Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russia

Will the Russian Army March into Ukraine?

It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

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It scarcely seems possible, but the situation in Ukraine keeps getting worse.

First Vladimir Putin let loose his “little green men”–a collection of Russian intelligence agents and military personnel along with a sprinkling of locals–to stir up a separatist rebellion in Crimea. Then after a bogus referendum held under Russian guns, he brazenly annexed Crimea, as flagrant a violation of international law as it is possible to imagine. Next he instigated another faux rebellion in eastern Ukraine led by Russian citizens, many of them current or former Russian military and intelligence personnel.

The pro-Russian rebels managed to carve out a quasi-independent region in eastern Ukraine where there is a substantial Russian-speaking population even if previous public opinion polls had indicated little support for breaking away from Ukraine. When the elected government in Kiev began to fight back against the rebels with some success, Putin provided them with heavier weapons including the sophisticated Buk or SA-11 air-defense system which brought down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, killing some 300 people on board.

Instead of apologizing for this war crime committed by his stooges, Putin has spun elaborate fantasies about how the Malaysian aircraft was really brought down by a Ukrainian anti-aircraft battery or fighter aircraft, even though U.S. intelligence and every other reputable observer has provided ample evidence that the foul deed was committed by a missile fired from the territory controlled by Russian separatists. Then the Russian rebels had the gall to deny international investigators access to the crash site and to actually loot the belongings of the innocent victims.

Far from chastened in the aftermath of the Malaysian Airlines tragedy, Putin is actually escalating his aggression. On Wednesday two Ukrainian fighter aircraft were shot down over their own airspace, with Kiev alleging that the shots came from the Russian side of the border. The State Department reports that in recent days artillery in Russia has been pounding Ukrainian positions and that Russia is now supplying the rebels with heavier weapons including tanks and rocket launchers. Speculation is rife that Putin may order the Russian army into Ukraine or that, at the very least, his proxies will stage a major offensive.

It is simply incredible that this is happening in the Europe of 2014–the land of the euro and the Eurovision song contest, of espresso and Bordeaux, of long vacations and short work weeks. Wasn’t Europe supposedly entering an era beyond power politics and certainly beyond war?

Recent events sound like something out of the 1930s, the dark years when brazen predators picked off countries at will: Czechoslovakia, Austria, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), China all fell while the League of Nations and the “international community” stood by, helpless and hapless, paralyzed, not knowing what to do. Putin is no Hitler or Tojo or Mussolini, but there are echoes of these outrageous events in his reckless disregard for the norms of international conduct.

What is even more incredible is that the democracies of the West, which together are infinitely richer and stronger than Russia, cannot muster the will to do anything to stop Putin’s offensive. Germany doesn’t want to lose access to Russian natural gas. France doesn’t want to lose the revenues from selling Russia two amphibious assault ships. Britain doesn’t want to lose the ability to attract Russian money to the City of London. And the U.S.? Well, President Obama appears to be too busy attending fundraisers to formulate a coherent response to Putin’s villainy.

I am normally an optimist–a half-glass-full kind of guy. But faced with the evil let loose from the Kremlin–and the cowardice with which it has been met in the West–it is hard not to despair for the future of Ukraine, of Europe, of the United States, and indeed the world. Perhaps I am being melodramatic but I am simply being driven to despair by the events of recent months.

It is hard to watch the international system disintegrate into chaos–not only in Ukraine but also in Iraq and Syria–while ordinary Americans and Europeans heedlessly enjoy the dog days of summer. It is hard not to think of another summer 100 years ago when illusions were shattered by the roar of guns. Today, however, the guns are roaring and the illusions of the West remain firmly intact.

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The Putin Doctrine

Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

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Back in March, Columbia University’s Kimberly Marten had a fascinating guest post at the Washington Post’s political science blog, making a noteworthy claim. She wrote that Vladimir Putin had made a subtle, but crucial, adjustment in his speech patterns when discussing his country and his countrymen.

“There are two ways to talk about a Russian person or thing in the Russian language,” Marten explained. “One way, ‘Rossisskii,’ refers to Russian citizens and the Russian state. Someone who is ethnically Chechen, Tatar, or Ukrainian can be ‘Rossisskii’ if they carry a Russian passport and live on Russian territory.” That was how Putin had been referring to Russians. He was the leader of the Russian state, and his language reflected that. But then, Marten wrote, “Instead of sticking to the word ‘Rossisskii,’ he slipped into using ‘Russkii,’ the way to refer in the Russian language to someone who is ethnically Russian.”

This was significant especially because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. According to Marten, Putin was signaling that he was driven by ethnic Russian nationalism–a figure to whom ethnicity, not borders, is the key determinant of his behavior toward others. The consequences could be severe, Marten wrote:

It is no longer far-fetched to think that Ukraine might go the way of the former Yugoslavia, as German journalist Jochen Bittner argued in Tuesday’s New York Times. The possibility of ethnically motivated violence there looms on the horizon.

It is useful to look back on Marten’s post in the wake of the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 in eastern Ukraine. The plane was, it appears, shot down by Ukrainian separatists loyal to Putin who had supplied them with the weapon that shot down the civilian airliner. It resulted in the deaths of about 300 innocent travelers whose plane might have been mistaken by the rebels for a Ukrainian military plane.

Putin, of course, blamed the West. But now it seems Putin the ethnic nationalist has taken yet another step toward war with Ukraine. While the downing of the plane involved Russian weapons and commanders crossing the border into Ukraine and then firing away, Reuters reports that the State Department has evidence the Russian military is shelling the Ukrainian military from Russian territory.

The erasure of borders, of course, started long ago–before Putin invaded and annexed Crimea. Russia did, after all, invade Georgia in 2008 in the culmination of a decade-long escalation of Russian hostilities and attacks against Georgia, which included installing Russian commanders in Georgian separatist communities. Putin’s playbook has been relatively stable, so perhaps Marten’s linguistic analysis shows that Putin is not changing tactics but aligning his rhetoric with action.

And even if ethnic nationalism provides an explanation for Putin’s actions, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a strategy. In a jarring cover story for Time, Simon Shuster lays out the Putin approach to managing world affairs:

The 21st century czar has mastered the dark art of stirring up problems that only he can solve, so that Western leaders find themselves scolding him one minute while pleading with him the next. The crisis in Syria last year is a perfect example. He supplied weapons and training for the armies of President Bashar Assad, propping up the tyrant while Western statesmen demanded Assad’s ouster. Yet when Assad crossed the “red line” drawn by Obama and used chemical weapons against his own people, Putin stepped in to broker the solution. At the urging of the Russian President, Assad gave up his stockpile of chemical weapons. In turn, the U.S. backed away from air strikes in Syria. And guess who still reigns in Damascus? Putin’s ally Assad.

Other world leaders try to avoid crises; Putin feasts on them. When a pro-Western government came to power in Ukraine, Putin dashed in to annex the region of Crimea–an act that redrew the borders of Europe and snatched away Ukraine’s territorial jewel. Within a month, Western diplomats began stuffing the issue into the past. Why? Because by then, Russia had stolen a march on eastern Ukraine, giving the West another crisis to deal with–and another problem that only Putin could reconcile. He made a show of pulling Russian troops back a short distance from the border with Ukraine, but Russian arms and trainers kept the separatists supplied for the fight. And when the fighting produced the macabre spectacle of the rotting corpses, once again the instigator was in the driver’s seat.

It’s a strategy that has so far worked. And this afternoon’s news fits right in. When Putin needs a distraction–and he certainly needs a distraction from MH17, which has caused ripples of outrage in his direction–he simply causes more mischief.

The West routinely gets caught off-guard by Putin’s provocations. And while he may not be totally predictable, there does seem to be a method to his madness. His strategy of causing trouble in one place to distract from the mayhem in another tells us what he might do, and his ethnic nationalism gives us at least a ballpark estimate of where. If Shuster and Marten are correct, Putin is far from finished.

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Putin, Europe, and Historical Amnesia

The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

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The day that pro-Russian separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner last week, I wrote a lengthy item outlining the steps that needed to be taken in response–everything from providing arms and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to slapping stiffer sanctions on Russian trade. Since then Russia’s proxies have further aggravated the situation by delaying access to the crash site to investigators and apparently looting many of the victims’ belongings.

It’s been less than a full week since the crash happened, so perhaps the appropriate Western response is still coming. I hope so. But it sure doesn’t look like it. Instead the West appears to be as pusillanimous as ever in the face of Russian aggression.

A meeting of European Union foreign ministers could not even agree to impose an arms embargo on Russia, because the French don’t want to refund 1.1 billion euros ($1.5 billion) that Russia has paid for the first of two Mistral-class amphibious assault warships due to be delivered in October. “We should have had an arms embargo quite some time ago,” said Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister. “To deliver arms to Russia in this situation is somewhat difficult to defend, to put it mildly.”

Just as difficult to comprehend is Europe’s willingness to continue serving as a financial outlet for rich Russians and big Russian companies. British Prime Minister David Cameron talks tough (“Russia cannot expect to continue enjoying access to European markets, European capital, European knowledge and technical expertise while she fuels conflict in one of Europe’s neighbors”), but he’s not rushing to impose unilateral sanctions on Russia either–something that could bite given the level of Russian investment in the City of London as well as in British properties of various sorts ranging from football clubs to swank apartments.

Naturally Europeans offer lots of excuses for inaction–for example one hears that sanctions now would lead Putin’s minions to discontinue their cooperation with crash-site investigators. Note how something that should be done as a matter of course–giving investigators access to a crime scene–is now being held hostage to the whims of drunken Russian thugs.

The U.S. is little better. While President Obama has imposed slightly stiffer sanctions than the Europeans, even he has not ordered the kind of “sectoral” sanctions that he has threatened (another red line crossed with impunity!). Only such sanctions would really punish Russia by denying Russian companies and individuals access to U.S. financial markets and to dollar-denominated trades.

All of this is entirely predictable, of course, but dismaying nevertheless. In a sense, the worse that Russian misconduct is, the less likely it is to be punished because the more evil that Putin does–the more territory his minions seize, the more innocents they kill–the more that the Europeans are afraid to provoke him. He’s a bad man, they figure; why mess with him?

The result, of course, is only to encourage Putin to commit further crimes. We’ve seen this movie before–it played across the continent in the 1930s and it didn’t have a happy ending. It says something about our historical amnesia that we are so ready to watch a repeat performance.

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Britain’s Latest Rebuke to Putin Is Personal

When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

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When President Obama made a statement Friday on the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, he took a rhetorical step forward in blaming Russia. More than once, he used the phrase “Russian-backed separatists.” Though he did not announce any new sanctions at the time, he could be given a pass; the shooting down of the plane was relatively recent still, and he’d presumably need to consult not only with his own National Security Council and Cabinet but with several European leaders before new action could be taken.

But then nothing happened, and for some reason Obama went back out Monday and gave another, quite similar statement, imploring Vladimir Putin to cooperate. It was unclear why the president saw fit to give a second statement at all if not to announce new punitive action toward Russia. We already knew he (correctly) blamed Putin; repeating it without action only calls attention to the lack of action.

Which is what makes today’s announcement by Britain’s government at first welcome, but also a bit puzzling. The Wall Street Journal reports that European countries have tightened sanctions on Russia, but Britain is going a step farther: the British government has ordered a full investigation into the 2006 poisoning of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, presumably by Russian agents:

Litvinenko’s excruciating death and Russia’s refusal to extradite the chief suspect, a career Russian security officer, plunged relations between London and the Kremlin to a post-Cold War low from which they have yet to fully recover.

Last July the government refused to open an inquiry, which promises to go further than the initial inquest by looking into who was to blame, with Mrs. May saying international relations had been a factor in the decision. But in February the High Court ordered the Home Secretary to review her decision following a challenge by Marina Litvinenko, the widow of the former agent of Russia’s FSB agency.

The British government had thus far opposed the kind of formal inquiry that would include classified information. Prime Minister David Cameron says the timing of the decision is purely coincidental, of course.

Litvinenko was a critic of the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB. Putin ran the FSB before becoming Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister and then president. Litvinenko’s criticism of Putin was about more than just corruption, however. He alleged that Putin was behind the series of domestic apartment bombings in 1999 that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and used, in part, as a casus belli for the Second Chechen War. Putin’s direction of that war probably sealed his victory as president in 2000, so the accusation undercuts Putin’s legitimacy and suggests his entire public career was a lie–meaning Putin was never anything more than a fraud and a terrorist.

People who said such things about Putin tended to have reduced life expectancy. In November 2006, a month after investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was assassinated, Litvinenko was poisoned using the radioactive substance polonium-210 in London. The trail of evidence led to another former Russian KGB agent, who Putin refuses to extradite. In an effort to stay on Putin’s good side, Cameron has not pressed the issue, but now appears to have had a change of heart. Opening the files for a thorough investigation, however, was never without some risk, as the New York Times explains:

Plans to hold an inquest led by a senior judge, Sir Robert Owen, were dropped after the British Foreign Office invoked national security interests to prevent the inquest from even considering whether Moscow had played a part in the killing or whether British intelligence could have prevented it.

The judge said last year that the restrictions made it impossible to hold a “fair and fearless” inquest, and he urged the establishment of a public inquiry that would be empowered to hold closed-door sessions about possible involvement by the Kremlin or MI6, the British overseas intelligence agency. Ms. Litvinenko has said her husband was a paid agent of MI6 at the time he was killed. He and his family had been granted British citizenship weeks before his death.

It’s doubtful Cameron would be unaware of the sealed intel or that he would embarrass the UK just to take a jab at Putin. So it seems as though Cameron was, indeed, waiting for the right time to play this card.

Which raises the following question. If and when this inquest concludes that Moscow was behind this egregious violation of British sovereignty and security, what would Cameron do? Litvinenko was a British citizen, murdered on British soil, presumably at the direction of the Kremlin. If that’s confirmed, people will expect more than pointing fingers. Western leaders’ habit of honestly and openly blaming Putin for his misdeeds is halfway there. It’s the other half–the actions that follow the words–that people get tired of waiting for.

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Why Is Aeroflot Still Flying?

The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

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The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

While this is ongoing, Aeroflot—Russia’s national airline—is still flying over American and European airspace. Perhaps if President Obama and European leaders really wanted to make Vladimir Putin understand how unacceptable it was to down this aircraft, it is time for U.S. and European officials to deny Aeroflot overflight rights. When Russia comes clean and Putin makes amends for the Russian militia’s actions, perhaps there can be some discussion about allowing Russian airliners to again traverse European and American airspace.

Now certainly Putin will bluster and bloviate—he does that all the time—and he may also lash out at American and European carriers. But I suspect a lot more travelers want to leave Russia than enter it. The children of Russian elite often study in the West, and their families like to visit them. And, in August, Russians–like many in Europe–like to take vacations down to the Mediterranean or Algarve, if not to Disneyland. If they have to choose Sochi instead for the next year or two, so be it.

Putin plays hardball, while Obama waves his wiffle ball bat. While Obama sees international relations as a platform upon which to compromise, Putin sees it as a zero-sum game where he wins and the weak lose. Perhaps it’s time that the White House and State Department to stop treating leverage as a dirty word, and actually start to wield it.

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Why Should Denial of Access to MH17 Matter?

In the days since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, the press and many diplomats have been consumed with questioning whether Russians or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian jetliner. With all due respect, any answer is a distinction without a difference. To ascribe any degree of independent thought to the pro-Russian separatists is to be played for fools by Russia itself. Indeed, it is a common practice among rogue regimes to sponsor proxies to enable plausible deniability.

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In the days since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, the press and many diplomats have been consumed with questioning whether Russians or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian jetliner. With all due respect, any answer is a distinction without a difference. To ascribe any degree of independent thought to the pro-Russian separatists is to be played for fools by Russia itself. Indeed, it is a common practice among rogue regimes to sponsor proxies to enable plausible deniability.

The fighters in Donetsk are to Russia what Hezbollah is to Iran. Rather than give the Kremlin an out for the actions of anyone under separatist leader Igor Girkin who, according to press reports, was a member of the KGB-successor agency the FSB until last year, the proper response would be to acknowledge that the buck stops with Vladimir Putin. If Putin did not want to risk such accountability, then he shouldn’t tolerate, channel, or use men such as Girkin to advance Russian policy.

Nor should there be such handwringing over the denial of access to investigators seeking to investigate the wreckage. Would it be better if such investigations occurred unimpeded? Sure. But rather than allow Russia and its proxies to avoid accountability by undercutting the investigation into the murder of all those onboard MH17, the United States, Europe, and Malaysia should simply declare that Girkin and Putin will be considered guilty unless there is immediate access to the crash scene. To worry about access highlights one more reason why terrorism—and, make no mistake, this was an act of terror—should be considered a military matter and not a judicial issue to be subject to judicial standards of evidence. Even for those who favor process over justice and who are prone to see the shoot-down through the lens of criminality, then perhaps a better analogy would be to consider the case of a suspected drunk driver who refuses a Breathalyzer test. No policeman or court would agree that refusal to take the breath test would mandate a not-guilty verdict to drunk driving.

It’s understandable that air disaster investigators want as clean a process as possible to their investigation. But if that is not possible for geopolitical reasons, then rather than allow Russia to avoid accountability, it is time to respond—economically against Russia and perhaps with unilateral action against the Donestk commanders without any further delay. After all, only the guilty would impede the investigation, so such impediment should be taken for what it is—an admission of guilt.

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Russia’s Provocation Demands Tougher Action

President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

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President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

The potential impact of his statement was further dissipated by the fact that he said repeatedly that “our immediate focus will be on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts.” As if this were the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 which vanished without a trace. Actually we know with a high degree of certainty what happened with flight 17: As even Obama conceded, it was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with the help of the Russian state. As he noted, “we have confidence in saying that that shot was taken within a territory that is controlled by the Russian separatists.” Moreover, he said, “a group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.”

But still he refused to draw the obvious conclusion: that Russia is ultimately responsible for a war crime–the shooting down of flight 17 as well as broader aggression against Ukraine. Instead, he tried to make it appear as if there is blame all around: “Russia, these separatists, and Ukraine all have the capacity to put an end to the fighting.” That’s like blaming both Hamas and Israel equally for the fighting now going on in Gaza–an act of moral myopia that fails to recognize the culpability of an aggressor (Russia, Hamas) and the responsibility of a nation under attack (Ukraine, Israel) to respond with all due force to defend itself.

Failing to pin the responsibility on Russia as squarely as he should have done, Obama naturally failed to lay out a clear response to Russia’s aggression. He ruled out the possibility of providing any military help to Ukraine to defend itself: “We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic States, giving them reassurances that we are prepared to do whatever is required to meet our alliance obligations.” In short, no military equipment and no advisers for Ukraine. Let them eat MREs!

He didn’t even call for “sectoral” sanctions (for example, freezing all Russian financial institutions out of the U.S. and imposing secondary sanctions on foreign firms that do business with Russia, as we’ve done with Iran)–steps that could really hurt the Russian economy. Instead he expressed satisfaction with the very limited and ineffectual sanctions announced so far: “We feel confident that at this point the sanctions that we’ve put in place are imposing a cost on Russia … I think Treasury, in consultation with our European partners, have done a good job so far on that issue.”

Really? Obama thinks the sanctions have been good so far? Admittedly a new round of measures was just announced this week so it’s too early to judge their impact, but there is no sign of Russia backing off its illegal and brazen aggression. Indeed just today Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, released a video appearing to show a Russian Grad rocket launcher shelling Ukrainian territory.

It is wishful thinking to imagine that the shooting down of flight 17 will, by itself, cause Russia to end its attacks on Ukrainian territory. To force Russia to back off will require a massive effort on the part of the West. Admittedly Obama’s statement on Friday was only an initial stab at a response; tougher measures may be coming. But his words give little confidence that the type of massive response needed to force Russia into retreating will ever occur.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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America: the Popular Hegemon

There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

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There’s a lot to chew over in the new international survey from the Pew Global Attitudes Project. The headline on Pew’s own website leads with international opposition to U.S. surveillance and the use of drones but, despite this, the U.S. remains pretty popular–viewed favorably by 65 percent of the world and unfavorably by just 25 percent.

Those numbers are all the more impressive when you compare the standing of America’s rivals. Russia’s negative ratings have spiked–now 43 percent of those surveyed view Putinland unfavorably while 34 percent have a positive view. As for China–whose diplomatic offensive at American expense has often been noted–it outscores the U.S. in popularity in only one region: the Middle East. Everywhere else–Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America–the U.S. is more popular.

When asked which country is their top ally, respondents in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam all answered the “U.S.” Only respondents in Malaysia and Pakistan described China as their top ally and the U.S. as their top threat. In Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, China was described as the top threat. (Indonesians seem confused–they named the U.S. as both the top ally and the top threat.)

Even more interesting is the fact that large majorities in all of China’s neighbors–and even in China itself–are worried that “territorial disputes between China and neighboring states could lead to a military conflict.” The survey indicates that more than 90 percent of those surveyed in the Philippines are worried as are more than 80 percent of those surveyed in South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Even in China itself more than 60 percent of those surveyed are worried about war.

The implication is clear: the U.S. still has a lot of capital in the world while China is rapidly dissipating whatever goodwill it might once have enjoyed with its aggressive and bombastic behavior. Obviously there is a lot more to foreign policy than popularity–it would be nice to be respected, not just liked–but nevertheless the survey does show an important and often under-appreciated source of American strength: namely the fact that most people around the world do not view us as a threat, no matter how powerful we may be, even when American behavior (e.g., on surveillance and drones) comes in for so much criticism. We are the benevolent superpower, the popular hegemon–not just in our own minds but in the minds of most other people around the world.

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Obama and the New Global Instability

Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

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Today’s Wall Street Journal published a trenchant front-page article that begins this way:

A convergence of security crises is playing out around the globe, from the Palestinian territories and Iraq to Ukraine and the South China Sea, posing a serious challenge to President Barack Obama’s foreign policy and reflecting a world in which U.S. global power seems increasingly tenuous.

The breadth of global instability now unfolding hasn’t been seen since the late 1970s, U.S. security strategists say, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, and Southeast Asia was reeling in the wake of the U.S. exit from Vietnam.

The story went on to say this:

In the past month alone, the U.S. has faced twin civil wars in Iraq and Syria, renewed fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, an electoral crisis in Afghanistan and ethnic strife on the edge of Russia, in Ukraine.

Off center stage, but high on the minds of U.S. officials, are growing fears that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program could collapse this month, and that China is intensifying its territorial claims in East Asia.

The Journal story should be read along with this story from the New York Times published earlier this month that reports this:

Speaking at West Point in May, President Obama laid out a blueprint for fighting terrorism that relies less on American soldiers, like the cadets in his audience that day, and more on training troops in countries where those threats had taken root.

But this indirect approach, intended to avoid costly, bloody wars like the one the United States waged in Iraq, immediately collided with reality when a lethal jihadi insurgency swept across the same Iraqi battlefields where thousands of Americans had lost their lives.

The seizing of large parts of Iraq by Sunni militants — an offensive hastened by the collapse of the American-trained Iraqi Army — stunned the White House and has laid bare the limitations of a policy that depends on the cooperation of often balky and overmatched partners.

While the militants from ISIS have moved swiftly to establish a caliphate from eastern Syria to central Iraq, the White House is struggling to repel them with measures that administration officials concede will take months or longer to be effective.

About these stories, I want to make several points, starting with this one: Mr. Obama said that if elected his approach would be characterized by “smart diplomacy.” The result would be that he would “remake the world” and “heal the planet.” And during the first summer of his presidency, Mr. Obama said his policies would usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world and “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.”

Some new dawn.

President Obama has not only not achieved what he said he would; the world may well be, as Senator John McCain put it this weekend, “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.” Mr. Obama’s role in this turmoil depends on the particular case we’re talking about, but it’s certainly the case that (a) his policies have amplified and accelerated some of the problems around the world while failing to mitigate others and (b) measured against his own standards, the president has failed miserably.

Beyond that, though, his underlying philosophy–non-intervention, ending America’s involvement in wars instead of winning them, “leading from behind,” consciously making America a less powerful force in the world–has been tested in real time, against real circumstances. And it’s fair to say, I think, that not only has Mr. Obama failed (in part by being exceptionally incompetent at statecraft), but so has his left-leaning ideology, his worldview.

Finally, what Mr. Obama should have learned by now is that his confidence in his abilities were wildly exaggerated, based on nothing he had actually achieved. That the world is vastly more complicated than he ever imagined. And that being a successful diplomat is harder than being a community organizer. One might hope that Mr. Obama would be a wee bit chastened by now and learn something about modesty and his own limitations. But I rather doubt it, since he appears to me to be a man of startlingly little self-knowledge.

Every president learns that it’s easier to give speeches than to govern well, to criticize others than to help build a peaceful and ordered world. But no president I’m aware of has suffered from a wider gap between what he said and what he has been able to produce. We’ve entered a perilous moment in world affairs, and we have as chief executive a man who is wholly out of his depth. These are not good times for this exceptional nation.

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Obama’s Coalition of the Willing

The Barack Obama policy of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” can be summed up as follows: He pulled U.S. troops out of a largely pacified Iraq before he sent them back into a warring Iraq, where they will ultimately give a boost to America’s assorted foes. At Business Insider, Armin Rosen writes: “The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.”

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The Barack Obama policy of bringing the war in Iraq to a “responsible end” can be summed up as follows: He pulled U.S. troops out of a largely pacified Iraq before he sent them back into a warring Iraq, where they will ultimately give a boost to America’s assorted foes. At Business Insider, Armin Rosen writes: “The U.S.’s deployment of attack helicopters to Iraq for possible use against ISIS doesn’t prove that Washington is explicitly assisting Moscow, Damascus, and Tehran in their regional ambitions, which have had such a disruptive effect on the post-Arab Spring Middle East. But that may be the likeliest effect of the U.S. joining the fight in Iraq on the side of Russia, Syria, and Iran.”

Not exactly George W. Bush’s Multi-National Force—Iraq, is it? But Obama certainly has a coalition of the willing. Rosen quotes Michael Doran on our bumbling assist to bad regimes: “If you want to build up a non-jihadi Sunni force that is capable of commanding loyalty from people on the ground then you have to fight Assad and push against Iran, and you push back against ISIS and Iran at the same time. If you’re just fighting ISIS then you’re building an Iranian security system in the region.”

Obama employs dangerous half measures and sells them as prudence. He narrowed the war on terror to a fight against “core al-Qaeda,” and so a potpourri of new jihad groups exploded across the Middle East and Africa. He “led from behind” in Libya, where a weapons flea market sprouted up and Americans got killed. With his new half measures in Iraq, Iranian security will be backed by American military might, which in turn aids Bashar Assad, whose Syria is also partners with a rising Russia. The United States is no longer merely creating a global power vacuum. It’s filling it back up with an alliance of our enemies.

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Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney”: How Buyer’s Remorse Works

Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

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Former Mitt Romney campaign advisor Emil Henry makes an impassioned plea for renominating his old boss in 2016 in Politico Magazine. He knows that such a suggestion will be controversial, so it’s fitting that he–or his editors, more likely–subheadlined the piece “I’m absolutely serious.” The question, though, is whether the lessons of 2012 and the following years would lead the GOP to choose Mitt Romney or “Mitt Romney.” It is a choice between copying the 2012 GOP nominee’s homework vs. renominating the man himself.

Henry begins by spelling out the challenge of losing a presidential election and then not only winning the nomination again but winning the general election as well. (The model is Nixon.) Henry breaks down the case for Romney into three categories:

  • Romney is re-emerging as the de facto leader of the Republican Party.
  • There is no natural 2016 GOP nominee and the field is highly fractured.
  • All failed nominees other than Romney were career politicians.

Does Romney qualify as someone who isn’t a “career politician”? I can see both sides of this debate. The other two claims seem to me arguments against Romney, if anything. His “re-emergence” as the de facto leader of the party is really his re-emergence as a respected figure of the establishment–an establishment which so happens to be locked in a rather nasty public battle with the party’s conservative grassroots.

In that context, a Romney nomination is unthinkable. Romney was really the last of the “next in liners” with regard to the party’s nominating process. His loss was the end of turn taking and the beginning of the party’s turn to its next generation.

And that brings us to the second point. The field is “highly fractured” not out of weakness but strength. The field of possible 2016 candidates is far more dynamic and in line with the party’s emerging identity than the 2012 field. Romney was preferable even to many conservatives over Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum. It’s doubtful the same would be said for Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Mike Pence, or Bobby Jindal.

There are times when an elder statesman is the appropriate candidate. There’s a much stronger case for a Romney candidacy without the Romney, however. The case for Romney is really about buyer’s remorse–it would be the GOP telling the electorate “we told you so.” But as Henry himself intimates, the electorate doesn’t actually need to be told that. The buyer’s remorse is real, and it’s because they realize now that voting for the birth-control-and-Big-Bird candidate was a fairly irresponsible thing to do.

Barack Obama tends to run extremely shallow campaigns. Manufactured war on women controversies and episodes of messianic self-love are usually all you get. But the electorate seems to have assumed that the ideas would come later–that, at some point, Obama would think seriously about the issues of the day, end the perpetual campaign, and start governing. What they got instead was grade-school name calling. On foreign policy, his dithering and disastrous “leading from behind” led to chaos and disintegrating borders. The response of the international community to this was predictable. No one takes Obama seriously, and his diplomatic endeavors have mostly been laughed out of the room.

What they reasonably hoped was that this would stop after Obama’s reelection, when he had no more elections ahead of him. They have learned the hard way the president had no such intentions. Thus their buyer’s remorse is pretty strong, but also much less relevant to 2016. Just because they wish someone else had won in 2012 doesn’t mean they would prefer Romney to someone who isn’t Obama in a future election. Buyer’s remorse doesn’t really work that way.

But they do have an understanding of the consequences of the president’s world view, and it happens not to be too different from the presumptive 2016 Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton. She was, after all, the president’s secretary of state, who managed the Russian “reset,” ignored some allies while haranguing others, and presided over the light-footprint model of state intervention that resulted in the death of an American ambassador in Libya.

It turned out that Romney was right about a whole lot, both on domestic policy and especially foreign policy. Perhaps that’s the road map future candidates will follow: not to mimic all of Romney’s policy prescriptions, but to concentrate on where and why he was right and how polling shows these areas to be weaknesses for the current ruling Democrats. That doesn’t mean they’d need to run Mitt Romney in order to make those arguments, but does explain why we’re having this conversation to begin with.

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The Obama Presidency Unravels

The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

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The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

Another poll–this one from the Gallup organization–finds that in his sixth year of office, the level of confidence in Mr. Obama’s presidency is 29 percent. That’s lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors.

But the president’s problem isn’t polling data; it’s objective conditions. While recent job reports have been somewhat encouraging, the deeper trends of the economy remain quite troubling. In the first quarter of this year, for example, the economy contracted by nearly 3 percent (the largest contraction in a non-recession in more than 40 years). Illegal immigrants are surging across the border, with more than 52,000 unaccompanied children detained since October.

The Supreme Court just handed the president a series of battering setbacks. “This has been an awful ten days,” the liberal but independent-minded law professor Jonathan Turley said. “[The Obama administration was] previously found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment and privacy. Then they were found to be in violation of the separation of powers. And now they have been found to be in violation of the First Amendment and the religion clauses. I mean, you just don’t want to get out of bed after a week like that.”

This all came after IRS Commissioner John Koskinen not only failed to contain the damage from the growing IRS scandal; he made things worse. Even prominent Democrats conceded Mr. Koskinen’s hearings on Capitol Hill were disastrous. An overwhelming majority of Americans (76 percent) believe the IRS deliberately destroyed emails; nearly as many (74 percent) want Congress to continue to investigate the scandal. The IRS scandal shouldn’t be confused with the scandal plaguing the VA, which I’ve written about elsewhere. And the president’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is, and is widely considered to be, a failure.

Let’s now shift our focus to events overseas.

The president whose foreign-policy doctrine is “we don’t do stupid s***” looks to have done plenty of it. America is now essentially a bystander while the richest and arguably most dangerous terrorist organization in the world is establishing control over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Iraq itself is breaking apart, thanks in good measure to Mr. Obama’s complete withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Syria is being consumed by a devastating civil war. (Mr. Obama, having previously mocked those who several years ago wanted to support opposition forces in Syria, is now doing just that, though by now the aid may be too little too late.) Jordan, having absorbed some 600,000 refugees from Syria, fears destabilization. The Egyptian government is conducting a brutal crackdown. Iran and Russia are extending their influence in the region. The Obama administration’s second-term effort to produce a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (within nine months!) was folly from the start. The situation is actually getting worse, with violent clashes escalating. Our allies in the Middle East are not only unnerved; they have given up confidence that the president is at all reliable.

But let’s not stop there. The situation in Afghanistan is worsening. Libya, rapidly deteriorating, is becoming a terrorist haven. In Asia, according to the New York Times, “China and its growing military are mounting a serious challenge to the regional dominance of the United States and its allies.” Violence is resurging in Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin warning earlier this week that he reserves the right to use force to defend Russian-speaking citizens there, an argument he used before he annexed Crimea. (The Obama administration has refused Ukraine’s request for military aid and intelligence to defend itself. We have, however, supplied the Ukrainian armed forces with ready-to-eat meals, in case they get hungry battling the Russian military.)

The president has varying degrees of complicity in what has gone wrong in the world. In some cases he bears considerable responsibility; in other cases not. But it was Mr. Obama, not his critics, who pledged to “remake the world” and to “heal the planet”; who promised to usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world that would “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.” It’s certainly reasonable to hold the president accountable to the standards he set and to the promises he made. As Obama himself said in the 2008 campaign, “words mean something.”

All of this presents a rather fascinating psychological case study. In the face of challenges and failure, some of us get better and some of us get worse. In this instance, the president’s worst tendencies are being amplified.

Among other things, Mr. Obama is becoming increasingly petty and petulant. In recent days he’s complained that Republicans “don’t do anything except block me. And call me names.” He’s taken to deriding the Speaker of the House by saying, “So sue me.” Instead of self-reflection, then, we are getting self-pity.

The president also appears to be growing more insular and isolated, exasperated that his greatness isn’t fully recognized by the rest of us. He’s increasingly disappointed that this nation and the world don’t conform to his wishes and ways. Frustrated by our constitutional system of checks and balances, Mr. Obama, the good progressive that he is, has decided he’ll simply ignore them. He wants what he wants.

The unraveling of his presidency is something Mr. Obama is having a great deal of difficulty processing. We have as president a man who is dogmatic, arrogant, vexed, increasingly embittered and feeling under siege.

This won’t end well.

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Poroshenko Stands Up to Putin. Can He Count on the West?

Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

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Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

In a stern warning that cited civilian casualties in war-torn eastern Ukraine, Russia on Wednesday demanded that the Ukrainian government reinstate a cease-fire and halt its military operation aimed at suppressing the pro-Russian separatist insurrection that has laid siege to the region for more than three months.

“Again we resolutely demand that the Ukrainian authorities — provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct — to stop shelling peaceful cities and villages in their own country, to return to a real cease-fire in order to save human lives,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The statement went on to accuse the government of President Petro O. Poroshenko of the “physical annihilation of citizens of their own country” and, citing the evacuation of an orphanage in the Luhansk region, said, “the Ukrainian authorities do not even care about the fate of small children.”

Even in the context of the deeply embittered relations between the Kremlin and the government in Kiev, the Russian statement was unusually harsh and signaled blistering outrage in Moscow over the renewed military effort to end the rebellion.

Indeed it was harsh. The parenthetical phrase “provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct” is diplospeak for “they have gone completely insane.” But as an accompanying Times editorial points out, it’s not clear Poroshenko had much of a choice.

The ceasefire was, after all, unilateral. Poroshenko would no doubt like to stop the violence with means other than civil war, and he is attempting to do so. This is understandable: a civil war has a way of perpetuating itself. Once a central government commits militarily to routing rebels, it can be difficult to know when the war is officially, or should be, “over.” It also can require ongoing security and surveillance of restive populations, which can have the unintended and paradoxical effect of treating a rebellious corner of the country as a breakaway province while insisting it is part of the whole.

On top of all this, such a task becomes even more complex for a new government, and doubly so for a new government with a weak army. The last thing Kiev would want to do is demonstrate that the rebels, aided by Moscow, are on a level playing field (or more). But they also can’t let yet another province just slip away without a fight. It would not only humiliate Kiev (again); it would also show Ukraine to be less than a sovereign country, a nation being looted for parts.

The Times editorialists praise the West for restraint until now, but warn the U.S. and Europe that Poroshenko has made his decision to ally with the West and they must not abandon him:

Mr. Poroshenko also has little room left to maneuver. Having signed a trade pact with the European Union that his ousted predecessor rejected, and now having sent troops to quell the rebellion in the east, he has committed Ukraine to a struggle that is bound to be long and painful. Russia has already raised Ukrainian gas prices and has threatened “serious consequences” over the trade agreement, and things are likely to get worse, economically and militarily, before any potential advantages of the European Union agreement kick in.

The United States and Europe have been right, so far, to moderate their response and to give diplomacy every chance. Nobody wants a trade war; certainly not Europe, with its heavy dependence on Russian energy, and not the American businesses that have begun lobbying against sanctions. And every effort must be made to convince the Russians that this is not about “deterrence.” But the agreement that Ukraine signed, along with Georgia and Moldova, is not only about trade. It’s also a commitment by the West to support them in their progress toward a higher standard of governance. Washington and Brussels have drawn lines and threatened serious sanctions, and the time has come to show they mean it.

That strikes me as a key point. The catalyst for the uprising in Ukraine was the fight over whether Kiev would sign a trade deal with Europe. The protests that erupted from a last-minute turn back to Moscow ended up bringing down the government and led to a Russian invasion and now a Russian-supported rebellion.

Ukraine has signed the deal, officially throwing in its lot with Europe at high (and still mounting) costs in the near term. The West must put its money where its mouth is and make sure they don’t send the message that it’s better to let Moscow dictate your foreign policy than gamble on the democracies of Europe and America.

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The Consequences of the Obama Foreign-Policy Vacuum

The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

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The proclamation of the establishment of what is billing itself as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is a troubling sign of how confident ISIS is feeling about its prospects even if no one is taking seriously the group’s leader’s boast that he is caliph of the world. But the desperate situation is also allowing Russia to insert itself into the deteriorating Middle East situation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires isn’t much less of a fantasy than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s pretensions. Yet the news that Russia is sending aircraft to the government of Iraq as well as expert personnel to help deploy them is yet another indication that Moscow’s desire to reassert itself on the world stage is no empty boast. Like the Russians’ opportunistic efforts to cozy up to an Egyptian government that has become thoroughly alienated from the United States and its successful aid program that has helped prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, the Russian foothold in Iraq is just the latest indication of what happens when the United States makes a conscious decision to abandon its responsibilities.

The delivery of a dozen jets won’t alter the balance of power in the region or probably even improve the Iraqi government’s faltering military efforts. Nor does this one move, even when placed in the context of Russia’s other attempts to worm its way back into international relevance, give Putin the kind of power that Leonid Brezhnev once wielded. At this moment, the U.S. is not discouraging efforts to aid the cause of the Baghdad government even if it means Iran or even Syria is attempting to exploit the implosion of Iraq.

Moreover, the confusing and shifting alliances of the factions fighting in Syria and Iraq makes it hard to see any foreign interventions as signifying anything more than a chaotic scrum in which the United States has no real friends or much to gain.

But what must be understood about these developments is that they all stem from the power vacuum that has developed in the region as the Obama administration tried to ease itself out of a conflict in which it no longer believed. The abandonment of Iraq by the U.S. was depicted as President Obama “ending” a war that wearied and depressed Americans. The war had been essentially won by the time Obama took office by means of a surge that the president had claimed could never work. But he and his vice president happily took credit for President Bush’s decision and then proceeded to bug out, just as they seem prepared to leave Afghanistan now.

But wars don’t end just because Americans and their presidents want them to be finished. Similarly, just because this administration thought that it could back away from American interests and allies without paying a cost, that didn’t mean that the implementation of such a policy would not wind up setting the stage for chaos.

Liberal thinkers thought the post-American Middle East would be one in which a healthy multilateralism would replace cowboy diplomacy to produce a more stable world that would no longer be dominated by the U.S. But the result of this pullback has created the opposite result. In the absence of a strong U.S. presence, Iraq has disintegrated. Iran is more powerful than ever and, via its Syrian and Lebanese surrogates, is causing Arab moderates to fear for their future even as insurgents like ISIS are having the same effect. The decision of the Russians to parachute into this disaster is just one more indication of how bad things have gotten.

After years of dithering, measures like Obama’s decision to fund Syrian opposition factions won’t repair the damage that his previous prevarications have caused. When you create a vacuum like the one that the U.S. created in the last few years, all sorts of unexpected and unpleasant things are bound to happen. Iraq’s would-be worldwide caliph will provide fodder for American comics but, as Putin seems to understand, the trouble that was created by Obama’s desire to pull back from the world stage is just getting started.

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Toward An Achesonian Foreign Policy

One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

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One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

Obama would do well to read Dean Acheson’s memoir, Present at the Creation. In it, Acheson writes of the bad-faith actions and stubbornness of the Soviet Union’s diplomats. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, signals his determination to further engage the Soviets in a twenty-year plan to have the UN lead the world to peace. “It was to start off with something that, despite Mr. Lie’s protestations, sounded very much like appeasement to me, luring the Soviet Union back to the United Nations, from which Malik and his cohorts had withdrawn, by the majority’s reversing itself and seating the Communists as the representatives of China,” Acheson writes. “To me all this made little sense.”

He continues:

I said that on Chinese representation we held to our expressed views but would “accept the decision of any organ of the United Nations made by the necessary majority, and we [would] not walk out.” So far as negotiations were concerned we would consider anything put forward in the United Nations, but, meanwhile, “we can’t afford to wait and merely hope that [Soviet] policies will change. We must carry forward in our own determination to create situations of strength in the free world, because this is the only basis on which lasting agreement with the Soviet Government is possible.”

That phrase “situations of strength” became an essential component of Acheson’s prosecution of American foreign policy in the postwar world. The Truman administration, which Acheson served, was dealing with an obstacle that would ring familiar to President Obama. The country was surely war weary–after a second world war, it would have been strange not to be. Additionally, our European allies were suddenly not in shape to prop up the free world with minimal American involvement, and our Russian partners were keen to take advantage of European weakness and American optimism toward the end of conflict.

The “situations of strength” were not intended to replace negotiations but to strengthen America’s hand. And they required American power projection in ways that would deter aggression. We had to be ready to fight, in other words, so that we wouldn’t have to. Here is Henry Kissinger in 2006 reflecting on Acheson’s strategy:

He interpreted it to mean that the task of foreign policy was to create situations of strength around the Soviet periphery to deter any temptation for aggression. Negotiation with the Soviet Union was to be deferred until these situations of strength had come into being; any attempt to begin diplomacy prematurely would undermine the primary task.

Acheson’s overriding priority, in the years immediately following World War II, was to restore Western Europe and create an Atlantic community to resist what then appeared as the Soviet colossus. He built the structure that sustained democracy during the cold war, with the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the return of Germany and Japan to the community of nations.

Yet it is precisely these methods Obama has ignored. The door to NATO was slammed on nations in Russia’s line of fire; budget outlays for democracy promotion and programs to help build civil society in troubled parts of the world were cut; residual forces who were needed mostly to train others and to act as arbiters of internal discord were recalled; and wishful thinking and self-delusion about the intentions of others dominated an obsession with diplomacy at all costs.

There are ways, after a decade of war, to safeguard the gains and strengthen allies while avoiding new wars and working within the confines of public opinion. It’s been done before. But it still requires a level of American leadership with which Obama just doesn’t appear to be comfortable.

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Why Hillary Complained About America’s “Brutal” Politics

In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

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In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

Ed Morrissey notes at the link that “there was never going to be a good time for a gaffe of this scale, but it’s hard to think of a worse time for it,” considering the raging sectarian conflict in Iraq that has ISIS marching toward Baghdad, the bloody election season in Afghanistan, the setbacks in Burma, and the Assad “election” in Syria, where the body count has been in the six digits for some time now. He adds:

Hillary wants to run on her record as Secretary of State, in part based on the amount of travel she undertook in that role. It’s indisputable that she traveled around the world, but she doesn’t appear to have learned anything from her travels. Aung Sang Suu Kyi might have a different perspective on brutal in relation to political systems, or perhaps the anti-Chavistas in Venezuela could have informed Hillary of what the word actually means. For that matter, nearly everyone in Syria could have explained it to her back in 2011.

That’s an important point. She went into her job at State with an eye toward 2016. So she studiously avoided the kinds of issues that would bog her down, risk adding major failures to her resume, or prejudice the sides in a dispute she would want to take up later on if she won the presidency. That left traveling. A lot. When asked to name her accomplishments at State, she can’t. Neither can her defenders (try as they might). It always comes down to traveling. She’s been everywhere, man.

But what did she learn? Not enough, apparently. Not that anyone really takes this comment at face value. Rather, this is another instance of Clinton’s overly defensive reflex to work the refs. American politics ain’t beanbag, it’s true. But it’s closer to it than much of the world’s politics.

Clinton has been subject to some unfair attacks–just like other would-be presidents–but she has always taken a conspiratorial view of the world bordering on paranoia. She will be treated far better on the campaign trail than any Republican, and if she wins her party’s nomination she’ll see that right away. She will persist, however, in treating all criticism of her as part of the battle progress (represented by Clinton) must fight against bias, bigotry, and regression (represented chiefly by Republicans, but also journalists who ask her questions).

Clinton was secretary of state at a momentous time (isn’t it always?) for the world, with revolutions sweeping across the Middle East and all the way to Russia’s borders. But in Russia, as in countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, those looking to overthrow their rulers could only have dreamed of the task that faces Hillary: a free and fair election and a peaceful transfer of power. She does the many brave and brutalized dissidents around the world a disservice by putting herself in their company.

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Putin Pounces Amid Iraq Distraction

One of the peculiarities of the American political system is that we can seemingly only focus on one crisis at a time. Thus the disaster in Iraq has driven out of the headlines the disaster in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that bad things are still happening in Ukraine where Russia continues to pursue its semi-covert campaign of aggression designed to wrest the eastern provinces away from Kiev’s control.

In some ways the Russians are actually getting more brazen. The U.S. government has confirmed, for example, that Russia is now providing Ukrainian “rebels” with heavier weaponry–”a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne.”

Those same “rebels” have also been provided by someone, presumably a Russian someone, with potent anti-aircraft missiles because such a missile just shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane that was about to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. Forty-nine Ukrainian military personnel, most of them paratroopers, are reported to have been killed.

Oh and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is owned by the Russian government, has just announced it will suspend all further gas deliveries to Ukraine. If Gazprom sticks to the cutoff, and no alternative suppliers are found, Ukraine will lose 63 percent of the natural gas it consumes.

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One of the peculiarities of the American political system is that we can seemingly only focus on one crisis at a time. Thus the disaster in Iraq has driven out of the headlines the disaster in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that bad things are still happening in Ukraine where Russia continues to pursue its semi-covert campaign of aggression designed to wrest the eastern provinces away from Kiev’s control.

In some ways the Russians are actually getting more brazen. The U.S. government has confirmed, for example, that Russia is now providing Ukrainian “rebels” with heavier weaponry–”a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne.”

Those same “rebels” have also been provided by someone, presumably a Russian someone, with potent anti-aircraft missiles because such a missile just shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane that was about to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. Forty-nine Ukrainian military personnel, most of them paratroopers, are reported to have been killed.

Oh and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is owned by the Russian government, has just announced it will suspend all further gas deliveries to Ukraine. If Gazprom sticks to the cutoff, and no alternative suppliers are found, Ukraine will lose 63 percent of the natural gas it consumes.

This is a significant escalation of the conflict by Vladimir Putin, notwithstanding his pro forma denials that he knows anything about what’s going on in Ukraine. Suffice it to say, anti-aircraft missiles and tanks are high-end pieces of equipment that aren’t available for sale in military surplus stores (where Moscow improbably claimed that the “green men” who seized Crimea got their uniforms from). Russia is escalating the conflict before Ukraine’s newly elected President Petro Poroshenko can succeed in rolling back the “rebels.” (I’m putting “rebels” in quotes to emphasize that this is not an indigenous uprising but rather one manufactured by the Kremlin.)

So what is Washington going to do about it? Apparently we are going to hurl some really strong rhetoric at the Russians. A State Department spokeswoman said, in response to the sighting of the Russian tanks on Ukrainian territory: “This is unacceptable. A failure by Russia to de-escalate this situation will lead to additional costs.”

Uh-huh. Putin has heard that before–and he still hasn’t paid a significant cost for his aggression in Ukraine. What are the odds that he will have to pay a price now that Washington is distracted by the fresh crisis in Iraq?

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Iraq, Another Grim Point for Romney

At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

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At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

The crumbling of Iraq, of course, isn’t the first event to vindicate a maligned Romney debating point. Back when he pronounced Russia “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Obama derided Romney as a Cold Warrior 20 years past his sell-by date. The president, for his part, was busy touting his “reset” with the Kremlin. But the American public soon took up the fight against Vladimir Putin’s human-rights abuses—and then Russia invaded Crimea. Thus came headlines explaining “Why Obama Got Russia Wrong (and Romney Got It Right).”

That’s not all he got right. While the Obama administration plays Let’s Fake a Deal with Tehran, it’s worth recalling another Romney line of foreign-affairs analysis: “Of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. If Obama gets that wrong, belated acknowledgment of his error won’t quite cut it.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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