Commentary Magazine


Topic: Iraq war

George Will’s Dizzying Shift on the Iraq War

In his column today, George Will writes this:

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In his column today, George Will writes this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will then said this about Afghanistan and nation-building:

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

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

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

He added:

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

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

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

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The Media’s Mindless Iraq War Comparison

There’s a neat trick the media likes to play on matters of war and peace. Mainstream reporters, by and large leftists, rewrite the history of the lead-up to the Iraq war in order to nobly take part of the blame so they can justify relentlessly biased coverage against military action this time around. A perfect example of this disingenuous posturing was the normally far more restrained Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday show Reliable Sources.

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There’s a neat trick the media likes to play on matters of war and peace. Mainstream reporters, by and large leftists, rewrite the history of the lead-up to the Iraq war in order to nobly take part of the blame so they can justify relentlessly biased coverage against military action this time around. A perfect example of this disingenuous posturing was the normally far more restrained Brian Stelter, host of CNN’s Sunday show Reliable Sources.

Stelter used yesterday’s show to ask if the media are replaying Iraq by cheerleading for war against ISIS. But after claiming that media personalities are letting themselves be governed not by the facts on ISIS and terrorism but by “their ideological agendas,” Stelter then seemingly demonstrated what he was criticizing by allowing his show to descend into an ideological echo chamber.

Here are the sources around which Stelter constructed his argument.

He began by quoting that most sober of publications, the Huffington Post home-page banner:

Here’s the banner headline on the “The Huffington Post” earlier this week — “Media War Frenzy Like 2003,” now that’s a frightening concept right there.

Frightening indeed. (Though not as frightening as a media critic using a HuffPo banner as the jumping-off point of his analysis.)

Then there’s this bit of overt partisanship and professional score-settling:

One big difference in 2003 is that we had red news on TV – we had Fox – but we didn’t have solidly blue news from MSNBC. It wasn’t a liberal news channel back then. But now it is. Here’s what Rachel Maddow reminded her viewers this week.

Does Stelter, who works for CNN, know CNN exists? It’s unclear. This one’s a two-fer though, as he first pretends broadcast news leaned right–during the Bush administration–and then tosses it over to Rachel Maddow for her take.

And then the closing flourish–here’s how he introduced the last segment on ISIS:

I myself am very concerned about the press provoking panic about ISIS. But I’m keeping an open mind. And earlier when I was in D.C., I asked Ron Fournier what he thought as well as Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of the proudly liberal magazine “The Nation.” Here’s a bit of our conversation.

Stelter’s “keeping an open mind,” so he’d like to get some input on whether America is too warmongering from vanden Heuvel, the Kremlin’s American mouthpiece. Fournier, of National Journal, provided the only serious, levelheaded commentary of the show:

I don’t know – that’s a false choice. What’s bad, what’s wrong for journalists to do is at this early stage to conclude anything. To be able to say that we need to go to war now is irresponsible. To say that we can’t go to war now is irresponsible. Because the fact is – one thing Katrina’s right about is – we haven’t asked all the questions yet. And even the President I don’t think has all the answers yet. So, yes, media is clicked to revving (ph) right now, media sensationalize right now, media is – tends to hype any shiny object that comes along right now. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that ISIS is not a threat.

Just because you’re tired of war doesn’t mean there aren’t threats. Stelter at least closed the segment with Fournier, so the show ended on a note of rationality. Otherwise, the segment was a fairly embarrassing display of life in a liberal media bubble.

But there’s another point worth making here about this debate. Stelter seems to think the main difference between today’s ISIS threat and the Iraq war is that now Americans have Rachel Maddow to not watch. But there’s another difference, aside from the mainstreaming of cable leftist thoughtlessness.

The run-up to the Iraq war was consumed by a debate over intelligence. Did Saddam Hussein have weapons of mass destruction? What was the evidence? Was it enough to support launching a ground invasion? Of course there were other issues at play, including Saddam breaking the conditions of the original ceasefire and also the regular firing at American pilots patrolling the restricted airspace. But certainly the urgency of the case rested to a great degree on whether the intelligence had it right on WMD.

You could even make the case that that was a factor last year, the last time President Obama wanted to bomb Syria (albeit aiming at the other side). Although the case appeared fairly clear that Bashar al-Assad’s forces used chemical weapons on the rebels, the evidence still had to be tallied and analyzed.

That’s not the case here. What media personalities are reacting to is not a hyped future threat but the fact that ISIS terrorists are beheading Americans and sending out the videos of the acts. And the response from commentators has been revulsion–entirely appropriate–not supposed water carrying for intel sources. The comparison is irresponsible and false. If anyone’s allowing their ideology to overtake their news judgment it’s those, like Stelter, brandishing the comparison to the Iraq war.

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Israel’s Record on Civilian Casualties Compares Well to America’s

Writing in the Washington Post last Friday, Natan Sharansky argued that Western nations are quite right to hold Israel to a higher standard than its nondemocratic neighbors; the problem is that they hold Israel to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Many Westerners would doubtless deny doing so. But for proof, just compare the recent war in Gaza to the Iraq War.

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Writing in the Washington Post last Friday, Natan Sharansky argued that Western nations are quite right to hold Israel to a higher standard than its nondemocratic neighbors; the problem is that they hold Israel to a higher standard than they hold themselves. Many Westerners would doubtless deny doing so. But for proof, just compare the recent war in Gaza to the Iraq War.

According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, of the victims of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq whose age and gender could be determined, 46 percent were women and 39 percent were children. The study, based on data from Iraq Body Count, covered the period from March 2003 to March 2008, but specifically excluded airstrikes carried out during periods of intense fighting, such as the initial U.S. invasion and the 2004 battle of Fallujah. In other words, it excluded those periods when fire was likely to be heaviest and most indiscriminate due to the need to protect troops at risk.

By contrast, according to statistics published by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 12 percent of all Palestinians killed in Gaza were women and 23 percent were children (239 women and 459 children out of 1,976 fatalities). Thus even if OCHA’s numbers are accurate, the percentages of women and children killed in Gaza were far lower than the percentages killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq. Yet one would expect them to be higher, for at least three reasons.

First, unlike the NEJM study, OCHA’s figures cover the entire war, including periods of intense fighting when soldiers’ lives were at risk. In other words, they include the battles involving the heaviest fire, which NEJM’s study excluded. Second, the NEJM figures referred only to airstrikes, which utilize precision weapons; OCHA’s figures also include people killed by non-precision weaponry such as artillery fire. Third, though the claim that Gaza is one of the world’s mostly densely populated places is nonsense, almost all the fighting took place in dense urban areas: Since Hamas’s strategy depends on massive civilian casualties, it locates its rocket launchers and tunnels mainly in such areas. In contrast, U.S. airstrikes in Iraq weren’t limited to dense urban areas.

In short, even if OCHA’s figures are credible, Israel comes off well by comparison with coalition forces in Iraq. But in fact, they aren’t. First, OCHA doesn’t say whether any of these “children” were combatants, though it’s hardly unheard of for 16- or 17-year-old Palestinians to bear arms. More importantly, however, it doesn’t say how many of these women and children were actually killed by Hamas rather than Israel.

As I’ve noted before, almost a sixth of all Palestinian rockets launched at Israel–475 out of 3,137–actually landed in Gaza, where, given the lack of either Iron Dome or civilian bomb shelters, they would have been far more lethal than they were in Israel. In one documented case alone, a misfired Hamas rocket killed 10 people in a park, including eight children.

Moreover, as I’ve also noted, Hamas’s practice of booby-trapping and storing rockets in houses, mosques, and clinics means that many Israeli strikes inadvertently set off massive secondary explosions. In other words, many Palestinian “victims of Israeli attacks” were likely killed not by the Israeli strike itself, but by secondary explosions caused by Hamas’s own bombs.

Americans rightly expect the world to understand that when U.S. airstrikes decimate a Yemeni wedding party or kill civilians in Iraq, it isn’t because the U.S. is bloodthirsty, but because mistakes happen in wartime, especially when fighting terrorists who don’t wear uniforms and operate from amid civilian populations. But Israel is entitled to that same understanding.

Instead, the White House, Pentagon, and State Department have all accused Israel in the harshest terms of doing too little to prevent civilian casualties. Given that Israel’s record on this score, as the NEJM study shows, is even better than America’s, that is the height of hypocrisy.

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Why Americans Go to War

I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

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I wonder what it says about the modern “progressive” mindset that Paul Krugman can only imagine two reasons to wage war: for profit or for the political advantage of the leader who initiates hostilities. He (rightly) debunks the idea of waging war to make money in most cases, but is sympathetic to the idea that some leaders initiate hostilities to bolster domestic support–he thinks Vladimir Putin is one such today and that the Chinese leaders could be another example in the future although why he thinks that George W. Bush belongs in the same category is unclear. (Krugman argues that the Iraq War helped Bush win reelection but in fact it nearly cost him the 2004 election and in any case the political consequences were unforeseeable, and I believe irrelevant, when Bush launched the war in 2003.)

But the broader failing of Krugman’s article–amazing for a man who, whatever you think of his politics, is highly intelligent and broadly educated–is that he entirely omits a major reason why countries fight wars: to defend their liberties. Krugman is presumably familiar with the theory of “just war,” but there is no sign of it in his article that assumes that all wars are initiated for one ignoble motive or another. This is perhaps an indication of how far liberalism has come from the fighting faith of its greatest champions–presidents such as John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

They were familiar with war and yet did not dismiss it as nothing more than a crass, self-interested undertaking. Recall Kennedy’s famous inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Or FDR’s D-Day prayer in 1944: “Men’s souls will be shaken with the violences of war. For these men are lately drawn from the ways of peace. They fight not for the lust of conquest. They fight to end conquest. They fight to liberate. They fight to let justice arise, and tolerance and good will among all Thy people. They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home.”

America’s brave troopers today fight for freedom in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, all the while yearning, as FDR said, “for the end of battle” when they can return home. They are not there to seize natural resources or to pump up a president’s approval ratings–nor, for all of my differences with President Obama, do I believe he has ordered troops into harm’s way for such nefarious purposes. War may be a brutal, ugly business, and one that should never be undertaken lightly; but it is also the essential safeguard of peace and freedom. Presumably Krugman understands that, but his failure to take note if it is nevertheless startling–and telling.

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Is America to Blame for Iraq Violence?

Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

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Over the past few days, I’ve been in a number of debates in the media in which analysts and former government officials blame the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the United States and, more specifically, on the U.S. decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003. Here’s one from this morning, for example. And University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, a popular polemicist on the left, had this to say.

The accusation that the United States is responsible for the travesty wrought by ISIS is nonsense. And while some Iraqi civilians died at the hands of American forces—and for these American forces take responsibility—the notion that the United States is responsible for the entirety of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who died during the years of the American military’s presence is sheer and utter nonsense. Some take that even further and go so far as to argue that the United States should give reparations to Iraq because of the war.

There are many problems with such arguments: The first is that they single out the United States intervention among many. The world is a complicated place, but this myopic and self-flagellating narrative suggests that the United States is the only player in the region. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Jordan actively funded and supported the Sunni-led insurgency, while the Islamic Republic of Iran supported Shi‘ite militias. The United States acted under its Chapter VII authority from 1990 and, even if armchair analysts want to argue that it was legally necessary to go back for re-approval to the United Nations Security Council (and therefore set the precedent of the expiration of Chapter VII resolutions), the United Nations did ultimately bless the United States as steward. The United States lost hundreds of soldiers fighting these insurgents who targeted civilians. These men and women died to protect Iraqi civilians, and many more would have died had it not been for American efforts. That proponents who blame America first and only ignore the impact of these other states is as reflective as it is dishonest.

While it’s easy to blame insurgent violence on outsiders—and, indeed, Iraqis have always blamed foreign fighters disproportionately to absolve themselves of their own role—the fact of the matter is many Iraqis turned their guns on their fellow countrymen. Responsibility for such action rests on those pulling the trigger, those giving religious imprimatur to their actions, those accepting money to enable it. If there’s one thing that could make the Middle East a far better, more peaceful place, it is personal accountability. Conspiracies thrive as a means to absolve individuals and communities of responsibility. It is condescending if not racist to suggest Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, or members of any other community should be absolved of accountability for actions in which they individually participated, funded, or supported.

One of the most corrosive practices of journalism is the use of the passive voice: Newspapers relate how, for example, “a bomb went off at a school and killed 20” but never bother to report who planted the bomb or what efforts went into that terror attack. Terrorism is seldom random. Three weeks before a bomb explodes killing those school children, terrorists or informants scoped out that site among others and determined at what time they could have maximum impact. Whenever a journalist uses the passive voice, it’s an indication that they either do not know the subject of the action or they want to obfuscate it. It is a lot harder to be sympathetic to terrorists or suggest they are motivated by the most reasonable of grievances—as Institute for Policy Studies analyst Phyllis Bennis did yesterday on the Baltimore NPR affiliate (link not yet available)—when audiences are forced to confront the reality of their actions.

There is also a logical fallacy to the idea that America is always responsible when such accusations are transposed onto policy. How many people have criticized America for doing nothing, for example, when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds (never mind that it was the Germans and the Dutch who sold the chemical precursors to Saddam, and not the United States)? And yet, in the face of atrocity, their policy advice is to do nothing? Likewise, if critics of U.S. policy consider the United States to be guilty of original sin for entering Iraq, then wouldn’t it compound the problem not to seek to prevent outcomes which lead to greater civilian deaths?

Syria shows clearly what happens when the United States does not intervene when it has an opportunity to do so. So too does Rwanda. While hard-hearted realists might say the United States had no business in Rwanda, the fact of the matter is that ISIS arose in Syria. Even if analysts wish to trace its evolution to its current form from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq, it shows moral inversion to suggest that al-Qaeda should be considered legitimate and indigenous in Iraq or, again, that the United States should not seek to crush it.

Would Iraq have been a better place had Saddam remained in power? Well, for the minority of Iraqis who were Arab Sunnis, perhaps. But not for Kurds living under the threat of continuing genocide, the Yezidis who are also Kurds (Yezidism being a religion and Kurds being an ethnicity), or for the majority of the country who were Shi‘ites. Baathism is an ethnic chauvinist party as much as Nazism. Nor is it fair to paint the entire Sunni Arab community as Baathists. While historians can still debate whether the invasion of Iraq was wise or not, what is beyond debate is the fact that Saddam planned to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction program. This is affirmed both by captured documents and interviews with former officials.

Saddam Hussein was 66 years old when the United States invaded Iraq, and 69 when he was executed. Today he would have been 77 years old, assuming he was still alive. Had he died, the world would have confronted an Iraq governed by his malevolent sons or, if they were unable to consolidate power, then the ethnic and sectarian discord that Iraq currently confronts.

Our commentariat’s self-flagellation is dishonest and destructive. Perhaps some pundits think it will score domestic political points, but it also plays into the hands of those who mean America harm, those who embrace conspiracy theories about our intent, and those who seek to shirk accountability for their own murderous objectives. The United States is not the center of the world, even though sometimes only the United States has the logistical ability and wherewithal to try to make the world a better place.

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ISIS Seizes Nuclear Material from Iraq

Danielle Pletka, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, draws my attention to the following International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) press statement today:

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Danielle Pletka, my colleague at the American Enterprise Institute, draws my attention to the following International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) press statement today:

The following is a statement attributable to IAEA Spokesperson Gill Tudor on reports that Iraq has notified the United Nations that nuclear material has been seized from Mosul University: ‘The IAEA is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details. On the basis of the initial information we believe the material involved is low-grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk. Nevertheless, any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.’

True, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) cannot build a traditional nuclear bomb with nuclear material seized from a university, where perhaps it was used in medical research or medical technology. But terrorists are creative and often do not care if they can build a warhead equivalent to that in the arsenal of nuclear powers. Rather, ISIS could just as easily build a dirty bomb they could use to terrorize those populations or people whose lives and liberty they despise. A dirty bomb in Baghdad, London, or New York—or on an airplane—would make headlines, allow the group to recruit more supporters, and create international panic. It’s all well and good for the IAEA—or, perhaps the White House—to downplay the seizure of the material. But remember the concern this past December when thieves made off with radioactive hospital waste in Mexico.

For too long, the White House turned its back on Iraq. It seemed that President Obama believed that Iraq was the original sin: he disagreed with the intervention launched by President Bush and cynically figured that he could withdraw and if Iraq went to heck, then he could simply blame Bush and more broadly the Republican Party. Playing politics with national security has consequences and it is the responsibility of the White House to manage national security issues even if they disagree with their genesis (any successor to Obama will have to address the reverberations of the president’s attempts at deal-making with Iran). Obama may have dispatched 350 men to shore up the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and Baghdad International Airport, but the consequences of the vacuum which have developed in Iraq are grave and growing and should no longer be ignored.

Being president means being a leader and re-engaging even if unpopular. As a second-term president, Obama has the luxury of not needing to stand for election again. He has so far used that position in the domestic arena, but he has yet to use it to contribute to international security and ensuring America’s best defense. Let us hope that Obama and his advisors will come to recognize the reality of what the United States now confronts.

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What’s the Real Story of the U.S. and Maliki?

Earlier this week, Max Boot flagged an important column by Ali Khedery, the American who had perhaps the greatest institutional knowledge of what went on inside Iraq, because as an advisor to a succession of American diplomats, he was often at the thick of things. I do not know Khedery well and have only met him a few times in a cursory fashion, but he is smart, personable, and able. In short, Khedery is everything he claims to be in his Washington Post essay, when he writes that he was the reason why the United States initially pushed Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s premiership but that he recognized Maliki’s drawbacks and sought a withdrawal of U.S. support in 2010.

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Earlier this week, Max Boot flagged an important column by Ali Khedery, the American who had perhaps the greatest institutional knowledge of what went on inside Iraq, because as an advisor to a succession of American diplomats, he was often at the thick of things. I do not know Khedery well and have only met him a few times in a cursory fashion, but he is smart, personable, and able. In short, Khedery is everything he claims to be in his Washington Post essay, when he writes that he was the reason why the United States initially pushed Nouri al-Maliki to Iraq’s premiership but that he recognized Maliki’s drawbacks and sought a withdrawal of U.S. support in 2010.

Khedery’s column comes just a few months after Dexter Filkins wrote a lengthy profile of Maliki in the New Yorker based on numerous interviews with American officials.

Enter Reidar Visser, an astute Norwegian Iraq analyst, who has compared the two narratives and pointed out some inconsistencies. First, Khedery writes that it was he and Jeffrey Beals who promoted Maliki’s candidacy within the embassy and U.S. government. Filkins, however, credits a CIA officer whom he doesn’t name. As Visser notes wryly, “Unless one of them was indeed CIA there is some discordance between the two narratives.” In this case, the answer might simply be both are right. U.S. policymaking is marked by huge bureaucracies. Independent strains coalescing to a common purpose shape outcomes, but it is the nature of the beast that each independent strain believes that they were the ones who mattered: it’s like the old parable of the blind men describing the elephant, but in this case, two of the blind men were describing its legs, albeit separate ones.

Visser then identifies two problems in which the open sources seem to contradict Khedery’s narrative. The first was with regard to Maliki’s use of the de-Baathification committee against opponents in the lead-up to the 2010 elections. Visser quotes Khedery as writing, “He [Maliki] coerced Iraq’s chief justice to bar some of his rivals from participating in the elections,” and then Visser himself notes, “This description of what happened comes across as disingenuous. For starters, the resuscitation of the de-Baathification issue in early 2010 was clearly driven by Maliki’s Shiite enemies [like Adel Abdel Mehdi] who, with considerable Iranian assistance, had tried in vain to enlist him for their sectarian alliance during the previous summer.” Indeed, Visser notes, Maliki had to fight off de-Baathification committee attempts to disqualify some of his own political allies. It was only after the elections that Maliki sought to use de-Baathification to disqualify some election winners.

Visser also takes Khedery to task for his treatment of the Iraqi supreme court which ruled in May 2010 that blocs could shift and merge after the election, in effect building coalitions to change the election outcome. “Many Americans have tried to portray this ruling as some kind of Maliki coup,” Visser notes, “but closer inspection of the relevant constitutional background materials suggests that the ruling was quite objective in addressing the limited constitutional ambiguity that existed.”

Both Khedery and Visser skim past the arrest warrant which the Maliki government issued for former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Visser does note that Khedery “conveniently flashes forward to the threatened arrest of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi right after the US withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, and then jumps further to the targeting of Rafi al-Eisawi [sic], the finance minister, in late 2012. Between those events, however, there were junctures where things could have gone very differently in Iraqi politics if the US government had had the acumen to act in a more balanced way.” The problem with this statement is that it seems to imply that the arrest warrants were somehow wrong. Even many Sunni Arab Iraqis acknowledge substance behind the accusations against Hashemi. And, as the Iraqi government points out, why would Issawi pay blood money to the family of his victims if there were no victims? The criticism that should be made of the Maliki government is not that it sought to bring Sunni officials complicit in terrorism to justice, but rather that it was selective and did not pursue many Shi‘ite officials (Muqtada al-Sadr, for example) with the same energy or enthusiasm.

There are other issues of context which should be acknowledged and understood when reading Khedery’s narrative. Khedery is forthcoming in acknowledging his post-government role with Exxon, where he helped that oil company begin operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. What is important to note, however, is that the Iraqi government considered this a shot across its bow, corrosive to Iraqi integrity, and deeply illegal. Indeed, Maliki subsequently exerted great pressure on Exxon and lobbied the White House furiously to accept Baghdad’s position in the conflict and, indeed, this is what the Obama administration did. The Kurds have lobbied tirelessly against Maliki, and it bears observation that Khedery’s change of mind coincided with his joining of Exxon and its attempts to do business with the Iraqi Kurds.

Iraq is a complicated story. After leaving the Pentagon, I was approached by many Ph.D. students who wanted to interview me as they wrote about the decisions to go to war. Because of my own bias as a historian–the old Yale adage that was drilled into us that to try to write a history of recent events for which there hasn’t been adequate declassification of documents from all sides isn’t history but rather journalism–I turned them down. I had my own opinions and observations, but absent declassified documentation, no Ph.D. student would be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in his sourcing and would likely simply go with his or her bias. To re-read today some of those journalists—George Packer and Tom Ricks, for example—who sought to write a first draft of the Iraqi war’s history is to recognize how superficial, self-serving, and inaccurate some of their sources were. Khedery, Filkins, and Visser are more the real deal. And each of their writings is worth reading in order to better illustrate key decisions and their reasoning.

That said, one of the problems—and this is especially true in Filkins’s piece—is that American officials tend to re-write their legacies and exaggerate their importance. It is unbecoming, and it reinforces the notion that American officials cannot and should not be trusted. Too often, writers also assume that the United States shapes the playing field, and that Iraqis don’t simply nod their heads, make the American feel important, and then pursue their own politics. It is also unbecoming—and very damaging to American interests—to bash a democratically-elected leader like Maliki simply because he has pursued policies which do not always conform to what the United States would like to see. After all, Maliki’s constituency is Iraq, and not the American embassy. Some American analysts and, indeed, Iraqis can be frustrated with what they perceive as Maliki’s sectarianism, but they might also recognize that Maliki was put in a precarious position when American generals made promises to some Sunni tribal leaders that they had no ability to keep. In effect, these generals traded long-term stability for short-term calm. Of course, the problem isn’t just with these generals: Many Sunni tribal leaders heard only what they wanted to hear from their interlocutors and when what they wished to be the case did not become their reality, they grew bitter and disenfranchised.

Maliki won the largest share of votes in Iraq’s most recent elections, but he also faces unease within his own party, especially in the wake of the joint tribal and Baathist uprising, and ISIS terror campaign that erupted in its wake. It is the vanguard of this uprising that is truly sectarian. To suggest that Maliki is somehow responsible for the sectarian radicalism of the Islamic State is to blame a battered spouse for the aggression of her partner. It is still a testament to Iraq’s system, as convoluted and dysfunctional as it can be, that Maliki may not get the third term he desires for the simple reason that his opponents have coalesced around him.

As to who is responsible for Maliki, let’s stop treating the man as a puppet: Maliki has a far greater role in his rise than outside forces did and even if he got a boost at some strategic points, it is well-past time to stop pretending that Iraqi politicians are puppets that can be controlled by Foggy Bottom or Langley. The more we engage in that self-deception, the more detached from reality we will become, and the worse the outcome will be for U.S. interests in the country.

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The Dream Palace and the Nightmare: Fouad Ajami’s Quest for Truth

In a Western world of carefully constructed comfort-myths, Fouad Ajami was a dangerous man. In life, Ajami was grudgingly respected by many of his critics because he was so much smarter than they were, and they knew it. In death, Ajami will receive no such professional courtesy. Exhibit A is today’s execrable New York Times obituary.

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In a Western world of carefully constructed comfort-myths, Fouad Ajami was a dangerous man. In life, Ajami was grudgingly respected by many of his critics because he was so much smarter than they were, and they knew it. In death, Ajami will receive no such professional courtesy. Exhibit A is today’s execrable New York Times obituary.

The Times’s remembrance of Ajami, who died yesterday at age 68, can be written off as another repulsive leftist tantrum. But it’s actually a museum-worthy display of the intellectual depths to which the left has sunk in recent years in an effort–ultimately doomed, one hopes–to erase history. Ajami had long put himself on the front lines of those trying to beat back this rebellion against knowledge. Defense of the truth was weakened by his passing, and the Times wasted not a moment to advance its assault.

It is unfortunate that to call out the Times requires quoting the editorial. Ajami had a long and distinguished career, yet the Times begins its obituary by apportioning a healthy share of blame for the Iraq war to him. And it just keeps sinking from there. Here is the first quote we get from elsewhere in the academy of Ajami’s thinking:

Mr. Ajami’s harshest criticism was leveled at Arab autocrats, who by definition lacked popular support. But his use of words like “tribal,” “atavistic” and “clannish” to describe Arab peoples rankled some. So did his belief that Western nations should intervene in the region to correct wrongs. Edward Said, the Palestinian cultural critic who died in 2003, accused him of having “unmistakably racist prescriptions.”

That is not the last time the obituary seeks to paint Ajami as a racist, a slander without a shred of truth to it–and so it is fitting, in a way, that Edward Said should be the vessel for it. Here is the Times on Ajami’s book The Dream Palace of the Arabs:

“The Dream Palace of the Arabs” told of how a generation of Arab intellectuals tried to renew their homelands’ culture through the forces of modernism and secularism. The Christian Science Monitor called it “a cleareyed look at the lost hopes of the Arabs.”

Partly because of that tone, some condemned the book as too negative. The scholar Andrew N. Rubin, writing in The Nation, said it “echoes the kind of anti-Arabism that both Washington and the pro-Israeli lobby have come to embrace.”

A twofer: calling both Ajami and the “Israel lobby” racist. But this is one of the obstacles Ajami faced in being so eloquent: Andrew Rubin may have read Ajami’s book, but he obviously didn’t understand a word of it. Dream Palace was a condemnation of Arab police-state autocrats precisely because it was a celebration of the potential of Arabs and Arab culture.

Here, for example, is Ajami writing of a popular Arab poet lashing out in verse against Israel:

The Qabbani poem became an overnight sensation. Political power was in the hands of kings and dictators, businessmen were coming and going to economic conferences and “summits” in Casablanca, Amman, and Cairo, trumpeting the advent of a new Middle Eastern economy, but this poet had his own kingdom. As he himself so defiantly put it, poetry was “written on the forehead of every Arab from his birth until his death.” The Arab was the “quintessential poetic being.” Poetry had its own dominion; sultat al-ski’r (the dominion of poetry), and was nobler and truer than the authority of “patriarchy and the authorities of marriage, and politics, and the military.” These later dominions were mere “soap bubbles.” Poetry was at the heart of the turath (heritage), and this turath is “our identity, our passport, our blood type; without it we will become bastard-children.”

Ajami could be proud of the Arab mind but uncomfortable with the ends to which it sometimes lent itself, as in the case of Qabbani’s poem. Such nuance was lost on his critics. Ajami thought higher of his people than did the condescending leftwing polemicists who encouraged their war against the Jews in their midst and against the Westerners seeking to open doors for them. In explaining the title of the book, Ajami wrote:

On their own, in the barracks and in the academies, in the principal cities of the Arab world—Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo—Arabs had built their own dream palace—an intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity. In these pages I take up what had become of this edifice in the last quarter-century. The book is at once a book about public matters—a history of a people, the debates of its intellectuals, the fate of its dominant ideas—and a personal inquiry into the kind of world my generation of Arabs, men and women born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was bequeathed.

On their own. Though the Iraq war came after Dream Palace’s publication, it does offer something of a window into Ajami’s thinking. Ajami didn’t support the Iraq war because he thought his Shiite brethren needed a different master. He supported it because on their own they were capable of great things. They didn’t need a master, no matter his tone or tongue. They had rights and expectations and deserved more. This is anti-Arab? The claim is nothing more than extravagant idiocy.

The Times piece closes with another quote from the Nation, in which Ajami is accused of winning over his Western champions with his “almost flirtatious manner” and his pretensions to be “the good Arab.” The Times may not have written that deeply unintelligent nonsense, but reproducing it in its obituary is insulting; using it as the closing quote is spitting on the man’s grave.

The irony is that Ajami’s critics so easily appropriated the language of the authoritarian monsters Ajami wanted consigned to the dustbin, and they did so while Ajami was working tirelessly for the Arabs’ right to be free of such authoritarianism. Now they dismiss him as a traitor to his own people because he wanted them to be free. In life, Ajami was dangerous to them and their artificial world. In death, they fear him still.

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Paul’s Isolationism Isn’t a Viable Alternative

In the last week the collapse in Iraq has re-ignited the debate over President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as well as President Obama’s to abandon it in 2011. That has allowed many liberals to return to their favorite pastime of bashing neoconservative advocates for the war and conservatives to excoriate an administration that decided to bug out of Iraq just at the point when the conflict seemed to have been won. Both of the last two presidents made mistakes in Iraq and these exchanges have left no one’s reputation intact. But for isolationists, this latest crisis is an opportunity for them to claim that they alone have avoided blame for both the bloody war that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the current battles in which much of the country appears to be falling into the hands of a Sunni coalition made up of al-Qaeda sympathizers and former Baathists.

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In the last week the collapse in Iraq has re-ignited the debate over President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003 as well as President Obama’s to abandon it in 2011. That has allowed many liberals to return to their favorite pastime of bashing neoconservative advocates for the war and conservatives to excoriate an administration that decided to bug out of Iraq just at the point when the conflict seemed to have been won. Both of the last two presidents made mistakes in Iraq and these exchanges have left no one’s reputation intact. But for isolationists, this latest crisis is an opportunity for them to claim that they alone have avoided blame for both the bloody war that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein and the current battles in which much of the country appears to be falling into the hands of a Sunni coalition made up of al-Qaeda sympathizers and former Baathists.

That’s the conceit of Senator Rand Paul’s op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal in which he joins the pile-on against both Bush and Obama. According to Paul, the main lesson to be derived from recent developments in Iraq is that anyone connected to or supportive of the original invasion as well as those who support the president’s disastrous retreat from the region need to admit their errors and cease advocating for what he considers to be failed policies. Fair enough. But once everyone who was for the war and also those who urged withdrawal say they’re sorry, what does the man who must be considered one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 think the U.S. should do in Iraq now? The answer is apparently, not much. Paul seems to be skeptical about any action to try and push back against the ISIS advance, a position that may be wrong but is not irrational. Not unreasonably, he also believes any presidential decisions should seek authorization from Congress for any new initiative.

What is not reasonable is the context of Paul’s position. Though he continues to insist that what he is proposing is analogous to the policies carried out by Ronald Reagan, having opposed virtually every U.S. initiative in the Middle East, it is hard to see his proposal as anything but a prescription for U.S. abandonment of both its interests and allies in the Middle East. This may have some superficial appeal to war-weary Americans who have grown tired of dealing with the region’s problems. But doing so will neither enhance the nation’s security nor allow it to ignore the threats that regularly emerge to challenge it.

Paul’s harping on the idea of others admitting their mistakes is a not-so-subtle way of asserting that he has made none. It is true that he bears no responsibility for getting the U.S. into Iraq or for President Obama’s bungling of a war that the administration claimed had been successfully concluded in his first term. But to claim that simply staying out of Iraq would have avoided all the problems of a rising Islamist tide in the region is to miss the point of the events of the last few years. By passing on an early intervention in Syria that might have toppled the Assad regime and avoided having the country fall into the hands of Islamists, President Obama set in motion a chain of events that has not only left the country in ruins, created more than a million refugees, and left more than 100,000 dead. He also helped create the circumstances that have fueled the chaos in Iraq. In doing so, Obama was doing just as a President Paul would do, only with the pretense that he was actually in control of events as his “lead from behind” mantra tried to indicate.

It is one thing to advocate for the U.S. to adopt a Reaganesque stance of only using force when U.S. interests are directly threatened, as Paul counsels. But Paul’s consistent position is always for the U.S. to stay out of the fight against Islamist terrorists, no matter where they are or what they are doing. He opposes drone strikes on al-Qaeda leaders and even U.S. aid to regional allies like Israel as well as less friendly and stable countries. Though he couches his position in “realist” terms that evoke Republicans of the past, a Rand Paul foreign policy would signal a retreat from the defense of the U.S. interests that Ronald Reagan would never have countenanced. Far from being an alternative to the follies of both the last two presidents, Paul would take U.S. foreign policy far to the left of what most Republicans already rightly think is Obama’s retreat from the world stage.

There is clearly no appetite in the country now for a new commitment to ground combat in Iraq, but Paul’s isolationism represents a dangerous extension of Obama’s cut-and-run philosophy. Though foreign policy will always take a back seat to domestic concerns, as Republicans begin to think seriously about 2016 they need to start thinking about whether they really want a presidential candidate who wants to abandon America’s interests and allies even more than Obama has done.

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The Media McCarthyites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Memorial Day: Let Us Finish the Work

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the United States has fought in the last 14 years have not been popular. The consensus that initially backed U.S. intervention in the region quickly evaporated and became a victim of partisanship once it became clear the fighting there is part of a generations-long conflict that can’t be easily won.

Nor, it must be conceded, is it certain that the sacrifices made by American forces in those countries will have made a lasting impact on the region or the struggle against Islamist terror if the current administration’s desire to retreat at all costs eventually leads to a revival of the fortunes of freedom’s foes. But if there is one point on which all Americans can and should unite it is in praise and support of the brave Americans who serve our nation at the risk of their own lives.

It is out of the tragedy of these recent wars that at least some Americans have regained a sense of the importance of Memorial Day. While for many Americans, the date is merely a long weekend or the first harbinger of summer vacations, for all too many it is a day to remember loved ones and friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice for America.

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The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the United States has fought in the last 14 years have not been popular. The consensus that initially backed U.S. intervention in the region quickly evaporated and became a victim of partisanship once it became clear the fighting there is part of a generations-long conflict that can’t be easily won.

Nor, it must be conceded, is it certain that the sacrifices made by American forces in those countries will have made a lasting impact on the region or the struggle against Islamist terror if the current administration’s desire to retreat at all costs eventually leads to a revival of the fortunes of freedom’s foes. But if there is one point on which all Americans can and should unite it is in praise and support of the brave Americans who serve our nation at the risk of their own lives.

It is out of the tragedy of these recent wars that at least some Americans have regained a sense of the importance of Memorial Day. While for many Americans, the date is merely a long weekend or the first harbinger of summer vacations, for all too many it is a day to remember loved ones and friends who have made the ultimate sacrifice for America.

Memorial Day grew out of the effort to memorialize the hundreds of thousands who died in the slaughter of the Civil War. But it is now a day on which we can recall the heroism of many generations of Americans who helped build a nation based on the concept of liberty and then were forced to fight to preserve its freedom. On such days, as we mourn the fallen and observe with sadness the toll that war has taken on the wounded who survived the battlefield, it is difficult to contemplate the causes of these wars or to imagine the circumstances under which new sacrifices might be compelled of Americans. But the point of these memorials is not merely to mourn but to celebrate the ideals that the efforts of American forces down through the ages have done so much to preserve.

Honoring our veterans requires us to do more than salute the flag on Memorial Day. Our government is obligated to keep its promises to those who served by providing them with the care they need. That is a pledge that unfortunately seems to have been observed in the breach by the Veterans Administration in recent years as the scandal about practices in its hospitals that cost the lives of at least 40 veterans showed. On this, of all days, it is imperative that the president should finally show some leadership and quickly act to redress these wrongs.

But the point about Memorial Day is not just the need to treat those who served with the respect they have earned. Rather, we must also, as Abraham Lincoln said when memorializing the casualties of the Civil War, rededicate ourselves to the ideals that our soldiers defended. In this age, as in previous struggles to preserve this nation and the democratic principles upon which it is based, it is imperative that we not let the flag of freedom drop even as we mourn our losses. Much as we may be tempted to withdraw from the affairs of the world and pretend that we can survive in a fortress America, that is neither possible nor prudent. Unfortunately, the battle to preserve freedom is not yet over and will require the constant vigilance of this and future generations.

On such a day, it is well worth re-reading the words of Lincoln in his Second Inaugural as he exhorted his nation to finish the conflict in which it was engaged rather than to abandon the struggle and to honor those who fought in it:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

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Obama Invades Strawmanistan While Rubio and Others Offer Ideas

President Obama’s now infamous press conference in Manila last week was marked by the president making two accusations of his critics. First, they are warmongers who would immediately resort to force: “most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures.” Second, those who don’t want to invade don’t offer alternatives; when asked for specifics, their criticism suddenly “kind of trails off,” the president said.

To emphasize precisely what he meant, the president brought up the Iraq war, so that the audience knew he was specifically and clearly designating his critics as warmongers. This bit of theater no doubt fooled some of the president’s more devoted, and less discerning, fans. But in truth it proved just how insulated the president is from the informed discussion taking place in the public sphere. There are plenty of serious ideas being proposed; it’s a shame the president isn’t aware of them.

Take Ukraine, for example. While there have been debates about sanctions, another idea comes today from Senator Marco Rubio, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rubio notes that while the ruble has fallen since the beginning of the conflict, the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has been falling even faster, raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin will be willing to take a financial hit to Russia if it means the complete collapse of Ukraine’s economy.

He proposes anchoring the hryvnia to a stable currency:

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President Obama’s now infamous press conference in Manila last week was marked by the president making two accusations of his critics. First, they are warmongers who would immediately resort to force: “most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures.” Second, those who don’t want to invade don’t offer alternatives; when asked for specifics, their criticism suddenly “kind of trails off,” the president said.

To emphasize precisely what he meant, the president brought up the Iraq war, so that the audience knew he was specifically and clearly designating his critics as warmongers. This bit of theater no doubt fooled some of the president’s more devoted, and less discerning, fans. But in truth it proved just how insulated the president is from the informed discussion taking place in the public sphere. There are plenty of serious ideas being proposed; it’s a shame the president isn’t aware of them.

Take Ukraine, for example. While there have been debates about sanctions, another idea comes today from Senator Marco Rubio, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rubio notes that while the ruble has fallen since the beginning of the conflict, the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has been falling even faster, raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin will be willing to take a financial hit to Russia if it means the complete collapse of Ukraine’s economy.

He proposes anchoring the hryvnia to a stable currency:

We should encourage the establishment of a Ukrainian currency board, an institutional arrangement that anchors the value of national money to a more stable currency. Under a currency board, the hryvnia would be convertible into the dollar or the euro at a fixed rate, and backed by Ukraine’s own hard currency reserves. The International Monetary Fund would supplement the reserves with a special-purpose loan arrangement.

A currency board would help Ukraine’s money become as reliable and stable as the world’s dominant reserve currencies. The effects would ripple throughout the economy: Foreign investors could have confidence that the hryvnia is not in a death spiral, and Ukrainians would know that Mr. Putin cannot annihilate the value of their personal savings. Such stability would encourage the nation under siege to maintain its faith in free people and free markets.

Equally important: Moscow would immediately face the dismaying reality that Ukraine’s money is suddenly far more dependable than its own. Russia is already on a spending blowout to save the ruble as economic conditions deteriorate: Russia’s central bank has spent more than $23 billion intervening in foreign exchange markets since January. On April 25, the bank raised its key interest rate by 50 basis points to 7.5%, a desperate attempt to tamp down the inflationary effects of a weakening ruble. Monetary policy is not Russia’s forte in global affairs, and so the U.S. and Europe should use their advantage strategically to hurt a vulnerable adversary.

Such a plan would get Europe and the U.S. working with the International Monetary Fund to not only help stabilize Ukraine’s economy but ensure that financial aid to Kiev wouldn’t be obliterated by a collapsing currency. If someone in the White House passes this along to the president, he might be amazed not only at the options at his disposal but the fact that Rubio was able to explain all this without invading any countries. Again, this is a fact that bears repeating: it is Obama, not his conservative opposition, who thinks war is the only alternative.

Another suggestion comes from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Jan Joel Andersson–probably not someone the president blames for America’s intervention in Iraq. Andersson goes back to the question of how to channel a response to Russia through NATO. It’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s not as though Ukraine is in any shape to join NATO now nor does the new government appear interested in doing so anyway. But Andersson has come up with a twist on the idea of expanding NATO: add Sweden and Finland. Andersson explains:

Expanding NATO to Sweden and Finland would achieve several important aims. From a political standpoint, it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences. Sweden and Finland’s nonalignment has offered Russia a comforting buffer zone along its northwestern border ever since the end of World War II. If Sweden and Finland were to join NATO now, that buffer would be gone, and the alliance would gain two of the world’s most democratic, politically stable, and economically successful countries. NATO would also pick up two very active proponents of transatlanticism that have consistently argued for strong U.S. involvement in Europe.

“From a military standpoint,” Andersson continues, “Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance.” Nor would the historical significance of Sweden and Finland joining the Atlantic alliance be lost on Russia. “Given the upsides, bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO seems like a no-brainer,” Andersson writes. “But the two countries have to agree to it.”

These are but two examples of policy choices on offer that would strengthen alliances and forge transatlantic cooperation without being too costly (or warmongering). They are also examples of the growing chorus of politicians and analysts who seem to be taking the Ukraine crisis far more seriously than the president is.

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The President Who Has Learned Nothing

In his remarks at a press conference today in the Philippines, President Obama more or less acknowledged that his strategy for restraining Russian aggression isn’t going to work. When pressed on a second round of minimal sanctions that do little to punish the regime of Vladimir Putin, let alone impact the Russian economy, the president didn’t promise much in the way of success. “We don’t know yet if it’s going to work,” he admitted. Given that there is no example in history of such a limited sanctions campaign with no threat of force on the table, nor tangible plans to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, ever working, he did well to lower expectations. But rather than own up to his impotence, the president lashed out at those who have been urging a more vigorous effort to help the Ukrainians, including the shipment of arms and reinforcing the American presence in those NATO nations that were once part of the tsarist/Soviet empire that Putin seeks to reassemble.

As far as the president is concerned, anyone who might have been wrong about the wisdom of invading Iraq should just shut up about using force or anything more than the charade of resistance to Russian ambitions he has employed or in doing something about the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. A lengthy and somewhat whiney diatribe about Syria and Russia policy culminated in this extraordinary statement:

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.

Whether Obama was referring specifically to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who expressed a desire for a more robust response to Russia, or just neoconservatives in general, who have been lamenting his “lead from behind” approach to foreign policy, wasn’t immediately clear. But the president’s sensitivity about his failures in Syria and Russia and anger at the chutzpah of his critics in pointing out just how disastrous his conduct of foreign policy has been was apparent. But though he may pride himself on having opposed the conflict in Iraq—the issue that helped gain him the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008—history did not stop on January 2009. In the sixth year of his presidency with a lengthy resume of foreign-policy failure, the best Obama can do is to attempt to re-litigate Iraq. While Iraq war advocates have largely acknowledged their mistakes, Obama isn’t willing to even acknowledge his, let alone learn from them.

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In his remarks at a press conference today in the Philippines, President Obama more or less acknowledged that his strategy for restraining Russian aggression isn’t going to work. When pressed on a second round of minimal sanctions that do little to punish the regime of Vladimir Putin, let alone impact the Russian economy, the president didn’t promise much in the way of success. “We don’t know yet if it’s going to work,” he admitted. Given that there is no example in history of such a limited sanctions campaign with no threat of force on the table, nor tangible plans to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, ever working, he did well to lower expectations. But rather than own up to his impotence, the president lashed out at those who have been urging a more vigorous effort to help the Ukrainians, including the shipment of arms and reinforcing the American presence in those NATO nations that were once part of the tsarist/Soviet empire that Putin seeks to reassemble.

As far as the president is concerned, anyone who might have been wrong about the wisdom of invading Iraq should just shut up about using force or anything more than the charade of resistance to Russian ambitions he has employed or in doing something about the ongoing human-rights catastrophe in Syria. A lengthy and somewhat whiney diatribe about Syria and Russia policy culminated in this extraordinary statement:

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.

Whether Obama was referring specifically to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who expressed a desire for a more robust response to Russia, or just neoconservatives in general, who have been lamenting his “lead from behind” approach to foreign policy, wasn’t immediately clear. But the president’s sensitivity about his failures in Syria and Russia and anger at the chutzpah of his critics in pointing out just how disastrous his conduct of foreign policy has been was apparent. But though he may pride himself on having opposed the conflict in Iraq—the issue that helped gain him the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008—history did not stop on January 2009. In the sixth year of his presidency with a lengthy resume of foreign-policy failure, the best Obama can do is to attempt to re-litigate Iraq. While Iraq war advocates have largely acknowledged their mistakes, Obama isn’t willing to even acknowledge his, let alone learn from them.

The president argues that the use of force by the West in Syria would do nothing now to solve the problems created by a bloody three-year-old civil war. He even claims his retreat on Syria that effectively guaranteed the survival of the Assad regime and handed control over the issue of chemical weapons to Putin had solved the problem even though it appears to have done nothing of the kind. He went on to claim that he had “mobilized the international community” and that as a result of his heroic leadership, “Russia has never been more isolated.”

Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure, and economic pressure that we’re applying?

The answer to the latter question is so obvious that it is troubling that the president even posed it. We don’t know whether Putin, who was sufficiently uncertain of a Western response in 2004 and 2005 during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution to refrain from attacking the former Russian possession, would think twice if the West sent more arms and aid to Kiev. But we do know that Putin is laughing up his sleeve at the ineffectual response that Obama has put forward in the wake of his seizure of Ukraine. Having seen what he could get away with there, he’s now further testing Ukraine and the West with provocations along its eastern border. The result is that after the collapse of Obama’s resolve on Syria, the surrender to Iran’s demands in the nuclear negotiations, and the humiliation in Eastern Europe, America’s standing in the world has never been lower.

President Obama arrived in the White House in 2009 determined not to repeat his predecessor’s mistakes. But as with every general who sought to win the next war with the winning strategies employed in the last one, he has now a record of colossal miscalculations of his own to defend.

History will judge the rights and wrongs of the Iraq debate and right now it looks as if those who wished to stay out have the better argument–though that is as much the result of Obama’s failure to follow up on the victories won in the 2007 surge than the inherent fault of the original plan. But being right on Iraq, if indeed he really was correct, tells us nothing about what the best course of action is on Syria, Iran, or Ukraine. It should be remembered that George W. Bush re-evaluated his Iraq strategy after 2006 and his course correction enabled him to hand off a conflict to Obama that had been largely won.

Obama remains forever locked in a time warp labeled 2008. Making a blunder is one thing but, as the president has demonstrated, not having the grace or the wit to recognize that you’ve made a mistake is far worse. Based on today’s performance and the certain prospects of future humiliations at the hands of Putin, Assad, and Iran’s ayatollahs, Barack Obama will go down in history as the president who learned nothing.

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Are Neoconservatives Permitted to Define Their Own Worldview?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Left-Wing Hypocrites and Condoleezza Rice

The moves by academics and students at Rutgers University to have an invitation to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rescinded might well be viewed as just another instance of a leftwing soft-totalitarianism that attempts to set beyond the pale anyone who does not share their worldview. To a degree this is clearly part of it. Yet, upon scratching the surface of this initiative one discovers a far more unpleasant impulse at work. The academics of the New Brunswick Faculty Council, which has voted to call on the school to disinvite Rice, made no shortage of outlandish claims in their statement, yet they had the good sense not to expose some of the more deeply rooted motives behind their campaign. The same cannot be said, however, for the students who have joined them in their calls.

From the statement released by the faculty council, one would assume that Rice was some kind of hardened war criminal who served in the government of a Third World despot, as opposed to someone who held one of the highest offices in the government of the United States. The statement parrots the usual conspiratorial leftist notions about the Bush administration, accusing Rice of having been complicit in taking America to war on a lie. Furthermore, the statement repeats the accusation that through the war in Iraq, America is responsible for the killing of over a 100,000 Iraqi “men, women and children” and the displacement of millions more. This is a commonly heard figure from the left, but no one knows where it comes from. The actual invasion of Iraq to remove the Saddam regime lasted for just over a month and had a proportionately low civilian casualty rate. Very many more Iraqis, however, were killed during the insurgency and suicide bombings of the factional fighting between Sunni and Shia that followed. But to try and level the blame for this on America rather than with the Islamists who carried out the killings, is itself an expression of the left’s inverted racism that sees non-western peoples as having no agency in their own actions.

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The moves by academics and students at Rutgers University to have an invitation to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rescinded might well be viewed as just another instance of a leftwing soft-totalitarianism that attempts to set beyond the pale anyone who does not share their worldview. To a degree this is clearly part of it. Yet, upon scratching the surface of this initiative one discovers a far more unpleasant impulse at work. The academics of the New Brunswick Faculty Council, which has voted to call on the school to disinvite Rice, made no shortage of outlandish claims in their statement, yet they had the good sense not to expose some of the more deeply rooted motives behind their campaign. The same cannot be said, however, for the students who have joined them in their calls.

From the statement released by the faculty council, one would assume that Rice was some kind of hardened war criminal who served in the government of a Third World despot, as opposed to someone who held one of the highest offices in the government of the United States. The statement parrots the usual conspiratorial leftist notions about the Bush administration, accusing Rice of having been complicit in taking America to war on a lie. Furthermore, the statement repeats the accusation that through the war in Iraq, America is responsible for the killing of over a 100,000 Iraqi “men, women and children” and the displacement of millions more. This is a commonly heard figure from the left, but no one knows where it comes from. The actual invasion of Iraq to remove the Saddam regime lasted for just over a month and had a proportionately low civilian casualty rate. Very many more Iraqis, however, were killed during the insurgency and suicide bombings of the factional fighting between Sunni and Shia that followed. But to try and level the blame for this on America rather than with the Islamists who carried out the killings, is itself an expression of the left’s inverted racism that sees non-western peoples as having no agency in their own actions.

Indeed, the tendency of left-wing intellectuals to operate one impossible standard for western leaders and quite another for those running the kind of regimes that appeal to their own ideological prejudices is hardly a great secret. The Rutgers academics argue that Rice should not be invited because they claim she “participated in political efforts to circumvent the law” and because she does not “embody moral authority and exemplary citizenship.” Yet, the record of leftwing intellectuals who have lined up to cheer on the most brutal revolutionaries and dictatorships is itself long and anything but exemplary. One need not look back as far as Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s apologies for the Soviet Union, or even to Noam Chomsky’s efforts to deny the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Think simply of Judith Butler’s claims that Hamas and Hezbollah are progressives that should be considered part of the “global left.”

No doubt, the academics and students opposing Rice’s visit to their campus would be incensed by such an invitation to any senior figure from the Bush administration, yet Rice holds a particularly reviled status in the minds of the left. The faculty council members were guarded enough not to reference this, the students on the other hand were not and so have ended up unwittingly exposing the whole thing.

To speak candidly for a moment, Condoleezza Rice is black and she is a woman, yet she is also a Republican. For those on the left, this cannot happen. Rice is a member of a minority group, she is female, one of the oppressed, and such people are neither conservatives nor Republicans, and if they were to unaccountably somehow become Republicans then a party of such bigotry would never elevate her to any real position of influence, but if such a figure were ever to achieve any status, then they certainly wouldn’t have joined anything so odious as the Bush administration. According to left-wing thinking Condoleezza Rice cannot exist, and yet there she is nonetheless, pulling their worldview to pieces. In this respect she has unacceptably transgressed the left’s tribal lines.

The editorial of the Rutgers student newspaper the Daily Targum, which supports the campaign to disinvite Rice, makes the mistake of rather giving the game away by quite openly and repeatedly referencing her background. The editorial asks condescendingly, “Do the positive aspects of her personal accomplishments really outweigh the destruction of war she contributed to during her political career?” That line certainly would not have found its way in there if the school had invited Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld. Yet, another opinion piece published in the same paper goes much further, with one student writing that some may wish to overlook Rice’s “behavior” by viewing her “as a powerful woman of color.” No one decent would think for a moment that Rice’s “color” should be used to judge her record, but then the writer dismisses this idea anyway, insisting “Though Rice may have made advancements for black women, they are shallow, even meaningless, when placed side by side with her actions.”

As a clumsy afterthought at the end of the main editorial piece by the students they make the implausible claim; “the point is, we just don’t feel comfortable having politicians as commencement speakers at all.” Does anyone for a moment believe that if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had instead been invited to give the same speech then these same individuals would be expressing such reservations? Quite clearly not.  

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What Gates Gets Wrong

Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.

As Hugh Hewitt pointed out during a conversation on his radio show last Wednesday, the paragraph in the excerpts of Gates’s book that too many experts overlook is this:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.

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Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.

As Hugh Hewitt pointed out during a conversation on his radio show last Wednesday, the paragraph in the excerpts of Gates’s book that too many experts overlook is this:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.

While Gates is certainly right that the decision to utilize military force should not be taken lightly, he fails to consider what happens should resistance to military force allow problems to spread. Take the case of Syria: Two and a half years ago, the United States had the way but not the will to catalyze the conflict’s end and President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster before Syria became a magnet for international jihadism. The opposition had radicalized today not only to the extent that it dooms Syria but also will threaten many other countries throughout the region as their citizens fighting with radicals in Syria return home. Moroccan security experts believe, for example, that perhaps 600 Moroccans have joined jihadi groups inside Syria. Tunisia, Jordan, and Turkey will face similar blowback, all of which more decisive action in a limited window might have prevented. Likewise, while the Obama administration celebrated its “leading from behind” approach toward Libya, the American desire to take a hands-off approach to the situation on the ground meant that no one secured ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s weapons caches. Not only will we eventually pay the price for the surface-to-air missiles which went missing, but the collapse of Mali into civil war was a direct result of the resulting flow of Libyan weapons to terrorist movements across the Sahel.

Gates also seems not to understand the danger of signaling emptiness to American red lines. Not only during the Obama administration, but also during the Republican and Democratic administrations which preceded him, a tremendous gap has developed between the rhetoric of policy and its reality. That encourages international rogues to test the line. When they become too overconfident or improperly assess American resolve, the result can be devastating.

Gates’ frustration when testifying in Congress also gained press attention. “I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit,” he wrote, adding, “It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.” Again here his umbrage is dangerous. Anyone who has testified before Congress knows that they are mere props for representatives and senators who are speaking more for the television or their constituents than to the item at hand. Still, the job of Congress is oversight and the notion either that such oversight should be mitigated for the ego of a secretary, or that the thin skins of senior executives within the United States government mean that words must be crafted to a kindergarten code is nonsense. Had the Pentagon’s own congressional liaisons done a better job, perhaps such exchanges would not have been so testy, but the Pentagon’s congressional liaisons are not the most effective bunch, as the culture of the Pentagon does not encourage the type of glad-handing, back-slapping, alcohol-imbibing culture that permeates Congress and its staff.

It would be nice if everyone was nice and demonstrated class, but if senior officials cannot put up with the likes of Carl Levin, John McCain, or Rand Paul, then they should not be trusted to deal with Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. That said, had the cynicism of Obama, Biden, and Clinton really frustrated Gates to the extent he suggests, then he should have quit for, by doing so, he literally could have put his money where his mouth was and changed the debate when it still mattered.

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Our Contemptible Commander in Chief

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward wrote a front-page story that includes excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.

According to Woodward, Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war… It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

But one begins to understand what underlies Secretary Gates’s judgment after learning about his thoughts during a meeting he attended. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Bear in mind that Mr. Obama was interested in getting out even as he gave the order to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was evident to some people at the time, and evident to everyone now, that President Obama had little interest in winning the war in Afghanistan. His aim was to check the box on the way to ending our involvement there.

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The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward wrote a front-page story that includes excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.

According to Woodward, Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war… It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

But one begins to understand what underlies Secretary Gates’s judgment after learning about his thoughts during a meeting he attended. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Bear in mind that Mr. Obama was interested in getting out even as he gave the order to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was evident to some people at the time, and evident to everyone now, that President Obama had little interest in winning the war in Afghanistan. His aim was to check the box on the way to ending our involvement there.

Secretary Gates also writes about an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.

These are an extraordinary series of revelations. The commander in chief (a) sent troops to fight and die in a war (Afghanistan) he wasn’t committed to and in whose strategy he had no confidence in; and (b) as a senator opposed for partisan reasons a counterinsurgency strategy that turned a war we were losing (Iraq) into one we were winning.

Losing a war is among the worst things that can happen to a nation. Yet we have as president a man who was willing to have America lose in Iraq in order to advance his own political ambitions. And a man, by the way, who constantly chastises Republicans for putting politics above country while portraying himself as the one true patriot.

Having served in the White House for seven years and spanning two wars, I had first-hand exposure to the devotion Mr. Obama’s predecessor had for our troops and how fiercely dedicated he was to having America prevail in these conflicts. Partisan politics not only didn’t drive President Bush’s decisions; they didn’t even enter into them. That is as it should be. For Mr. Obama, on the other hand–at least based on the account by the widely respected Bob Gates–partisan politics was an overwhelming factor in guiding Obama’s major war decisions.

Barack Obama acted in a way that was selfish, cynical, and contemptible. He sent young men and women to die for a war he was utterly ambivalent about and which he had no interest in winning. (Recall that Mr. Obama decided to withdraw the surge troops in Afghanistan in the middle of the fighting season rather than what the military recommended. That decision made no sense from a military standpoint, but it did happen to occur shortly before the 2012 presidential election.) As a senator he did everything he could to ensure that we would lose the Iraq war.

What Secretary Gates has revealed is a moral stain on the president that will never be removed.

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Bob Gates vs. the White House

After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

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After publishing the latest in its series of stories that seemed designed to help burnish Hillary Clinton’s reputation ahead of the 2016 election, the New York Times’s effort had become so transparent, and it had been called out so noticeably, that editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal felt compelled to deny it. He wrote, “let me be clear: We have not chosen Mrs. Clinton.”

Noted. But Vice President Joe Biden might be among those stifling a laugh at Rosenthal’s assertion. Today both the Washington Post and New York Times published revelations from former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’s forthcoming memoir. The Post’s account, written by Bob Woodward, notes that Clinton apparently admitted to President Obama that her opposition to the “surge” was pure politics, since Obama was opposed to the surge and they were in competition at the time. Picking up from that, Woodward’s Post colleague Chris Cillizza speculates on how the excerpt could harm Clinton’s prospects:

But, remember this is Hillary Clinton we are talking about.  And, the criticism that has always haunted her is that everything she does is infused with politics — that there is no core set of beliefs within her but rather just political calculation massed upon political calculation. Remember that she began slipping in the 2008 Democratic primary when her opponents seized on an overly political answer on giving drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants during a debate in  late 2o07.

Gates’s version of why Clinton opposed the surge fits perfectly into this existing good-politics-makes-good-policy narrative about the former secretary of state. And that’s what makes it dangerous for her —  and why you can be sure she (or her people) will (and must) dispute Gates’s recollection quickly and definitively.

Whether it hurts Clinton might depend largely on who runs against her in the Democratic primary. But he’s right that the reputation of both Clintons has always been not to say a single word that hasn’t been focus-grouped into the ground. If Clinton was hoping her time as secretary of state would temper that reputation, the Gates memoir is yet another example of how difficult it can be for a politician to shake an entrenched narrative, especially one, like this, that is accurate.

The Post story isn’t kind to Biden either. (It’s brutal toward the Obama White House in general, but Obama has no more presidential elections ahead of him.) Gates accuses Biden of “poisoning the well” against the military, and when Biden and Donilon tried to order Gates around, he apparently responded: “The last time I checked, neither of you are in the chain of command.” The Obama administration was notoriously insular and incurious about the world outside them. But quotes like this, coming from a former defense secretary, still sting:

It got so bad during internal debates over whether to intervene in Libya in 2011 that Gates says he felt compelled to deliver a “rant” because the White House staff was “talking about military options with the president without Defense being involved.”

Gates says his instructions to the Pentagon were: “Don’t give the White House staff and [national security staff] too much information on the military options. They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”

The Times, however, goes easier on Clinton and tougher on Biden with its quotes, including this uppercut:

Mr. Gates calls Mr. Biden “a man of integrity,” but he questions the vice president’s judgment. “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” Mr. Gates writes.

I suppose it can be argued that the Post’s lack of interest in examining how these revelations might derail a Biden presidential candidacy is it’s own sort of pro-Clinton tilt. The implication is that only one of those candidates has prospects worth protecting (or derailing), and it isn’t Biden.

Unless the reporters who read advance copies of the book missed something juicier, nothing in Gates’s memoir seems likely to spoil anyone’s presidential aspirations, and I doubt Gates has any interest in doing so anyway. Picking out excerpts and anecdotes can easily skew the perception of the book, especially before the public has had a chance to read it. But the splash being made by these (mostly unsurprising) insider claims is a testament to the credibility Gates has earned over his distinguished career, and suggests the considerable authority his account of these last few years will carry.

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Veterans and the Price of Isolationism

If there is one sign of health in our often-dysfunctional culture, it is the almost universal respect with which the armed forces of the United States are now regarded. If a few short decades ago, the military was consistently portrayed as populated with madmen and villains in pop culture, today homage to the service of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom is one of the few things that just about everybody from right to left can agree upon.

The reasons for this evolution are easily understood. Part of it was the national recovery from Vietnam syndrome that led to the Reagan era rebuilding of a military that had been gutted—both in terms of material support and morale—in the 1970s. That transformation was completed in the aftermath of 9/11 when Americans understood, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, that the only thing that stood between them and harm’s way was a military that required both adequate funding and emotional reinforcement from those at home. Now after 12 long, hard years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation is also coming to terms with the debt it owes to the relative few who serve once they come home from repeated tours of duty. Given the almost unprecedented burden placed on them, it is entirely appropriate that taking care of the veterans seems to be the theme of Veterans Day this year. But as much as we must rededicate ourselves to not forgetting their sacrifices, it is just as important that a war-weary nation not fall back into the familiar pattern of isolationism that has so often cropped up in our past. Honoring the service of the veterans must also require us to not let what they have achieved be lost by negligence or the impulse to retreat from the world.

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If there is one sign of health in our often-dysfunctional culture, it is the almost universal respect with which the armed forces of the United States are now regarded. If a few short decades ago, the military was consistently portrayed as populated with madmen and villains in pop culture, today homage to the service of the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom is one of the few things that just about everybody from right to left can agree upon.

The reasons for this evolution are easily understood. Part of it was the national recovery from Vietnam syndrome that led to the Reagan era rebuilding of a military that had been gutted—both in terms of material support and morale—in the 1970s. That transformation was completed in the aftermath of 9/11 when Americans understood, perhaps for the first time since the 1940s, that the only thing that stood between them and harm’s way was a military that required both adequate funding and emotional reinforcement from those at home. Now after 12 long, hard years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the nation is also coming to terms with the debt it owes to the relative few who serve once they come home from repeated tours of duty. Given the almost unprecedented burden placed on them, it is entirely appropriate that taking care of the veterans seems to be the theme of Veterans Day this year. But as much as we must rededicate ourselves to not forgetting their sacrifices, it is just as important that a war-weary nation not fall back into the familiar pattern of isolationism that has so often cropped up in our past. Honoring the service of the veterans must also require us to not let what they have achieved be lost by negligence or the impulse to retreat from the world.

Over the course of the last 95 years since the first Armistice Day—which we now call by a different name—Americans have had a schizophrenic relationship with our military and the foreign policies that employed it. We have careened between a missionary impulse that saw us sending our armed forces around the globe in defense of our values and security and the flip side of the same coin in which a battle-fatigued nation sought to find comfort in ignoring foreign conflicts even when that brings danger closer to our shores. While our leaders have sometimes erred by fighting in places where wars might have been avoided, such as Vietnam or Iraq, the inclination to overreact to the cost of those fights has often proved just as costly. We did not honor the veterans of World War One by being unprepared for World War Two. Nor did we honor the bloody and unappreciated sacrifices of Americans in Vietnam by slumbering into the 21st century when the challenge of Islamist terrorists brought war to our doorsteps on 9/11. Today many Americans are sick of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and wish again to “come home” and let the rest of the world shift for itself by pretending that threats from Iran and its terror network can be appeased. But the cost of that folly will be paid not by failed politicians and diplomats but by U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who will once again be asked to step into the breach.

Honoring our veterans must also mean protecting the security that generations of American warriors have bought with their blood. Just as Americans must vow today to, as Abraham Lincoln said in the waning days of the Civil War, “bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have born the battle and for his widow and orphan,” so, too, must we ensure that the policies our nation pursues must not foment future conflicts through lack of vigilance and foolish faith that evil can be ignored or bought off. Today is the day to remember those who served and to also keep in mind that feckless leaders sow the wind while it is the veterans who reap the whirlwind of war.

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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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