Commentary Magazine


Topic: George W. Bush

Hillary’s Gracious Words About Bush

Hillary Clinton has done what Barack Obama rarely does: Show class, especially toward Mr. Obama’s predecessor. According to Secretary Clinton:

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Hillary Clinton has done what Barack Obama rarely does: Show class, especially toward Mr. Obama’s predecessor. According to Secretary Clinton:

let’s not forget the trend lines. George W. Bush is very popular in Sub-Saharan Africa. Why? Because of the president’s emergency program for AIDS relief. Whether you agree or disagree with a lot of what else he did — and I disagree with a lot of it — I am proud to be an American when I go to Sub-Saharan Africa and people say, “I want to thank President Bush and the United States for helping us fight HIV/AIDS.”

I understand that this kind of thing doesn’t foreshadow a new, irenic and unified moment in American politics. But in a nation where the partisan divisions are growing, where nearly 70 percent of those surveyed believe America is more divided than it was four years ago, it’s a nice gesture. The kind of thing, come to think of it, that Barack Obama promised to do when he said he’d put an end to the type of politics that “breeds division and conflict and cynicism.”

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Obama’s Katrina? It’s Actually Worse

For once, I have to agree with the White House. They’re right to deny that the debacle along the border with Mexico is President Obama’s Hurricane Katrina moment. It’s actually much worse.

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For once, I have to agree with the White House. They’re right to deny that the debacle along the border with Mexico is President Obama’s Hurricane Katrina moment. It’s actually much worse.

White House Domestic Policy Council Director Cecilia Muñoz said it wasn’t fair to compare the debacle along the border with Mexico to Hurricane Katrina. She’s right about that. The Katrina analogy has been mooted by a number of conservative writers but got some extra juice this week when Democrat Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose Texas district is situated along the border where locals have been overwhelmed by the surge of illegal immigration, used the K word when discussing President Obama’s reaction to the problem. Obama’s decision to avoid the border this week even though he was already scheduled to go to Texas for a political fundraiser was widely compared to the awful optics that ensued when President Bush was photographed flying over New Orleans after it was devastated by the storm.

Bush had good reasons for not parachuting into an area where first responders and reinforcements were already overwhelmed by the disaster. His presence on the ground would have done nothing to help anyone. Nor is it clear that Obama going to the border would do a thing to fix the crisis there. Yet both presidents suffered for those decisions because their physical distance from events was interpreted by the public as symbolic of their indifference to problems the federal government seemed unable to fix.

But contrary to the White House interpretation of events, the injustice here is not to Obama but to Bush. After all, despite some of the more extreme criticisms aimed at the 43rd president, nobody really believed Bush was capable of causing bad weather or had any impact on whether the levees were strong enough to prevent floods. Katrina was a natural disaster and though the response to it was clearly inadequate, the failures were mostly the fault of the collapse of local and state authorities rather than federal bungling. The push to blame Bush for it was largely the result of media distortions in which the perception of racism overwhelmed the facts.

Though real, the suffering along the border isn’t quite on the scale of the destruction of a major American city, but it must also be pointed out that this isn’t a natural disaster. While we can debate about what the best response to it now would be, attempts to deny that the massive increase in the influx of illegals is largely due to the president’s statements about allowing children to stay are unpersuasive. Bush didn’t make the weather but, like it or not, Obama did encourage the people of Central America to believe that all they had to do to attain residency in the U.S. was to make it across the border. Even worse, his response to the crisis has seemed to center on attempts to blame it on Republican unwillingness to adopt immigration reform rather than on an effort to defend the border and to ensure that the influx of illegals are swiftly sent home.

But the problem here isn’t merely one of perception. Nor is it strictly speaking a matter of fixing an immigration system badly in need of repair.

Even if House Republicans had embraced the bipartisan comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate last year, the situation along the border might be just as bad. The legislation did call for a massive increase in spending on border security. But even though I think the bill was worthy of support, it’s hard to argue with conservatives who point out that Obama has shown little interest in policing the border while simultaneously making it clear that he was willing to allow illegals to stay in the country.

Moreover, the push from the United Nations, welcomed by some liberals, to treat illegals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as “refugees” rather than mere illegal aliens shows the danger that stems from Obama’s attitudes. The violence in these countries is nothing new. Those who came here did so primarily for understandable economic reasons. While Republicans need to consider administration calls for granting the government $3.7 billion in emergency funds to deal with the crisis, the real problem is an administration that has acted to bypass Congress and refused to enforce immigration laws that it doesn’t like.

Will Obama be hurt as much by the border fiasco as Bush was by the hurricane? No. Though the president has damaged his standing with the public—including many who agree with him on immigration reform—by the indifferent response to the crisis, the mainstream media continues to have his back even as his second term heads inevitably toward lame duck status. There will be no press pile-on about Obama hobnobbing with Democratic donors who paid $10,000 to nosh on barbecue in the presidential presence the way Bush was crucified for his Katrina fly-by.

But what we are witnessing is a humanitarian disaster that was created by a thoughtless administration that has trashed the rule of law on immigration and found itself surprised by a crisis of its own making. As bad as Bush’s hurricane optics were, history will judge Obama’s behavior far more harshly.

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What Kind of Iraq Did Obama Inherit?

A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

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A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

And then there’s this:

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

To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.

The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

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The Media McCarthyites

The op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, former State Department official Liz Cheney, has set off a fire storm of criticism on the left about why they should be allowed to comment, or why their views should be considered. Here, for example, is Brian Beutler, senior editor of the New Republic, commenting on that journal’s website. At the Washington Post’s “Plum Line,” here is Paul Waldman. Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows, not with a touch of irony given the Carter administration’s foreign-policy track record, writes, “a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today’s disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence.” And, of course, the New York Times chimes in. James Wolcott at Vanity Fair advises tuning out anyone with the last name “Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Boot, or, how apt, Slaughter.” The irony, of course, is that the names he puts forward often do not agree on policy prescriptions.

How sad, silly, and reflective of the naked partisanship that has done more than anything else to undercut Iraq. I read more bloggers on the left than I do on the right, even if I disagree with them. The argument always matters more than the person who makes them. The arbitrariness of it can also be infuriating. Why single out Wolfowitz, Bremer, and Cheney, but not Crocker, Khalilzad, Armitage, Rice, Powell, and Wilkerson? All supported the conflict in Iraq. Some subsequently walked away but the nature of government is that when decisions are made, even if you disagree with them, you move on to get the best possible outcome. Zalmay Khalilzad, Ryan Crocker, and Stephen Hadley favored a longer occupation because they thought U.S. political leverage would be greater in the formation of a new Iraqi government with boots on the ground; Wolfowitz and Cheney opposed that. But once the decision was made, it was important to achieve the best that could be achieved.

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The op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter, former State Department official Liz Cheney, has set off a fire storm of criticism on the left about why they should be allowed to comment, or why their views should be considered. Here, for example, is Brian Beutler, senior editor of the New Republic, commenting on that journal’s website. At the Washington Post’s “Plum Line,” here is Paul Waldman. Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows, not with a touch of irony given the Carter administration’s foreign-policy track record, writes, “a number of prominent officials who had set the stage for today’s disaster in Iraq deserved respect for their silence.” And, of course, the New York Times chimes in. James Wolcott at Vanity Fair advises tuning out anyone with the last name “Cheney, Wolfowitz, Feith, Boot, or, how apt, Slaughter.” The irony, of course, is that the names he puts forward often do not agree on policy prescriptions.

How sad, silly, and reflective of the naked partisanship that has done more than anything else to undercut Iraq. I read more bloggers on the left than I do on the right, even if I disagree with them. The argument always matters more than the person who makes them. The arbitrariness of it can also be infuriating. Why single out Wolfowitz, Bremer, and Cheney, but not Crocker, Khalilzad, Armitage, Rice, Powell, and Wilkerson? All supported the conflict in Iraq. Some subsequently walked away but the nature of government is that when decisions are made, even if you disagree with them, you move on to get the best possible outcome. Zalmay Khalilzad, Ryan Crocker, and Stephen Hadley favored a longer occupation because they thought U.S. political leverage would be greater in the formation of a new Iraqi government with boots on the ground; Wolfowitz and Cheney opposed that. But once the decision was made, it was important to achieve the best that could be achieved.

And while some who are counseling shutting Bush administration folks out of the debate might say they are free to speak—and so the charge of McCarthyism doesn’t apply—but simply that they should not be listened to, perhaps some reflection is needed about the merits of having a closed mind.

There’s a more nuanced argument put out there by Peter Beinart which essentially boils down to: “Let them speak, but only after they confess.” It really is the Spanish Inquisition philosophy of punditry: “I am so obviously right that anyone who disagrees with my interpretation should first confess or face punishment.” Left unsaid is that there are still debates about de-Baathification and the dissolution (and immediate rebuilding) of the Iraqi army. After all, the conscripts had deserted: Would the Beinarts and Beutlers of the world suggest bringing them back at gunpoint? Keeping the top brass with blood on their hands? (The actual problem had more to do with disorganized pension payments.)

Geoff Dyer at the Financial Times wrote rather cynically that the Bush team was using the Iraqi crisis only to defend their records. That’s a fair point to make, but there’s a less cynical spin: Many in the Bush team—at least those who have remained engaged in Iraq—know Iraqis and remain deeply committed to the country. It wasn’t simply a Washington career-ladder thing, but something more. Now I’ll be cynical: I believe President Obama made a naked political calculation: He would withdraw from Iraq. If it collapsed, he’d blame Bush and if it somehow stayed together, he’d brag about his own wisdom. The problem with that is that it treats Iraqis as pawns. The decisions Obama makes or doesn’t make are relevant.

Long story short: The howls of outrage about Vice President Cheney voicing his opinion reflect just how poisonous the Washington debate has become, and how negative it is to policymaking when personalities count more than ideas.

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Iraq: What We Know Now and What We Knew Then

Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

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Along with the outbreak of the new war in Iraq has come a ferocious debate over who is to blame. Is it George W. Bush for getting us into Iraq in the first place or is it Barack Obama for getting us out without leaving any American troops there?

My old friend George Will, who was one of the most eloquent proponents of the invasion in 2003 but who later changed his mind, has not surprisingly made the best case for the anti-Bush party. Addressing all Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016, he asks:

Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, and given that we now know how little we know about “nation-building” and about the promotion of democracy in nations that need to be “built,” and given that Saddam Hussein’s horrific tyranny at least controlled Iraq’s sectarian furies, and given that Iraq under him was Iran’s adversary, and given that ten-year wars make Americans indiscriminately averse to military undertakings—given all this, if you could rewind history to March 2003, would you favor invading Iraq?

Well, I was as passionate, if not as eloquent, a supporter of the invasion as George Will was, and my own answer to his question would be that if I had been able to foresee the unintended consequences of a fair number of actions I have taken in my life, I would most certainly not have taken them. But I would then go on to say that, looking back at the situation in 2003 when I unfortunately lacked prophetic powers, my answer to his question would be that, yes, I would still have supported the invasion.

“Given the absence of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction,” his indictment of Bush begins, but the only “given” in 2003 was the exact opposite. All fifteen agencies involved in gathering intelligence for the United States agreed “with high confidence” that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” So did the intelligence agencies of Britain, Germany, Russia, China, Israel, and France.

“Given” also that the Democrats would later accuse Bush of lying about this, here is a (partial) list of Democrats who had previously joined in the consensus: Bill Clinton; his Vice President Al Gore; his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; his Secretary of Defense William Cohen; and his National Security Adviser Sandy Berger. In the Senate, there were Teddy Kennedy, Harry Reid, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Carl Levin, Tom Daschle, John Edwards, Jay Rockefeller, Robert Byrd, and Bob Graham–not to mention Nancy Pelosi, among scores of others, in the House, as well as liberal papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. Each and every one of them saw Saddam Hussein as a threat, and they all advocated taking action against him.

“Given” all this, I would go so far as to say that not only was George W. Bush justified in ordering the invasion, but that if he had failed to do so, he would have deserved to be impeached for violating his oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” this country against any and all foreign enemies.    

As to the other items in George Will’s parade of horribles, they all belong to the period that followed the successful military phase of the invasion itself. I am willing to stipulate that many mistakes were made in the three years that followed, and that the entire operation would very likely have ended in defeat if Bush had not finally found in David Petraeus a general who wanted to win and knew how to do it. The upshot was that by the time Barack Obama took office, American casualties were all the way down, and that the Iraq turned over to him was a country largely at peace and living under a nascent democratic regime. So much for the case for blaming Bush.

Turning now to the case for blaming Obama, a commensurately eloquent one has been made by another old friend of mine, David Pryce Jones, the eminent British authority on the Arab world. After explaining why and how the al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS has been able to capture city after city in Iraq and is now only about fifty miles from Baghdad, David flatly declares that “President George W. Bush is vindicated. The sole way Iraq could have continued was under a permanent American presence that gave and guaranteed state functions. President Obama’s withdrawal of American forces is already a historic error. They alone could have kept the peace. Arabs have a phrase to the effect that some mistake has opened the doors of Hell. President Obama has opened those doors.”

Obama evidently now thinks that a de facto alliance with Iran—Iran!—is the way to close those doors, but such an alliance would only guarantee that they would open even wider than they are now. It would also solidify Iran’s influence over Iraq while giving a green light to an Iranian nuclear bomb. 

Alas, none of the other proposals for getting us out of this fix seems fully persuasive. Which means that it may be too late to prevent Iraq from joining Syria as part of a new Iranian empire. It is not too late, however, to keep that empire from building a nuclear arsenal, and neither is it too late to keep Afghanistan from reverting to the al-Qaeda haven it was before 9/11. The problem is that doing those things would require Barack Obama to acknowledge that his policies are exposing us to an infinitely greater danger than we were in before 9/11. In my opinion–and I express it with fear and trembling–it would take something close to a miracle for him to undergo so radical a change of heart and mind. God help us then.

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Obama’s Test

There are many tests of a president, but one of the most important is: Can he (or in the future she) abandon cherished programs when they simply do not work in the real world and adopt a policy that does?

Many great presidents have passed this test. Truman abandoned the defense drawdown after the North Korean invasion of South Korea and launched a massive defense buildup. Eisenhower abandoned his campaign policy of “rollback” in favor of continuing Truman’s policy of containment. Carter abandoned his general dovishness after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and launched a defense buildup. Reagan abandoned his outreach to Iran after it became public and his peacekeeping deployment in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks. George H.W. Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge to get a budget agreement that helped to eliminate the deficit. Bill Clinton abandoned his health-care plan to adopt a more centrist approach to governing. And George W. Bush abandoned his “small footprint” approach in Iraq to order the surge, which saved the country from collapse.

Now President Obama is facing this test in his foreign policy. Can he pivot away from failure?

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There are many tests of a president, but one of the most important is: Can he (or in the future she) abandon cherished programs when they simply do not work in the real world and adopt a policy that does?

Many great presidents have passed this test. Truman abandoned the defense drawdown after the North Korean invasion of South Korea and launched a massive defense buildup. Eisenhower abandoned his campaign policy of “rollback” in favor of continuing Truman’s policy of containment. Carter abandoned his general dovishness after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and launched a defense buildup. Reagan abandoned his outreach to Iran after it became public and his peacekeeping deployment in Lebanon after the bombing of the Marine barracks. George H.W. Bush abandoned his “no new taxes” pledge to get a budget agreement that helped to eliminate the deficit. Bill Clinton abandoned his health-care plan to adopt a more centrist approach to governing. And George W. Bush abandoned his “small footprint” approach in Iraq to order the surge, which saved the country from collapse.

Now President Obama is facing this test in his foreign policy. Can he pivot away from failure?

As Fred Hiatt argues in the Washington Post, the collapse of Iraq invalidates the arguments of administration foreign-policy Minimalists led by Joe Biden who triumphed in internal councils over Engagers such as Bob Gates, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, and David Petraeus who favored a more activist approach, especially in the Middle East. In recent years Obama has consistently taken the advice of the Minimalists in Syria, Iraq, and Libya and arguably Afghanistan too. In Syria the U.S. has avoided involvement in the civil war; in Iraq the U.S. pulled out its troops; in Libya the U.S. did little to aid a new government after Gaddafi’s overthrow; and in Afghanistan the White House announced timetables for American withdrawal.

As Hiatt notes: “Unfortunately, disengagement turns out not to work. A drones-first policy has stoked anti-American fervor from Pakistan to Yemen. Libya is on the brink of civil war. Syria has become ‘the most catastrophic humanitarian crisis any of us have seen in a generation,’ as Mr. Obama’s U.N ambassador said. Now Iraq is disintegrating.”

The question is: Will Obama rethink his approach now that it has backfired? He has offered some hints about doing more to help the Syrian opposition and possibly even launching air strikes in Iraq, but there is no sign of a fundamental recalibration so far. Indeed, when he addressed Iraq last week, pretty much the first words out of the president’s mouth were that we are not going to send ground troops–indicating that he is still more fixated on staying out of conflicts than on defending American interests in a vital region.

Obama is one of our smartest presidents so he must know how badly things are going. But he is also one of our most arrogant presidents so it will be especially hard for him to admit that what he’s done before simply isn’t working. How will this conflict resolve itself? Impossible to say but the answer to that question will determine whether U.S. foreign policy becomes more successful–or at any rate less unsuccessful–in the remaining two and a half years of the Obama presidency.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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Remembering Joseph Shattan

My former White House colleague Joe Shattan passed away this weekend. Bill Kristol has written a touching tribute to Joe that I commend to you. I wanted to add a personal anecdote and my impressions of him.

Joe preceded me as a speechwriter for Secretary of Education William Bennett, where his wonderful skills as a speechwriter were well known. Years later, when I was deputy director of presidential speechwriting in the George W. Bush White House and we were staffing up, I reached out to Joe to see if he’d like to join our team. He demurred; he had served in previous administrations, he had built the life he wanted, and he wasn’t eager to change.

Then came 9/11.

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My former White House colleague Joe Shattan passed away this weekend. Bill Kristol has written a touching tribute to Joe that I commend to you. I wanted to add a personal anecdote and my impressions of him.

Joe preceded me as a speechwriter for Secretary of Education William Bennett, where his wonderful skills as a speechwriter were well known. Years later, when I was deputy director of presidential speechwriting in the George W. Bush White House and we were staffing up, I reached out to Joe to see if he’d like to join our team. He demurred; he had served in previous administrations, he had built the life he wanted, and he wasn’t eager to change.

Then came 9/11.

Shortly after the attacks on September 11, I received an email from Joe. Was my previous offer still on the table? Joe wrote in moving terms about how he felt America was now engaged in a great moral and civilizational struggle. He felt compelled to help if he could. A student of history, Joe knew the vital role words play in summoning a nation to fight for a great cause.

We hired Joe.

The thing to understand about Joe is he was something of a rarity. While I was not an intimate friend of his, it seemed to me he saw his calling in life in terms of duty rather than a driving personal ambition. One never got the sense with Joe that he was acting out of egotism.

Witty and delightful, there was something endearing about Joe. To be sure, serving in high public office was something very special to him. He esteemed the institution of the presidency and deeply admired the handiwork of the founders. But all things being equal, I had the sense that a more quiet life is what he preferred. Which is why when I received that email from him shortly after 9/11, I knew what animated it was a sense of higher purpose.

Joe had his priorities in the right order, and right at the top was his family, which he adored, and his nation, which he revered.

It was a privilege and an honor to have served with Joe Shattan.

An archive of his writings in Commentary can be found here.

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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:

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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.

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Cowards Among the Scarlet Knights

Over the weekend Condoleezza Rice announced that she would be withdrawing as commencement speaker for the upcoming Rutgers University graduation ceremony after students and teachers protested Rice’s selection as speaker and recipient of an honorary degree. Even if you didn’t follow the story, you probably don’t need the details filled in: she is among the best possible candidates to give such a speech, but she worked for George W. Bush; end of story.

The graduation ceremony she was scheduled to appear at coincides with the tenth anniversary of my own graduation from Rutgers. That decade has instilled in me a great sense of apprehension any time Rutgers is mentioned in the news. That’s not to say there is no good news coming out of the school; the construction of a new Hillel building is a sign that the Jewish community at the school remains numerous and committed to Jewish life on campus–despite the anti-Semitic harassment they’ve experienced as the school shrugs its shoulders.

The combination of a proud Jewish community and a pusillanimous school administration (admittedly, no different from most liberal arts colleges) has also inspired the Jews at Rutgers to make their voices heard. One of the more famous examples of this took place while I was a student there, in 2003. An extremist Palestinian “solidarity” group was scheduled to hold its annual event on campus. The New Jersey chapter’s leader gave interviews ahead of the event, in which she explained that murdering innocent Jews in Israel was merely part of a resistance campaign and others had no right to judge the methods of the Palestinian group’s protest, as a contemporaneous piece in Haaretz recounted:

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Over the weekend Condoleezza Rice announced that she would be withdrawing as commencement speaker for the upcoming Rutgers University graduation ceremony after students and teachers protested Rice’s selection as speaker and recipient of an honorary degree. Even if you didn’t follow the story, you probably don’t need the details filled in: she is among the best possible candidates to give such a speech, but she worked for George W. Bush; end of story.

The graduation ceremony she was scheduled to appear at coincides with the tenth anniversary of my own graduation from Rutgers. That decade has instilled in me a great sense of apprehension any time Rutgers is mentioned in the news. That’s not to say there is no good news coming out of the school; the construction of a new Hillel building is a sign that the Jewish community at the school remains numerous and committed to Jewish life on campus–despite the anti-Semitic harassment they’ve experienced as the school shrugs its shoulders.

The combination of a proud Jewish community and a pusillanimous school administration (admittedly, no different from most liberal arts colleges) has also inspired the Jews at Rutgers to make their voices heard. One of the more famous examples of this took place while I was a student there, in 2003. An extremist Palestinian “solidarity” group was scheduled to hold its annual event on campus. The New Jersey chapter’s leader gave interviews ahead of the event, in which she explained that murdering innocent Jews in Israel was merely part of a resistance campaign and others had no right to judge the methods of the Palestinian group’s protest, as a contemporaneous piece in Haaretz recounted:

The trouble began when a coalition of pro-Palestinian organizations decided to hold their annual convention at Rutgers in the second week of October. Last year, the event was held at Michigan University, and the year before that at Berkeley. The host organization was New Jersey Solidarity, which is considered one of the most extreme organizations in the coalition. One of the group’s leaders, Charlotte Kates, for instance, told The New York Post that “Israel is a colonial settler apartheid state” that has no right even to exist, and against which suicide attacks are justifiable. In another interview, with The New York Times, she said: “It is not our place in the United States to dictate the tactics Palestinian groups use in the liberation struggle.” The organization also hung posters around the campus in March that declared: “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will be Free.”

There was some protest even outside the student community–genocide is, after all, frowned upon. The group succumbed to internal divisions–apparently in part over an argument about inviting Hamas–and eventually relocated by choice, but the New Jersey chapter tried, unsuccessfully, to hold a new solidarity event on campus. In the interim, led by the Rutgers Hillel, the Jewish community on campus mobilized and held a rally that drew four thousand supporters.

Quite apart from anti-Semitism, my alma mater has been in the news more recently for the horrible and tragic case of the sexual bullying of a gay student who subsequently committed suicide, as well as last year’s scandal over an abusive basketball coach. How I long for the days when Rutgers national-media headlines were more along the lines of Sports Illustrated’s feature on its football program, headlined “Why Can’t Rutgers Ever Win?

I should also note that although Rutgers had its share of bias in the classroom (as does any university), the journalism program I attended was utterly devoid of it. My teachers were uniformly excellent, and I left Rutgers convinced that my decision to attend (I had actually transferred in mid-freshman year) was the right one. I still feel that way, and I have spent my years since graduation recommending the school to anyone who asks my opinion. That won’t stop either.

But I’m left wondering if it’s the same institution I left merely a decade ago. Jewish life continues to flourish at the school. But intellectually, I can imagine parents reading about the Rice controversy and wondering if the professors at such a school can be trusted to impart a passable education. Rice grew up in segregated Birmingham and went on to become the first black female secretary of state. On top of that, she has a well-known expertise in, and passion for, education policy. So you would be hard-pressed to find a better choice for commencement speaker.

But she served the Bush presidency when this nation was at war, and that is too much for the academic left. The Rutgers I remember had plenty of acrimonious debate, but that’s far better than to be ruled by heckler’s veto (which was avoided this time, as Rice withdrew so as not to distract from the students’ graduation celebrations, but was still argued for by the professors). I also don’t remember my instructors being such intellectual cowards. Perhaps I just took the right classes. I suppose students just have to hope they do too, though that’s not a line I imagine the Rutgers administration wants to put on a brochure.

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A Tale of Two Letters: Why the Peace Process Went Poof

Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

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Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

The American-Israeli diplomacy culminated in a hugely significant exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon in April 2004. In his letter, Sharon committed to carry out the [Gaza] disengagement. In his response, President Bush committed to back Israel on two vital issues: the Palestinian refugees would not return en masse to the State of Israel; and – by clear implication – the large settlement blocs on the West Bank, close to the 1967 line, would remain part of Israel in a final status agreement. Sharon regarded the exchange of letters as his most salient achievement as prime minister. He was probably right.

Last year, as Secretary Kerry was in Israel seeking to restart peace negotiations, an Israeli reporter asked him about “a guarantee from the past”–“telling that blocs of settlements can stay.” His question was straightforward: “does [the guarantee] exist?” Kerry responded: “I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed.” Indeed, four days after the Bush letter was issued, Kerry was asked directly about it on Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

The 2004 Bush letter was not simply a statement of policy; it was a negotiated deal, on which Israel relied in carrying out the Gaza disengagement, dismantling every settlement there and four others in the disputed territories as well. Sharon made the Bush letter part of the formal disengagement plan submitted to the Knesset for its approval. The U.S. Congress also endorsed the letter, in joint resolutions by the Senate (95-3) and House (407-9). The letter was endorsed in unambiguous terms by the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, who in 2013 as secretary of state correctly called it a “commitment.”

The Obama administration, when it took office in 2009, repeatedly refused to answer whether it was bound by the Bush letter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there were any “enforceable” understandings with Israel. The day before Palestinian President Abbas met with President Obama, Clinton told the press Obama had been “very clear” with Prime Minister Netanyahu that he “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions”–and that this had been “communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others.” The same day, Abbas told the Washington Post he would do nothing but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu. The administration eventually got a ten-month construction freeze, which both Clinton and Obama envoy George Mitchell called “unprecedented.” It produced nothing from the Palestinians other than a demand in the tenth month that it be continued.

Now flash forward five years, to Secretary of State Kerry’s April 8, 2014 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, in which he said “both sides … wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful,” but that “when they were about to maybe [resume negotiations], 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment.” Kerry knew the 700 “settlement units” [sic] were in a longstanding Jewish area in the capital of the Jewish state; that the area will be retained by Israel in any conceivable peace agreement; that Israel had made no commitment to Kerry to stop any construction there; and that Israel was working on an expanded prisoner release when the Palestinians went to the UN.

The peace process went “poof” not because of 700 units in Jerusalem, but because–for the third time in three years–the Palestinians violated the foundational agreement of the process, which obligates them not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories. For the third time, the Palestinians went to the UN; for the third time, there was no American response; for the third time, there was no penalty for the violation; and on April 8, there was not even an honest assessment of the situation by the secretary of state.

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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:

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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.

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Man Up, Mr. Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the National Action Network, accused his congressional critics of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks on him and the Obama administration.

“Forget about me [specifically]. Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee,” Holder said. “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”

Let’s take these topics in reverse order. What president has been on the receiving end of such ugly and divisive attacks? Try George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, just for openers. For example, Senator Ted Kennedy declared, from the well of the United States Senate, that “before the [Iraq] war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.” He also accused President Bush of hatching a phony war, “a fraud … made up in Texas” to boost his political career. Prominent Democrats made these kind of charges all the time against Bush. President Reagan was attacked as a warmonger, a racist, a man who celebrated in the misery of others. The personal, ad hominem nature of the attacks against our current president are less, I would say, than was the case with Bush and Reagan. What’s happening certainly isn’t “unprecedented.” 

As for Holder’s Woe Is Me portrayal of his tenure as attorney general, I’d point him (for starters) to Alberto Gonzales and Edwin Meese. Both were treated viciously by Democrats and (unlike Holder) by many in the press.

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Attorney General Eric Holder, in a speech to the National Action Network, accused his congressional critics of launching “unprecedented, unwarranted, ugly and divisive” attacks on him and the Obama administration.

“Forget about me [specifically]. Look at the way the attorney general of the United States was treated yesterday by a House committee,” Holder said. “What attorney general has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment? What president has ever had to deal with that kind of treatment?”

Let’s take these topics in reverse order. What president has been on the receiving end of such ugly and divisive attacks? Try George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, just for openers. For example, Senator Ted Kennedy declared, from the well of the United States Senate, that “before the [Iraq] war, week after week after week after week, we were told lie after lie after lie after lie.” He also accused President Bush of hatching a phony war, “a fraud … made up in Texas” to boost his political career. Prominent Democrats made these kind of charges all the time against Bush. President Reagan was attacked as a warmonger, a racist, a man who celebrated in the misery of others. The personal, ad hominem nature of the attacks against our current president are less, I would say, than was the case with Bush and Reagan. What’s happening certainly isn’t “unprecedented.” 

As for Holder’s Woe Is Me portrayal of his tenure as attorney general, I’d point him (for starters) to Alberto Gonzales and Edwin Meese. Both were treated viciously by Democrats and (unlike Holder) by many in the press.

While I’m at it, let me add this point: Mr. Holder is part of an administration notable for its partisanship, divisive rhetoric, ugliness, and polarization. As I’ve pointed out before, Mr. Obama has accused Republicans of being social Darwinists and members of the “flat earth society,” of putting their party ahead of their country, and of wanting dirty air and dirty water. He says Republicans want autistic and Down syndrome children to “fend for themselves.” He accuses his opponents of not simply being wrong but of being his “enemies.” During the 2012 election, Obama’s vice president said Republicans want to put African-Americans “back in chains” while Obama’s top aides and allies implied Governor Romney was a felon and flat-out stated that he was responsible for the cancer-death of a steelworker’s wife. The list goes on and on. Mr. Obama is the most polarizing president in the history of polling.

It’s bad enough that Eric Holder is incompetent, that he’s misled Congress on multiple occasions, that he considers America to be a “nation of cowards” on race, and that he’s engaged in covering up for the administration (including the current IRS scandal). But can the Attorney General of the United States please quit feeling so sorry for himself? So put upon?

Man up, Mr. Holder.

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Daenerys Targarean, Neoconservative

In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.

One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.

But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.

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In the wake of the debut this past weekend of the fourth season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, some writers must be forgiven for jumping the proverbial shark while exploiting the cable network hit to make some odd policy points. The show, based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, is a fantasy set in a mythical world similar to our own Middle Ages but including dragons and zombies along with human characters. The novels are a great read and the show is riveting even though, predictably for HBO, it has a lot more sex than the books along with very graphic violence. Martin’s multi-layered plot revolves around a dynastic struggle that has been aptly compared to England’s War of the Roses, and if the author’s elegant and fully characterized prose is not quite the equal of Shakespeare’s account of that conflict in his history plays, it is still a marvelous confection. But it is also an irresistible target for pundits seeking a news hook for rehearsing old political grudges.

One such example comes from Ezra Klein’s new site Vox where Zach Beauchamp argues that one of the most beloved characters on Thrones is actually a stand-in for that liberal boogeyman George W. Bush. According to Beauchamp, Daenerys Targarean, the platinum blond bombshell that is the last remnant of a deposed dynasty as well as a magical figure known as the mother of dragons that she helped hatch in a fire that left her untouched, is a stand-in for the 43rd president. The princess isn’t just intent on regaining the throne her mad father lost. In her exile, she has taken up the anti-slavery cause and, aided by broadsword and spear wielding allies, has become the John Brown of the fantasy world. Thus, if you weren’t already won over by her hot looks and those dragons that dote on her, her anti-slavery credentials make her an unambiguous good guy in a story where even the greatest heroes and worst villains are (with perhaps only one exception) complex creations rather than cardboard cutouts.

But Beauchamp thinks there’s a hidden problem with Daenerys. In a piece that seems more serious than tongue in check, he builds a case that the princess’s foreign policy is “Bushian to a tee.” He points out that, like neoconservatives, the mother of dragons sees the world in black and white rather than in Obama-like grey terms. She tells the slave masters that they must either give up their evildoing or face the consequences and her “freedom agenda” is just like the rhetoric that got W into the business of overthrowing Saddam Hussein and trying to remake Afghanistan. But while such a mission is both complicated and more costly than a more self-interested quest for a throne, if we accept this premise, it’s worth asking whether Thrones is quite the commentary on the futility of war that its left-leaning author intended it to be.

Martin was actually a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and a stern critic of Bush who, as Beauchamp notes, saw his literary saga as an attempt to debunk the notion of military glory. In Thrones, really bad things happen to good people all the time and even a war launched for supposedly noble purposes leads to widespread suffering and chaos that mocks the goals of those that started the violence. Indeed, as anyone who has read all five of the books (with more promised by the writer as well as at least two more seasons after this one from HBO) knows, Daenerys’s war of slave liberation leads to conflicts that are as difficult to resolve as the more cynical fighting that goes on for less principled reasons in this fantasy world.

That means, as Beauchamp writes, by the end of the story, if indeed Martin ever comes up with one, the conclusion may leave the princess feeling a bit like Bush 43 at the end of his second term.

But if that’s the worst thing you can say about the character then perhaps Bush’s rehabilitation has migrated from the realm of conservative punditry and started to infiltrate the world of popular culture. Whatever happened in Iraq or Afghanistan, President Bush and those who helped craft that “freedom agenda” that is so despised by his immediate successor stood up for the highest values of Western civilization. In seeking to draw a bright line between the forces of tyranny and terror and those of democracy, Bush held out hope for captive peoples. By casting his policy in moral terms in which the notion of freedom wasn’t limited to Anglophone democracies but to the entire planet, he articulated a vision that may well stand up better than the “lead from behind” incompetence of his successor. Perhaps history will ultimately decide that such idealism did more good than the harm that “freedom agenda” wars unleashed in both the real world and the fantasy kingdoms of Martin’s Westeros.

Much as Martin may not have intended it, Beauchamp may be right that Daenerys is something of a neoconservative. If so, her popularity may indicate that in the eyes of pop culture, George W. Bush wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

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Jeb Bush? The Dynasty Problem Is Real

I don’t entirely disagree with our Pete Wehner who wrote earlier today to second George Will’s suggestion in the Washington Post that Jeb Bush “deserves a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate” in 2016. As Will notes, Bush brings many sterling qualities to the table for the GOP in terms of a potential president. He had a great record as reform-minded governor of Florida, can appeal to Hispanic voters and has serious positions on issues like education and immigration that deserve support. The only flaw in Bush’s makeup the veteran columnist can see is that he has become too closely associated with the “Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers” who “have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft” the son and brother of two of our past presidents, in no small measure because of the perceived collapse of the Chris Christie boomlet after Bridgegate.

Pete wants all the big names thinking about the presidency to run. That would create a GOP nominating process that will not only foster a clarifying and healthy debate on all the issues but also help sort out the candidates in a way that will test and weed out those who haven’t got what it takes to successfully challenge Hillary Clinton or whomever it is the Democrats nominate in 2016. That should make sense to everybody, whether or not they are Republicans, since the person who takes the oath of office in January 2017 needs to be up to the daunting task of leading our nation.

But the greatest obstacle to Jeb Bush becoming our 45th president isn’t a backlash from the Tea Party against the Republican establishment. It’s his last name, a factor that Pete omits from an otherwise convincing summary of the discussion on this topic. Though Jeb’s manifest talents ought to earn him consideration in his own right, the dismaying prospect of the next presidential election featuring representatives of the same families that faced off in 1992 is something that must be taken into consideration.

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I don’t entirely disagree with our Pete Wehner who wrote earlier today to second George Will’s suggestion in the Washington Post that Jeb Bush “deserves a respectful hearing from the Republican nominating electorate” in 2016. As Will notes, Bush brings many sterling qualities to the table for the GOP in terms of a potential president. He had a great record as reform-minded governor of Florida, can appeal to Hispanic voters and has serious positions on issues like education and immigration that deserve support. The only flaw in Bush’s makeup the veteran columnist can see is that he has become too closely associated with the “Republican Party’s most powerful insiders and financiers” who “have begun a behind-the-scenes campaign to draft” the son and brother of two of our past presidents, in no small measure because of the perceived collapse of the Chris Christie boomlet after Bridgegate.

Pete wants all the big names thinking about the presidency to run. That would create a GOP nominating process that will not only foster a clarifying and healthy debate on all the issues but also help sort out the candidates in a way that will test and weed out those who haven’t got what it takes to successfully challenge Hillary Clinton or whomever it is the Democrats nominate in 2016. That should make sense to everybody, whether or not they are Republicans, since the person who takes the oath of office in January 2017 needs to be up to the daunting task of leading our nation.

But the greatest obstacle to Jeb Bush becoming our 45th president isn’t a backlash from the Tea Party against the Republican establishment. It’s his last name, a factor that Pete omits from an otherwise convincing summary of the discussion on this topic. Though Jeb’s manifest talents ought to earn him consideration in his own right, the dismaying prospect of the next presidential election featuring representatives of the same families that faced off in 1992 is something that must be taken into consideration.

A few years ago, any talk about Jeb Bush running might have been dismissed because of the beating his brother took in the last years of his presidency as a hurricane, two wars and finally a financial collapse seemed to brand him as a failure in the eyes of most of the press if not all of the public. But the reputation of both of the Bushes has rightly gone up in the last year or two, partly as a result of a healthy reevaluation of both presidencies and the realization that Bush 43’s successor didn’t quite turn out to be the messiah of hope and change that his supporters and press cheerleaders thought he was.

But that doesn’t mean that the Republicans need to throw away a key advantage heading into the 2016 race that Democrats are handing them by nominating Hillary Clinton. Assuming that she runs, her main rationale will be the prospect of electing our first female president. But her campaign will also mean bringing the Clintons, and their baggage (as well as the obvious strengths of the 42nd president, her husband Bill) back into the center ring of our political circus. With so many fresh, able faces on their very deep bench, nominating another Bush presents the dispiriting prospect of two parties that are stuck recycling members of the same families as if America were a Central American banana republic. It also means the GOP will be just as handicapped by this as the Democrats.

Last year, I chimed in to support Jeb’s mother when she aptly pointed out that we’ve “had enough Bushes.” An even more thoughtful take on the same question came this week from political scientist Larry Sabato who, while acknowledging that political dynasties are not anything new in American politics, still pointed out in Politico their shortcomings:

What kind of signal does it send to the world when the United States, which recommends its democratic system to other nations, looks increasingly like an oligarchy, where a handful of presumptive, dominant families pass power back and forth like a baton in a relay race? The growing concentration of wealth and celebrity in a tiny slice of the population may make dynasty even more of a fixture in our future politics than our past.

If Republicans wind up nominating Jeb, they will, as both George Will and Pete Wehner argue, get a man ready to be president. But, like Sabato, I’m still wondering how it is that “with approximately 152 million American citizens over 35 and eligible to serve as president, why do we keep coming down to the same old names?” I suspect we’re not the only ones who are asking that question.

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The Obama Doctrine of Selective Memory

On June 17, 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something strange. On the topic of a deal struck on settlement construction between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, Clinton said: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

It’s important to clarify what is “strange” about this comment. It was a strange thing to say because it is flatly untrue: the agreement most certainly existed, and was put to writing. But it was not strange that Clinton was the one to say it: as Omri Ceren meticulously explained for the magazine in May 2012, the Obama administration’s disastrous policies toward Israel were predicated on ignoring, and at times outright falsifying, history.

Sharon made real strategic concessions to boost the peace process at great political and personal cost because he knew he had America’s support. When Obama came into office, American allies learned the hard way that the White House was no longer bound by such agreements, regardless of the danger it put those allies in. Ukrainian leaders now appear to be running into the same problem.

According to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Ukraine would give up its nukes in return for the recognition and maintenance of its territorial integrity. That ship has very clearly sailed, since the United States is now asking Vladimir Putin’s Russia to please only take from Ukraine that which they have already pilfered. Putin is considering this request–which is exactly what it is: a request. Thus, Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” does not, at the moment, exist in any meaningful sense.

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On June 17, 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said something strange. On the topic of a deal struck on settlement construction between George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, Clinton said: “In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”

It’s important to clarify what is “strange” about this comment. It was a strange thing to say because it is flatly untrue: the agreement most certainly existed, and was put to writing. But it was not strange that Clinton was the one to say it: as Omri Ceren meticulously explained for the magazine in May 2012, the Obama administration’s disastrous policies toward Israel were predicated on ignoring, and at times outright falsifying, history.

Sharon made real strategic concessions to boost the peace process at great political and personal cost because he knew he had America’s support. When Obama came into office, American allies learned the hard way that the White House was no longer bound by such agreements, regardless of the danger it put those allies in. Ukrainian leaders now appear to be running into the same problem.

According to the Budapest memorandum of 1994, Ukraine would give up its nukes in return for the recognition and maintenance of its territorial integrity. That ship has very clearly sailed, since the United States is now asking Vladimir Putin’s Russia to please only take from Ukraine that which they have already pilfered. Putin is considering this request–which is exactly what it is: a request. Thus, Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” does not, at the moment, exist in any meaningful sense.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, has taken to the Daily Beast to describe the Budapest memorandum in terms nearly identical to the way the Bush-Sharon letter was described by those who wanted Obama to respect the promises of the White House. When Clinton denied an agreement that plainly existed, she tried to hedge, in part by saying she found no “enforceable” deals. As Elliott Abrams noted in the Wall Street Journal at the time: “How exactly would Israel enforce any agreement against an American decision to renege on it? Take it to the International Court in The Hague?”

Gelb acknowledges that the Budapest deal does not specifically obligate America to use force against Russia to repel its Ukrainian adventure. But Gelb wants the administration to stop insulting the intelligence of the Ukrainians:

The Budapest document makes sense historically only as a quid pro quo agreement resting upon American credibility to act. The United States cannot simply walk away from the plain meaning of the Budapest Memorandum and leave Ukraine in the lurch. And how would this complete washing of U.S. hands affect U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, supposedly a top national priority? Why should any nation forego nukes or give them away like Ukraine, if other nations, and especially the U.S., feel zero responsibility for their defense? It’s not that Washington has to send ground troops or start using its nuclear weapons; it’s just that potential aggressors have to see some potential military cost.

And that’s the consequence of the administration’s penchant for selective memory in foreign affairs that Obama brushed aside when it came to Israel. It’s not about whether Obama would or would not have signed such a deal himself. It’s about whether American promises evaporate every four or eight years.

The obvious rejoinder is that presidential administrations cannot be bound by every political or strategic principle of their predecessors–otherwise why have elections? True, but the question is one of written agreements, “memoranda,” and understandings, especially those offered as the American side of a deal that has been otherwise fulfilled. Sharon pulled out not just of Gaza but also parts of the West Bank and made concessions on security in both territories he was hesitant to offer. He held up his end of the bargain, and Israelis were only asking that the administration hold up Washington’s.

That’s the point Gelb is making on Ukraine, and it’s an important one. He is saying that the United States’ decision on how to respond to Russia’s aggression should not be made in a vacuum. This may bind Obama’s hands a bit, but there is danger in reneging on this agreement. It’s a danger that was mostly ignored when it came to Israel. But now it’s clear that this is a pattern with Obama, and that American promises are suspended on his watch. It’s no surprise that the world is acting accordingly.

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George W. Bush, Still Living Rent-Free in Their Heads

Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

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Remember that time the George W. Bush administration simultaneously invaded Russia, Iran, China, and North Korea? Apparently, according to the New York Times report today on the Obama administration’s foreign-policy readjustment, a former national-security aide to Obama does. The Times’s article is an in-depth look at how the Obama administration’s naïve worldview has shattered on the rocks of reality. Only they don’t know what to replace it with, because they still seem to think they’re running against George Bush.

The guiding principle of Obama administration strategy, to try to figure out what Bush would do and then do the opposite all the while proclaiming moral superiority, has been a flop. But the fact that they still seem to be haunted by their obsession with him is troubling. And yet we get this, from the Times:

The White House was taken by surprise by Vladimir V. Putin’s decisions to invade Crimea, but also by China’s increasingly assertive declaration of exclusive rights to airspace and barren islands. Neither the economic pressure nor the cyberattacks that forced Iran to reconsider its approach have prevented North Korea’s stealthy revitalization of its nuclear and missile programs.

Followed by this:

“We’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas,” said one of Mr. Obama’s former senior national security aides, who would not speak on the record about his ex-boss.

“No one is arguing for military action, for bringing back George Bush’s chest-thumping,” the former aide said. At the same time, he said, the president’s oft-repeated lines that those who violate international norms will be “isolated” and “pay a heavy price” over the long term have sounded “more like predictions over time, and less like imminent threats.”

I don’t know who the source is obviously; since it’s in the New York Times he or she is anonymous. (How long until Times bylines are also anonymous? And how much would this benefit Tom Friedman?) But I sincerely hope this person’s view isn’t too widely shared among the Obama inner circle.

It was understandable to run against Bush in 2008. He was the sitting president of the other party, and his approval numbers were low. Additionally, the GOP candidate that year, John McCain, was considered even more hawkish than Bush. At the very least, he was more closely associated with the successful “surge” in Iraq than pretty much anyone except the president himself. Obama (who made a prediction on the surge that turned out to be completely and totally wrong) ran on his opposition to the Iraq war. So the contrast between the two candidates was clear, and it made sense for Obama to play up those differences. He felt he was on the right side of public opinion on them.

But that stark contrast had more or less evaporated by Obama’s reelection in 2012. He ran against Mitt Romney, who was certainly tougher on Putin’s Russia (Obama turned out to be wrong there too, as a pattern emerges) but who was otherwise hesitant to run too far to Obama’s right. Obama even used their debates to taunt Romney for being insufficiently bloodthirsty and too hesitant to blow stuff up. Obama ran as the bold assassin. Bin Laden is dead, or haven’t you heard?

More revealing is the fact that Democrats still slamming Bush aren’t actually criticizing Bush, but instead taking aim at the version of Bush they seemed to invent for electoral purposes but ended up believing was real. The power of propaganda can sometimes be most acutely felt by the propagandist. Bush didn’t bomb Iran in response to its nuclear pursuit, or Russia in response to its invasion of Georgia, etc.

And it’s a testament to the incoherence of leftist foreign policy that we’re also reminded of that by the White House–such as when Bush is portrayed as being too naïve for looking into Putin’s eyes and seeing his soul. It’s no wonder the administration has no idea how to respond to the provocations of rogue states: if they want to do the opposite of Bush, but believe Bush is all over the map on policy, what space is left for them?

Not much. The Obama administration has boxed itself in by not giving up its long-stale and outdated campaign rhetoric. It’s disturbing to have to say this in 2014, but it’s time for Democrats still obsessed with Bush to just let it go.

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America’s Credibility from Bad to Worse

No doubt, the George W. Bush administration botched the intelligence that justified much of its push into Iraq. The narrative of “Bush lied, people died,” is nonsense of course. The problem was that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bluffed his own generals and aides. When Americans tapped into their phone calls, they heard Saddam’s lieutenants discussing such weapons as if they had them, and when American spies debriefed their Iraqi counterparts, there was no sign of deception because many of the defectors believed the information they conveyed. Nevertheless, critics of the Iraq war are absolutely correct to say that the fact that the intelligence turned out to be wrong undercut American credibility on the world stage. The next time some future Colin Powell goes before the United Nations to reveal a case for war or for anything else utilizing American intelligence, conspiracy theorists will have a field day.

When it comes to lost credibility, the corrosive effect of the Iraq WMD debacle is an order of magnitude below the damage to American credibility caused by America’s callous disregard for its allies. In 1994, the United States (and the United Kingdom and Russia) signed an agreement with Ukraine as part of its forfeiture of nuclear weaponry: Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the United States and Great Britain agreed to help protect it. That Budapest Memorandum, it turns out, has become meaningless. So too were American promises to Georgia in 2008. And American promises to Poland and the Czech Republic with regard to missile defense. The Obama administration’s decision to slash American assistance to Israel’s missile defense—while at the same time enabling between $7 billion and $20 billion in sanctions relief and new investment into Iran—likewise undercuts any lingering hope in Israel or among Israel’s defenders in the United States that Obama would lift a finger if Iranian leaders act on their promise to annihilate the Jewish state.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are furious with Obama. And Kuwaiti and Emirati leaders suggest that they can no longer trust American commitments. I spent the last week in Baghdad, and Iraqis, too, express dismay that the United States doesn’t keep its side of the bargain it struck in the Strategic Framework Agreement. That is a sentiment growing in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, and Estonia as well.

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No doubt, the George W. Bush administration botched the intelligence that justified much of its push into Iraq. The narrative of “Bush lied, people died,” is nonsense of course. The problem was that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bluffed his own generals and aides. When Americans tapped into their phone calls, they heard Saddam’s lieutenants discussing such weapons as if they had them, and when American spies debriefed their Iraqi counterparts, there was no sign of deception because many of the defectors believed the information they conveyed. Nevertheless, critics of the Iraq war are absolutely correct to say that the fact that the intelligence turned out to be wrong undercut American credibility on the world stage. The next time some future Colin Powell goes before the United Nations to reveal a case for war or for anything else utilizing American intelligence, conspiracy theorists will have a field day.

When it comes to lost credibility, the corrosive effect of the Iraq WMD debacle is an order of magnitude below the damage to American credibility caused by America’s callous disregard for its allies. In 1994, the United States (and the United Kingdom and Russia) signed an agreement with Ukraine as part of its forfeiture of nuclear weaponry: Russia promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the United States and Great Britain agreed to help protect it. That Budapest Memorandum, it turns out, has become meaningless. So too were American promises to Georgia in 2008. And American promises to Poland and the Czech Republic with regard to missile defense. The Obama administration’s decision to slash American assistance to Israel’s missile defense—while at the same time enabling between $7 billion and $20 billion in sanctions relief and new investment into Iran—likewise undercuts any lingering hope in Israel or among Israel’s defenders in the United States that Obama would lift a finger if Iranian leaders act on their promise to annihilate the Jewish state.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are furious with Obama. And Kuwaiti and Emirati leaders suggest that they can no longer trust American commitments. I spent the last week in Baghdad, and Iraqis, too, express dismay that the United States doesn’t keep its side of the bargain it struck in the Strategic Framework Agreement. That is a sentiment growing in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Colombia, and Estonia as well.

What self-described realists misunderstand when they pursue their cost-benefit analysis without emotion or regard for principle is that friendship and trust have value. In one chapter of Dancing With the Devil, I explore the history of intelligence politicization. Iraq may now be the marquee example upon which many progressives seize, but intelligence politicization occurred under every president dating back at least to Lyndon Johnson, if not before (the scope of my book was just the past half-century or so). Iraq intelligence was flawed, but the world will get over it, especially since it was consistent with the intelligence gathered by almost every other country and the United Nations. The betrayal of allies, however, is a permanent wound on America’s reputation that will not be easy to overcome.

If only those who condemned Bush’s flawed case for Iraq on the basis of the damage it did to American credibility would speak up now about the importance of keeping promises, then perhaps they could help pressure a White House with whom they are friendly to stop the hemorrhaging of American credibility. That they now remain silent as trust in America plummets, however, suggests that their concern was less America’s credibility and more capitalizing on flawed intelligence to score cheap political points.

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On Free Trade, Was Obama Looking for a Way Out?

Last week, I wrote about a particular bind President Obama had gotten himself into over his expansion of executive authority. Because he had established such a robust record of flouting duly-passed legislation and usurping congressional authority, not even Democrats in Congress trusted him to follow the law. This wasn’t a problem on many issues, because the president and Democrats in Congress agree on so much and congressional Democrats made it clear they believe the ends always justify the means when it comes to progressive rule making.

But it would be a problem on trade, because there the president wanted what’s known as fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that Congress could not amend. Democrats are generally opposed to trade despite the broad consensus on its economic benefits, so they wouldn’t easily fork over their authority to the president. Despite Obama’s plea in the State of the Union for the trade authority, Harry Reid immediately confirmed that no, Democrats wouldn’t give Obama free rein on trade. But it’s unclear just how much of a rebuke to the president this really is.

News reports took the basic outlines of the story at face value: Obama wanted trade deals, Reid said no, so this is a blow to the president’s economic agenda. But it’s not so plain. Yesterday Politico reported that Reid went to the White House for a long meeting with the president–and trade didn’t even come up:

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Last week, I wrote about a particular bind President Obama had gotten himself into over his expansion of executive authority. Because he had established such a robust record of flouting duly-passed legislation and usurping congressional authority, not even Democrats in Congress trusted him to follow the law. This wasn’t a problem on many issues, because the president and Democrats in Congress agree on so much and congressional Democrats made it clear they believe the ends always justify the means when it comes to progressive rule making.

But it would be a problem on trade, because there the president wanted what’s known as fast-track authority to negotiate a trade deal that Congress could not amend. Democrats are generally opposed to trade despite the broad consensus on its economic benefits, so they wouldn’t easily fork over their authority to the president. Despite Obama’s plea in the State of the Union for the trade authority, Harry Reid immediately confirmed that no, Democrats wouldn’t give Obama free rein on trade. But it’s unclear just how much of a rebuke to the president this really is.

News reports took the basic outlines of the story at face value: Obama wanted trade deals, Reid said no, so this is a blow to the president’s economic agenda. But it’s not so plain. Yesterday Politico reported that Reid went to the White House for a long meeting with the president–and trade didn’t even come up:

The majority leader returned to the Capitol about 75 minutes after a scheduled 2:30 p.m. meeting with the president and told reporters his opposition to fast-tracking trade pacts through Congress was not broached during his huddle with Obama.

“We’re on the same page with everything,” Reid said, rejecting a reporter’s question on whether the Democratic leader is in Obama’s “doghouse” after voicing disapproval of the trade legislation.

Asked whether they discussed trade, Reid curtly replied “no.”

So just how important does the president consider free trade–an economic boon but which unions don’t love–to his agenda if he won’t even broach the subject with Reid? A clue can probably be found in past coverage of Obama administration trade deals, which tend to embrace the same contradictions.

Take, for example, this October 2011 Washington Post story on the passage of free-trade agreements with Colombia, South Korea, and Panama. The headline is: “Obama gets win as Congress passes free-trade agreements,” and the story tells us that “The South Korea deal has the potential to create as many as 280,000 American jobs” and is “widely hailed as the most consequential trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement was ratified in 1994.”

But later on in the story we get some more information about why the deals were signed nearly three years into Obama’s term:

The pacts were first negotiated under President George W. Bush but were updated by Obama to include more guarantees for labor and human rights and environmental protections. The pacts were recently held up in a dispute between Obama and congressional Republicans over renewing the worker assistance program.

During Obama’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, he tended to underscore the risks that free trade posed for U.S. workers and the environment rather than potential benefits.

So Obama really isn’t very high on free trade and campaigned against it. George W. Bush did the work of putting together the deals and the Democrats stalled it for years, finally conceding when Obama realized he was “facing a tough bid for reelection with unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent.”

Obama is, in fact, no fan of free trade. But the benefits are well known across the board. So a perfect situation for Obama is to have complete authority over the deals so he can better choose who to protect and which companies and industries to favor without getting a bipartisan deal in Congress that would be more sensible and economically beneficial but less to Obama’s liking.

This is what he’s asking for now, and what he was denied. He doesn’t seem too upset about it, probably because he isn’t. It’s possible that the president has decided that now, unlike with numerous controversial bills, he’s just going to let Harry Reid run the show. But that would be a change of pace for a president who thinks Congress is mostly cosmetic, a passé throwback to a time before the Lightbringer arrived.

And it’s unlikely. If Obama really wanted free trade he would press on, involving Congress grudgingly but elevating free trade over his own absolute power. It’s possible, then, that when Obama doesn’t treat free trade as a priority for him it’s because it isn’t.

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Ornstein vs. Ornstein on Presidential Recess Appointments

On the New York Times op-ed page, Norman J. Ornstein argues the pending challenge to President Obama’s recess appointments “represents the biggest threat to presidential power in decades”–something he views with alarm. He concedes the recess power was not intended to deal with political disputes between the president and the Senate, but only to allow presidents to appoint officials when it was impractical to summon the Senate back to Washington to confirm them. But he views the recess appointment power as “a modest safety valve to ameliorate the worst abuses of Senate power” when the opposition party controls the Senate.

Seven years ago, with a different president and a different opposition party, Ornstein viewed something else with alarm–presidential recess appointments.

President Bush gave recess appointments to Sam Fox as ambassador to Belgium, Susan Dudley to the Office of Management and Budget, and Andrew Biggs as deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Ornstein viewed the Biggs appointment “an ‘up yours’ gesture to the Senate Finance Committee”; the Dudley appointment “shocking,” because she “probably” would have been approved under normal procedures; and the Fox appointment as one made during the Senate’s Easter and Passover break. Here was his analysis, in an article entitled “Time for Congress to Stand Up to Bush on Recess Appointments”:

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On the New York Times op-ed page, Norman J. Ornstein argues the pending challenge to President Obama’s recess appointments “represents the biggest threat to presidential power in decades”–something he views with alarm. He concedes the recess power was not intended to deal with political disputes between the president and the Senate, but only to allow presidents to appoint officials when it was impractical to summon the Senate back to Washington to confirm them. But he views the recess appointment power as “a modest safety valve to ameliorate the worst abuses of Senate power” when the opposition party controls the Senate.

Seven years ago, with a different president and a different opposition party, Ornstein viewed something else with alarm–presidential recess appointments.

President Bush gave recess appointments to Sam Fox as ambassador to Belgium, Susan Dudley to the Office of Management and Budget, and Andrew Biggs as deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Ornstein viewed the Biggs appointment “an ‘up yours’ gesture to the Senate Finance Committee”; the Dudley appointment “shocking,” because she “probably” would have been approved under normal procedures; and the Fox appointment as one made during the Senate’s Easter and Passover break. Here was his analysis, in an article entitled “Time for Congress to Stand Up to Bush on Recess Appointments”:

Were I Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, an avowed originalist, looking at the plain language of the Constitution, the words of the authors of the document and those addressing the issue during the ratification debates, and the context for the framers at the time, my conclusion would be crystal clear. Back in those days Congress met only for brief periods and was adjourned for many months at a time. There were many occasions when important posts were vacant and nine months might pass before the Senate could convene to confirm the president’s nominees. No one at the time–no one–argued that the recess appointment power was to be used for other, broader purposes, especially in cases where the president was simply trying to make an end run around the Senate. …

In modern times, when Congress is in session virtually year-round, the original rationale for recess appointments has shriveled, leaving very few truly legitimate cases. … In his eight years in the White House, President Ronald Reagan made 243 recess appointments. President George H. W. Bush made 77 in his single term; President Bill Clinton made 140 in two terms. President George W. Bush has made 171 so far. Most of these were relatively minor, but some, including judges, were not. …

The bottom line is that if these [Bush appointments] are not the first recess appointments that skirted the intent of the framers and distorted and abused the Constitution, they are among the most blatant. … Every time a president abuses a power like this one, stretching the circumstances under which he will use recess appointments, it becomes a precedent for his successors, who will use his actions as a base point to stretch the power even further. The more the power is used with impunity, the more the core principles of the separation of powers are eroded. … [I]t is time to put some limits on a presidential abuse of power that has gone way too far.

It would take a constitutional law instructor from Chicago to think up a way to make “in your face” recess appointments in a manner so abusive they dwarfed what Bush did–and perhaps only the New York Times to publish an op-ed suggesting the Supreme Court write an opinion “leaving intact the accepted practices,” written by someone who seven years ago not only didn’t accept them, but realized the plain language of the Constitution doesn’t either.  

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