Commentary Magazine


Topic: Obama administration

Islamists Seek Vengeance

The Obama administration’s reaction to the Chen Guangcheng case is disgraceful, and will taint America’s name among liberty-seeking dissidents for a generation. While all eyes are on China, however, administration fecklessness regarding liberals, friends, and allies is spreading quickly. When it comes to standing up for principle, Obama’s reaction to Chen is the rule, not the exception.

Take Egypt: Adel Emam is perhaps Egypt’s most famous film comedian, sort of a cross between an Egyptian Steve Martin and Leslie Nielsen. Among his most famous films are Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist) and Al-Irhab wal kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). The first—released at the height of Egyptian Islamists’ campaign of terror—skewered the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist terror masters as cynical, hypocritical, and naïve. The latter took potshots at both religiosity and the inefficiency of the Egyptian bureaucracy. Islamists may tell Western journalists and think-tankers they will honor civil liberties, but nowhere do they tolerate satire or ridicule if they themselves are the target. Hence, their targeting of Adel Emam for films made years ago. Emam now faces three months in prison for “defaming Islam.”

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The Obama administration’s reaction to the Chen Guangcheng case is disgraceful, and will taint America’s name among liberty-seeking dissidents for a generation. While all eyes are on China, however, administration fecklessness regarding liberals, friends, and allies is spreading quickly. When it comes to standing up for principle, Obama’s reaction to Chen is the rule, not the exception.

Take Egypt: Adel Emam is perhaps Egypt’s most famous film comedian, sort of a cross between an Egyptian Steve Martin and Leslie Nielsen. Among his most famous films are Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist) and Al-Irhab wal kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). The first—released at the height of Egyptian Islamists’ campaign of terror—skewered the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist terror masters as cynical, hypocritical, and naïve. The latter took potshots at both religiosity and the inefficiency of the Egyptian bureaucracy. Islamists may tell Western journalists and think-tankers they will honor civil liberties, but nowhere do they tolerate satire or ridicule if they themselves are the target. Hence, their targeting of Adel Emam for films made years ago. Emam now faces three months in prison for “defaming Islam.”

In Turkey, too, Islamists are turning their attention to vengeance. In Turkey, accusation rather than evidence is enough to put anyone in prison. Less than 50 percent of those arrested are ever found guilty, but given the absence of bail, most rot in prison for years before their court dates. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama’s friend and confidante, has used this to full advantage. He has used the amorphous Ergenekon plot—more fiction than fact—to accuse past political opponents of malfeasance starting with the man who had faced him in mayoral elections in the 1990s. In recent weeks, the government has begun arresting those involved in pressuring the Islamist party of Erdoğan’s late mentor Necmettin Erbakan to resign. Never mind that the reason for Erbakan’s resignation was his efforts to overturn the constitutionalist order, and that those who urged Erbakan to resign were acting within the law at the time.

While European (and American) diplomats have reconciled the crackdown to the fact that many of those arrested were military officers—as if this exempts them fair targets for a venal prime minister—there are clear signals that civilians are now front-and-center and de facto government mouthpieces like Cengiz Çandar are naming civilians for police to target. There are also signs in the Turkish press that Erdoğan, the Putin of Anatolia, will also move against retired generals like Yaşar Büyükanıt for the crime of issuing a statement urging the government to adhere to the constitution. This was against the backdrop of senior aides like Bülent Arınç, now Erdogan’s chief deputy, to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to rule against his legislation.

Obama’s worldview may have no place for men like Emam, but his crime was simply to use non-violent means to delegitimize the ideas and actions of a violent Islamist fringe responsible for the deaths of hundreds during Egypt’s Islamist insurgency. The world needs more satire, not less.

Nor may Obama like men such as Bir and Büyükanıt, but these generals were staunch allies who stood by the United States during the Cold War and who fulfilled their sworn duties to maintain the checks and balances within the Turkish system. Friendship should mean something; the United States should not simply sit back silently as a megalomaniacal ruler on borrowed time seeks vengeance upon anyone who has opposed him and his increasingly undemocratic agenda. Turkey may be a model, but it certainly is not one that the White House should want any state to follow. Rather than sit silently, it is time the White House speaks up for dissidents, whether they be blind Chinese activists, Egyptian comic actors, or Turkish generals.

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Chen Contradicted State Department Claims

At this point, there are so many conflicting accounts in the Chen Guangcheng case that it’s hard to know which is accurate. But in an interview with Daily Beast’s Melinda Liu, Chen maintains that he felt pressured into leaving the U.S. embassy by American officials:

At the embassy, Chen said he came under tremendous pressure from American officials—“not those from the embassy but others” —to leave the diplomatic facility as quickly as possible. From the very beginning, he said, the assumption was that he would stay in China. “I had no information, I got no phone calls from friends, I was isolated,” he told me, his voice trembling. “Then I heard about the threat that my wife would be sent back home to Shandong if I didn’t leave the embassy. So I left.” …

“[Chen's current situation] totally contradicts the rosy picture I got in a conference call I had with U.S. officials Wednesday morning. They summarized the situation, and it sounded like a beautiful, happy scene,” said Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based ChinaAid Association, which has acted as a facilitator in Chen’s case.

Fu had spoken by phone with Chen shortly before I had. “He was very heavy-hearted,” Fu said. “He was crying when we spoke. He said he was under enormous pressure to leave the embassy. Some people almost made him feel he was being a huge burden to the U.S.”

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At this point, there are so many conflicting accounts in the Chen Guangcheng case that it’s hard to know which is accurate. But in an interview with Daily Beast’s Melinda Liu, Chen maintains that he felt pressured into leaving the U.S. embassy by American officials:

At the embassy, Chen said he came under tremendous pressure from American officials—“not those from the embassy but others” —to leave the diplomatic facility as quickly as possible. From the very beginning, he said, the assumption was that he would stay in China. “I had no information, I got no phone calls from friends, I was isolated,” he told me, his voice trembling. “Then I heard about the threat that my wife would be sent back home to Shandong if I didn’t leave the embassy. So I left.” …

“[Chen's current situation] totally contradicts the rosy picture I got in a conference call I had with U.S. officials Wednesday morning. They summarized the situation, and it sounded like a beautiful, happy scene,” said Bob Fu, president of the U.S.-based ChinaAid Association, which has acted as a facilitator in Chen’s case.

Fu had spoken by phone with Chen shortly before I had. “He was very heavy-hearted,” Fu said. “He was crying when we spoke. He said he was under enormous pressure to leave the embassy. Some people almost made him feel he was being a huge burden to the U.S.”

This completely contradicts the State Department’s version of events. According to Ambassador Gary Locke, the embassy was prepared to shelter Chen for years if necessary:

MS. NULAND: Guys, I think what Ambassador Locke was saying was that the first proposal that was negotiated with the Chinese side was unacceptable to him, and on that basis, he was prepared to stay as long as he was going to have to, and the embassy understanding that it could be years.

AMBASSADOR LOCKE: And we were – we respected that and started making preparations and thinking about what his living arrangements would be on a daily basis in the embassy based on that decision. So we respected his decision.

Needless to say, the Chen Guancheng case has gone from diplomatic disaster to diplomatic tsunami. And, in a way, it’s also a much-needed wakeup call to the Obama administration, which has a bleak record when it comes to pressuring China on human rights. This case has thrust the issue into the open, forcing the administration to engage.

U.S. officials reportedly indicated today that they’re considering what steps to take now that Chen has requested to leave the country. And while the Chinese government will obviously be reluctant to reopen negotiations, the Obama administration can still apply significant public pressure, as Jonathan wrote earlier.

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The Obstacle to Syria Regime Change?

I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’ minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK.  Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to him.

The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group. The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective; he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’ popularity in the Gaza Strip.

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I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’ minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK.  Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to him.

The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group. The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective; he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’ popularity in the Gaza Strip.

After years of singing Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad’s praises, Erdoğan has shifted his tune and called for Assad to step down. Like President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, however, Erdoğan has been unwilling to move such calls beyond rhetoric into reality. By seeking to lead from behind and work through Turkey, however, Obama and Clinton may simply be enabling Turkey to sacrifice any serious Syrian political developments on the altar of its fear of empowered Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.

Perhaps the time has come for the Obama administration to have a serious discussion about the PKK and whether Turkey’s antipathy toward the group should trump freedom for 22.5 million Syrians.

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Report: U.S. Pressured Chinese Dissident to Leave Embassy

Disgraceful beyond words:

Speaking by phone from his hospital room in Beijing on Wednesday night, a shaken Chen Guangcheng told the Associated Press that U.S. officials relayed the threat from the Chinese side.

Chen, who fled to the embassy six day ago, left under an agreement in which he would receive medical care, be reunited with his family and allowed to attend university in a safe place. He says he now fears for his safety and wants to leave.

A U.S. official denies knowledge of the threat, but says Chen was told his family would be sent back home if he stayed in the embassy.

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Disgraceful beyond words:

Speaking by phone from his hospital room in Beijing on Wednesday night, a shaken Chen Guangcheng told the Associated Press that U.S. officials relayed the threat from the Chinese side.

Chen, who fled to the embassy six day ago, left under an agreement in which he would receive medical care, be reunited with his family and allowed to attend university in a safe place. He says he now fears for his safety and wants to leave.

A U.S. official denies knowledge of the threat, but says Chen was told his family would be sent back home if he stayed in the embassy.

The news that blind activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng had left the U.S. embassy on his own volition came as a shock this morning. It now appears that it wasn’t the whole story. Why would Chen and his supporters have taken the risks they took in exchange for an “agreement” with the Chinese government that doesn’t guarantee his safety, or the safety of those who helped him escape?

As the Washington Free Beacon reported yesterday, this isn’t the first time the Obama administration has turned away a Chinese dissident seeking shelter at the U.S. embassy. And last time it happened, the story did not have a happy ending:

The office of Vice President Joe Biden overruled State and Justice Department officials in denying the political asylum request of a senior Chinese communist official last February over fears the high-level defection would upset the U.S. visit of China’s vice president, according to U.S. officials.

The defector, Wang Lijun, was turned away after 30 hours inside the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and given over to China’s Ministry of State Security, the political police and intelligence service.

Wang has not been seen since Feb. 7 and remains under investigation. His attempt to flee China set off a major power struggle within the ruling Communist Party and led to the ouster of leftist Politburo member Bo Xilai and the arrest of his wife on murder charges.

If U.S. officials actually did pressure Chen into leaving the embassy, they just put him and his entire family in grave danger.

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Bring the War to the Taliban

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made diplomacy with the Taliban the cornerstone of their diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan. Never mind that neither the late Richard Holbrooke nor his successor Marc Grossman have ever bothered to conduct lessons learned from the Clinton administration’s disastrous experience talking to the Taliban.

The Taliban launched another attack on the Western presence in Afghanistan overnight as they attacked the Green Village, a major compound housing thousands of Western contractors and NGOs. Rather than being weak, the Taliban are demonstrating renewed vigor and operational capacity in the heart of ISAF territory. The same Taliban groups with whom the Americans and British now negotiate have, since the beginning of dialogue, attacked hotels in Kabul, the British and American embassies, and Afghan government buildings. There appears to be a direct correlation between the urgency of State Department outreach and the boldness of Taliban attacks.

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President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made diplomacy with the Taliban the cornerstone of their diplomatic strategy in Afghanistan. Never mind that neither the late Richard Holbrooke nor his successor Marc Grossman have ever bothered to conduct lessons learned from the Clinton administration’s disastrous experience talking to the Taliban.

The Taliban launched another attack on the Western presence in Afghanistan overnight as they attacked the Green Village, a major compound housing thousands of Western contractors and NGOs. Rather than being weak, the Taliban are demonstrating renewed vigor and operational capacity in the heart of ISAF territory. The same Taliban groups with whom the Americans and British now negotiate have, since the beginning of dialogue, attacked hotels in Kabul, the British and American embassies, and Afghan government buildings. There appears to be a direct correlation between the urgency of State Department outreach and the boldness of Taliban attacks.

Dialogue is an important tool in the U.S. strategic arsenal, but if misapplied, it can extract a high cost. Before engaging in dialogue with enemies, it is important to set the right circumstances. When President Ronald Reagan engaged Mikhail Gorbachev, he did so only after ensuring he could do so from a position of strength.

Alas, the Foreign Service Institute may preach peace and dialogue, but it fails at its job to inculcate strategy. At present, the Taliban see America as desperate, hoping to strike a deal before fleeing, Obama’s speech notwithstanding. The United States has allowed the Taliban to open an office in Qatar—not only giving the group diplomatic legitimacy but also opening new fundraising opportunities—and has offered a series of unilateral concessions to the group, including releasing terrorists and human rights abusers from Guantanamo Bay. In exchange, the United States has gotten absolutely nothing. It should not surprise that the Taliban do not see the Americans as strong.

If the Obama administration wants the Taliban to take diplomacy seriously, it must convince Mullah Omar that the alternative is far worse. If the Taliban seeks to bolster its negotiating position by launching attacks, it is time for American forces to do likewise—not precise attacks to take out a single high value target, but missions to slaughter hundreds of Taliban fighters regardless of their rank and wherever they seek to hide. If diplomacy is to work—and, with an ideological adversary like the Taliban I strongly doubt it will—it is time to presage it with a slaughter, the likes of which the Taliban has never experienced.

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Romney Weighs in on Chinese Dissident

Mitt Romney spoke out yesterday about the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who escaped house arrest and is reportedly seeking asylum at the U.S. embassy in Beijing:

“My concern at this moment is for the safety of Chen Guangcheng and his family,” Romney said in a statement released by his campaign on Sunday. “My hope is that U.S. officials will take every measure to ensure that Chen and his family members are protected from further persecution.” …

Weighing in on Sunday, Romney said Chen’s escape “points to the broader issue of human rights in China.”

“Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy,” Romney said.

Neither the White House nor President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign has officially weighed in on the issue.

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Mitt Romney spoke out yesterday about the case of Chen Guangcheng, the blind Chinese dissident who escaped house arrest and is reportedly seeking asylum at the U.S. embassy in Beijing:

“My concern at this moment is for the safety of Chen Guangcheng and his family,” Romney said in a statement released by his campaign on Sunday. “My hope is that U.S. officials will take every measure to ensure that Chen and his family members are protected from further persecution.” …

Weighing in on Sunday, Romney said Chen’s escape “points to the broader issue of human rights in China.”

“Our country must play a strong role in urging reform in China and supporting those fighting for the freedoms we enjoy,” Romney said.

Neither the White House nor President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign has officially weighed in on the issue.

Romney is right to say that the U.S. needs to do more to pressure China on democratic reforms, but it’s probably best for the White House and Obama campaign to say as little as possible about this issue, at least until after Secretary Clinton’s meetings in Beijing this week. As Max wrote yesterday, there is no question as to what the administration should do in this case. For the sake of our principles and national interests, the U.S. has to provide shelter to Chen.

Coming on the heels of the Bo Xilai scandal, Chen’s escape is yet another massive public embarrassment that seems to reveal serious cracks in the Chinese government. Is it really possible that a blind dissident was able to not only escape house arrest, but also travel 500 miles to the U.S. embassy – days before a prescheduled meeting with top U.S. administration officials – without inside help? It certainly doesn’t seem likely. And that will no doubt make for some dicey meetings between U.S. and Chinese officials this week.

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Standing Up for Human Rights in China

The Obama administration has talked a great deal about a “pivot to Asia,” meaning, presumably a policy of getting tough with China. Now it faces an unexpected but significant test of just how tough it will get. Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer, has put the administration on the spot with his unlikely and daring escape from home arrest and his flight of more than 300 miles, apparently culminating in safety at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

The Chinese security services have large helpings of egg on their face after having  let a blind man beat their tight surveillance, and in a society that values “face”–to say nothing of societal control–as much as China does, they will presumably stop at little to get him back. That could make for some uncomfortable meetings in Beijing, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials are about to arrive. But both American honor and American interests mean that Chen must be allowed to shelter on American territory as long as he wants.

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The Obama administration has talked a great deal about a “pivot to Asia,” meaning, presumably a policy of getting tough with China. Now it faces an unexpected but significant test of just how tough it will get. Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer, has put the administration on the spot with his unlikely and daring escape from home arrest and his flight of more than 300 miles, apparently culminating in safety at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

The Chinese security services have large helpings of egg on their face after having  let a blind man beat their tight surveillance, and in a society that values “face”–to say nothing of societal control–as much as China does, they will presumably stop at little to get him back. That could make for some uncomfortable meetings in Beijing, where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration officials are about to arrive. But both American honor and American interests mean that Chen must be allowed to shelter on American territory as long as he wants.

The U.S, is after all, the greatest champion of human rights in the world. We would have little credibility to advocate on human rights if we were to throw such a brave and prominent exponent of human rights in China–a man who has challenged the forced sterilization and abortion policies of the Communist regime–to the wolves. Just as bad, we would have little strategic credibility with China’s neighbors, who look to American leadership to stand up to Chinese adventurism–if we were to cave in and supinely allow China to get its way with someone who has sought–and deserves–our protection. However much the administration may not be happy about it, it must offer long-term protection to Chen.

 

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Crucifying the Oil and Gas Industry

It is often said that the definition of the word gaffe in Washington-speak is when someone accidentally tells the truth. Al Armendariz, the EPA administrator for Texas and surrounding states, certainly made a gaffe when he said in a speech in 2010, that the best way to enforce environmental laws was to crucify a few oil companies so that the rest will fall in line. He noted that the Romans used this technique when they conquered a new town, crucifying the first five people they could get their hands on so that the place would be very easy to manage for the next few years. (I expect that that is actually a slander against the Romans, although they had no scruples against selling whole populations into slavery.)

Armendariz was, let us hope, using a metaphor. But his actions indicate that he is all too willing to act first and get, well, evidence of wrong doing, later. The New York Times reported on December 8th, 2010, that he had signed an emergency order:

Dallas-based EPA Regional Director Al Armendariz issued an emergency order yesterday against Range Resources Corp., charging that its drilling in the Barnett Shale contaminated at least two water wells with methane and benzene. The order gave Range 48 hours to provide clean drinking water to affected residents and begin taking steps to resolve the problem.

Armendariz’s order is not simply an action against the company, but a slap at regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission, whom he accused of not doing enough to help the people living near the drilling operations in the Fort Worth area.

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It is often said that the definition of the word gaffe in Washington-speak is when someone accidentally tells the truth. Al Armendariz, the EPA administrator for Texas and surrounding states, certainly made a gaffe when he said in a speech in 2010, that the best way to enforce environmental laws was to crucify a few oil companies so that the rest will fall in line. He noted that the Romans used this technique when they conquered a new town, crucifying the first five people they could get their hands on so that the place would be very easy to manage for the next few years. (I expect that that is actually a slander against the Romans, although they had no scruples against selling whole populations into slavery.)

Armendariz was, let us hope, using a metaphor. But his actions indicate that he is all too willing to act first and get, well, evidence of wrong doing, later. The New York Times reported on December 8th, 2010, that he had signed an emergency order:

Dallas-based EPA Regional Director Al Armendariz issued an emergency order yesterday against Range Resources Corp., charging that its drilling in the Barnett Shale contaminated at least two water wells with methane and benzene. The order gave Range 48 hours to provide clean drinking water to affected residents and begin taking steps to resolve the problem.

Armendariz’s order is not simply an action against the company, but a slap at regulators at the Texas Railroad Commission, whom he accused of not doing enough to help the people living near the drilling operations in the Fort Worth area.

Earlier this month, the EPA finally withdrew the order, having been able to produce no evidence whatever that Range Resources was in any way responsible.  (It might be noted in passing that while the emergency order was a major story in the Times, its withdrawal was not news fit to print. Nor is the news of  Armendariz’s recently revealed remarks.)

The United States, which invented both the petroleum industry, in 1859, and the transportation of natural gas over long distances by pipeline, in 1891, is on the cusp of what could be the greatest boom in energy production in its history, a boom that would not only reduce the price of energy—a major input into the struggling economy–but would greatly improve the country’s trade balance, help the dollar, and improve America’s foreign policy options.

The Obama administration, in thrall to the anti-capitalist environmental lobby, is doing everything possible to prevent it.

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Where is Atrocity Prevention on Syria?

Lee Smith has already noted at the Weekly Standard’s site the irony of the Obama administration creating the Atrocities Prevention Board at the very moment the administration is choosing to do nothing substantive to stop the atrocities being perpetrated in Syria.

There is another layer of irony, as noted by Michael Dobbs at Foreign Policy, namely that the driving force behind the Atrocities Prevention Board, NSC staffer Samantha Power, the author of an important history of American responses to genocide, had noted the propensity of U.S. officials to oppose “genocide in the abstract while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.” It is hard to better that as a description of the U.S. response, or lack thereof, to the massacres occurring in Syria.

The U.S. has responded with empty calls for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and tough sanctions which have done much damage to the Syrian economy but have not stopped the killing or shaken the regime, which continues to be supported by Iran, Russia, and other unsavory actors. The latest attempt to save the Syrian people has come courtesy of the UN, which is introducing monitors to Syria. Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime has not been cowed by the presence of these unarmed observers; Syrian security forces have cracked down hard in cities such as Homs where the people have dared to protest the regime during the fleeting visits of the UN observers.

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Lee Smith has already noted at the Weekly Standard’s site the irony of the Obama administration creating the Atrocities Prevention Board at the very moment the administration is choosing to do nothing substantive to stop the atrocities being perpetrated in Syria.

There is another layer of irony, as noted by Michael Dobbs at Foreign Policy, namely that the driving force behind the Atrocities Prevention Board, NSC staffer Samantha Power, the author of an important history of American responses to genocide, had noted the propensity of U.S. officials to oppose “genocide in the abstract while simultaneously opposing American involvement in the moment.” It is hard to better that as a description of the U.S. response, or lack thereof, to the massacres occurring in Syria.

The U.S. has responded with empty calls for Bashar al-Assad’s resignation and tough sanctions which have done much damage to the Syrian economy but have not stopped the killing or shaken the regime, which continues to be supported by Iran, Russia, and other unsavory actors. The latest attempt to save the Syrian people has come courtesy of the UN, which is introducing monitors to Syria. Not surprisingly, the Syrian regime has not been cowed by the presence of these unarmed observers; Syrian security forces have cracked down hard in cities such as Homs where the people have dared to protest the regime during the fleeting visits of the UN observers.

This is not a serious policy; it is in fact the absence of a policy. As Elie Wiesel said at the Holocaust Museum, in introducing President Obama to give a speech on how he would prevent atrocities, “How is it that Assad is still in power?…Have we not learned? We must know that evil has power. It is almost too late.” (Wiesel also demanded to know how it is that Ahamedinejad remains in power in Iran and how it is that Iran is on the cusp of acquiring nuclear weapons.)

That situation does not appear likely to change anytime soon. Barring greater action led by the U.S., Assad will remain in power. And I fear that the U.S. may not do anything serious until after the November presidential election. Unfortunately, the way things are going, the killing will still be in full swing then.

 

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Obama Sends Message on Technology Human Rights Abuse

As Jonathan wrote, President Obama unveiled his new Atrocity Prevention Board at the Holocaust Museum this morning. The inception of the board was actually announced in August, but it’s convening for the first time tomorrow, which tells you all you need to know about how efficient this new bureaucratic creation will probably be:

The White House’s new Atrocities Prevention Board will meet for the first time Monday, as President Barack Obama outlines steps aimed at ensuring the U.S. has the “mechanisms and structures” to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities and war crimes, an administration official said Sunday. …

“This unprecedented direction from the president, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, who will serve as chairman of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The panel’s creation was announced in August.

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As Jonathan wrote, President Obama unveiled his new Atrocity Prevention Board at the Holocaust Museum this morning. The inception of the board was actually announced in August, but it’s convening for the first time tomorrow, which tells you all you need to know about how efficient this new bureaucratic creation will probably be:

The White House’s new Atrocities Prevention Board will meet for the first time Monday, as President Barack Obama outlines steps aimed at ensuring the U.S. has the “mechanisms and structures” to better prevent and respond to mass atrocities and war crimes, an administration official said Sunday. …

“This unprecedented direction from the president, and the development of a comprehensive strategy, sends a clear message that we are committed to combating atrocities, an old threat that regularly takes grim and modern new forms,” said Samantha Power, the National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights, who will serve as chairman of the Atrocities Prevention Board. The panel’s creation was announced in August.

As Ben Smith tweeted, “an ‘Atrocities Prevention Board’ sounds like a parody of what one would do about atrocities.” The board is supposed to inform senior administration officials about potential genocides and mass human rights abuses, as if some might accidentally slip by without notice. It’s also tasked with using “new tools” to develop “mechanisms and structures” to deal with atrocities, whatever that means.

The president also announced a new measure to prevent Iran and Syria from using technology to commit human rights abuses, a laudable move. But addressing atrocities often requires making tough choices that are not widely-supported, and the administration has often failed on this front. If they were serious about preventing human rights abuses, they would be putting far more pressure for reform on countries like China and Russia, they wouldn’t be abandoning the women in Afghanistan, and most critically, they would be vigorously supporting Israeli action against Iran, instead of trying to pressure the government to hold off on a strike behind the scenes. They would support a policy of regime change in Iran, the only outcome that there can be. The atrocities that America looks back on with guilt and shame for not having acted sooner are ones that required tough and potentially unpopular decisions at the time.

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The Afghan Accord and Our Pledge

The finalization of the terms of the U.S.-Afghanistan Security Partnership Agreement is a genuine achievement for the Obama administration and especially our ace ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker. There has been so much tension and mistrust between Washington and Kabul–and specifically between Hamid Karzai and a succession of American envoys–that there were certainly times when it appeared that no deal could get done. But in the past few months, side agreements were hammered out governing the two most contentious issues: “night raids”  and the detention of Afghan terrorism suspects by U.S. forces. That has allowed the broader agreement to be concluded in plenty of time for the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

It is not clear, however, how much impact this accord will have, because news reporting suggests its terms are very general. The U.S. is pledging to stay committed to Afghanistan at least through 2014 but is not committing to a specific figure on funding for the Afghan National Security Forces or on a specific force level for the U.S. advisory force that must remain even after combat forces are withdrawn. Only the release of actual troop and dollar figures–which admittedly are hard to define this far in advance–would suggest whether the U.S. commitment will be truly substantive or merely symbolic.

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The finalization of the terms of the U.S.-Afghanistan Security Partnership Agreement is a genuine achievement for the Obama administration and especially our ace ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker. There has been so much tension and mistrust between Washington and Kabul–and specifically between Hamid Karzai and a succession of American envoys–that there were certainly times when it appeared that no deal could get done. But in the past few months, side agreements were hammered out governing the two most contentious issues: “night raids”  and the detention of Afghan terrorism suspects by U.S. forces. That has allowed the broader agreement to be concluded in plenty of time for the NATO summit in Chicago in May.

It is not clear, however, how much impact this accord will have, because news reporting suggests its terms are very general. The U.S. is pledging to stay committed to Afghanistan at least through 2014 but is not committing to a specific figure on funding for the Afghan National Security Forces or on a specific force level for the U.S. advisory force that must remain even after combat forces are withdrawn. Only the release of actual troop and dollar figures–which admittedly are hard to define this far in advance–would suggest whether the U.S. commitment will be truly substantive or merely symbolic.

In Iraq today, for example, the U.S. has relatively little influence because all of our troops have been withdrawn and, predictably, the U.S. embassy has not been able to take up the slack. If this model were to be replicated in Afghanistan, post-2014, the result would be truly disastrous because Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is not yet able to exploit its mineral resources to fund itself and, also unlike Iraq, it faces an insurgency with entrenched safe havens in a neighboring country–namely Pakistan. A dramatic American drawdown thus could lead to an implosion.

Under those circumstances the U.S., if it expects to build on recent gains in Afghanistan, must maintain a robust commitment. As I suggested in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week, the U.S. should pledge to keep at least 68,000 troops through the end of 2014 and 30,000 troops thereafter in an advice and assist capacity–combined with at least $6 billion a year in funding for the Afghan National Security Forces. Current plans, however, call for cutting ANSF funding from today’s level of $6 billion a year to $4.1 billion a year which would necessitate reducing the ANSF’s ranks from 350,000 to 230,000 after 2014. It is hard to imagine the security environment in Afghanistan turning so benign that such a reduction in force could be undertaken without a major loss of security and stability. Unless and until the Obama administration (or a successor) pledges to maintain an adequate level of funding for the ANSF–and to maintain an adequate U.S. advisory force in Afghanistan–the commitments embodied in the Security Partnership Agreement will not be taken terribly seriously by friends or foes.

 

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Germany Shows True Colors on Iran

It’s all well and good for the Obama administration to brag about how its diplomatic approach has brought European states onboard with sanctions on Iran, but as the White House grants waivers for countries to give them more time to disentangle themselves from their Iran investments, German companies are showing they have no intention to leave the Iranian market. Quite the contrary, German firms are using the space granted them by the Obama administration to flout sanctions and embrace the Iranian market further.

The German NGO “Stop the Bomb” has outed several German firms which participated in last week’s 17th annual Iran International Oil, Gas, Refining, and Petrochemical Exhibition. According to their press release:

Among the German companies that have confirmed their participation at the Iran Oil Show to Stop the Bomb are for example Bopp & Reuther, Helmke, Hova and Schauenburg. The companies Herrenknecht and Pepperl + Fuchs are also present at the Iran Oil Show, according to the exhibition’s homepage.

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It’s all well and good for the Obama administration to brag about how its diplomatic approach has brought European states onboard with sanctions on Iran, but as the White House grants waivers for countries to give them more time to disentangle themselves from their Iran investments, German companies are showing they have no intention to leave the Iranian market. Quite the contrary, German firms are using the space granted them by the Obama administration to flout sanctions and embrace the Iranian market further.

The German NGO “Stop the Bomb” has outed several German firms which participated in last week’s 17th annual Iran International Oil, Gas, Refining, and Petrochemical Exhibition. According to their press release:

Among the German companies that have confirmed their participation at the Iran Oil Show to Stop the Bomb are for example Bopp & Reuther, Helmke, Hova and Schauenburg. The companies Herrenknecht and Pepperl + Fuchs are also present at the Iran Oil Show, according to the exhibition’s homepage.

“Stop the Bomb” notes that, according to the Exhibition rules, all participating companies must pay fees to Iran’s Bank-i Mellat which is sanctioned by both the United States and the European Union.

If President Obama wishes to prevent a war with Iran, he must end the diplomatic smoke and mirrors and stop granting waivers. Such action may raise European ire, but it is the White House which should be angry when European firms—and the governments which support them—so blatantly demonstrate their willingness to support investments in Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps front companies.

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An Unfair Attack on the Administration

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, writing about the prostitution scandal in Colombia, where reports are that as many as 21 Secret Service agents and military personnel paid for sex before President Obama’s arrival at the Summit of the Americas on Friday, said this:

When the White House says its job is to “conduct [itself] with the utmost dignity and probity,” it seems somewhat contradictory to the culture of permissiveness this administration has created here at home. When you relentlessly attack moral principles, as this White House has done over the course of three years, it becomes increasingly difficult for the administration to call these actions wrong. …

The United States, under this administration, is a country that increasingly celebrates sexual indulgence. Is it any wonder this country is suffering from an ethical identity crisis? This is what comes of an administration that systematically destroys the moral foundations of our military, government service, and public schools. On one hand, the administration has tried to force our military to embrace homosexuality by making unnatural and immoral sex legal–and on the other, it’s outraged that its military is engaging in another form of legal but immoral sex. (Prostitution is permissible in Colombia’s “tolerated zones.”) Both behaviors are inappropriate, unhealthy, and destructive. Yet only one seems to incense government officials.

If this seems a bit muddled, that’s because it is. But this culture of moral confusion is inevitable when American leaders push a radical social policy that arbitrarily gives sexual license to some and condemns it from others.

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Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, writing about the prostitution scandal in Colombia, where reports are that as many as 21 Secret Service agents and military personnel paid for sex before President Obama’s arrival at the Summit of the Americas on Friday, said this:

When the White House says its job is to “conduct [itself] with the utmost dignity and probity,” it seems somewhat contradictory to the culture of permissiveness this administration has created here at home. When you relentlessly attack moral principles, as this White House has done over the course of three years, it becomes increasingly difficult for the administration to call these actions wrong. …

The United States, under this administration, is a country that increasingly celebrates sexual indulgence. Is it any wonder this country is suffering from an ethical identity crisis? This is what comes of an administration that systematically destroys the moral foundations of our military, government service, and public schools. On one hand, the administration has tried to force our military to embrace homosexuality by making unnatural and immoral sex legal–and on the other, it’s outraged that its military is engaging in another form of legal but immoral sex. (Prostitution is permissible in Colombia’s “tolerated zones.”) Both behaviors are inappropriate, unhealthy, and destructive. Yet only one seems to incense government officials.

If this seems a bit muddled, that’s because it is. But this culture of moral confusion is inevitable when American leaders push a radical social policy that arbitrarily gives sexual license to some and condemns it from others.

Let’s examine Perkins’s arguments in turn.

The notion that the Obama administration is “systematically destroy[ing] the moral foundation of our military” strikes me as intemperate and unfair. Most (though not all) senior members of the military, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus, believed that the time had come to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). So did then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Are they part of the systematic effort to destroy the moral foundation of the military as well?

The core of this debate is whether unit morale would suffer if gays were open about their sexual orientation. There is evidence that because of shifting sexual mores, including attitudes towards gays, unit morale would not suffer. (The Department of Defense’s Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” indicates that there was low risk of service disruptions because of repeal of the ban.) It’s important to note that other countries that allow openly gay people to serve in the military (like Israel) haven’t experienced combat readiness, unit cohesion or morale problems. In reviewing the many countries that permit gays and lesbians to serve openly in their military, the Defense Department’s report found that, “Uniformly, these nations reported that they were aware of no units that had a degradation of cohesion or combat effectiveness, and that the presence of gay men and lesbians in combat units had not been raised as an issue by any of their units deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.” (Page 89 of the Defense Department report shows that at the time it was issued, 35 nations permitted gays and lesbians to serve openly in their military vs. six nations that excluded gay men and lesbians from serving or serving openly in the military.) We’ll of course be able to make an informed judgment of the effects of repealing DADA soon enough, since we’re now testing the proposition.

Then there’s the argument that the Obama administration is giving “sexual license” and promoting an “ideology of unrestraint.” The logic goes like this: overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” leads to a brothel in Cartagena.

This argument is, I think, quite weak. For one thing, most of those caught up in the prostitution scandal are Secret Service agents, not members of the military. And it’s hard to believe that if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hadn’t been overturned all of seven months ago, then the Secret Service and the military personnel who reportedly solicited prostitution would instead have stayed on the straight and narrow. There’s a reason prostitution is referred to as the world’s oldest profession. What Perkins is engaging in is the logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). President Obama overturned DADT. Secret Service agents and members of the military were caught up in a prostitution scandal in Cartagena. QED.

Nor does DADT have much to do with “celebrating sexual indulgence.” Military standards of conduct already prohibit fraternization and unprofessional relationships. They also address various forms of harassment and unprofessional behavior, prescribe appropriate dress and appearance, and provide guidelines on public displays of affection. Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell doesn’t change any of that; it simply means that for the first time in America’s military history, service members would be allowed to publicly reveal their sexual orientation without fear of reprisal.

As for the “culture of permissiveness,” here Perkins is (inadvertently) making the case of same-sex advocates, who argue that gays should be allowed to marry in order to place them within an institution (marriage) that encourages fidelity. The argument is that same-sex marriage would weaken the “culture of permissiveness” since marriage discourages it. Same-sex marriage would, according to its proponents, be a profoundly traditionalizing act. Again, we shall see (a handful of states now recognize same-sex unions and more will soon follow).

There are certainly grounds on which to criticize the Obama administration, including on social policy (see the Obama administration’s decision to require Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and abortifacients, in violation of their conscience and creed). And intelligent and honest people will disagree on issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and legalizing gay marriage. But the idea that the prostitution scandal in Colombia points to “the significant erosion of ethical standards in the Obama administration” is simply wrong. Everybody’s interests, including the interests of social conservatives, would be better served by engaging these issues in a serious, sober, and empirically rigorous manner.

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Afghans Question Karzai’s Loyalty

While Americans continue to self-flagellate for our own self-inflicted wounds in Afghanistan, be they Quran burnings, shootings of civilians, or grisly trophy photographs—the conversation among Afghans remains sharply different. In the wake of the well-coordinated Taliban attacks inside Kabul, Afghan anger is riding high at President Hamid Karzai, who had referred to the Taliban as “our brothers.”

Social media is important, and the following image has gone viral in Afghanistan, transferred from cell phone to cell phone, and across Afghans’ Facebook pages. On the left, it shows a member of the Taliban captured in women’s clothes. The caption in Dari above reads “Karzai’s brother.”  On the right is an image of an Afghan soldier wounded in the leg defending the city. The caption above reads, “Our brother.”

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While Americans continue to self-flagellate for our own self-inflicted wounds in Afghanistan, be they Quran burnings, shootings of civilians, or grisly trophy photographs—the conversation among Afghans remains sharply different. In the wake of the well-coordinated Taliban attacks inside Kabul, Afghan anger is riding high at President Hamid Karzai, who had referred to the Taliban as “our brothers.”

Social media is important, and the following image has gone viral in Afghanistan, transferred from cell phone to cell phone, and across Afghans’ Facebook pages. On the left, it shows a member of the Taliban captured in women’s clothes. The caption in Dari above reads “Karzai’s brother.”  On the right is an image of an Afghan soldier wounded in the leg defending the city. The caption above reads, “Our brother.”

I disagree with Max Boot that the attacks on Kabul are a sign of weakness (would the reverse logic, a lack of attacks on Kabul then be a sign of Taliban strength?), Boot is absolutely correct to highlight how well the Afghan security forces have availed themselves in defending the city and repulsing the attacks. Unfortunately, the Afghans are up against not only the Taliban, but also the Obama’s administration’s self-defeating timelines and an Afghan president who, believing American staying power to be a mirage, is actively becoming an impediment to victory rather than the hope for the future.

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A “Plan B” on Syria Urgently Needed

It’s good to hear the Obama administration may be searching for a Plan B on Syria. One is certainly needed—and urgently. Plan A was the UN-brokered cease fire which, as no less an authority than UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notes, is not being implemented by the Assad regime. Indeed, there are numerous reports of regime assaults continuing on opposition bastions while the rebels have little equipment with which to defend themselves.

Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman just got back from Turkey where they meet with Syrian rebel leaders. “The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad’s forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia,” Lieberman told a reporter afterwards.

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It’s good to hear the Obama administration may be searching for a Plan B on Syria. One is certainly needed—and urgently. Plan A was the UN-brokered cease fire which, as no less an authority than UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon notes, is not being implemented by the Assad regime. Indeed, there are numerous reports of regime assaults continuing on opposition bastions while the rebels have little equipment with which to defend themselves.

Sens. John McCain and Joe Lieberman just got back from Turkey where they meet with Syrian rebel leaders. “The most stunning, unsettling conclusion I drew from the leaders of the Free Syrian Army was that they have essentially got no help from anyone. They are literally running out of ammunition while Assad’s forces are being resupplied by Iran and Russia,” Lieberman told a reporter afterwards.

That being the case, what a Plan B might be answers itself: simply provide more aid to the Syrian rebels and also help Turkey to set up safe zones inside Syria where refugees can come to escape annihilation. Those options, which could be combined (but don’t have to be) with air strikes on Syrian regime targets, are hardly new, but the case for them is becoming more compelling as it becomes clear there is no real alternative–unless we are simply willing to sit back and watch a close Iranian ally maintain his bloody rule in such a vital state.

 

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Is the Gender-War Rhetoric Hurting GOP?

At the National Review, Heather Mac Donald calls on the Republican Party to cease and desist with the gender-discrimination claims, because they’re starting to sound like liberals:

The chance that the Obama White House, staffed by eager products of the feminist university, is a hostile workplace for women is exactly zero — as low as the chance that the Bush I, II, or Reagan White Houses were hostile to women. Any Republican who actually believes [former White House aide Anita] Dunn’s charge has merely allowed his partisan desire for political victory to silence what should be his core knowledge about the contemporary world. …

Equally dismaying is the RNC’s embrace of the charge that the Obama White House pays female aides less than male ones. Such disparate pay claims are of course bread and butter to the discrimination bar and are virtually always based on junk social science. But the likelihood that this particular employer — the immaculately “progressive” Obama White House — is discriminating against female employees of equal merit as males is just as crazy as the charge that Walmart, say, discriminates against qualified female employees in its own pay scale. Conservative critics of extortionist feminist legal claims cannot have it both ways — rightly decrying them when directed at free-market employers but embracing them when they are directed against political opponents.

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At the National Review, Heather Mac Donald calls on the Republican Party to cease and desist with the gender-discrimination claims, because they’re starting to sound like liberals:

The chance that the Obama White House, staffed by eager products of the feminist university, is a hostile workplace for women is exactly zero — as low as the chance that the Bush I, II, or Reagan White Houses were hostile to women. Any Republican who actually believes [former White House aide Anita] Dunn’s charge has merely allowed his partisan desire for political victory to silence what should be his core knowledge about the contemporary world. …

Equally dismaying is the RNC’s embrace of the charge that the Obama White House pays female aides less than male ones. Such disparate pay claims are of course bread and butter to the discrimination bar and are virtually always based on junk social science. But the likelihood that this particular employer — the immaculately “progressive” Obama White House — is discriminating against female employees of equal merit as males is just as crazy as the charge that Walmart, say, discriminates against qualified female employees in its own pay scale. Conservative critics of extortionist feminist legal claims cannot have it both ways — rightly decrying them when directed at free-market employers but embracing them when they are directed against political opponents.

Mac Donald is right. It’s obviously tempting for Republicans to try to score political chips by playing the gender card, but the Romney campaign has to be careful not to undermine years of conservative arguments – and essentially kosherize fake gender discrimination claims – by doing so.

That said, conservatives should still raise issues like the White House pay wage gap and female unemployment claims as a way to contradict fake liberal outrage rather than try to top it. It’s a matter of hypocrisy. If the Obama campaign is going to argue Republicans are anti-women based on their criticism of the Lilly Ledbetter Act, then conservatives are right to point out that Obama’s own White House doesn’t live up to his own equal-pay standards.

Does this mean the Obama White House is anti-women? Of course not. But force the president try to explain the incongruity between his rhetoric and reality. He won’t be able to, unless he’s actually honest and admits that the gender wage gap (as far as it actually still exists) isn’t based on gender discrimination by employers, but on the fact that women and men (on average) tend to seek out different career choices and paths.

That was the point conservatives were trying to make by turning Obama’s gender pay gap into an issue. But when the RNC and the Romney campaign seize on these stories to try to play to the generic “women’s vote,” it destroys the message.

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Showdown in Bahrain

Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

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Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

So what next in Bahrain? The level of trust between opposition and government is zero. There is a stereotype in the West that the Persian Gulf is awash in oil, but it is not evenly distributed. The simple fact is that Bahrain has next to nothing—and would have even less if Saudi Arabia did not provide a great deal. Given their constraints and financial limitations, the Khalifa family has transformed Bahrain from a dusty backwater into a major financial hub. Shiny skyscrapers sit on reclaimed land. Infrastructure is superior even to many oil-rich Saudi cities (don’t even ask about the sewage system in Jeddah). Visitors recognize what the Bahrainis know: Bahraini culture is laid back and Bahrainis are far friendlier than many of their Gulf brethren.

Still, the grievances are real: A Bahraini born Shi’ite has little equality of opportunity. Sectarian restrictions are rife. And many of Crown Prince Hamad’s promises of reform evaporated when he took the throne in 1999. While many Bahraini officials recognize the need for reform, cynicism is rife and trust is non-existent. There is a consistent problem in which all sides recognize the need for reform after bouts of violence but do not want to concede under pressure. Once calm is restored, however, they fool themselves into thinking that reform is unnecessary, until the cycle begins anew.

So how to proceed? The Bahraini government claims the uprising is Iranian-sponsored. Certainly, the Iranians may co-opt it, but to show real Iranian interference beyond media incitement, the Bahraini government needs to expose the financial links between certain opposition figures and Iran. There have been quiet allegations of some businesses and bank accounts acting as fronts and financiers of opposition activity, but the unwillingness of the Bahraini officials to expose such intelligence has begun to erode their credibility.

The opposition, meanwhile, has made a case based on heart strings, but has yet to demonstrate how they would govern the day after any victory. Bahraini opposition politicians avoid too much talk about the role of Ayatollah Isa Qasim in political decision-making and when if ever they have taken action in contradiction to his pronouncements. While the opposition leaders are seasoned and mature, the anger of their followers will not be easily contained. If the opposition does succeed in overthrowing the monarchy—increasingly their goal—then how would the opposition constrain the impulse to exact revenge against the Sunni minority? If Bahraini Shi’ites have been largely excluded from the security forces, how would they be integrated over the following weeks and months? Ditto better integration of the financial sector. Seeking to destroy Bahrain’s economic infrastructure and reputation will, at best, provide a Pyrrhic victory.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, whose offer of federation with Bahrain may be enough to keep hardliners inside the Bahraini royal family from pushing forward with reform. Nothing should remind better that as bad as the Iranian regime might be, the Saudis are just as noxious an influence on Middle Eastern politics. If the Obama administration believes it can farm out the Bahrain problem to the Saudis, then the White House and State Department will soon demonstrate just how counterproductive a strategy of leading from behind can be.

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Fareed Zakaria for Secretary of State?

Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon reports on speculation that the Obama administration might consider CNN talk show host Fareed Zakaria for a senior diplomatic post, perhaps even Secretary of State. Kredo raises concern regarding Zakaria’s naiveté regarding Iran, and to this one could add his pronounced lack of appreciation for fundamental tenets such as freedom and liberty.

What concerns me more about Zakaria, however, is his willing to compromise on basic American political freedoms. In his capacity as a trustee on the Yale Corporation, Yale University’s governing body, Zakaria counseled the university to embrace censorship ahead of its decision to interfere editorially in the nominally independent Yale University Press to censor an academic work on the Danish cartoon controversy. “You’re balancing issues of the First Amendment and academic freedom, but then you have this real question of what would be the consequences on human life,’’ he explained.

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Adam Kredo at the Washington Free Beacon reports on speculation that the Obama administration might consider CNN talk show host Fareed Zakaria for a senior diplomatic post, perhaps even Secretary of State. Kredo raises concern regarding Zakaria’s naiveté regarding Iran, and to this one could add his pronounced lack of appreciation for fundamental tenets such as freedom and liberty.

What concerns me more about Zakaria, however, is his willing to compromise on basic American political freedoms. In his capacity as a trustee on the Yale Corporation, Yale University’s governing body, Zakaria counseled the university to embrace censorship ahead of its decision to interfere editorially in the nominally independent Yale University Press to censor an academic work on the Danish cartoon controversy. “You’re balancing issues of the First Amendment and academic freedom, but then you have this real question of what would be the consequences on human life,’’ he explained.

Now, Yale had received no threats whatsoever, so what Zakaria counseled was preemptive surrender. If the United States is to triumph over its enemies, ready abandonment of traditional American values is not a reflex the United States needs.

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Attack on Kabul Shows Diplomacy’s Futility

I’m not as sanguine as Max Boot that the Taliban’s well-coordinated attacks are really a sign of weakness. During my first trip to Afghanistan in 1997, I visited the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The frontline with the Taliban was hundreds of miles away. The next day, we were fleeing for our lives as the Taliban advanced on Mazar-i-Sharif. The reason for the Taliban’s rapid advance was not the group’s military prowess, but rather a quirk of Afghan culture: Afghans never lose a war; they just defect to the winning side. A neighboring warlord had decided to make accommodation with the Taliban, offering them free passage. A few hours after I left, the city fell.

It is against this context that the attack on Kabul worries me greatly. The problem isn’t simply a Taliban “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone but rather the Obama administration symbolically standing down the defense with his repeated offers to negotiate with the radical Islamist group.

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I’m not as sanguine as Max Boot that the Taliban’s well-coordinated attacks are really a sign of weakness. During my first trip to Afghanistan in 1997, I visited the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. The frontline with the Taliban was hundreds of miles away. The next day, we were fleeing for our lives as the Taliban advanced on Mazar-i-Sharif. The reason for the Taliban’s rapid advance was not the group’s military prowess, but rather a quirk of Afghan culture: Afghans never lose a war; they just defect to the winning side. A neighboring warlord had decided to make accommodation with the Taliban, offering them free passage. A few hours after I left, the city fell.

It is against this context that the attack on Kabul worries me greatly. The problem isn’t simply a Taliban “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone but rather the Obama administration symbolically standing down the defense with his repeated offers to negotiate with the radical Islamist group.

Pushing diplomacy with the Taliban—a strategy tried by the Clinton administration with disastrous results—has enabled the Taliban to cast the West as weak and desperate. Adding a timeline into the mix only underlined the perception of desperation.  That diplomatic concessions has emboldened the Taliban is an observation lost on no one but the White House and the good folks in Foggy Bottom.

Allowing the Taliban to open an office in Qatar not only restored diplomatic legitimacy to the group, but also enabled it to raise cash. Indeed, according to SITE Monitoring, the Taliban in recent days has been putting out calls for donations. It is a lot easier to donate in Qatar than in Afghanistan itself.

In a head-to-head patch up, the Taliban may be weak. But war is as much psychological as military. And the Taliban increasingly seems to be winning that battle hands-down. Unless Obama—like Bush prior to the surge in Iraq—is willing to commit himself unequivocally to victory, Afghans will see the Taliban’s actions as at best a dry run and, at worst, a sign that the time is now to bet if not on the strong horse, than on the only horse with resolve.

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The President’s Intellectual Exhaustion

Everyone from President Obama to Jason Furman, the principal deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to Politico’s Jim VandeHei, agree that the so-called Buffett Rule is a gimmick that has almost no bearing on the budget deficit. And for good reason. The Treasury Department confirms that the tax would raise at most $5 billion a year—or less than 0.5 percent of the $1.2 trillion fiscal 2012 budget deficit and, over the next decade, 0.1 percent of the $45.43 trillion the federal government will spend (for more, see here). By one estimate, the “Buffett Rule” would cover 17 days of the president’s next decade of deficits. So it’s not, in any sense, a serious or meaningful proposal. And yet it has, as the New York Times reports, become a “centerpiece” of the Obama re-election campaign.

So there you have it. The Obama presidency has reached the point where a policy that virtually everyone (including the president) concedes is a gimmick is now a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign.

There are many ways to measure the intellectual exhaustion of the Obama presidency. This isn’t a bad place to start.

Everyone from President Obama to Jason Furman, the principal deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to Politico’s Jim VandeHei, agree that the so-called Buffett Rule is a gimmick that has almost no bearing on the budget deficit. And for good reason. The Treasury Department confirms that the tax would raise at most $5 billion a year—or less than 0.5 percent of the $1.2 trillion fiscal 2012 budget deficit and, over the next decade, 0.1 percent of the $45.43 trillion the federal government will spend (for more, see here). By one estimate, the “Buffett Rule” would cover 17 days of the president’s next decade of deficits. So it’s not, in any sense, a serious or meaningful proposal. And yet it has, as the New York Times reports, become a “centerpiece” of the Obama re-election campaign.

So there you have it. The Obama presidency has reached the point where a policy that virtually everyone (including the president) concedes is a gimmick is now a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign.

There are many ways to measure the intellectual exhaustion of the Obama presidency. This isn’t a bad place to start.

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