Commentary Magazine


Topic: George W. Bush

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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The Discrediting of Government Continues

President Obama’s recent troubles have evoked various comparisons to his predecessor, whether they were the parallels between specific policies or simply the climbing disapproval ratings. To these we can add one more: the question of succession. Indeed the discussion about the makeup of the Democrats’ 2016 primary roster is quite relevant to this particular debate.

When George W. Bush left office amid low approval ratings, the Republican Party faced the challenge of trying to figure out its post-Bush identity–chiefly in the form of its 2008 presidential nominee–on the fly, without the benefit of years in the wilderness. Though Obama’s second term is far from over, Democrats will still face the same challenge.

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President Obama’s recent troubles have evoked various comparisons to his predecessor, whether they were the parallels between specific policies or simply the climbing disapproval ratings. To these we can add one more: the question of succession. Indeed the discussion about the makeup of the Democrats’ 2016 primary roster is quite relevant to this particular debate.

When George W. Bush left office amid low approval ratings, the Republican Party faced the challenge of trying to figure out its post-Bush identity–chiefly in the form of its 2008 presidential nominee–on the fly, without the benefit of years in the wilderness. Though Obama’s second term is far from over, Democrats will still face the same challenge.

In Hillary Clinton, for example, primary voters will have a reminder of the more successful Democratic governance of her husband but also the unprincipled, soulless pursuit of power that characterizes the Clintons’ political life and Hillary’s statist agenda. If Jerry Brown runs, they’ll see a candidate at once a throwback to 20th century politics of stagnation and a warning from the future, in the form of the failing state administration of California, as to where that leads. And if Brian Schweitzer runs, he’ll embody a halfhearted left-libertarianism that at least gestures toward a government less inclined to violate your personal space. The latest Gallup polling on the size and scope of government, however, does not bode as well for Clinton or Brown:

Seventy-two percent of Americans say big government is a greater threat to the U.S. in the future than is big business or big labor, a record high in the nearly 50-year history of this question. The prior high for big government was 65% in 1999 and 2000. Big government has always topped big business and big labor, including in the initial asking in 1965, but just 35% named it at that time.

But it’s the breakdown of the results by political party that is really striking:

Each party group currently rates big government as the greatest threat to the country, including a record-high 92% of Republicans and 71% of independents, as well as 56% of Democrats. Democrats are most likely of the partisan groups to name big business as the biggest threat, at 36%; relatively few Republicans, 4%, view big business as the most threatening.

It’s not just that a majority of Democrats (and large majority of independents) see government as the greatest threat to the country. It’s also the trajectory of those numbers that stands out. During the Bush administration 62 percent of Democrats felt this way, but were slowly reassured as the Democrats took back Congress and then Obama was elected president; the number dropped to 32 percent.

Some of Democrats’ fears about the government can be attributed, I suppose, to Republicans taking back the House earlier in this presidency. But they have not sponsored bills that chip away at individual liberty–just the opposite, they have stood opposed to ObamaCare’s mandates, EPA overregulation, Democrats’ anti-gun legislation, and so forth. It’s what made it so amusing when Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to spin congressional approval ratings against the GOP today by tweeting:

Congress is finishing this year less popular than a cockroach, and mindless, knee-jerk obstruction from Republicans is exactly why.

Not only was this the sort of tedious cant voters have come to expect from Reid, but it comes right after the Senate approved a bipartisan budget deal driven in large part by Paul Ryan. Reid, in other words, looks even more ridiculous than he normally would. But even more than Reid’s statement being patently false was its tone-deaf character: even a majority of Democrats see the government as getting too intrusive for comfort. Actions that put the breaks on this behavior are not what’s wrong with government. If anything, Reid only exacerbates this by deploying the “nuclear option” to get rid of the filibuster. Not only is Reid the problem, not the solution, but he’s advertising himself as such.

It won’t matter much to Reid, who isn’t running for president. But if ObamaCare isn’t fixed, the public’s faith in government will continue to collapse–among Democrats as well as Republicans. As the Democrats seek a presidential nominee that best embodies the party’s post-Obama identity, this will no doubt be a factor–and it could very well hold back the statists and elevate a candidate with a more rational approach to governance.

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Dan Rather’s Obsession

Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

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Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing. 

Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:

“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”

Now for some context.

Mr. Rather’s 44-year career at CBS (24 years of which he spent as the anchor of the CBS Evening News) ended because of his role in a story that blew apart. The 2004 story was meant to smear President George W. Bush a few months before his reelection. The problem is that it was based on forged National Guard documents that were almost immediately revealed as such. Yet Rather insists to this very day that the forged documents were accurate. 

This claim is a hallucination, as this 224-page Report of the Independent Review Panel (convened by CBS) makes clear. But Rather would not let it go. After being fired in 2006, he filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its parent company, Viacom, claiming he had been made a “scapegoat,” which was subsequently dismissed in its entirely. Mr. Rather of course appealed. And in 2012, while promoting his book Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, the former CBS reporter continued to insist the forged documents were accurate. “I believe them to be genuine. I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now,” he said.

This story fascinates me in part because of its insight into human psychology. Mr. Rather is emotionally unable to accept that the National Guard story was false and built on lies, that his effort to bring down an American president brought him down instead. And so he keeps returning to the scene of the crime, hoping to clear his name, convinced that one more adamant declaration that his story was true will magically make it so. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, Rather doesn’t have the self-awareness to know that each time he does this, he becomes a more pitiable figure.

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” These are the words of Captain Ahab as he tosses his harpoon toward the great white whale. But they could just as easily be Dan Rather’s. 

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Hurricane ObamaCare and the Lame Duck

Even at the time, many of President Bush’s supporters knew what they were witnessing was the effective end of his ability to control events. Hurricane Katrina was the turning point of the George W. Bush administration. The last moment when the Real Clear Politics average of polls measuring Bush’s job approval was a net positive was in early May of 2005. But the impact of Hurricane Katrina a few months later was the point at which the accumulated discontent about the bloody and inconclusive war in Iraq metastasized into a general impression of dysfunction and failure. Though the widely held belief that Bush was to blame for the suffering of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf coast was based more on the reporting of a biased media and partisan exploitation of the problem than reality, it didn’t matter. Bush would achieve a remarkable turnaround in Iraq in 2007 that left his successor a war that was largely won (and situation that successor would largely squander), but his job approval never recovered. It would stay negative for the remainder of his term and even sink as low as 25 percent in his final months in office.

Barack Obama is not quite there yet, but the ObamaCare fiasco that the president is trying, probably in vain, to rescue with questionable fixes may turn out to be his hurricane. The current RCP job approval average is only 41.5 percent, an all-time low for this president. The RCPC average for those disapproving of his performance is 54.2 percent, another all-time Obama high. Two recent polls, Quinnipiac and Pew Research, show him at only 39 percent approval. If you compare Obama’s numbers today with his predecessor’s at the comparable point in his presidency months after Katrina, you discover the startling result that he is now viewed as negatively as the much-abused Bush was. That point hasn’t escaped the notice of some of the president’s most ardent supporters in the mainstream press. When the New York Times is ready to speculate about the parallels to Bush on its front page, a watershed moment has arrived. Obama was reelected with the help of an adoring press (a luxury Bush didn’t enjoy when he won his second term) but a spring and summer of scandals and legislative failures has now been followed by a famous broken promise that he may never live down.

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Even at the time, many of President Bush’s supporters knew what they were witnessing was the effective end of his ability to control events. Hurricane Katrina was the turning point of the George W. Bush administration. The last moment when the Real Clear Politics average of polls measuring Bush’s job approval was a net positive was in early May of 2005. But the impact of Hurricane Katrina a few months later was the point at which the accumulated discontent about the bloody and inconclusive war in Iraq metastasized into a general impression of dysfunction and failure. Though the widely held belief that Bush was to blame for the suffering of the people of New Orleans and the Gulf coast was based more on the reporting of a biased media and partisan exploitation of the problem than reality, it didn’t matter. Bush would achieve a remarkable turnaround in Iraq in 2007 that left his successor a war that was largely won (and situation that successor would largely squander), but his job approval never recovered. It would stay negative for the remainder of his term and even sink as low as 25 percent in his final months in office.

Barack Obama is not quite there yet, but the ObamaCare fiasco that the president is trying, probably in vain, to rescue with questionable fixes may turn out to be his hurricane. The current RCP job approval average is only 41.5 percent, an all-time low for this president. The RCPC average for those disapproving of his performance is 54.2 percent, another all-time Obama high. Two recent polls, Quinnipiac and Pew Research, show him at only 39 percent approval. If you compare Obama’s numbers today with his predecessor’s at the comparable point in his presidency months after Katrina, you discover the startling result that he is now viewed as negatively as the much-abused Bush was. That point hasn’t escaped the notice of some of the president’s most ardent supporters in the mainstream press. When the New York Times is ready to speculate about the parallels to Bush on its front page, a watershed moment has arrived. Obama was reelected with the help of an adoring press (a luxury Bush didn’t enjoy when he won his second term) but a spring and summer of scandals and legislative failures has now been followed by a famous broken promise that he may never live down.

As the Times rightly notes:

For the first time in Mr. Obama’s presidency, surveys suggest that his reserve of good will among the public is running dry. Two polls in recent weeks have reported that a majority of Americans no longer trust the president or believe that he is being honest with them.

It’s not just that the president’s rambling if contrite press conference yesterday and the confusing fix to his signature health-care plan is unlikely to change public opinion about ObamaCare or do anything but turn an already bad situation into an even bigger mess. It’s that we’ve arrived at the point when the Obama magic has disappeared. Much of the good will that the president could bank as a result of his historic status as our first African-American president and the hopes he engendered for genuine change has evaporated. He is now just a standard-issue lame duck with a credibility gap that can easily match those of any of his predecessors.

This is hard for the president and his inner circle to accept because they live in a liberal echo chamber where his opponents are dismissed as fools, extremists, and scoundrels. Many still hold onto hope that once ObamaCare is implemented it will become popular. But the rollout has revealed to the nation that the ranks of ObamaCare losers are largely made up of the middle class he pledged to protect. The pain that is just starting to be felt by ordinary Americans from this plan has soured the public’s view of a president that has previously had a Teflon image impervious to Republican attacks.

President Obama has often defied the rules of political gravity, but this may be the point where the rules of physics kick in. No second-term incumbent has ever recovered his popularity once he sunk to the levels that Obama has now reached. Moreover, contrary to Democratic hopes, the health-care boondoggle promises only to get worse in the coming year as the government’s intervention into one-sixth of the nation’s economy increases the pain felt by millions. The measure by which he had hoped to be remembered in history may yet serve to do so, but not for good. Much to his surprise, the Affordable Care Act is his hurricane and it is sinking his second term. Like Bush and others who crashed and burned once they had been reelected, Obama has lost the confidence of the American people. His presidency isn’t over and he has three years to either do further damage—as he appears intent on doing with his rush to appease Iran—but the era in which he could count on his unique status to protect him against failure and scandals has come to an end.

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Iraqis Thank U.S. Troops and Seek New Partnership

President George W. Bush made not one decision, but two when he believed it necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first was to utilize military force, but the second was even more momentous: Rather than simply replace one dictator with another, he sought to provide with a framework toward democracy. That decision, which is far too recent for historians to judge adequately, prolonged the American presence. Almost 4,500 American soldiers lost their lives not only to address a destabilizing threat Saddam Hussein posed but also to bring a chance at freedom to the Iraqi people.

While Islamist radicals used Saddam’s fall to rally their forces, and Iranian-backed militias moved in to intimidate Iraqis in predominantly Shi’ite areas, many ordinary Iraqis enjoyed their first breaths of freedom during the short honeymoon period before insurgency exploded. Two of my most memorable experiences occurred in the months immediately following Iraq’s liberation. In one case, I accompanied an Iraqi returnee I met randomly in the governor’s office of a southern province home to the house he fled two decades earlier. He had not told his parents he was coming, nor had he contacted them during his time abroad for fear that the regime might retaliate, as he was wanted for alleged opposition activities at the time he fled.

The look on his father’s face—and his mother’s—when they saw the son they believed to be in a mass grave was priceless, and the impromptu neighborhood celebration memorable. Likewise, in Kirkuk I was able to use my satellite phone first to find a woman’s exiled daughter and then let her speak to her mother for the first time in more than a decade, letting the woman not only reconnect to her child but also learn about her three grandchildren. I was not alone in such experiences. U.S. soldiers had far more contact with Iraqis than did diplomats, and such stories were the rule rather than the exception.

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President George W. Bush made not one decision, but two when he believed it necessary to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The first was to utilize military force, but the second was even more momentous: Rather than simply replace one dictator with another, he sought to provide with a framework toward democracy. That decision, which is far too recent for historians to judge adequately, prolonged the American presence. Almost 4,500 American soldiers lost their lives not only to address a destabilizing threat Saddam Hussein posed but also to bring a chance at freedom to the Iraqi people.

While Islamist radicals used Saddam’s fall to rally their forces, and Iranian-backed militias moved in to intimidate Iraqis in predominantly Shi’ite areas, many ordinary Iraqis enjoyed their first breaths of freedom during the short honeymoon period before insurgency exploded. Two of my most memorable experiences occurred in the months immediately following Iraq’s liberation. In one case, I accompanied an Iraqi returnee I met randomly in the governor’s office of a southern province home to the house he fled two decades earlier. He had not told his parents he was coming, nor had he contacted them during his time abroad for fear that the regime might retaliate, as he was wanted for alleged opposition activities at the time he fled.

The look on his father’s face—and his mother’s—when they saw the son they believed to be in a mass grave was priceless, and the impromptu neighborhood celebration memorable. Likewise, in Kirkuk I was able to use my satellite phone first to find a woman’s exiled daughter and then let her speak to her mother for the first time in more than a decade, letting the woman not only reconnect to her child but also learn about her three grandchildren. I was not alone in such experiences. U.S. soldiers had far more contact with Iraqis than did diplomats, and such stories were the rule rather than the exception.

I typically visit Iraq twice each year, and gratitude Iraqis feel toward the United States remains. True, many Iraqis had grown frustrated with American occupation in the interim years, and they do not hesitate to point out what they see as mistakes (re-Baathification rather than de-Baathification chief among them) but they value liberty more than those who so often try to speak on Iraqis’ behalf in various circles. Now that the Americans are gone—and with the American diplomatic presence pretty much invisible behind the embassy’s blast walls—Iraqis increasingly look at an American presence–not occupation certainly but a presence–with longing. Sometimes absence does make the heart grow fonder.

Lukman Faily, Iraq’s talented new ambassador to the United States, has an important thank you in today’s USA Today. He begins:

My first trip to the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery was on a rainy Friday afternoon, soon after my arrival in Washington. As the newly appointed ambassador to the United States from Iraq, it was important for me to honor the brave American men and women who gave their last full measure of devotion so that the people I represent may live to be free. Standing before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and gazing over the rolling hills of Arlington, I was struck by the depth of the sacrifices borne by the United States to defeat tyranny, support the oppressed and build democratic institutions around the world.

And he gives credit where so much credit is due:

In my country, nearly 2 million more U.S. military personnel served and helped liberate my country from Saddam Hussein and defeat al-Qaeda. Iraq is on track to join other countries that have benefited from America’s sacrifices. Our economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, oil production is growing, democratic institutions are maturing and our sixth round of elections is scheduled for April of next year. These successes were not generated solely by Iraqis. America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and foreign service officers helped set Iraq on the path to success — and we are thankful to all of those brave men and women.

Having come to Washington after several years in Tokyo, Ambassador Faily understands the importance of post-war relationships. How tragic it is, then, that the United States has been so lacking in maximizing its relationship with Iraq. Iraq wants greater ties. Iraq and the United States face a common foe in al-Qaeda. It is short-sighted not to grasp Iraq’s outstretched hand but for much of the past two years, the United States has effectively closed the door on its relationship with Iraq. When Faily concludes, “The United States remains Iraq’s ally of choice; on this day, we reflect on, and learn from our past, and look forward to building on our partnership in the years to come,” let us hope that the White House and Congress are listening.

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George W. Bush, Messianics, and the Left

In March of last year, I wrote about a minor kerfuffle involving Rick Santorum, who was then in the middle of a quixotic run for the presidency. The former senator who had come from out of nowhere to be the runner-up in the Republican presidential nomination race had apparently given a paid speech to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, a group whose adherents claim Jewish identity but also profess a belief in the divinity of Jesus. As I explained at the time, in doing so Santorum was picking at a sore wound for a Jewish community whose history rendered them especially sensitive to efforts aimed at converting Jews to Christianity, as the Messianics intend. While these people are as free to believe what they like as any other American, the overwhelming majority of Jews—regardless of denomination or political belief—reject their claim to being part of the Jewish people as well as take a dim view of their deceptive practices aimed at fostering conversion. I wrote that the candidate, who had a long history of friendship for the Jewish community and the State of Israel, needed to understand that involving himself with such a group compromised his standing with Jews. While this episode neither helped nor hurt Santorum’s long-shot presidential run, apparently the lesson was lost on a far more important member of the GOP who also has a sterling record of friendship for the Jews: former President George W. Bush.

As Mother Jones reports, Bush is scheduled to speak at a fundraiser for the Messianic Bible Institute on November 14 in Irving, Texas. The Institute trains people to try and convert Jews to Christianity and thereby hasten Jesus’s second coming. While the former president has done his best to avoid entangling himself in political controversies of any kind since he left the White House, by involving himself with this organization he has stepped into one with both feet. That is troubling not just for those of us who were grateful for his heartfelt support for Israel but also for those who care about fostering good relations between Jews and evangelical Christians, among whom Bush numbers as one of their most prominent adherents. But while I condemn Bush’s involvement with a group that seeks to target Jews for conversion, I am just as troubled by those on the left who would seek to use this unfortunate incident as a weapon to delegitimize all evangelical supporters of Israel and to disrupt the growing ties between Jews and their friends among the Christian right.

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In March of last year, I wrote about a minor kerfuffle involving Rick Santorum, who was then in the middle of a quixotic run for the presidency. The former senator who had come from out of nowhere to be the runner-up in the Republican presidential nomination race had apparently given a paid speech to the Messianic Jewish Alliance of America, a group whose adherents claim Jewish identity but also profess a belief in the divinity of Jesus. As I explained at the time, in doing so Santorum was picking at a sore wound for a Jewish community whose history rendered them especially sensitive to efforts aimed at converting Jews to Christianity, as the Messianics intend. While these people are as free to believe what they like as any other American, the overwhelming majority of Jews—regardless of denomination or political belief—reject their claim to being part of the Jewish people as well as take a dim view of their deceptive practices aimed at fostering conversion. I wrote that the candidate, who had a long history of friendship for the Jewish community and the State of Israel, needed to understand that involving himself with such a group compromised his standing with Jews. While this episode neither helped nor hurt Santorum’s long-shot presidential run, apparently the lesson was lost on a far more important member of the GOP who also has a sterling record of friendship for the Jews: former President George W. Bush.

As Mother Jones reports, Bush is scheduled to speak at a fundraiser for the Messianic Bible Institute on November 14 in Irving, Texas. The Institute trains people to try and convert Jews to Christianity and thereby hasten Jesus’s second coming. While the former president has done his best to avoid entangling himself in political controversies of any kind since he left the White House, by involving himself with this organization he has stepped into one with both feet. That is troubling not just for those of us who were grateful for his heartfelt support for Israel but also for those who care about fostering good relations between Jews and evangelical Christians, among whom Bush numbers as one of their most prominent adherents. But while I condemn Bush’s involvement with a group that seeks to target Jews for conversion, I am just as troubled by those on the left who would seek to use this unfortunate incident as a weapon to delegitimize all evangelical supporters of Israel and to disrupt the growing ties between Jews and their friends among the Christian right.

One such person is Jay Michaelson, who took to the pages of the Forward to not only make the hyperbolic claim that “George W. Bush wants to convert you and destroy the Jewish faith,” but to also assert that the former president’s presence at this dinner discredits all Christian Zionists and the entire notion of friendship between Jews and evangelicals.

In Michaelson’s worldview, evangelical supporters of Israel are not to be trusted because he thinks their only purpose is to hasten the rapture. Moreover, his animus for these Christians is so deep-seated that he includes Bush’s support for aid to faith-based organizations in his litany of the 43rdpresident’s sins. While the rest of the civilized world, including many of Bush’s fiercest critics, have conceded that his work to vastly increase the amount of U.S. aid to Africa and to prioritize the fight against AIDS there was among his most praiseworthy actions in the White House, Michaelson even condemns this because the money went in part to Christian groups. Apparently, the author, who is a prominent advocate of gay rights, is so afflicted with a classic case of Bush-derangement syndrome that even Bush’s work to combat the spread of AIDS is somehow suspect.

Whatever our feelings about Bush’s presence at this dinner, this argument holds no water. The overwhelming majority of evangelicals reject replacement theology in which Jews have no purpose but to serve as the spark for the second coming. The genuine devotion of American Christians for Israel’s well being is measured by their charitable giving to groups such as the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews as well as a stout support of Israel’s existence and right to defend itself that often outshines that of many, if not most, American Jews. As for Bush, whatever you may think of his politics, he is no enemy of the Jews, not while he was president and not today. His record on Israel, and indeed his friendship for the American Jewish community, is a matter of record.

As Michaelson’s hysterical piece demonstrates, many Jewish liberals are living in the past when it comes to Christians and imagine these good friends of the Jewish people are enemies. They are wrong. Whereas in the distant past, religious Christians might be assumed to harbor hostile intentions toward Jews, that is not the case in 21st century America. The good faith of Christian friends of Israel has been demonstrated time and again. Moreover, at a time when many liberal Protestant denominations have turned their backs on Israel and flirted with the BDS movement and its war on the Jewish state, the alliance between evangelicals and Jews is more important than ever.

As I wrote last year, all Christians need to steer clear of groups that aim at conversion of Jews if they wish to maintain good relations with the Jewish community. While there is nothing illegal about members of one faith seeking to win converts from another in a free country, after 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism that laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, those who support conversion campaigns must realize that Jews regard them as offensive. Supporters of the Messianic Bible Institute may believe they have good intentions, but their efforts undermine those who labor to bridge the gap between conservative Christians and Jews.

That said, it should be remembered that if any Jew does leave the fold, the fault belongs to a Jewish community that has often failed to educate its children. As much as Jews have reason to be offended by groups like the Bible Institute, they are nothing more than an annoyance and are in no way a threat to Jewish life in this country or Israel. Those who worry about perils to the Jewish community’s future should concentrate on the recent Pew Study and the way it demonstrated how irreligion and assimilation are leading to a situation where the ranks of American Jewry are rapidly shrinking. If conversion to Christianity went largely unnoticed in the report, it is because it constitutes a threat that is so marginal as to be barely worthy of mention.

Nevertheless, President Bush needs to reconsider his presence at this dinner. If he does not, it will lend weight to destructive arguments such as those voiced by Michaelson and create obstacles to interfaith harmony that should be demolished rather than strengthened.

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Is the U.S. Too Engaged in Peace Talks?

Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

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Since the beginning of the Obama presidency, the administration has navigated foreign policy through the fog of public war-weariness. It may now find its diplomacy hounded by the other side of that coin: peace fatigue–or, rather, peace process fatigue. Israel Hayom reports on a new poll, commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League, that surveyed Americans’ opinions on a range of issues related to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the broader Middle East.

The poll found high support for Israel, with 76 percent of respondents agreeing with the sentence: “Israel can be counted on as a strong, loyal U.S. ally.” When asked to choose if their sympathies lie more with Israel or the Palestinians, 48 percent said Israel against 16 percent for the Palestinians. Outside the Arab-Israeli conflict, 50 percent of respondents supported using force to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, with 41 percent opposed. If Israel launched an attack on Iran, 40 percent said the U.S. should support the Jewish state and nine percent said the U.S. should oppose the action.

But on the peace process, currently enjoying yet another round of American diplomatic attention, respondents were pretty realistic on a key point:

A large majority of Americans believe the U.S. should have minimal involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, according to the results of a new survey released by the Anti-Defamation League.

Some 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to solve their own problems. Any lasting peace agreement between them must be reached with minimal involvement from the U.S.,” while only 29% agreed with the statement, “Peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will never take place without the leadership and involvement of the U.S. government.”

A few caveats: we don’t know what “minimal involvement” means exactly, so there is only so much we can take away from such results. Additionally, the ADL’s report on the poll seems to present only two options, so how the choices are phrased could make a real difference. And finally, it’s impossible to know just how much of the response to this question is intended as a referendum not on the broad contours of the peace process but on the hapless and often clueless chief American diplomat leading the charge, John Kerry.

With that said, the peace process fatigue is a good instinct. The series of events that led to Oslo and the famous handshake at the White House between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin were part of a conscious peace process, admittedly, but one without the attention of later years. It’s no coincidence that this period was also the most productive diplomatic push of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even after the formal process got underway, the two sides were doing two things that were crucial to progress: keeping expectations modest and talking directly. And this was at a time long before the Likud Party officially adopted the model of “two states for two peoples” as its guiding force for the talks–even Rabin was famously uncomfortable with the idea of an independent Palestinian state–so there was plenty of reason on the Palestinian side to doubt Israel’s ability to carry out any comprehensive deal.

The problem is that when the sole superpower becomes closely involved (and at the time of the Madrid conference the Soviet Union was well on its way to dissolving, leaving the U.S. alone on the world stage), everyone’s incentives change. For the Americans, there is the lure of legacy. President George H.W. Bush was less susceptible to this than his successors because he already presided over America’s official emergence as the world’s great power. But politicians are only human, and the longer the conflict drags on, the more impressive “peace in the Middle East” appears.

The incentive structure got no better for the U.S. as time dragged on because of the natural evolution of the process. At first, vague notions of “peace” were seen as the objective. But after Bill Clinton left office and George W. Bush took over, the creation of a Palestinian state became the benchmark by which the conflict would be deemed “resolved.” The race to create a Palestinian state has run up against a by-now familiar obstacle: the sense of urgency among world opinion for a Palestinian state progressed while the actual task of state-building in the West Bank and Gaza stagnated.

The expectations game has been managed terribly by all involved, and the high profile of the peace process has become an obstacle. With their domestic populations–and the world–following along, Israeli and Palestinian leaders behave as though their every step is being watched closely, because it is. All the American attention has resulted, finally, in needing to lure the Palestinians to the table.

This is insanity. If the Palestinians have to be bribed to even enter negotiations, then they don’t have a desire to end the conflict. And Israeli leaders are not going to take major diplomatic risks if they’ve already spent their political capital on freeing Palestinian terrorists from jail or halting construction in Jewish communities for a process that keeps going nowhere. The United States has a constructive role to play in the peace process, but it’s not the one Kerry envisions. And the ADL polls suggests Americans are starting to agree.

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NY Times’s Sudden Aversion to Calling the President a Liar

Barack Obama’s election neatly coincided with the liberal left’s rediscovery of the value of civility in the public square. The time for derangement was over. Liberals remembered that they have had only modest success in outlawing political speech, and that when tempers flared they could be on the receiving end of overheated criticism now that they were back in power.

Among the results of the left’s newfound distaste for dissent was a suddenly self-censoring media. And, as evidenced by the New York Times’s rather amazing Sunday editorial on ObamaCare, giving the president the benefit of the doubt is back in vogue. The Times explained that when President Obama said that if you liked your health-care plan you could keep your health-care plan, period, he simply “misspoke.”

Believe it or not, the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal is defending the word choice. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post yesterday afternoon responding to the criticism the Times has received on the editorial. She asked Rosenthal for an explanation. Here is his response:

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Barack Obama’s election neatly coincided with the liberal left’s rediscovery of the value of civility in the public square. The time for derangement was over. Liberals remembered that they have had only modest success in outlawing political speech, and that when tempers flared they could be on the receiving end of overheated criticism now that they were back in power.

Among the results of the left’s newfound distaste for dissent was a suddenly self-censoring media. And, as evidenced by the New York Times’s rather amazing Sunday editorial on ObamaCare, giving the president the benefit of the doubt is back in vogue. The Times explained that when President Obama said that if you liked your health-care plan you could keep your health-care plan, period, he simply “misspoke.”

Believe it or not, the Times’s Andrew Rosenthal is defending the word choice. The paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote a post yesterday afternoon responding to the criticism the Times has received on the editorial. She asked Rosenthal for an explanation. Here is his response:

“We have a high threshold for whether someone lied,” he told me. The phrase that The Times used “means that he said something that wasn’t true.” Saying the president lied would have meant something different, Mr. Rosenthal said — that he knew it was false and intended to express the falsehood. “We don’t know that,” he said.

It may be honorable for the media to be more sparing with accusations of outright lying. But that is most certainly not the Times’s standard. Rosenthal’s spin about the paper’s “high threshold” is arrant nonsense, and the paper’s readers presumably know this. In January 2006, the Times published an editorial criticizing George W. Bush and calling attention to what the Times pronounced as “a couple of big, dangerous lies.”

What were those two “lies”? The first was that the Bush administration’s domestic spying apparatus “is carefully aimed” at those working with al-Qaeda, when in fact by the Times’s lights the program “has violated the rights of countless innocent Americans.” That’s some fairly clumsy–and dishonest–sleight of hand from the Times in what amounts to a disagreement over just how “careful” the surveillance had been. What was the other “lie”? That with the domestic surveillance now in place 9/11 could have been prevented. Perhaps that is an unlikely justification, but any threshold which considers that a “lie” is low indeed.

The idea that Bush “lied” the country into war with Iraq has long since been debunked: Bush, like those around him and our allies, was fooled by the faulty intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. But the Times editorial board painted Bush as a serial liar on the matter. In December 2008, reflecting on the Bush tenure, the Times published an editorial growling that it was by then public knowledge that “Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney manipulated Congress, public opinion and anyone else they could bully or lie to.” Does the accusation–again, by then conclusively debunked–that Bush was a compulsive liar meet the “high threshold” the paper now claims governs its use of the word? Of course not.

Two years earlier the paper’s editorial board lamented that Bush needed “a blue ribbon commission” to tell him that “Government officials should not lie to the public.” It appears that the left, including the Times, was quite liberal with its use of the “l” word to an extent that rivaled the left’s obsession with calling Bush a fascist.

Yet aside from the Times’s obvious hypocrisy on the issue, there is another critique of the Times editorial. Even if it isn’t true that the Times has a high threshold for calling someone a liar, we could argue that they should. As I noted earlier, it would behoove the Times to live up the standards to which it pretends to adhere. Yet even so, Rosenthal presents what the president might call a “false choice.” Certainly there is something in between “liar” and saying the president “misspoke.”

Sullivan pointed this out in her correspondence with Rosenthal:

But “misspoke” does suggest a one-time slip of the tongue.

Wouldn’t it have been better, I asked Mr. Rosenthal, if the editorial had said that Mr. Obama’s statements “clearly weren’t true,” or that the president “was clearly wrong” when he repeatedly made those statements?

He responded that the editorial’s language was fine, but he also allowed, “We could have done that.”

The president did not have a “one-time slip of the tongue,” of course. Obama made the promise repeatedly and without qualification. We now know that, as the Wall Street Journal reported, the decision to make this promise was made knowing that it was inaccurate and after a debate within the administration over whether to be frank about ObamaCare or not.

The president obviously decided that accuracy was a luxury the administration could not afford if it was to get its agenda through Congress. The Times should be encouraged to be discerning when accusing the president of being a liar. But were the Times to show such restraint, it would be new indeed.

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Obama’s Stirring Case Against Obama

Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

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Last night, President Obama addressed the American people to make the case for war–in general. He was speaking to build support for military action against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but he undermined that case by also highlighting the lack of urgency of such action, implying that the American people should support and Congress should approve action that would be either irresponsible or unnecessary at this point.

But he made a powerful case for the wars America has fought over his own objections. And he ruthlessly demolished whatever was left of Senator Obama’s breezy moralist posturing that began disintegrating when it collided with reality and the responsibilities of statecraft four years ago. And though he tried studiously to avoid it, after four years as president, Obama was unable to make the case against Bush-era intervention without implicitly but unmistakably indicting his own. It may have been overshadowed by the “pinprick” comment, but the full context of that remark is revealing. Obama said:

Let me make something clear: The United States military doesn’t do pinpricks.

Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver. I don’t think we should remove another dictator with force. We learned from Iraq that doing so makes us responsible for all that comes next. But a targeted strike can make Assad or any other dictator think twice before using chemical weapons.

If we learned from Iraq that removing a dictator with force makes us responsible for all that comes next, then surely Obama believes the U.S. takes at least some responsibility for the violence in the wake of the removal of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. And lest the president or his supporters downplay the American role, here is how Obama himself sees the situation, as he expressed in a debate with Mitt Romney last year:

But you know, going back to Libya, because this is an example of — of how we make choices, you know, when we went into Libya and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize, we also had to make sure that Moammar Gadhafi didn’t stay there. And to the governor’s credit, you supported us going into Libya and the coalition that we organized. But when it came time to making sure that Gadhafi did not stay in power, that he was captured, Governor, your suggestion was that this was mission creep, that this was mission muddle.

Imagine if we had pulled out at that point. That — Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden. And so we were going to make sure that we finished the job. That’s part of the reason why the Libyans stand with us. But we did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with. And we have to take the same kind of steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria. That’s exactly what we’re doing.

Unambiguous: our involvement in Libya was to remove Gaddafi from power and shepherd the political transition. And shame on anyone, goes the president’s forceful argument, who would even suggest otherwise. Well, today is of course the anniversary not only of the September 11, 2001 attacks but also those carried out on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi last year.

And the situation there has not improved. As the Washington Post reported last week:

Even minor disputes escalate into frequent gun violence on the streets. Kidnappings and armed robberies are increasing, and government officials and others have been assassinated with guns and bombs. Militants and arms smugglers easily cross poorly protected borders shared with Niger and Chad….

“It’s impossible,” said Mahmoud Ibrahim Sherif, the Tripoli police chief, who blamed the government for failing to properly fund and equip his officers….

In the face of spiking numbers of kidnappings and armed robberies, he said, his officers rarely attempt to arrest anyone because “they have more guns than we do.” He said arrest attempts stopped after several incidents in which his cops were attacked with ­rocket-propelled grenades.

It’s certainly, it should be noted, in worse shape than Iraq, and might have made for a better example of the argument the president was trying to make. But the Iraq example is relevant for another reason. In justifying military action against Syria, President Obama asked, “What kind of world will we live in if the United States of America sees a dictator brazenly violate international law with poison gas and we choose to look the other way?”

That wasn’t the only time the president seemed to make the case that military action against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was taken later than it should have been. Earlier in the speech, Obama said this:

As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas and using them. Over time our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield, and it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons and to use them to attack civilians.

If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan and Israel.

And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran, which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon or to take a more peaceful path.

This is not a world we should accept.

Of course, military action can be taken any number of ways following any number of strategies. But Obama wasn’t just against the way the war in Iraq was prosecuted. This was the war he called a “dumb war.” In that famous 2002 speech, Obama said that he has “no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power.” However, Obama then added:

I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

How vigorously Obama now apparently disagrees with that assessment.

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Arabs Give Obama the Bush Treatment

There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

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There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

While the Arab League is not the most consequential institution in the world, its opposition to Obama’s plans is telling. As the New York Times notes:

The vast majority of Arabs are emotionally opposed to any Western military action in the region no matter how humanitarian the cause, and no Arab nation or leader has publicly endorsed such a step, even in countries like the Persian Gulf monarchies whose diplomats for months have privately urged the West to step in. In the region, only Turkey has pledged to support intervention.

This is important not so much because it illustrates the hypocrisy of the Arab League and the opinion of the so-called Arab street but because it demonstrates the utter lack of success of President Obama’s efforts to appease them during the course of his administration. Not his Cairo speech which sought to validate Muslim myths of victimization at the hands of the West, nor his fights with Israel, his efforts to work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or his withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced anyone there that Obama’s America is any less of an inherent enemy to the Arabs than Bush’s America.

Just as Muslims claimed that American wars fought to save Muslim lives in Somalia, Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were really expressions of American imperialism, now Obama’s war in Syria is treated the same way. If the injustice of this charge rankles the president, he should remember that Bush had just as much if not more reason to complain of unfair treatment abroad and at home from critics like his successor.

Of course, despite the fears of the president’s American critics, these Arab opponents of America have a point. Though, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, the president has sought to portray himself as a “citizen of the world” rather than an American exceptionalist in the manner of his predecessors, the world understands that this is an artificial construct that is doomed to fail.

What we are about to witness in Syria is not only what appears to be a symbolic expression of American temper that will do nothing to change the situation on the ground and possibly strengthen a dictator and his dangerous allies if they are seen as surviving or defeating an American attack. It is also a demonstration of the bankruptcy of Obama’s foreign-policy approach. Though he will never admit it, Syria is the final proof that the magical Obama many Americans thought they elected was a figment of their imagination.

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Americans Rejoin the World

There exists a bedeviling paradox for foreign-policy realists: When America determines to mind its own business it invites the kind of atrocities Americans find hard to ignore. And so Barack Obama’s flight from global stewardship comes to ground with an apparent nerve-gas massacre of innocents outside Damascus. The Bush-weary intelligentsia that twice voted for the man who promised disengagement from troubled regions is now disturbed. “[T]he United States and other major powers will almost certainly have to respond much more aggressively than they have so far,” reads a New York Times editorial from Thursday. And American reproach goes beyond events in Syria. The Kremlin’s anti-gay crackdown has inspired activist Americans to focus their energies on bringing change to a foreign land. The “who are we to say?” outrage at Bush-style interventionism is giving way to “how can we just stand here?” frustration over Obama-style aloofness. 

If it’s taken five years of George W. Bush’s being out of the spotlight for Americans to recover a sense of global do-goodism, that’s unjust to the 43rd president, but the return of clarity is welcome all the same. “There is no question that the image the United States holds of itself must affect its role in foreign affairs,” wrote Nathan Glazer in a July 1976 COMMENTARY essay. “If it sees itself as a good country and a strong country—the way I would say the overwhelming majority of Americans did between 1945 and 1965—and if it is seen by others in the same way, it will feel confident in playing a large role in the world. If it sees itself as a good though weak country (one present-day image of ourselves), or as wicked and strong (another), or as wicked and weak, there will be a tendency to retrench and withdraw.”

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There exists a bedeviling paradox for foreign-policy realists: When America determines to mind its own business it invites the kind of atrocities Americans find hard to ignore. And so Barack Obama’s flight from global stewardship comes to ground with an apparent nerve-gas massacre of innocents outside Damascus. The Bush-weary intelligentsia that twice voted for the man who promised disengagement from troubled regions is now disturbed. “[T]he United States and other major powers will almost certainly have to respond much more aggressively than they have so far,” reads a New York Times editorial from Thursday. And American reproach goes beyond events in Syria. The Kremlin’s anti-gay crackdown has inspired activist Americans to focus their energies on bringing change to a foreign land. The “who are we to say?” outrage at Bush-style interventionism is giving way to “how can we just stand here?” frustration over Obama-style aloofness. 

If it’s taken five years of George W. Bush’s being out of the spotlight for Americans to recover a sense of global do-goodism, that’s unjust to the 43rd president, but the return of clarity is welcome all the same. “There is no question that the image the United States holds of itself must affect its role in foreign affairs,” wrote Nathan Glazer in a July 1976 COMMENTARY essay. “If it sees itself as a good country and a strong country—the way I would say the overwhelming majority of Americans did between 1945 and 1965—and if it is seen by others in the same way, it will feel confident in playing a large role in the world. If it sees itself as a good though weak country (one present-day image of ourselves), or as wicked and strong (another), or as wicked and weak, there will be a tendency to retrench and withdraw.”

Today, many Americans see themselves as having done something good in electing and reelecting Barack Obama (whatever the merits of the case may be). And if anything, the popular fear is that we’ve become too strong militarily (again, putting aside the validity of the argument). So we seem to have shifted into some version of the good-and-strong precondition to “playing a large role in world affairs.” That the president whose election facilitated this shift doesn’t see it that way is an unfortunate irony, but hardly a long-term hindrance to the exercise of American power in service of American ideals.

You should not underestimate the effect of popular opinion in U.S. foreign policy. Civil advocacy, as on behalf of gays in Russia today, has a long history of shaping events for the better beyond our borders. Immigrant lobbies, missionary groups, and trade organizations have all spoken up, acted, and changed the course of history in other countries. The American urge to actively do good in the world is not a matter of party or ideology, but a reflection of our national ethos. The understandable wish to recoil from the world is usually a short-lived response to great trauma abroad. Such was the case after both World Wars, the Vietnam War, and the Iraq War.

Boycotting vodka and calling for action against the perpetrator of mass murder are, of course, a very long way from launching popular wars for freedom. Nor is any lone voice calling for such wars. In fact, questions regarding how to do good—in Syria, Egypt, Russia, and beyond—are more fraught than they used to be. Bad guys are everywhere and allies are in short supply; this is largely a function of our five-year break from global affairs. But it is becoming evident that Americans are at once growing increasingly uncomfortable with the state of the world and more comfortable in their right (their obligation) to do something about it. 

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Can Christie Win With the Bush Formula?

Chris Christie appeared at the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston to tell them about how his administration in New Jersey is a model for how Republicans can both govern and win elections. If it seemed familiar, it should, since he used his prime time television spot at last summer’s GOP convention to make some of the same points. But if there is any model that Christie is following these days, it appears to be the one dreamed up by Karl Rove that led George W. Bush to the presidency. Christie’s establishment of a national fundraising network was the lede of a story on him in yesterday’s New York Times. That’s an important element of his gubernatorial reelection that shows just how formidable a presidential contender he could be in 2016. But the even more significant development is the aspect that bears a striking resemblance to George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 and his subsequent successful run for the presidency. As the Times reports:

Senior Republicans who are familiar with Mr. Christie’s strategy say it is most closely modeled after Mr. Bush’s bid in 1998 for re-election as governor of Texas. The parallels are clear. Mr. Bush was considered a shoo-in for re-election to the governor’s office, but he and Mr. Rove became determined to win over Hispanic and black voters to demonstrate the governor’s broad appeal to a national audience. Mr. Bush won that race, with 68 percent of the vote, which included more than a third of the Hispanic vote, offering him a powerful credential when he ran for president two years later as “a different kind of Republican.”

This summer, Mr. Christie established a bilingual campaign office in Paterson, N.J., and spent $275,000 on a Spanish-language television ad. He has also announced a Hispanics for Christie coalition and is now running even among Hispanic voters against Ms. Buono, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released 10 days ago.

While Christie’s truculent personality will make it a bit harder to sell him to the public as the “compassionate conservative” that Bush was depicted as being, this is exactly the sort of candidate that Republicans who hope to improve on their increasingly poor showings with minorities and independents want. But the question for both Christie and the GOP is whether the party’s conservative base will interpret this outreach as a form of “treason” rather than commonsense politics.

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Chris Christie appeared at the recent meeting of the Republican National Committee in Boston to tell them about how his administration in New Jersey is a model for how Republicans can both govern and win elections. If it seemed familiar, it should, since he used his prime time television spot at last summer’s GOP convention to make some of the same points. But if there is any model that Christie is following these days, it appears to be the one dreamed up by Karl Rove that led George W. Bush to the presidency. Christie’s establishment of a national fundraising network was the lede of a story on him in yesterday’s New York Times. That’s an important element of his gubernatorial reelection that shows just how formidable a presidential contender he could be in 2016. But the even more significant development is the aspect that bears a striking resemblance to George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection as governor of Texas in 1998 and his subsequent successful run for the presidency. As the Times reports:

Senior Republicans who are familiar with Mr. Christie’s strategy say it is most closely modeled after Mr. Bush’s bid in 1998 for re-election as governor of Texas. The parallels are clear. Mr. Bush was considered a shoo-in for re-election to the governor’s office, but he and Mr. Rove became determined to win over Hispanic and black voters to demonstrate the governor’s broad appeal to a national audience. Mr. Bush won that race, with 68 percent of the vote, which included more than a third of the Hispanic vote, offering him a powerful credential when he ran for president two years later as “a different kind of Republican.”

This summer, Mr. Christie established a bilingual campaign office in Paterson, N.J., and spent $275,000 on a Spanish-language television ad. He has also announced a Hispanics for Christie coalition and is now running even among Hispanic voters against Ms. Buono, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released 10 days ago.

While Christie’s truculent personality will make it a bit harder to sell him to the public as the “compassionate conservative” that Bush was depicted as being, this is exactly the sort of candidate that Republicans who hope to improve on their increasingly poor showings with minorities and independents want. But the question for both Christie and the GOP is whether the party’s conservative base will interpret this outreach as a form of “treason” rather than commonsense politics.

It should be remembered that many Republicans saw the younger Bush as the establishment’s candidate for 2000, and in many ways that was exactly right. But Bush succeeded in arousing the sympathy of movement conservatives as well as his father’s large donors. That worked because the 43rd president’s social conservative views that placed him to the right of Bush 41 convinced the party’s base that he could be trusted to govern even though he worked hard to show himself as open to constituencies that were not Republican strongholds, like Hispanics. What Bush strategist Karl Rove understood was that if you turn out your base while eating into Democratic majorities in other demographic sectors, that was a formula for victory.

Flash forward 15 years later and Republicans understand that victory in 2016 will rely on the same prescription, but find themselves handicapped by the willingness of much of the GOP base to identify themselves with opposition to immigration reform, a cause that has often spilled over into open prejudice such as that articulated recently by Rep. Steve King. Even more disturbing, an increasingly vocal segment of Republicans aren’t so much dedicated to these views as they are suspicious of anyone who seeks to work with Democrats (or embrace them when they come bearing federal aid money after a hurricane, as Christie did with President Obama last October) or willing to try to work to get Hispanic or black votes.

Christie’s problem thus isn’t so much whether his views are sufficiently conservative—as a pro-life opponent of big labor and budget cutter he should be acceptable to the right on his own terms—as whether his efforts to cast himself as a centrist is itself disqualifying.

Perhaps to some on the right it is, and there’s little doubt that this reputation as well as his commendable attack on isolationist views on security and foreign policy will hurt him with some Tea Partiers. As Seth wrote last week, merely putting Christie forward as more likely to win than other Republicans isn’t a compelling argument. But neither should Christie be discouraged from mimicking the George W. Bush formula. If, like the Texan, he can credibly claim to be a conservative (as perhaps John McCain and Mitt Romney did not) while also demonstrating an ability to beat Democrats on their home turf in New Jersey (something Romney feared to try to do a second time in Massachusetts), then maybe the Bush formula can elect another Republican to the White House.

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