the visibility the immigration issue does. Nor do those other issues have the legislative and policy relevance of immigration: the Senate, after all, did pass an immigration reform bill.

Additionally, immigration arguably played a greater role than any other specific issue in sifting wheat from chaff in the 2012 Republican primaries. There were other factors, but it seems clear that Rick Perry was at least damaged by his comments on immigration–that if you don’t support in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrations “I don’t think you have a heart.” Bush’s comment–that such migration is “an act of love”–has been compared to Perry’s, and it’s also similar to a far better phrased version of the argument put forth by Newt Gingrich, who put it in terms of separating families. And we got a preview of how Bush’s comments might be countered in a 2016 version of those debates from Ted Cruz, in an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper:

“We need to be a nation that welcomes and celebrates legal immigrants, people who follow the rules, and come here according to the law,” said Cruz in response.

“Rule of law matters. And if you look at any sovereign nation, securing your border is critically important,” said the freshman lawmaker.

“We need to solve the problem to secure the borders and then improve and streamline legal immigration so people can come to America consistent with the rule of law,” said Cruz.

Cruz’s response is not particularly controversial, though it’s clear he’s less concerned about fixing America’s legal immigration system–which is an unholy mess–than about securing the border. Both are important: in the age of asymmetric warfare, it makes no sense to have an unsecured border; and the current restrictions and layers of red tape on immigration are artificially distorting the market for labor and creating a black market–as overregulation almost always does–to fill the demand.

More relevant to 2016 than this argument–which goes round and round, and round again–is what it indicates about the various actors involved. And it confirms the pattern we’ve seen from Ted Cruz on his strategy for the primary contest. Cruz has not taken to promoting major reform legislation or “owning” an issue such as it is. Instead, he moves with alacrity to position himself slightly closer to the party’s grassroots when such reform is proposed.

There’s nothing objectionable about the strategy. Cruz is not required to churn out white papers or author major reform legislation, and if he does run for president he’ll do so anyway. It might not be on immigration, but in all likelihood a Cruz candidacy would include a tax plan at the very least. What the strategy is allowing Cruz to do is take the temperature of the party’s grassroots as the 2016 picture fills out.

Cruz has deployed the strategy against the candidate who would probably be his closest rival for grassroots voters, Rand Paul. When the Kentucky senator staged his famous filibuster over drones to the applause of conservatives (and a few non-conservatives as well), Cruz joined him on the chamber floor for the assist. But Paul’s response to the crisis in Ukraine was too tepid for Cruz, who staked out vague but more interventionist ground:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul. He and I are good friends. But I don’t agree with him on foreign policy,” Cruz said. “I think U.S. leadership is critical in the world. And I agree with him that we should be very reluctant to deploy military force abroad. But I think there is a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did… The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

Cruz portrays the difference between him and Paul as a philosophical one, which is why, as I’ve argued in the past, foreign policy is likely to be a more prominent point of contention in the 2016 GOP primary season than it was in 2012. As Jeb Bush’s comments showed, the contentious domestic issue is likely to be immigration, which is why, no matter how stalled in the House immigration legislation remains, it’s an argument that will only get louder between now and 2016.

Read Less

Rubio and Paul Trading Places?

Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

Read More

Much has been made about the fact that Marco Rubio struggled last year and has thrived thus far in 2014. But while Rubio never seemed to have a specific rivalry with Rand Paul (who sparred with Chris Christie and more recently Ted Cruz), the two prospective 2016 presidential candidates seem to have their political fates connected in a way others don’t: one’s loss often accompanies the other’s gain. And this year, as Rubio recovers his footing it’s Paul who appears to be struggling. That’s been fairly consistent with the two Republicans’ shared term in the Senate thus far.

When Rubio burst onto the national GOP stage in 2010 in his Senate race against Charlie Crist, conservatives loved his message but fretted that his political persona was too dependent on that one message. The concern was voiced in August of that year by Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes, who wrote: “In every appearance, including my interview with him in late July, he delivers the speech in whole or in part. There’s a reason for this: It’s an awfully good speech. It’s intensely patriotic and focused on how he’d like voters to see the choice they face in the election. It’s better than any speech I’ve heard from a Republican candidate or elected official in a long time. And Rubio delivers it passionately.”

That was all correct, but a question lingered: the right hoped Rubio would run for president sooner rather than later. Would his policy chops catch up, and could he build a record in time? The answer over the last couple of years, but especially this year so far, seems to be: Yes. His biggest setback has been his attempt to reform immigration law, but it showed at least that he wasn’t shy about putting forth detailed plans and advocating for them. Since immigration reform, he’s put out plans to tackle poverty, economic growth, higher education reform, and he hit his stride when attention turned to foreign affairs with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the popular unrest in Venezuela.

Rubio seemed to sputter in 2013 as Paul saw his moment in the sun. Paul’s famous filibuster not only won him plaudits from both sides of the aisle but also got his fellow Republican senators–Rubio among them–to appear on the chamber floor as supporting characters. Then the Edward Snowden affair happened, and Paul appeared to go from potential dark horse candidate in 2016 to the top tier. As the NSA domestic surveillance revelations were easily folded into the broader narrative of President Obama’s intrusive, big-government agenda, Paul took a step toward the front of the pack.

Part of Paul’s appeal was a term and a concept we’ve come to prize in American politics, with its ubiquity of television cameras and endless debates: authenticity. Paul came across as genuine and comfortable in his own skin, and he spoke confidently and fluently to any audience that would hear from him. It was no surprise that Paul and Christie developed something of a (brief) rivalry; neither pulls punches.

But Paul comes across as genuinely uncomfortable talking about foreign crises where the choice isn’t war or peace but something in the middle. Ukraine has made the contrast with Rubio clear, not just on policy but on the fact that events have shifted onto the latter’s turf. Paul’s TIME magazine piece on the appropriate American reaction to the Crimean crisis has already come in for some tough criticism, for example from National Review’s Patrick Brennan, who called Paul’s ideas “terrible or delusional.” But what caught my attention was more the stylistic clumsiness of the messaging–not that U.S. senators should be graded on whether their prose matches up to Tolstoy’s but to their own. In other words, Paul’s surefootedness is completely absent. For example:

America is a world leader, but we should not be its policeman or ATM.

At the end of the day, I still agree with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen — the greatest threat to America’s security is our national debt.

Russia, the Middle East or any other troubled part of the world should never make us forget that the U.S. is broke. We weaken our security and defenses when we print money out of thin air or borrow from other countries to allegedly support our own.

Like Dwight Eisenhower, I believe the U.S. can actually be stronger by doing less.

Like Ronald Reagan, particularly regarding Russia, I also believe, “Don’t mistake our reluctance for war for a lack of resolve.”

That’s just a sample, but much of the piece is written that way. It’s unlike Paul to speak without saying something, but he comes close to doing so on Ukraine. More than a week before Paul’s piece was published, Rubio published at Politico an immediate reaction to the crisis, whose applicability showed he was either prepared for the Russian action or he didn’t need to be to know how to react.

The issues underpinning Rubio and Paul’s fortunes demonstrate something else: unlike Christie’s “bridgegate,” which involved his staff, for Paul and Rubio events beyond their control have exerted upward or downward pressure on them–in Paul’s case, the NSA revelations and for both the crisis in Ukraine (and to a lesser extent Venezuela). It shows the degree of uncertainty and luck in the process. But then again, that’s often how it is in the White House too.

Read Less

Cruz to Rand: Tea Party ≠ Isolationist

Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

Read More

Senator Rand Paul is smart enough not to place too much importance on his victory in the presidential straw poll held at the recently concluded CPAC conference. Paul was undoubtedly the favorite of the conservative activists who attended the annual big conservative jamboree and received the biggest ovation of all the GOP stars who spoke there. Yet he is sure to remember that his father Ron also won the straw poll in 2010 and 2011 without it aiding his noisy but ultimately futile 2012 presidential candidacy.

However no one, least of all, his GOP rivals, should think that Paul hasn’t expanded his base from his father’s band of libertarian extremists or won’t be a first tier contender in 2016 when runs for president. He has maintained the momentum he got from his filibuster on drones last year while also carefully avoiding confrontations with the GOP establishment he’s eager to supersede. Many of his backers thought the disastrous government shutdown was a good idea and want to make all members of the party leadership to pay for the compromises they forged in order to extricate Republicans from the corner into which the Tea Party had painted them. However, Paul is quietly backing his Kentucky colleague Mitch McConnell for re-election. He’s also sent out signals to the establishment that he should be trusted to avoid extremism by saying that the shutdown wasn’t such a good idea.

But none of that changes the fact that Paul remains outside the mainstream of his party on foreign policy. As Ted Cruz, Paul’s main rival for the affection of Tea Party voters, reminded the country today on ABC’s “This Week,” it would be a mistake to think the Kentucky senator’s neo-isolationist views represent the sentiments of most conservatives or even Tea Partiers. Resentment against big government and suspicion of President Obama’s actions may have helped boost Paul’s popularity, but the idea that it is Rand’s party on foreign policy is a myth.

The assumption that all those who sympathize with the Tea Party agree with Paul on foreign policy is as much a product of liberal mainstream media manipulation as is the canard that they are racists. Those who identify with or view the movement favorably share a common mindset about the need to push back against the expansion of big government and the tax and spend policies that are its foundation. But many of those who call themselves Tea Partiers want nothing to do with Paul’s antipathy for a strong defense and unwillingness to maintain a stalwart U.S. presence abroad to stand up for our allies and our values.

Cruz has carved out a niche for himself among those most antagonistic to the party establishment as well as the liberal big government machine. But today he outlined a point on which he, and many other grass roots conservatives part company with Paul:

“I’m a big fan of Rand Paul,” Cruz said in an interview aired Sunday.” “We are good friends. I don’t agree with him on foreign policy. U.S. leadership is critical in the world. I agree we should be reluctant to deploy military force aboard, but there’s a vital role, just as Ronald Reagan did. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire, when he stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and said ‘Tear down this wall.’ Those words changed the course of history. The United States has a responsibility to defend our values.”

In doing so, Cruz drew a clear distinction between his beliefs and a Paulite view of America’s place in the world that is for all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from Obama’s predilection for retreat from confrontations with aggressors such as Iran or Russia.

Paul sought to align himself with Reagan’s foreign policy views on Fox News Sunday by declaring that his “reluctance for war” shouldn’t be confused with a “lack of resolve.” But to defend that position he cited an op-ed published in the Washington Post on the crisis in the Ukraine by Henry Kissinger as something he agreed with.

While no one doubts Dr. Kissinger’s deep store of knowledge about foreign policy, his piece combined common sense about the limits of America’s ability to undo Russia’s seizure of the Crimea with a sorry rationalization for Vladimir Putin’s aggression. The former secretary of state’s citation of Russian claims to the Ukraine and attempt to argue against strong Western outrage about this crime was exactly the wrong message to send to Russia at a time when it is trying to subvert the independence of that country in order to reassemble in one form or another the late and unlamented Tsarist/Soviet Empire.

The article was a cri de Coeur for a revival not of Reaganite foreign policy but of Kissinger’s own amoral détente with the Soviets that treated human rights (including the fate of a persecuted Soviet Jewry) as an unimportant detail. This sort of “realism” has always had its advocates within the GOP but it was exactly the sort of Republican establishment mindset that Reagan bitterly opposed in the 1976 and 1980 GOP primaries.

For the last generation, the Republican mainstream has, with some notable exceptions, united behind policies that emphasized a strong defense and a foreign policy that rejected retreat in the face of aggression while also upholding American values. It is interesting as well as gratifying to see that for all of his desire to torch the establishment on every other issue, Ted Cruz is very much part of this consensus. Paul can pretend he was more influenced by Reagan than his extremist father (whose views on foreign policy would make him more at home on the far left than the right). But as long as he remains an outlier on this crucial element of presidential politics, he shouldn’t be thought of as representing all Tea Partiers, let alone most Republicans.

Read Less

Foreign Policy is Back and So Is Rubio

The year 2013 was not a good one for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions. As I noted in January, it was annus horribillis for Rubio as he went from being seen as the perfect prototype of the Republican of the future to being scorned as a RINO by many of his former Tea Party supporters for his efforts on behalf of immigration reform and being overshadowed on security issues by the rise of Rand Paul and the isolationist wing of his party. But Rubio make a strong start in 2014 with an eloquent address at the Capitol on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty that rightly sought to lead the GOP toward a new approach to the welfare state that sought to make the Republicans once again the party of ideas. But Rubio’s greatest strength has always been foreign policy. With the Russian seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine refocusing the public of the vital importance of America’s standing in the world, Rubio seems to have not only rediscovered the confidence that he seemed to lack at times last year but reminded a lot of Republicans of the reasons he was on everyone’s short list for president at the start of 2013.

While there’s no telling whether the senator will run in 2016 or if he can succeed if he does, Rubio’s speech to the CPAC Conference today in Washington showcased the senator’s strengths. In a speech that including many of his traditional stump remarks about his immigrant parents and the American dream, Rubio made the best case against the sort of retreat from engagement with the world that Rand Paul has championed that conservatives have heard in a long time. In a political atmosphere in which the sole foreign policy concerns of Republicans was the Obama administration’s violations of civil liberties and trashing of the Constitution it was possible for Paul to dominate the GOP. But now that Russia’s aggression has put foreign policy back on the front burner with most Republicans agreeing that the trouble is due to President Obama’s weak leadership and lack of faith in American principles, Rubio seems to be back as well.

Read More

The year 2013 was not a good one for Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential ambitions. As I noted in January, it was annus horribillis for Rubio as he went from being seen as the perfect prototype of the Republican of the future to being scorned as a RINO by many of his former Tea Party supporters for his efforts on behalf of immigration reform and being overshadowed on security issues by the rise of Rand Paul and the isolationist wing of his party. But Rubio make a strong start in 2014 with an eloquent address at the Capitol on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty that rightly sought to lead the GOP toward a new approach to the welfare state that sought to make the Republicans once again the party of ideas. But Rubio’s greatest strength has always been foreign policy. With the Russian seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine refocusing the public of the vital importance of America’s standing in the world, Rubio seems to have not only rediscovered the confidence that he seemed to lack at times last year but reminded a lot of Republicans of the reasons he was on everyone’s short list for president at the start of 2013.

While there’s no telling whether the senator will run in 2016 or if he can succeed if he does, Rubio’s speech to the CPAC Conference today in Washington showcased the senator’s strengths. In a speech that including many of his traditional stump remarks about his immigrant parents and the American dream, Rubio made the best case against the sort of retreat from engagement with the world that Rand Paul has championed that conservatives have heard in a long time. In a political atmosphere in which the sole foreign policy concerns of Republicans was the Obama administration’s violations of civil liberties and trashing of the Constitution it was possible for Paul to dominate the GOP. But now that Russia’s aggression has put foreign policy back on the front burner with most Republicans agreeing that the trouble is due to President Obama’s weak leadership and lack of faith in American principles, Rubio seems to be back as well.

It’s likely that many on the right will never forgive Rubio for his support of a bipartisan compromise immigration bill last year. Though the bill passed the Senate with the support of a substantial minority of Republicans, it was dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House and Rubio bore the brunt of much of the resentment of the party’s grass roots activists for backing a bill that granted a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal aliens in the country. The depth of this opposition as well as the intemperate and often biased language used by some on the right has embittered many Hispanics and created a long-term problem for Republicans. Rubio hasn’t backtracked on his support for the original bill but he understands there is no persuading his party’s base on the issue and didn’t even mention it in his speech today.

But while that conflict has permanently alienated many Tea Partiers who formed the base of his successful 2010 primary challenge to once (and perhaps future) Florida Governor Charlie Crist, the outcomes of elections are as much about the defining issues of the moment as they are about personalities. If, after years of being dominated by discussions of taxes, spending, ObamaCare and immigration, the Republican public square returns to some of its traditional focus on foreign policy, there’s no denying that Rubio’s ability to articulate a Reaganite stance on engagement with the world and defense returns him to the front rank of GOP leaders.

Speaking today about how Obama’s weakness on China, Iran and North Korea has led inevitably to disasters in Syria and Ukraine, Rubio sounded a clarion call for conservatives to stand up for a strong America by telling his audience that “only one nation can stand up to totalitarianism.”

We have a president who believes that by the sheer force of his personality he could be able to shape global events. We have a president that believes that by going around the world and giving key speeches in key places, he can shape the behavior of other nations. We do not have the luxury of seeing the world the way we hope it would be. We have to see the world the way it is.

Paul’s neo-isolationism has expanded its appeal beyond the libertarian base inherited from his father because of the cynicism about government that Obama’s extra-Constitutional behavior has bred in conservatives. But Rubio’s appeal for a foreign policy rooted in support for core American principles is one that still resonates with most Republicans. At a time when the administration is gutting defense and retreating in the face of foreign tyrants, the pendulum may be swinging back toward the pro-defense wing of the party.

To note this is not the same thing as assuming that Rubio will be moving back to the front rank of his party’s presidential contenders. But if he is interested in running in 2016, those who assume that immigration has doomed his chances forever may be wrong. If, thanks to Putin, Iran and Obama’s blunders, a strong stance on foreign affairs is again a prerequisite for winning the Republican nomination, Rubio will have a fighting chance.

Read Less

Obama’s Crisis of Competence

Earlier in the week I wrote about a Defense Department nominee that Republicans were questioning over whether the administration knew of Russian treaty violations while it was pushing the Senate to ratify New START. But that nominee, Brian McKeon, turned out not to have been the subject of controversy at the ensuing committee hearing. Instead, it was two of his fellow nominees who clashed with John McCain and subsequently had their nominations put on hold.

The fireworks between McCain and Bob Work, nominated to be deputy defense secretary, and Christine Wormuth, nominated to be under secretary for defense policy, were in some sense inevitable. McCain was already losing patience with the constant stream of Obama nominees who fell into one of two categories: either they were ambassadorial posts given to staggeringly uninformed big-money donors or they were–like Work and Wormuth, and higher-ranking nominees before them such as Chuck Hagel–given important defense policy-related nominations but struggled to answer questions about that subject.

The Washington Times recounts this particular committee hearing, in which the two apparently “failed to provide adequate responses to questions” McCain asked them:

Read More

Earlier in the week I wrote about a Defense Department nominee that Republicans were questioning over whether the administration knew of Russian treaty violations while it was pushing the Senate to ratify New START. But that nominee, Brian McKeon, turned out not to have been the subject of controversy at the ensuing committee hearing. Instead, it was two of his fellow nominees who clashed with John McCain and subsequently had their nominations put on hold.

The fireworks between McCain and Bob Work, nominated to be deputy defense secretary, and Christine Wormuth, nominated to be under secretary for defense policy, were in some sense inevitable. McCain was already losing patience with the constant stream of Obama nominees who fell into one of two categories: either they were ambassadorial posts given to staggeringly uninformed big-money donors or they were–like Work and Wormuth, and higher-ranking nominees before them such as Chuck Hagel–given important defense policy-related nominations but struggled to answer questions about that subject.

The Washington Times recounts this particular committee hearing, in which the two apparently “failed to provide adequate responses to questions” McCain asked them:

At one point, Mr. McCain focused his attention Mr. Work’s lack of familiarity with a critical 2013 government report that outlined cost issues associated with the Littoral Combat Ship.

Recent years have seen the ship experience a series of cost overruns, and Mr. McCain expressed shock when Mr. Work indicated that he had not seen the report.

The Senator then questioned Mr. Work’s qualifications to be Deputy Defense Secretary. “You haven’t read it? I’m stunned that you haven’t,” Mr. McCain scoffed.

Mr. McCain’s frustration toward Ms. Wormuth stemmed from a separate exchange in which the senator accused her of ducking his request for additional information on al Qaeda.

The confirmation hearing for Hagel was an unmitigated disaster, but the concern appears to be that Hagel was only the beginning. McCain has obvious disagreements with the president on policy, but the recent global emergencies have cast doubt on the process that leads to policy in this administration. The confused, ad hoc nature of crisis response in the Obama White House makes it all the more important that Hagel at least have competent, knowledgeable employees he can lean on. Someone’s got to steer the ship, in other words.

On the other side of this nominating circus are the ambassadors. I wrote here about the Obama donor tapped to be ambassador to Norway who didn’t know anything about Norway and the Hungarian ambassador who couldn’t name America’s strategic interests in Hungary, who were joined in their ranks by the ambassador to Argentina who had never been to Argentina (but what a perfect reason to visit!).

And on that issue, McCain wasn’t the only one fed up. Olivier Knox reported earlier this week that the American Foreign Service Association, which represents some 31,000 current and former diplomats, was so alarmed by President Obama’s envoy fire sale that they went so far as to write an embarrassingly elementary how-to guide for Obama:

A good nominee ideally “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages,” AFSA said in its six-page report.

“The actions and words of an ambassador have consequences for U.S. national security and interests far beyond the individual country or organization to which he or she is accredited,” AFSA said. “It is essential, therefore, that ambassadors chosen to represent the president and lead our diplomatic missions possess the attributes, experience and skills to do so successfully.”

The report landed at a time when a handful of Obama’s nominees — some of them seemingly picked for no reason other than to reward them for scooping up vast piles of re-election campaign cash — have raised eyebrows in Congress.

AFSA tried to be as–forgive me–diplomatic as possible, by claiming they weren’t writing this guide for Obama personally, just for anyone who happens to be president and who may be tempted to auction off diplomatic postings. McCain may have seemed to lose his temper, but this instruction manual is far more insulting: its language is downright condescending.

It’s also more evidence that the Chuck Hagels aren’t exceptions; they’re just high-profile enough to garner the publicity. When the light is shined on other nominees, it’s clear this White House neither takes foreign affairs especially seriously nor has the presence of mind to pretend it does.

Read Less

Obama Consciously Engineering America’s Decline

In remarks today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. global military dominance can “no longer be taken for granted.” He said this even as he was in the process of announcing that the Obama administration plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup. (For context, the Army will go from a post-September 11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest Army since 1940.)

Max Boot does an excellent job laying out the problems with this proposal here and here. I’d simply add that the fact that American military dominance can no longer be taken for granted is not problematic for someone of Barack Obama’s worldview. In fact, he views the weakening of American power as a downright positive thing, as a contributor to peace and stability, and a means through which America will be more respected and loved in the world. 

Mr. Obama is wrong on every count. But in a sense it’s not at all surprising that the president would hold these views, given the academic and intellectual milieu he comes from. Liberals like Mr. Obama don’t view America as particularly exceptional. They think “leading from behind” is just what America ought to do and where America ought to be. Mr. Obama, then, isn’t any different than your run-of-the-mill man of the left.

Read More

In remarks today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said U.S. global military dominance can “no longer be taken for granted.” He said this even as he was in the process of announcing that the Obama administration plans to shrink the United States Army to its smallest force since before the World War II buildup. (For context, the Army will go from a post-September 11 peak of 570,000 to between 440,000 and 450,000, the smallest Army since 1940.)

Max Boot does an excellent job laying out the problems with this proposal here and here. I’d simply add that the fact that American military dominance can no longer be taken for granted is not problematic for someone of Barack Obama’s worldview. In fact, he views the weakening of American power as a downright positive thing, as a contributor to peace and stability, and a means through which America will be more respected and loved in the world. 

Mr. Obama is wrong on every count. But in a sense it’s not at all surprising that the president would hold these views, given the academic and intellectual milieu he comes from. Liberals like Mr. Obama don’t view America as particularly exceptional. They think “leading from behind” is just what America ought to do and where America ought to be. Mr. Obama, then, isn’t any different than your run-of-the-mill man of the left.

What is different is that Barack Obama isn’t on the faculty of Columbia; he’s commander in chief of the United States. Which means that his misguided views are downright pernicious. And for all the damage the president is doing on the domestic side–and I would not want to underestimate it for a moment–it may be the harm he’s inflicting on America in foreign policy and national security is deeper, broader, and more durable. 

More than any president in my lifetime, Barack Obama has damaged virtually everything he’s touched. When it comes to American interests, he’s a one-man wrecking ball. 

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.