Commentary Magazine


Topic: Soviet Union

The Unfairly Maligned Francis Fukuyama

A common theme of the current crisis in Ukraine, as well as other major foreign-policy challenges to the American-led global order, is that it represents the “return of history.” It’s a not-so-subtle rebuke not only to apparently naïve Western statesmen but to Francis Fukuyama, the justly distinguished political scientist who, twenty-five years ago, wrote one of the most famous political science essays of the 20th century.

Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” in 1989, as the revolutionary spirit in Europe gained the upper hand over Soviet tyranny. “In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history,” Fukuyama wrote. A couple of paragraphs later came the grand thesis: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Thus did Fukuyama’s thesis get boiled down to a romantic flight from reality, the disintegration of which has supposedly struck a blow for realism and against what Samuel Huntington termed the trend of “endism.” The latest to take what has become an obligatory swipe at Fukuyama came from Paul Berman, in a piece on the Ukraine crisis being an extension of 1989, a thesis earlier espoused by George Will. Berman writes of the aftermath of the Orange Revolution:

It felt as if 1989’s revolutions had revealed the secret of world history, as per Hegel (whose most imaginative modern disciple proved to be Francis Fukuyama). And human nature had discovered its proper political expression, and the worldwide liberal future had become, for better and for worse, visible on the horizon. Which was delusionary.

When you use a phrase like the “end of history,” you create an index-card mnemonic for your theory, as Fukuyama should have known (and certainly knows now). But many of these criticisms miss the mark, and in important ways, Fukuyama has been vindicated, rather than discredited, by recent events. This is not to claim that Fukuyama was right on every count. But his argument was built around the realization of Western liberalism’s superiority as a political system, not around the acceptance of such by those opposed to Western liberalism. He writes:

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A common theme of the current crisis in Ukraine, as well as other major foreign-policy challenges to the American-led global order, is that it represents the “return of history.” It’s a not-so-subtle rebuke not only to apparently naïve Western statesmen but to Francis Fukuyama, the justly distinguished political scientist who, twenty-five years ago, wrote one of the most famous political science essays of the 20th century.

Fukuyama wrote “The End of History?” in 1989, as the revolutionary spirit in Europe gained the upper hand over Soviet tyranny. “In watching the flow of events over the past decade or so, it is hard to avoid the feeling that something very fundamental has happened in world history,” Fukuyama wrote. A couple of paragraphs later came the grand thesis: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism.”

Thus did Fukuyama’s thesis get boiled down to a romantic flight from reality, the disintegration of which has supposedly struck a blow for realism and against what Samuel Huntington termed the trend of “endism.” The latest to take what has become an obligatory swipe at Fukuyama came from Paul Berman, in a piece on the Ukraine crisis being an extension of 1989, a thesis earlier espoused by George Will. Berman writes of the aftermath of the Orange Revolution:

It felt as if 1989’s revolutions had revealed the secret of world history, as per Hegel (whose most imaginative modern disciple proved to be Francis Fukuyama). And human nature had discovered its proper political expression, and the worldwide liberal future had become, for better and for worse, visible on the horizon. Which was delusionary.

When you use a phrase like the “end of history,” you create an index-card mnemonic for your theory, as Fukuyama should have known (and certainly knows now). But many of these criticisms miss the mark, and in important ways, Fukuyama has been vindicated, rather than discredited, by recent events. This is not to claim that Fukuyama was right on every count. But his argument was built around the realization of Western liberalism’s superiority as a political system, not around the acceptance of such by those opposed to Western liberalism. He writes:

Have we in fact reached the end of history? Are there, in other words, any fundamental “contradictions” in human life that cannot be resolved in the context of modern liberalism, that would be resolvable by an alternative political-economic structure?

He reviews the ideological challengers, and concludes (correctly) that they have been defeated in the battle of ideas, though he–like a great many observers in 1989–underestimates the expansionist appeal of Islamism. And he makes a point of saying that “This does not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se.” Indeed, Fukuyama expected states put at risk by this development to fight it tooth and nail, with an explicit desire “to get history started once again.”

The uprising in Ukraine followed by the Russian invasion; the Arab Spring followed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s authoritarianism in Egypt which was followed by a military coup to reestablish secular authoritarianism; and other such seesaw struggles are fully consistent with Fukuyama’s argument. The challenge comes in the fact that it’s far from clear that these “revolutionaries” desire Western liberalism. It’s debatable, however, whether they must want liberalism for the “end of history” to be asserting itself, or if it’s enough that the failure of the alternatives to liberalism which they are overthrowing provides the necessary consistency with the thesis.

The certainty with which the intelligentsia treat their understanding of Fukuyama’s thesis now is in stark contrast with the utter confusion and chaos that greeted the original essay. The New York Times published a piece in October 1989 hilariously headlined “What Is Fukuyama Saying? And To Whom Is He Saying It?” The Times continued:

”Controversial” didn’t begin to cover the case. Unlike that other recent philosophical cause celebre, Allan Bloom’s ”The Closing of the American Mind,” Fukuyama’s essay was the work of a representative from what is often referred to in academic circles as the real world. This was no professor, according to the contributor’s note that ran in the magazine, but the ”deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.”

“This was no professor,” the Times exclaims, indicating that Fukuyama was an ostensibly serious person. One wonders how American academia felt about that sentence. So the Times went to Fukuyama’s office to find out just who this non-professor was. What followed was a bizarrely and condescendingly anthropological study of Fukuyama, as if the very idea of a person in government–or at least in a Republican government–having an original idea was impossible to compute. (Such skepticism toward government from the Times is sorely missed.)

Although it’s only fair to judge Fukuyama’s essay on its own terms, it’s worth noting that Fukuyama developed his work on political theory in the ensuing quarter-century, with impressive results. His most recent book is “The Origins of Political Order,” easily one of the most significant works of political science in years. In Origins, he comes to a conclusion that can offer a kind of addendum to his previous championing of liberal democracy.

He describes three categories of political institutions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. “A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance,” he writes. This is a crucial distinction: Fukuyama is not saying “one man, one vote” popular democracy is the primary yardstick of political development, but emphasizes accountability, which requires a degree of the consent of the governed. Fukuyama’s work has much of relevance to say about the current pattern of global political disorder, and those dismissing him as a false prophet of endism would do well to reconsider.

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Twenty-five Years after Soviet Afghanistan Withdrawal

A quarter century ago tomorrow, the last Soviet tanks rolled across the “Friendship Bridge” into Termez, a small town in Soviet Uzbekistan. The nightmare which the Soviet experience in Afghanistan had become was finally over.

Twenty-five years later, the Soviet experience still matters.

Washington D.C. in general and the White House in particular are infamous for convincing themselves that their own spin matters. As the United States prepares to withdraw most if not all of its forces from Afghanistan, political leaders and perhaps even some political generals will testify that the withdrawal confirms victory and a mission complete. They can spend hundreds of man hours crafting talking points and convince themselves that such things matter, but Afghans let alone the wider world interpret events through their own experience, not that of Washington spin artists.

Every Afghan tribal leader, village elder, and politician lived through the Soviet withdrawal and interprets current events through their own experience. So, what do they see? With the assistance of my colleague Ahmad Majidyar, I was asked to address this question at a presentation for a U.S. army unit. Here’s the core:

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A quarter century ago tomorrow, the last Soviet tanks rolled across the “Friendship Bridge” into Termez, a small town in Soviet Uzbekistan. The nightmare which the Soviet experience in Afghanistan had become was finally over.

Twenty-five years later, the Soviet experience still matters.

Washington D.C. in general and the White House in particular are infamous for convincing themselves that their own spin matters. As the United States prepares to withdraw most if not all of its forces from Afghanistan, political leaders and perhaps even some political generals will testify that the withdrawal confirms victory and a mission complete. They can spend hundreds of man hours crafting talking points and convince themselves that such things matter, but Afghans let alone the wider world interpret events through their own experience, not that of Washington spin artists.

Every Afghan tribal leader, village elder, and politician lived through the Soviet withdrawal and interprets current events through their own experience. So, what do they see? With the assistance of my colleague Ahmad Majidyar, I was asked to address this question at a presentation for a U.S. army unit. Here’s the core:

On one level, the goals of the Soviet Union and United States are remarkably similar on a macro level: Both seek the survival of the system they helped construct. The Soviets hoped to prevent outright Mujahedin victory, while the United States (and its NATO partners) seek to prevent outright Taliban victory. Both engaged similar efforts to advise, assist, and train. Policymakers in both cases were ambitious: The Soviets initially envisioned a 15,000-man advisory team, but ultimately settled for just a couple hundred. Likewise, it seems the United States might have to settle for far less than what its military strategies say is necessary.

Both the United States and Soviet Union faced similar obstacles: First was military stalemate. And, make no mistake, the United States and NATO are stalemated militarily by the Taliban, although that is largely because we have made a policy decision in the White House that we will not do what it takes to win. Both the United States and the Soviet Union also faced similar problems emanating from Pakistan, which had become a safe haven for the opposition.

Both Najibullah and Hamid Karzai had pursued a reconciliation strategy which led them to negotiate with the Mujahedin and Taliban respectively. In each case, the negotiations backfired as opponents smelled blood. Simultaneously, both the Soviet Union and United States have sought to bolster local and elite militias. This benefited security in the short term, but was corrosive in the long term. Regardless, both Moscow then and Washington now swore by the professionalism of their respective 350,000-man Afghan military. Such military, however, was heavily dependent on foreign assistance.

The Soviet Union and then Russia continued to provide about $3 billion in aid for each of the three years after the withdrawal, but as soon as the money ran dry, his regime and its military collapsed. The same will likely hold true for Karzai and the new Afghanistan Security Forces. A major difference, however, is that Afghanistan’s Najibullah-era air force could operate independently. Such cannot be said about Afghanistan’s air force today, which cannot function without ISAF assistance. That said, Karzai’s regime has international recognition. The Soviets had simply appointed Najibullah, who was therefore never able to claim internal legitimacy let alone win broad external recognition.

2014 will be a pivotal year for Afghanistan. The White House might hope for stability, but given the degree to which Afghans see history repeating, the opposite is much more likely true: As soon as the money runs out, expect the system to unravel. Momentum matters, and the first few defections will lead to a deluge. Many Afghans expect a civil war, or at least a multi-party civil struggle. How unfortunate this is, because it did not need to be this way.

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The Difference Between Iran and the USSR

In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

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In what was an otherwise lackluster State of the Union speech last night as well as one that gave short shrift to foreign policy, it was no small irony that one of the most pointed passages was the section devoted to opposing additional sanctions on Iran. Repeating arguments he has made before, President Obama declared he would veto any measure that imposed new sanctions on the Islamist regime, even those only slated to go into effect after the scheduled six-month negotiating period had failed:

And it is American diplomacy, backed by pressure, that has halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program — and rolled back parts of that program — for the very first time in a decade. As we gather here tonight, Iran has begun to eliminate its stockpile of higher levels of enriched uranium.

It’s not installing advanced centrifuges. Unprecedented inspections help the world verify every day that Iran is not building a bomb. And with our allies and partners, we’re engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

These negotiations will be difficult; they may not succeed. We are clear-eyed about Iran’s support for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, which threaten our allies; and we’re clear about the mistrust between our nations, mistrust that cannot be wished away. But these negotiations don’t rely on trust; any long-term deal we agree to must be based on verifiable action that convinces us and the international community that Iran is not building a nuclear bomb. If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today.

But these assertions about the interim argument aren’t merely exaggerations. They are false. The Iranian stockpile is not being eliminated and the inspections are not verifying that Iran isn’t working on a bomb. Just as importantly, the comparisons between his nuclear diplomacy and that of Kennedy or Reagan are specious. The Iranians are not as dangerous as the Soviet Union. But that’s precisely the reason his weak diplomacy, indeed, his abject appeasement, is so wrongheaded. Moreover, the even greater difference between those situations and this one has to do with the way America’s adversaries regard the U.S. The Russians knew both JFK and Reagan meant business. After five years of feckless diplomatic engagement, the Iranians have come to the opposite conclusion about Obama.

The interim nuclear accord does require Iran to halt the installation of new centrifuges and to stop enriching uranium at higher weapons-grade levels. But the centrifuges are still turning and their output can easily be converted to use for a bomb after a short “breakout” period. Even more deceptive is the president’s description of the disposal of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel. It is being converted into oxide powder, but that is not the same as elimination. To the contrary, it can be easily reconverted into its previous form and then enriched further to reach the levels necessary for use in a bomb.

Nor are the inspections anywhere close to being as intrusive as Obama described. In particular, the International Atomic Energy Agency is still unable to monitor Iran’s military nuclear research facilities. Indeed, the accord signed in November by Secretary of State Kerry didn’t even mention them.

But just as misleading is the analogy between Iran and the Soviet Union that the United States dealt with in the past.

The president is correct in distinguishing the Soviet Union, a nuclear power, from Iran, a potential one.  But that is exactly the reason that the president’s decision to discard the military and economic leverage the U.S. possessed in talks with Iran last fall was so profoundly dangerous. In doing so the president decided to not only loosen existing sanctions but to tacitly recognize Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium with a deal that allowed that activity to continue unabated even as the president deceitfully described the accord as freezing Iran’s program.

The reasoning behind this astonishing retreat was the very opposite of America’s negotiating tactics—especially under Reagan—with the Soviets. The current U.S. retreat is premised in a belief that Iran is too strong and too determined not to be pressured by sanctions into giving up its nuclear program.

If the Soviet Union negotiated with the U.S. and wound up ultimately reducing its nuclear stockpile, as Reagan demanded, rather than merely limiting their increase, it was because they understood that he could not be intimidated. The Soviets knew they were dealing with a principled president. But the interim agreement with Tehran has convinced the Iranians of just the opposite about Obama. Having thus far persuaded him to accept enrichment and reduce sanctions, they have every reason to think he will go even further to appease them.

The Kennedy precedent provides yet another cautionary tale. In his first meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev at a summit in Vienna, Kennedy admitted that he was insufficiently prepared for dealing with the Russian and the result was far from satisfactory. Though Kennedy had rightly opposed pressure to evacuate Berlin, he later told the New York Times that Khrushchev had “beaten the hell out of me” and left the meeting convinced that JFK was a political lightweight. It was this impression of weakness that led the Soviets to underestimate Kennedy and led to further provocations in the form of the building of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

That is an unfortunate precedent for Obama, whose supine position toward Iran ill becomes the American president and has similarly convinced Iran’s leaders that they need not fear his occasional threats to use force against them. Given the weakness of his position, he should welcome measures such as the bipartisan sanctions bill that has the support of 58 senators that would strengthen his hand in the talks.

Instead, he threatens a veto lest the proposal upset his Iranian negotiating partners. Rather than confirming the seriousness of his purpose, this irresponsible passage in the State of the Union will only reaffirm the Iranians’ belief that they can stand up to the U.S. and set the stage for either an American retreat on the nuclear issue or a confrontation that might be avoided by exactly the Senate measure the president opposes.

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Another Weak Case for Containing Iran

Sunday’s Kenneth Pollack column on Iran qualifies as another installment in the good news/bad news dynamic of the media’s newfound appreciation for the Cold War. The good news is that the distaste for the “Cold War mind warp,” as the president calls it, has expired. The bad news is that for many on the left, the memory of those decades is a bit fuzzy. Bloomberg View, the news company’s online opinion pages, has become something of a clearinghouse for bizarre takes on the lessons of the Cold War.

In September, it featured a column called “Libertarians Are the New Communists,” perhaps the silliest thing yet written about libertarians, a distinction which remains the only aspect of the column worth mentioning. It followed that a few weeks ago with law professor and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s attempt to explain the Tea Party by comparing it to the Hiss-Chambers case. Sunstein appears to have given up on the idea himself, having finished the column without actually connecting the two. He just seemed to want to take a moment, apropos of nothing, to remind the country that not all liberals are Communists, for some reason.

And now Pollack enters the fray by attempting to explain how, in the words of the headline, “Kennedy Showed How to Contain Iran.” The gist of the piece is that containing Iran could be done successfully by understanding how John F. Kennedy contained the Soviet Union despite the nuclear standoff.

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Sunday’s Kenneth Pollack column on Iran qualifies as another installment in the good news/bad news dynamic of the media’s newfound appreciation for the Cold War. The good news is that the distaste for the “Cold War mind warp,” as the president calls it, has expired. The bad news is that for many on the left, the memory of those decades is a bit fuzzy. Bloomberg View, the news company’s online opinion pages, has become something of a clearinghouse for bizarre takes on the lessons of the Cold War.

In September, it featured a column called “Libertarians Are the New Communists,” perhaps the silliest thing yet written about libertarians, a distinction which remains the only aspect of the column worth mentioning. It followed that a few weeks ago with law professor and former Obama advisor Cass Sunstein’s attempt to explain the Tea Party by comparing it to the Hiss-Chambers case. Sunstein appears to have given up on the idea himself, having finished the column without actually connecting the two. He just seemed to want to take a moment, apropos of nothing, to remind the country that not all liberals are Communists, for some reason.

And now Pollack enters the fray by attempting to explain how, in the words of the headline, “Kennedy Showed How to Contain Iran.” The gist of the piece is that containing Iran could be done successfully by understanding how John F. Kennedy contained the Soviet Union despite the nuclear standoff.

You may notice something right off the bat. Iran–unless Pollack knows something we don’t–is not a nuclear power. The whole point of the current impasse is that the West (hopefully) wants to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. Kennedy never had that choice. He was confronted with a bipolar world in which the Soviet Union had already achieved nuclear capability and thus his only option was to contain Khrushchev and prevent nuclear war.

We don’t know exactly how Kennedy would have prevented the Soviets from getting the bomb if he had the chance. But Kennedy was a proponent of a ban on nuclear testing in part because he had been an outspoken opponent of nuclear proliferation–at times he appeared downright panicked about the possibility of such proliferation. Pollack’s column skips ahead by implicitly accepting Iranian nuclear capability. History suggests Kennedy would have been staunchly opposed to such a development.

Additionally, Pollack argues that Iran wants to avoid war at all costs. He writes:

Like the Soviet Union early on in the Cold War, even a nuclear-armed Iran would be vastly outmatched by the U.S. strategic arsenal. Unlike the Soviets, the Iranians can’t ever hope to match the U.S. Thus, in any crisis, American negotiators will have the upper hand and should be able to compel the Iranians to back down quickly, even accepting significant reversals to avoid a war.

On past occasions when Iran crossed an American red line and was at risk of a U.S. military response — during the Tanker War in 1988, after the Khobar Towers attack in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the Iranians have backed down quickly and even made humiliating concessions of their own (such as ending the Iran-Iraq War and agreeing to suspend uranium enrichment) to avert an American attack.

Again, there are a couple of clear weaknesses in this argument. The first is Pollack’s habit of giving Iran too much credit. How much did the Iranians really back down after crossing those “red lines” and risking an American military response? The Khobar Towers bombing didn’t represent the cresting of the wave of Iranian attacks on Americans–as Pollack seems to realize with his referencing the American mission in Iraq. And Iran’s nuclear program hasn’t exactly been shelved–otherwise, what are we talking about here?

The other weakness is that this argument, like many arguments in favor of letting Iran go nuclear, is self-refuting. Pollack claims repeatedly that Iran will make tangible concessions “to avoid a war” with America and to “avert an American attack.” So the American threat of force is a powerful one. That’s a pretty strong case for leaving the threat of force on the table in full view. Pollack here is arguing that if the Iranians really believe the U.S. is willing to take military action against them, they’ll back down.

That may or may not be the case, but it seems ludicrous to allow Iran to go nuclear and then threaten war. If a credible threat of force can change Iranian behavior, then why take that option off the table by letting Iran get what it wants, ultimately making a later threat of force far less credible and far more dangerous? If there is a compelling argument in favor of letting Iran go nuclear, its proponents have yet to advance it.

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God and Man in Russia

This week HBO premiered Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the documentary on the infamous Russian feminist art-punk group imprisoned for “hooliganism” after staging a protest in a Moscow Orthodox church. The film manages one surprise: almost all of those involved, on each side of the issue, come off more sympathetic than intended–except for Vladimir Putin, though in Putin’s brief appearance on screen he outwits a clearly uncomfortable British reporter.

With Putin as the villain, the girls are the intended heroines of the story, but the documentary does them a favor by humanizing them and spending much time with the girls’ families. Despite their juvenile politics, outsized egos, and at times strange choices of targets for their “art,” it becomes difficult not to at least admire their willingness to challenge an authoritarian regime that punishes dissent. Additionally, their jail sentences were far out of proportion to their crimes, their trial is rigged and unfair, and the state’s veiled threats to take away the young child of one of the girls is nothing less than inhumane. And yet despite the seeming simplicity of the stunts and the reactions they provoke, the controversy actually brings to the surface some complex and important questions about Russian society and the state.

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This week HBO premiered Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the documentary on the infamous Russian feminist art-punk group imprisoned for “hooliganism” after staging a protest in a Moscow Orthodox church. The film manages one surprise: almost all of those involved, on each side of the issue, come off more sympathetic than intended–except for Vladimir Putin, though in Putin’s brief appearance on screen he outwits a clearly uncomfortable British reporter.

With Putin as the villain, the girls are the intended heroines of the story, but the documentary does them a favor by humanizing them and spending much time with the girls’ families. Despite their juvenile politics, outsized egos, and at times strange choices of targets for their “art,” it becomes difficult not to at least admire their willingness to challenge an authoritarian regime that punishes dissent. Additionally, their jail sentences were far out of proportion to their crimes, their trial is rigged and unfair, and the state’s veiled threats to take away the young child of one of the girls is nothing less than inhumane. And yet despite the seeming simplicity of the stunts and the reactions they provoke, the controversy actually brings to the surface some complex and important questions about Russian society and the state.

In Conor O’Clery’s book on the last day of the Soviet Union, he writes of a Moscow Catholic church service attended by 82-year-old Yulia Massarskaya, who has come to her first such service since she was eight years old when the 1917 October Revolution took place. “I have never felt this good,” Massarskaya says. “It is like coming back home.”

Massarskaya was far from alone. There is a scene in A Punk Prayer of a pro-Orthodox protest, in which we hear from those the girls offended–among them women old enough to have lived through decades of Soviet religious repression. “For 70 years, we couldn’t practice,” one of them says. “We drank our faith in with our mother’s milk. For us, this place is sacred. In 1812, people collected coins to build it. And look what they’ve done.” The documentary, to its credit, then reviews the anti-religious policies instituted after the Bolshevik revolution.

That is not to excuse the punishing of “blasphemy”–something the Russian state will do explicitly when two new laws take effect next month. Indeed, outside of the United States the spread of such thought police is truly depressing, especially in Canada and the European Union, which should know better. It is simply to point out that many of those offended by the Riot girls are far from Putinists; some of them make it clear they don’t want the girls spending years behind bars but are pained to have been targeted by the state for virtually their entire lives and now feel targeted by so-called liberals in Moscow. They, the believers would like the girls to acknowledge, are not the enemy.

But that brings us to the most destructive part of the girls’ show trial and imprisonment, and it is easily the most misunderstood aspect to the controversy. Putin is not meting out such punishment to defend or to glorify the church. He is taking a wrecking ball to the church once again, even if only metaphorically. By tying the Russian Orthodox Church to his regime’s repression, he is ruining it in the public consciousness.

Khrushchev promised to “take God by the beard”; Putin wants to enlist God in his crimes and his politics. Communists sought to erase and replace God; Putin wants you to think of God as his prime minister. In A Long Walk to Church, Nathaniel Davis’s essential study of religion in Russia, the author explains the root and logic of the Communists’ assault on the church:

Think of a “City of God” in the Soviet Union, which the communists assaulted in their days of militant atheism. The city’s “temples” might represent the various religious bodies, each one rooted in the earth, where the city could be attacked and where its dimensions on the ground could be measured. Each of the temples also had–and has–a vertical dimension in the realm of the spirit, and no one who stood on the earth could clearly see to the tops of the columns, domes, and towers, as they were shrouded in mist. That is the realm of philosophers and theologians, who are not earthbound. This study will describe the situation on the ground; it is at this level that the communists made their assault, because they too were earthbound. …

The image of an earthbound “temple” is intended only to distinguish the inquiries of the historian and the philosopher, not to describe the churches as inert or the historian’s task as a simple measurement of dimensions and unchanging forms. At its heart a church consists of people; it might better be described as “an army on the march.”

And that army had to be defeated by the conquering power. But it turns out there were two obstacles standing in the Communists’ way: first, that an army of God is not so easily defeated or demoralized; and second, sometimes it is more convenient to allow its uneasy coexistence with the state. Soviet leaders soon figured out an ingenious way to fight both the earthbound manifestations of the church and its spiritual sustenance: infiltrate and co-opt it.

The rest is history, and it explains why Russians felt they were “coming back home” when the Soviet Union fell and they returned to church. They were permitted to practice before the dissolution of the empire, but there was something impure about the church’s unholy alliance with the state. The controversy over Pussy Riot is so difficult for Russia’s Christian believers precisely because Putin is co-opting their church once again.

The Riot girls fanned such flames, but in the minds of the Orthodox the girls were not blameless either. Their atheistic attack reminded churchgoers of the Red atheism that destroyed the church in their youth. It’s not for nothing that in A Punk Prayer one Riot girl’s father tells us that “until the age of four, Nadia was raised by her grandmother, who was a strong-willed Communist, and maybe that’s why we brought up such a little Bolshevik.”

Russia’s Orthodox thus feel under attack from all sides. The Riot girls self-consciously target “conformists,” but do not come off as openly hostile to religion itself. And they will not bring down the church, nor commit acts of violence against its adherents. At the same time, we can understand why this is such a touchy subject for everyone involved. The wound is not yet healed, and Putin intends to keep it that way.

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Remembering the Victims of Communism

As it does every year, The Volokh Conspiracy blog reminds us today that May 1 should be known as Victims of Communism Day. I heartily agree. Though we don’t hear much about workers’ solidarity in the struggle against capitalism on this date any more, the generation that has grown up in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall may have lost touch with the fundamental reality of what the Communist nightmare cost humanity in the last century.

As Ilya Somin first noted back in 2007:

May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their regimes. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes’ millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so. I suggest that May Day be turned into Victims of Communism Day….

The main alternative to May 1 is November 7, the anniversary of the communist coup in Russia. However, choosing that date might be interpreted as focusing exclusively on the Soviet Union, while ignoring the equally horrendous communist mass murders in China, Cambodia, and elsewhere. So May 1 is the best choice.

It’s little surprise that the Catholic Church’s designation of May 1—the feats of St. Joseph the worker—as a date to commemorate the victims of Communism had little traction. For decades anti-Communism in this country was wrongly associated with the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and blacklists of left-wing artists.

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As it does every year, The Volokh Conspiracy blog reminds us today that May 1 should be known as Victims of Communism Day. I heartily agree. Though we don’t hear much about workers’ solidarity in the struggle against capitalism on this date any more, the generation that has grown up in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall may have lost touch with the fundamental reality of what the Communist nightmare cost humanity in the last century.

As Ilya Somin first noted back in 2007:

May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their regimes. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes’ millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century’s other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so. I suggest that May Day be turned into Victims of Communism Day….

The main alternative to May 1 is November 7, the anniversary of the communist coup in Russia. However, choosing that date might be interpreted as focusing exclusively on the Soviet Union, while ignoring the equally horrendous communist mass murders in China, Cambodia, and elsewhere. So May 1 is the best choice.

It’s little surprise that the Catholic Church’s designation of May 1—the feats of St. Joseph the worker—as a date to commemorate the victims of Communism had little traction. For decades anti-Communism in this country was wrongly associated with the antics of Senator Joseph McCarthy and blacklists of left-wing artists.

Some wrongly resented any attempt to honor the tens of millions who died at the hands of the Communists as somehow diminishing efforts to remember those who were slaughtered by the Nazis.

Others deprecated any measure that would sharpen the ideological differences between the West and the East as something that would undermine détente with the former Soviet Union (the same reason some on the left were slow to embrace the cause of freedom for Soviet Jewry). Other liberals felt that any talk of Communist atrocities or the captive nations of Eastern Europe would justify the War in Vietnam (where the American defeat added hundreds of thousands to the toll of Communist atrocities) or later bolster Ronald Reagan’s efforts to stand up to Soviet expansionism and eventually topple the Wall.

Sadly, the collapse of Soviet Communism, a bizarre nostalgia for the bad old days of totalitarianism, has emerged in Eastern Europe and Russia. Here in the West, radical chic heroes like Che Guevara, who was deeply implicated in mass murders after Castro seized power in Cuba, remain popular icons on T-shirts worn by kids who have no idea who or what they are glorifying. This is an offense to history and to the memories of the millions who were sacrificed on the altar of Marx’s mad experiment.

But there is more to this issue than mere sentiment or a desire to refight the political battles of the past. In the 21st century, freedom faces different foes than it did in the 20th, but the stakes are the same. As mad as it might be today to envision radical Islam gaining the kind of power that Communists once possessed, a lapse of vigilance on the part of the West could have unimaginable consequences. If an Islamist regime in Iran is allowed to posses a nuclear weapon or if Islamist governments in Arab countries escalate their war on non-Muslim minorities, anything is possible.

We should remember the victims of Communism for their own sake, but we must continue the struggle for freedom for the sake of uncounted millions whose lives will hang in the balance in the future.

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Stalin, Memory, and Moral Restoration

Today is the 60th anniversary of the death Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. There are many ways to mark such an occasion, though you could hardly do better than this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographic tribute to Stalin’s victims. As the introduction notes, at the height of the purge period, Stalin’s henchmen were executing 1,000 people a day. And the anniversary comes this year at a time when Stalin’s vision for society, the fear and terror of totalitarian Communism, lives on in North Korea.

Recalling Stalin’s crimes is important, if repetitive, because it seems to be what the world failed to do with Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who created the system maximized by Stalin and who should also be remembered as a monstrous criminal, only one with fewer victims than his protégé. At any rate, one person who has chosen the wrong way to remember Stalin’s death and legacy is exactly who you might expect it to be: Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports:

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Today is the 60th anniversary of the death Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. There are many ways to mark such an occasion, though you could hardly do better than this Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty photographic tribute to Stalin’s victims. As the introduction notes, at the height of the purge period, Stalin’s henchmen were executing 1,000 people a day. And the anniversary comes this year at a time when Stalin’s vision for society, the fear and terror of totalitarian Communism, lives on in North Korea.

Recalling Stalin’s crimes is important, if repetitive, because it seems to be what the world failed to do with Stalin’s mentor, Vladimir Lenin, who created the system maximized by Stalin and who should also be remembered as a monstrous criminal, only one with fewer victims than his protégé. At any rate, one person who has chosen the wrong way to remember Stalin’s death and legacy is exactly who you might expect it to be: Vladimir Putin. Reuters reports:

Support for Stalin has risen in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gutted the social safety net, damaged national pride and left many Russians longing for the perceived order and stability of the Communist era.

But Lev Gudkov, director of independent Levada Center polling group, said the biggest shift occurred after Putin came to power in 2000 and “launched a comprehensive program to ideologically reeducate society”.

“Reeducate” is certainly an appropriate term for the ruse. And how successful have Vladimir Putin’s efforts to clean up the image of a tyrannical murderer been? He’s made some progress:

In the same poll, 47 percent of respondents said Stalin was “a wise leader who brought the Soviet Union to might and prosperity”. And in a Levada poll last month, 49 percent said Stalin played a positive role, while 32 percent said it was negative – roughly the opposite of a 1994 Survey….

Nowadays, efforts to debunk the criticism and clean up Stalin’s image are a fixture of bookshop shelves, and school notebooks decorated with Stalin’s photo went on sale last year – something unthinkable at that time.

In Volgograd, the city where Putin celebrated the 70th anniversary of the 1943 Battle of Stalingrad last month, local authorities now allow the city to be referred to by its old name at annual anniversary events and on five other days every year.

It should go without saying—though Putin’s antics suggest that it does not—that the Soviet Union’s disintegration in 1991 is still a relatively recent event by historical standards, and that Russians are ill-served by any effort to keep them bound up in the lies of Putin’s imagination. In the July 2012 issue of COMMENTARY I reviewed Leon Aron’s book on the fall of the Soviet Union, and mentioned that Aron critiques the poison that Putin injects into the bloodstream of a still-recovering nation by whitewashing the crimes of its past.

Aron writes in the book of the great responsibility on the shoulders of the political leaders who inherit any revolution. The public, after all, must go back to some semblance of normal life for the new state to have a chance. “People have to make a living, to care for families, and so they leave the public square to the political class, which at this early stage cannot be but a moral centaur: half forward-looking human and half beast of the past,” Aron writes. Here is Aron’s description of the process that Putin has interrupted:

One could, with greater or lesser precision, assess the damage to Russian culture from everything that was blown up, burnt, lost, thrown out, and spoiled under the Soviet regime, the writer Boris Vasiliev wrote in January 1989. From the starved-to-death great poet Alexander Blok to those who were lost to Russia because of forced emigration: Bunin and Rakhmaninov, Repin and Chaliapin, Shagal and Kandinsky. But who, Vasiliev asked, could ever calculate the moral loss inflicted by the regime? Those who led the moral revolution were well aware of the vastness of the distance that must be traveled before their work was completed. As the sociologist Vladimir Shubkin wrote in April 1989 in the leading liberal magazine Novy mir: “We have miles to go before the public morality is restored … before we even approach what might be called the moral Renaissance.” He was right, of course. Sixteen years later Vladimir Putin–then a mere president, soon the “National Leader”–called the demise of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.

Pundits have, in recent years, grown noticeably impatient with those who bring up the Cold War past, and implicit (and sometimes explicit) in their disinterest in the topic is the question of why it is necessary to again recount what the West fought to defeat in the Cold War. The attempt to even partially rehabilitate Stalin’s legacy is one answer that sadly, in 2013, still bears repeating.

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Pakistan Should Fear U.S. Afghan Pullout

When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.

The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.

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When U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan “on schedule,” Afghanistan will revert to civil war. White House and Pentagon officials may have convinced themselves that their transition mirrors that in Iraq, and that Iraq’s transition was a success, but to Afghans, the U.S. strategy is a cookie-cutter repeat of the Soviet withdrawal. We have the Afghan Local Police, and the Soviets had similar local militias. We hope that we can leave behind agents of influence in the government, and the Soviets tried the same tactic.

The Soviet-era dictator Najibullah managed to hold on to power for three years after the Red Army’s withdrawal, but that was only because of the Soviet ‘peace dividend’: The Soviet Union provided Najibullah with almost $3 billion a year and equipment it withdrew from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Only when the money ran out did Najibullah fall. The same will happen with Hamid Karzai. Even the most sobering World Bank reports regarding what the international community must do to keep Afghanistan afloat assume that Afghanistan will have a functioning mining industry, but insecurity and poor infrastructure have hampered even the Chinese, who do not care as much if they lose civilian contractors.

So, as soon as the money dries up—and it will happen faster than Karzai realizes—the Afghanistan National Army will implode. While the Pentagon points to metrics of numbers trained, it does not speak as often about retention. Logistics, triage, and intelligence remain challenges absent U.S. oversight. And while the Afghans have fought ably against Taliban assaults in Kabul and the Afghan special forces are excellent, Afghans have never had an opportunity to prove what they can do (or cannot do) when they are running the Corps level alone. The fact that regional states have reactivated their residual links to warlords should be a sign no one in the White House should ignore.

When the chaos starts, it will be worse in some respects. Just as with the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s, the main victories will not be on the battlefield so much as the result of momentum, and so will catch the West by surprise. During the Soviet era and its aftermath, the fighting was limited to Afghanistan itself. The next round of civil war likely will not be. Pakistan should get ready: It will soon learn the meaning of blowback. There is no doubt that the Pakistanis will face blowback for their support of radicals and Taliban terrorism. The issue is not that various Taliban groups will take their fight into Pakistan. There, the Pakistanis will continue to contain the Taliban’s challenge largely to the tribal region. Rather, with the Americans gone, there will be no more restraint on the reconstituted Northern Alliance. Years ago, I had a conversation with one in a position to actually implement what he said: He argued that the only way to get the Pakistanis to stop interfering in Afghanistan was not to meet them at the diplomatic table or ply them with aid and incentives, but to respond in kind. If a bomb goes off in Kabul, he suggested, then one should go off in Lahore. And if an attack occurs in Jalalabad, then there should be two such attacks in Rawalpindi.

When, back in 1997, I was a teaching assistant for an American political history course at Yale University, I took a colleague’s suggestion and asked the students in my section what their earliest political memory was: The earliest any of the 18-21 year olds had? Michael Dukakis in 1988. Americans’ political memory seldom extends back more than a decade. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is longer. Many Afghans and Pakistanis remember that, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, it was the Afghans who were the aggressors across the border, tearing down Pakistani flags and raising the banner of Pushtunistan. This time, history will repeat, but with far greater lethality against ordinary citizens. Perhaps Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence will rue the day they decided to send terrorists into Afghanistan.

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The Sorry Legacy of McGovern Democrats

The death of George McGovern has set off an avalanche of praise for the former senator and presidential candidate. As someone whose time on the political stage is long past and whose memory is unclouded by personal scandal, this treatment is entirely appropriate. McGovern was a distinguished war veteran and, by all accounts, conducted his long political career in an honest and honorable manner. Though such persons are by no means unknown in contemporary politics, for one reason or another they seem rare enough for a lot of people to think we would be better off if we had more McGoverns in Washington.

But however much respect the individual deserves, we also ought to acknowledge how McGovern helped transform the Democratic Party from the institution that effectively defended the West against Communism in the aftermath of World War II into one that stood for appeasement of the Soviet empire. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall has allowed many who opposed the policies that helped bring about that outcome to pretend as if there was always a wall-to-wall national coalition opposing the advance of Communism, McGovern’s passing is a reminder of how that that consensus was destroyed.

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The death of George McGovern has set off an avalanche of praise for the former senator and presidential candidate. As someone whose time on the political stage is long past and whose memory is unclouded by personal scandal, this treatment is entirely appropriate. McGovern was a distinguished war veteran and, by all accounts, conducted his long political career in an honest and honorable manner. Though such persons are by no means unknown in contemporary politics, for one reason or another they seem rare enough for a lot of people to think we would be better off if we had more McGoverns in Washington.

But however much respect the individual deserves, we also ought to acknowledge how McGovern helped transform the Democratic Party from the institution that effectively defended the West against Communism in the aftermath of World War II into one that stood for appeasement of the Soviet empire. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall has allowed many who opposed the policies that helped bring about that outcome to pretend as if there was always a wall-to-wall national coalition opposing the advance of Communism, McGovern’s passing is a reminder of how that that consensus was destroyed.

The decisions by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to make Vietnam an American war may have been ill-advised, but the animating spirit of the anti-war left that McGovern led was not so much about the wisdom of that commitment as it was agnostic about the need to stop the Communists. Vietnam is now buried so deep in our political history that one might as well talk about the Spanish-American War as that conflict. But one unfortunate aspect of the way America moved on after the fall of Saigon is the way the political left avoided responsibility for the tragedy that America’s defeat created. American disgust with the waste and loss of life in Vietnam was understandable, but the war helped turn the Democrats from a bulwark of the Cold War coalition to its critics. This led not only to the abandonment of South Vietnam to the tender mercies of North Vietnamese commissars and “re-education” camps, but also helped set the stage for a decade of Soviet adventurism that was only halted during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

The McGovern Democrats didn’t just hijack their party. They led it to a historic defeat at the hands of one of the least popular incumbent presidents. Richard Nixon’s lies and follies have allowed his opponents to portray themselves as being before their time. But it was the radicalism of McGovern’s followers that scared the nation into giving Nixon a landslide re-election.

In the years that followed, Democrats would be careful not to put on another left-wing freak show like the 1972 convention that nominated McGovern, but the South Dakotan’s followers would nevertheless have their way in terms of setting the agenda for the party. In the decades that followed, the bulk of Democrats would become reflexive opponents of restraining the Soviet Union as well as embracing the welfare state in a way that earlier generations of Democrats would have found troubling.

Despite the nostalgia for the anti-war movement and the ongoing dislike of Nixon, history’s verdict will not be kind to the McGovern Democrats. They helped defend the excesses of modern liberalism that wreaked havoc on the poor and built the infrastructure for our out-of-control government debt. If the Soviet empire fell, it was in spite of the efforts of the McGovern Democrats to prop it up and to oppose anti-Communist measures. While today’s Democratic Party is a very different animal than the one he led in 1972, we can hear echoes of his influence in its equivocal stance towards American global power and its addiction to big government.

We should honor George McGovern the man, but we should remember that the political influence of his movement did the country and the world great harm.

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Obama’s Flawed Afghanistan Strategy

At the NATO summit in Chicago, President Obama reiterated that the United States would wind down its combat role, but would continue its advisory role and commitment to Afghanistan. The New York Times and other outlets helpfully explained that Obama was simply following the light footprint model that Obama employed against Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere.

My colleague Ahmad Majidyar–who hands down is the most astute Afghan and Pakistan political analyst in the country today (follow his tweets)–is correct to note, however, that the advisory model for Afghanistan has been tried before, by the Soviet Union. After the Soviet withdrawal, Moscow channeled up to $3 billion/year to Kabul, and also transferred to their Afghan partners much of the military equipment which it withdrew from Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Neither this nor the advisers was enough to keep Najibullah in power. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. For Afghans, momentum trumps principle.

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At the NATO summit in Chicago, President Obama reiterated that the United States would wind down its combat role, but would continue its advisory role and commitment to Afghanistan. The New York Times and other outlets helpfully explained that Obama was simply following the light footprint model that Obama employed against Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere.

My colleague Ahmad Majidyar–who hands down is the most astute Afghan and Pakistan political analyst in the country today (follow his tweets)–is correct to note, however, that the advisory model for Afghanistan has been tried before, by the Soviet Union. After the Soviet withdrawal, Moscow channeled up to $3 billion/year to Kabul, and also transferred to their Afghan partners much of the military equipment which it withdrew from Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Neither this nor the advisers was enough to keep Najibullah in power. Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. For Afghans, momentum trumps principle.

Obama seems to believe that history revolves around him rather than the other way around, but he is not immune to its precedents. Perhaps, therefore, before bragging about the draw down short of a mission accomplished, Obama might explain why he believes his strategy will work when, the last time it was tried, it ended in government collapse, civil war, and ultimately the vacuum which enabled 9/11.

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Cold War Still Sore Subject for Biden

The end of the Soviet Union was an unambiguous ideological victory for the West. Yet for many on the left, it remains a sore subject. Any mention of Russia’s foreign policy or criticism of Vladimir Putin inspires a knee-jerk response from the media and Democratic politicians: The Cold War is over!

I wrote about one case earlier this week, in which Doug Bandow and Jacob Heilbrunn chided Mitt Romney’s opposition to Putin’s authoritarian rule by bringing up the Soviet Union, and claiming that Romney broached the subject. (He hadn’t.) This bizarre psychological projection was precisely the New York Times’s response; the paper headlined its editorial “The Never-Ending Cold War.” It’s difficult, in fact, to get the left to stop talking abut the Cold War. Today, Vice President Joe Biden did so again, but he opened a window into the strange defensiveness of the administration and its allies on the subject.

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The end of the Soviet Union was an unambiguous ideological victory for the West. Yet for many on the left, it remains a sore subject. Any mention of Russia’s foreign policy or criticism of Vladimir Putin inspires a knee-jerk response from the media and Democratic politicians: The Cold War is over!

I wrote about one case earlier this week, in which Doug Bandow and Jacob Heilbrunn chided Mitt Romney’s opposition to Putin’s authoritarian rule by bringing up the Soviet Union, and claiming that Romney broached the subject. (He hadn’t.) This bizarre psychological projection was precisely the New York Times’s response; the paper headlined its editorial “The Never-Ending Cold War.” It’s difficult, in fact, to get the left to stop talking abut the Cold War. Today, Vice President Joe Biden did so again, but he opened a window into the strange defensiveness of the administration and its allies on the subject.

Biden said this morning, in a foreign policy speech at New York University, that Romney sees the world through a “Cold War prism, that is totally out of touch with the realities of the 21st century.” He later said Romney is “mired in a Cold War mindset” and is part of a group of “Cold War holdovers.” But contemplating why Biden felt it necessary to give a speech to angrily demand we all stop thinking and talking about the Cold War actually resolves some of the mystery. What was Biden doing during the Cold War? Well, you can guess by invoking the “Biden Rule”–the man is never right about foreign policy, so it’s easy to work backwards and figure out where he stood. But we don’t even have to do that much work, because Biden went public with his thoughts during the Reagan administration.

As Pete Wehner wrote in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago:

Throughout his career, Mr. Biden has consistently opposed modernization of our strategic nuclear forces. He was a fierce opponent of Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Mr. Biden voted against funding SDI, saying, “The president’s continued adherence to [SDI] constitutes one of the most reckless and irresponsible acts in the history of modern statecraft.” Mr. Biden has remained a consistent critic of missile defense and even opposed the U.S. dropping out of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty after the collapse of the Soviet Union (which was the co-signatory to the ABM Treaty) and the end of the Cold War.

The SDI is significant, because former Soviet officials have made it clear this was the policy that convinced them the arms race was unwinnable. Biden was also quick to abandon allies in Vietnam (yes, Biden’s been getting this stuff wrong for that long) and Eastern Europe, where democracy and freedom have spread despite Biden’s obstructionist efforts during the years.

Biden’s presence in the Obama administration reveals just how far the Democratic Party’s mainstream has drifted from the days of John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman. And it’s easy to understand why Biden takes the Cold War so personally. His inability to stop the policies that brought our victory remains, for Biden, a wound that has yet to heal.

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Blame America First: Putin Edition

Some of Vladimir Putin’s defenders in the West have a strange habit: moving quickly and effortlessly from understanding Putin’s motives to defending his behavior. A good example comes today from Doug Bandow, writing at the Cato Institute’s blog. Bandow makes two logical mistakes that have become increasingly common among critics of bipartisan policy toward the post-Soviet space, both jumping off from reasonable premises.

The first argument Bandow makes stems from Mitt Romney’s comments, in the wake of the revelation that President Obama told Dmitry Medvedev that he cannot be honest with the American people about his intentions toward Russia until after his reelection campaign, that Russia is our “number one geopolitical foe.” But instead of responding with the case for why, say, Iran is really higher on the geopolitical foe list than Russia, Bandow says this:

As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.” Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

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Some of Vladimir Putin’s defenders in the West have a strange habit: moving quickly and effortlessly from understanding Putin’s motives to defending his behavior. A good example comes today from Doug Bandow, writing at the Cato Institute’s blog. Bandow makes two logical mistakes that have become increasingly common among critics of bipartisan policy toward the post-Soviet space, both jumping off from reasonable premises.

The first argument Bandow makes stems from Mitt Romney’s comments, in the wake of the revelation that President Obama told Dmitry Medvedev that he cannot be honest with the American people about his intentions toward Russia until after his reelection campaign, that Russia is our “number one geopolitical foe.” But instead of responding with the case for why, say, Iran is really higher on the geopolitical foe list than Russia, Bandow says this:

As Jacob Heilbrunn of National Interest pointed out, this claim embodies a monumental self-contradiction, attempting to claim “credit for the collapse of the Soviet Union, on the one hand [while] predicting dire threats from Russia on the other.” Thankfully, the U.S.S.R. really is gone, and neither all the king’s men nor Vladimir Putin can put it back together.

This is a serious logical blunder. It’s true that the Soviet Union is dead and buried, but it is not a “self-contradiction,” monumental or otherwise, to believe that the Soviet Union was defeated and that Russia is capable of posing a threat. You don’t even have to believe Russia currently poses a threat. The simple fact that Russia can pose a threat debunks the nonsensical idea that Romney’s statement is a “self-contradiction.” Does Bandow believe it is utterly impossible for Russia to pose a threat? I doubt it.

The contradiction, rather, is Bandow’s: he says the Soviet Union “really is gone” and then speaks as though Russia is the Soviet Union, and therefore cannot pose a threat because it’s “really” gone. And where is Bandow’s judgment? The Heilbrunn piece he approvingly links to is an absolute mess from start to finish; he should know better.

The other mistake Bandow makes begins with an uncontroversial statement: that NATO enlargement gets under Putin’s skin. It’s true: we in the West like democracies, and Putin doesn’t. If the situation were reversed, he writes, and Russia “ringed America with bases, and established military relationships with areas that had broken away from the U.S., Washington would not react well.”

We can argue about whether and how much our own geostrategic plans should mirror Vladimir Putin’s wish list, but it’s clear Putin was bothered enough by the prospect of further NATO enlargement to send some messengers on tanks to Georgia and to demand that the U.S. help Russia depose Georgia’s elected president. (Medvedev recently explained that this is precisely why Russia went to war with Georgia.)

But rather than leave it at that, Bandow then writes: “It might react, well, a lot like Moscow has been reacting.”

Really? If President Obama saw Russia establishing allies in the West, he would … enable the slaughter of thousands by shielding murderous dictators like Bashar al-Assad at the UN Security Council? Bandow thinks he would aid, abet, protect, and hide the illicit nuclear weapons program of the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism? He would steal elections? He would jail bloggers? Assassinate whistleblowers on foreign soil and at least tolerate the assassination of journalists at home? Cut off energy supplies in the dead of winter from those who refused to do his bidding? Which one of these things does Bandow think is the appropriate reaction to the enlargement of NATO, and which of these things does Bandow think Washington would do?

Romney’s critics believe his response to Obama’s hot-mic moment was an overreaction. But even if you believe that, it was not nearly the overreaction of those who responded by excusing Putin’s unjustifiable subjugation of his people or blaming America when authoritarian thugs behave as such.

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Sharansky: Reagan Right, Critics Wrong

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.” Read More

Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 this Sunday, had an instinctive affinity for Jews and Israel. As an actor who spent decades in the heavily Jewish environment of Hollywood and who counted scores of Jews among his friends and colleagues, he moved easily in pro-Israel circles. Both as a private citizen and as governor of California, he was a familiar sight and a favored speaker at various functions for Israel.

“I’ve believed many things in my life,” Reagan states in his memoirs, “but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”

Reagan inaugurated what Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman termed the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations. Even so — and this underscores the inevitability of disagreement between Israel and even the friendliest of U.S. presidents — he found himself engaged in a series of tiffs with the Israeli government.

The earliest friction concerned Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in June 1981. The U.S. voted with the rest of the UN Security Council to condemn the action and briefly held up delivery of some F-16 aircraft to Israel, but there were no permanent ramifications.

“Technically,” Reagan notes in his memoirs, “Israel had violated an agreement with us not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge. … I sympathized with [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Later in 1981, a bitter fight was played out in Congress between the White House and supporters of Israel over Reagan’s determination to follow through on the Carter administration’s decision to sell Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) to Saudi Arabia. The sale was finally approved by a narrow margin, but the confrontation left bruised feelings and egos on both sides.

Ironically, Israeli military leaders were never in the forefront of the AWACS opposition; according to Raviv and Melman, “the commanders of the Israeli air force — the officers most directly concerned — were willing to live with AWACS flying over Saudi Arabia. They did not see them as a serious threat to Israel’s security.”

The U.S.-Israel relationship was strong enough by then to survive a series of mini-crises during the Reagan era, including Washington’s dismay at the scope of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon; the failure of the so-called Reagan Plan, which called for a freeze on Israeli settlements and the eventual creation of a quasi-independent Palestinian entity; the visit by Reagan to a German cemetery that contained the remains of SS soldiers; the Iran-Contra scandal, in which Israel played a major role; the arrest and conviction of an American citizen, Jonathan Pollard, on charges of spying for Israel; and the administration’s 1988 decision to talk to the PLO after Yasir Arafat made the requisite noises about recognizing Israel.

Through it all, Reagan provided more military and financial aid to Israel than any of his predecessors. Washington also worked closer with Israel on the economic front, and in 1985 the administration signed a landmark Free Trade Area agreement, long sought by Israel, which resulted in a hefty boost in Israeli exports to the U.S.

Beyond the Middle East, the plight of Soviet Jews was bound to strike a sympathetic chord with someone as unbendingly anti-Communist as Reagan.

“The Soviet leaders,” recalled former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir,  “told me that every time they met with [Secretary of State George] Shultz, he raised the issue of Soviet Jewry.”

The Reagan administration was instrumental in gaining the release in 1986 of prominent Jewish dissident Natan Sharansky, imprisoned for nine years on trumped-up treason charges. Sharansky has written of his reaction when, in 1983, confined to a tiny cell in a prison near the Siberian border, he saw on the front page of Pravda that Reagan — much to the ridicule and outrage of American and European liberals — had labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”

As Sharansky describes it:

Tapping on walls and talking through toilets, word of Reagan’s “provocation” quickly spread throughout the prison. We dissidents were ecstatic. Finally, the leader of the free world had spoken the truth — a truth that burned inside the heart of each and every one of us. I never imagined that three years later I would be in the White House telling this story to the president. … Reagan was right and his critics were wrong.

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Egypt: Why America Can’t Work to Prevent Change

What is happening in the streets of Egypt is not about the United States or its relation to Hosni Mubarak. The drama has to do with life inside Egypt after 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, which was preceded by 30 years of similarly autocratic rule by Nasser and Sadat. And yet there seems to be an idea, which one can find suggested in the latest writings of Caroline Glick and Stanley Kurtz, among others, that the United States might have played a crucial role in preventing what appears to be the inevitable Mubarak ouster — and that the U.S. is thereby acceding to the takeover of Egypt by a government that will make the region less safe, less hospitable to us, and of greater danger to Israel.

That may all be so. But it doesn’t actually matter as a practical reality. Kurtz and Glick and some others are, I think, guilty of reiterating a great foreign-policy fallacy, which is that the United States has the power to control the outcomes of large-scale events in faraway lands even when it does not have a direct hand to play with troops and planes and bombs.

Where is the evidence that the United States has a role to play in the prevention of change? Recent history suggests that our only really effective role when it comes to change is when we involve ourselves in hastening it, as we did with assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s, or by choosing sides with the forces of change, as we did in the 1980s in places as various as El Salvador and the Philippines and in the 1990s in Haiti and Bosnia.

Think of the times we have attempted to slow down or impede change. We did in Iran in the late 1970s in a way that came a terrible cropper. We did again, to our shame, at the beginning of the 1990s, when “Chicken Kiev” Bush tried to slam the brakes on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. And is anyone happy with the way the Obama administration handled the post-election revolt in Iran in 2009?

The implicit notion in these analyses is that the United States should be backing Mubarak to the hilt so that he could put down the revolt before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. But aside from the highly questionable proposition that our encouragement and support would change the balance of forces in Mubarak’s favor, doing any such thing is akin to suggesting that we ignore the forces of gravity. It is unrealistic in the most basic sense. It is written into the DNA of the United States that, when push comes to shove, we cannot support the forces of tyranny over mass protest.

Hardheaded choices must be made at times, and indeed have been made at times, especially when the options were a regime friendly to the United States vs. a regime that would have been friendly to the Soviet Union. But those choices did not come at moments of flash-point crisis, with a regime’s legitimacy crumbling before the world’s eyes. And they didn’t come at a time when worldwide instant communications make it impossible for the regime to black out the evidence of its suppression.

In warning us not to view the goings-on with unwarranted optimism, those expressing profound concern about what will come next in Egypt are performing a great service. We are heading into rough waters that had been largely stilled in recent decades. But that is why, perhaps, they should have been more supportive of the idea that Mubarak and others should have been pushed toward democratic reform so that the transition to change might have been managed rather than simply observed powerlessly as it turns into a runaway steamroller.

What is happening in the streets of Egypt is not about the United States or its relation to Hosni Mubarak. The drama has to do with life inside Egypt after 30 years of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, which was preceded by 30 years of similarly autocratic rule by Nasser and Sadat. And yet there seems to be an idea, which one can find suggested in the latest writings of Caroline Glick and Stanley Kurtz, among others, that the United States might have played a crucial role in preventing what appears to be the inevitable Mubarak ouster — and that the U.S. is thereby acceding to the takeover of Egypt by a government that will make the region less safe, less hospitable to us, and of greater danger to Israel.

That may all be so. But it doesn’t actually matter as a practical reality. Kurtz and Glick and some others are, I think, guilty of reiterating a great foreign-policy fallacy, which is that the United States has the power to control the outcomes of large-scale events in faraway lands even when it does not have a direct hand to play with troops and planes and bombs.

Where is the evidence that the United States has a role to play in the prevention of change? Recent history suggests that our only really effective role when it comes to change is when we involve ourselves in hastening it, as we did with assassinations in the 1950s and 1960s, or by choosing sides with the forces of change, as we did in the 1980s in places as various as El Salvador and the Philippines and in the 1990s in Haiti and Bosnia.

Think of the times we have attempted to slow down or impede change. We did in Iran in the late 1970s in a way that came a terrible cropper. We did again, to our shame, at the beginning of the 1990s, when “Chicken Kiev” Bush tried to slam the brakes on the dissolution of the Soviet Empire. And is anyone happy with the way the Obama administration handled the post-election revolt in Iran in 2009?

The implicit notion in these analyses is that the United States should be backing Mubarak to the hilt so that he could put down the revolt before the Muslim Brotherhood takes over. But aside from the highly questionable proposition that our encouragement and support would change the balance of forces in Mubarak’s favor, doing any such thing is akin to suggesting that we ignore the forces of gravity. It is unrealistic in the most basic sense. It is written into the DNA of the United States that, when push comes to shove, we cannot support the forces of tyranny over mass protest.

Hardheaded choices must be made at times, and indeed have been made at times, especially when the options were a regime friendly to the United States vs. a regime that would have been friendly to the Soviet Union. But those choices did not come at moments of flash-point crisis, with a regime’s legitimacy crumbling before the world’s eyes. And they didn’t come at a time when worldwide instant communications make it impossible for the regime to black out the evidence of its suppression.

In warning us not to view the goings-on with unwarranted optimism, those expressing profound concern about what will come next in Egypt are performing a great service. We are heading into rough waters that had been largely stilled in recent decades. But that is why, perhaps, they should have been more supportive of the idea that Mubarak and others should have been pushed toward democratic reform so that the transition to change might have been managed rather than simply observed powerlessly as it turns into a runaway steamroller.

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RE: Oh, Man, Not Another Sputnik Moment…

Ted Bromund’s reaction to the new Obama theme is much like mine. The only serious connection between America’s original “Sputnik moment” and President Obama’s SOTU analogy is the touting of a pretext for spending public money.

But there is another, more ironic aspect of Obama’s Sputnik theme. Perhaps you had to be in college when I was — a little more than 20 years after Sputnik — to pick up on it automatically. The late 1970s and early 1980s were years when academia was beginning to proclaim the Cold War “over.” The argument was ongoing, but for more and more academic analysts, it was received wisdom that American leaders had exaggerated the threat represented by the Soviet Union. The central symbol of that career of exaggeration was Sputnik.

I must have had at least half a dozen professors who argued that the Sputnik dynamic was a big irony, because it gave us both the moon-shot program and the unwarranted fear of a Soviet “missile gap.” The Sputnik-missile gap theme has been flogged relentlessly in academic studies (extended excerpt; full access requires a fee) and the opinion pages of popular media for the past 20 years or more. Plug “Sputnik” and “overblown fear” into any search engine and you will instantly be presented with hundreds of websites — including the left’s flagship new-media outlets — where it is argued that the WMD-intelligence debacle, or America’s supposed overreaction to 9/11, was our new “Sputnik moment.” The message has been quite clear: the space program was good, but beware presidents demanding urgent national responses on the Sputnik model.

Obama is of my vintage; we grew up hearing it argued that the U.S. had overreacted to Sputnik — partly because the act of arguing the point seemed at the time like a blow against the establishment. But there is a generation of adults behind us that grew up learning about this “overreaction” to Sputnik as simple fact. The people who were here to incarnate “Sputnik, the Original Terror Theme” are now in their 70s, at the very least. The demographic for which the word Sputnik sounds an unqualified alarm has been shrinking for decades.

Obama’s off-target Sputnik allusion seems symptomatic of his peculiar disengagement from American mainstream culture. This Chicago pol who once spoke of “Kaminsky Field” has often seemed to be invoking wholesale the alien battle cries of the 1960s-era radical left. And the flip side of that is that he still invokes, for modern purposes, the shibboleths of the culture the old leftists railed against — as if those shibboleths have not long since been tarnished, defaced, or completely torn down.

Ted Bromund’s reaction to the new Obama theme is much like mine. The only serious connection between America’s original “Sputnik moment” and President Obama’s SOTU analogy is the touting of a pretext for spending public money.

But there is another, more ironic aspect of Obama’s Sputnik theme. Perhaps you had to be in college when I was — a little more than 20 years after Sputnik — to pick up on it automatically. The late 1970s and early 1980s were years when academia was beginning to proclaim the Cold War “over.” The argument was ongoing, but for more and more academic analysts, it was received wisdom that American leaders had exaggerated the threat represented by the Soviet Union. The central symbol of that career of exaggeration was Sputnik.

I must have had at least half a dozen professors who argued that the Sputnik dynamic was a big irony, because it gave us both the moon-shot program and the unwarranted fear of a Soviet “missile gap.” The Sputnik-missile gap theme has been flogged relentlessly in academic studies (extended excerpt; full access requires a fee) and the opinion pages of popular media for the past 20 years or more. Plug “Sputnik” and “overblown fear” into any search engine and you will instantly be presented with hundreds of websites — including the left’s flagship new-media outlets — where it is argued that the WMD-intelligence debacle, or America’s supposed overreaction to 9/11, was our new “Sputnik moment.” The message has been quite clear: the space program was good, but beware presidents demanding urgent national responses on the Sputnik model.

Obama is of my vintage; we grew up hearing it argued that the U.S. had overreacted to Sputnik — partly because the act of arguing the point seemed at the time like a blow against the establishment. But there is a generation of adults behind us that grew up learning about this “overreaction” to Sputnik as simple fact. The people who were here to incarnate “Sputnik, the Original Terror Theme” are now in their 70s, at the very least. The demographic for which the word Sputnik sounds an unqualified alarm has been shrinking for decades.

Obama’s off-target Sputnik allusion seems symptomatic of his peculiar disengagement from American mainstream culture. This Chicago pol who once spoke of “Kaminsky Field” has often seemed to be invoking wholesale the alien battle cries of the 1960s-era radical left. And the flip side of that is that he still invokes, for modern purposes, the shibboleths of the culture the old leftists railed against — as if those shibboleths have not long since been tarnished, defaced, or completely torn down.

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Bringing Change to Foreign Policy

At his Council on Foreign Relations blog, Elliott Abrams notes that Obama’s “engagement” policy suffers from an inherent contradiction:

[H]e believes in the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council [HRC], in treaties like the NPT and START, in the IAEA, in multilateral cooperation. But the regimes with which he wishes to engage do not, so that Asad tries to ruin the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear program threatens to destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA. The president is in this sense in the position of those who for decades sought “world peace” primarily by engaging with the Soviet Union, which did not share that goal.

So the question for the next two years is whether the president will remain wedded to policies that cannot achieve his stated goals.

In the prior Congress, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee cheered on the Obama engagement policy — at one point writing to all 435 House members that “sustained engagement” with the HRC (and UNESCO) had “reaped important dividends” for the U.S. and Israel, proving that “engagement works.” He cited the “hard-fought” victory to keep Iran off the HRC. The next month, the HRC voted 32-to-3 to condemn Israel (again) in harsh language, and then called for an “investigation” to prove what it had just condemned; the State Department spokesman responded that the U.S. had only one vote on the HRC but would continue to “engage.”

The new Congress may require the administration to start changing its policy. In “A Short United Nations To-Do List for the New Congress,” written after the November election, Heritage Foundation fellow Brett Schaefer recommended, among other steps, withholding funds from the HRC, since it has “proved to be no better — and in some ways, worse — than the commission it replaced”:

The Obama Administration engaged the HRC believing that the U.S. would be able to improve the HRC from within. Unfortunately, the performance of the HRC with the U.S. as a member has been virtually indistinguishable from its performance absent U.S. membership.

Next Tuesday, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will chair a full-committee hearing on “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action.” The lead-off witness will be Brett Schaefer.

At his Council on Foreign Relations blog, Elliott Abrams notes that Obama’s “engagement” policy suffers from an inherent contradiction:

[H]e believes in the UN Security Council and the Human Rights Council [HRC], in treaties like the NPT and START, in the IAEA, in multilateral cooperation. But the regimes with which he wishes to engage do not, so that Asad tries to ruin the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear program threatens to destroy the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the IAEA. The president is in this sense in the position of those who for decades sought “world peace” primarily by engaging with the Soviet Union, which did not share that goal.

So the question for the next two years is whether the president will remain wedded to policies that cannot achieve his stated goals.

In the prior Congress, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee cheered on the Obama engagement policy — at one point writing to all 435 House members that “sustained engagement” with the HRC (and UNESCO) had “reaped important dividends” for the U.S. and Israel, proving that “engagement works.” He cited the “hard-fought” victory to keep Iran off the HRC. The next month, the HRC voted 32-to-3 to condemn Israel (again) in harsh language, and then called for an “investigation” to prove what it had just condemned; the State Department spokesman responded that the U.S. had only one vote on the HRC but would continue to “engage.”

The new Congress may require the administration to start changing its policy. In “A Short United Nations To-Do List for the New Congress,” written after the November election, Heritage Foundation fellow Brett Schaefer recommended, among other steps, withholding funds from the HRC, since it has “proved to be no better — and in some ways, worse — than the commission it replaced”:

The Obama Administration engaged the HRC believing that the U.S. would be able to improve the HRC from within. Unfortunately, the performance of the HRC with the U.S. as a member has been virtually indistinguishable from its performance absent U.S. membership.

Next Tuesday, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the new head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, will chair a full-committee hearing on “The United Nations: Urgent Problems that Need Congressional Action.” The lead-off witness will be Brett Schaefer.

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The Health-Care Repeal Effort

So why bother? That seems to be the general question. The Republican-controlled House can pass it, but it won’t get through the Senate, and even if it did, the president will veto it. Why cast an unnecessary vote? Why have this debate now?

Simple: Where you stand on ObamaCare is now the bright line in American politics, the single issue that defines the difference between the two major voting camps in the United States. There hasn’t been as stark a dividing line since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it could be found between those who generally favored confrontation with the Soviet Union (and Communist countries) and those who believed in a greater degree of conciliation.

Those who support repeal have a felt need not only to state their opposition but also to demonstrate it formally. Once that is done, all the secondary aspects of that opposition — defunding certain parts of the law, offering proposals to reform others — can follow relentlessly. But the bright line must first be drawn.

So why bother? That seems to be the general question. The Republican-controlled House can pass it, but it won’t get through the Senate, and even if it did, the president will veto it. Why cast an unnecessary vote? Why have this debate now?

Simple: Where you stand on ObamaCare is now the bright line in American politics, the single issue that defines the difference between the two major voting camps in the United States. There hasn’t been as stark a dividing line since the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it could be found between those who generally favored confrontation with the Soviet Union (and Communist countries) and those who believed in a greater degree of conciliation.

Those who support repeal have a felt need not only to state their opposition but also to demonstrate it formally. Once that is done, all the secondary aspects of that opposition — defunding certain parts of the law, offering proposals to reform others — can follow relentlessly. But the bright line must first be drawn.

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RE: Why Pollard’s Release Is Unlikely Right Now

Alana, one of the reasons you suggest for the improbability of Jonathan Pollard’s release is the public nature of the campaign to free him, since such a prisoner release would typically be done with arguments behind closed doors.

But arguably, a public debate is the only way in which a Pollard release would become proper, because public discussion is necessary before such a step occurs. The whole world is watching, so to speak.

In an editorial today entitled “Netanyahu’s Plea for Pollard, the New York Sun provides a useful addition to the public debate, focusing on a “magnificent dissent” by Judge Stephen Williams in the 1992 case in which the Court of Appeals rejected Pollard’s plea for a new sentencing hearing:

It happens that we don’t think a life sentence is too long a punishment for conviction of secretly passing classified information to a foreign government, even, in serious cases, if conviction is for only one count, as it was in the case of Pollard. … But it also happens that the sentence meted out to Pollard was vastly disproportionate to sentences handed down against other spies, including some who spied not for a friend of America, which is what Pollard did, but for countries that could be expected to use the fruits of spying in actions against us, like the Soviet Union or communist China.

… [Judge Williams] was one of three judges who heard Pollard’s plea for a new sentencing hearing. The two other judges on the circuit panel, Laurence Silberman and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sided against Pollard in a highly technical opinion. Judge Williams’s dissent accused the government of having broken both the spirit and, in one respect, even the letter of the binding agreement under which it had obtained Pollard’s guilty plea.

The Sun covers the arguments made by both sides in that case, and concludes that there was a miscarriage in the sentencing proceeding whose correction is long overdue after Pollard has served nearly 25 years. For those still seeking to make up their minds, the Sun’s review is worth reading.

Alana, one of the reasons you suggest for the improbability of Jonathan Pollard’s release is the public nature of the campaign to free him, since such a prisoner release would typically be done with arguments behind closed doors.

But arguably, a public debate is the only way in which a Pollard release would become proper, because public discussion is necessary before such a step occurs. The whole world is watching, so to speak.

In an editorial today entitled “Netanyahu’s Plea for Pollard, the New York Sun provides a useful addition to the public debate, focusing on a “magnificent dissent” by Judge Stephen Williams in the 1992 case in which the Court of Appeals rejected Pollard’s plea for a new sentencing hearing:

It happens that we don’t think a life sentence is too long a punishment for conviction of secretly passing classified information to a foreign government, even, in serious cases, if conviction is for only one count, as it was in the case of Pollard. … But it also happens that the sentence meted out to Pollard was vastly disproportionate to sentences handed down against other spies, including some who spied not for a friend of America, which is what Pollard did, but for countries that could be expected to use the fruits of spying in actions against us, like the Soviet Union or communist China.

… [Judge Williams] was one of three judges who heard Pollard’s plea for a new sentencing hearing. The two other judges on the circuit panel, Laurence Silberman and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sided against Pollard in a highly technical opinion. Judge Williams’s dissent accused the government of having broken both the spirit and, in one respect, even the letter of the binding agreement under which it had obtained Pollard’s guilty plea.

The Sun covers the arguments made by both sides in that case, and concludes that there was a miscarriage in the sentencing proceeding whose correction is long overdue after Pollard has served nearly 25 years. For those still seeking to make up their minds, the Sun’s review is worth reading.

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Another NPR Hit Piece on Israel

Never mind Juan Williams: What really gets me about National Public Radio is the way it manages to cover Israel in a manner more reminiscent of Tishreen‘s or Al Jazeera’s style than that of an American news outlet. The latest egregious example is a piece from NPR’s Morning Edition that runs on the NPR website — and this morning was the lead story on the NPR home page —  under the headline “In Israel, No Welcome Mat for African Migrants.” The article accuses Israel of being inhospitable to refugees. There’s no mention whatsoever of Israel’s welcoming 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union or tens of thousands of Jews and others from Ethiopia, which, last I checked, was in Africa. Nor is there any mention of whether any other countries are laying out welcome mats for refugees. It’s hard to think of a country other than America that has been more welcoming to refugees than Israel has, so it seems likely that the NPR piece is afflicted by a certain confusion between a “refugee” and an “illegal immigrant.”

One could argue that holding Israel to a higher standard of behavior represents a certain sort of philo-Semitism, but from National Public Radio — or National Palestinian Radio, as I call it (“Please turn down the National Palestinian Radio, dear”) — I’d settle for mere accuracy.

The NPR quotes one illegal African immigrant it states has been in Israel for 16 years as saying that Israel “ends up not a place for people who are different. It’s a place where people should be, look, all the same.” Again, there’s no reminder or reality check from the NPR correspondent to the effect that Israelis, who may be Ethiopian immigrants, black-hat Orthodox, secular supermodels, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, you name it, hardly “look all the same.”

NPR has responded to complaints about its Israel coverage by commissioning an independent review every three months of its coverage of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But this isn’t even coverage of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”; it’s just a hit piece on Israel.

Never mind Juan Williams: What really gets me about National Public Radio is the way it manages to cover Israel in a manner more reminiscent of Tishreen‘s or Al Jazeera’s style than that of an American news outlet. The latest egregious example is a piece from NPR’s Morning Edition that runs on the NPR website — and this morning was the lead story on the NPR home page —  under the headline “In Israel, No Welcome Mat for African Migrants.” The article accuses Israel of being inhospitable to refugees. There’s no mention whatsoever of Israel’s welcoming 1 million Jews from the former Soviet Union or tens of thousands of Jews and others from Ethiopia, which, last I checked, was in Africa. Nor is there any mention of whether any other countries are laying out welcome mats for refugees. It’s hard to think of a country other than America that has been more welcoming to refugees than Israel has, so it seems likely that the NPR piece is afflicted by a certain confusion between a “refugee” and an “illegal immigrant.”

One could argue that holding Israel to a higher standard of behavior represents a certain sort of philo-Semitism, but from National Public Radio — or National Palestinian Radio, as I call it (“Please turn down the National Palestinian Radio, dear”) — I’d settle for mere accuracy.

The NPR quotes one illegal African immigrant it states has been in Israel for 16 years as saying that Israel “ends up not a place for people who are different. It’s a place where people should be, look, all the same.” Again, there’s no reminder or reality check from the NPR correspondent to the effect that Israelis, who may be Ethiopian immigrants, black-hat Orthodox, secular supermodels, Ashkenazi, Sephardi, you name it, hardly “look all the same.”

NPR has responded to complaints about its Israel coverage by commissioning an independent review every three months of its coverage of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” But this isn’t even coverage of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”; it’s just a hit piece on Israel.

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RE: RE: Palin’s Counterproductive Complaint

I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Wehner’s point from last week about the need to make the moral case for conservative economics. The case is strong, and it has not been made well or often in general public debate in the last 20 years. The knowledge that there is such a case seems at times like the relic of an earlier era: it harks back to the argument made from the 1940s to the 1970s by a self-designated American rearguard against communism and “creeping socialism.” There was an aspect of national-security immediacy to the question then. In the wake of the Reagan years, however, when a consensus on conservative economics appeared to be in the ascendant and the Soviet Union had been put on an unsustainable defensive, the focus of debate shifted to deviations from conservative economics – and its importance to addressing crises and social problems. The basic outlines of the timeless moral case for conservative economics have largely disappeared from our set of popular understandings.

But this case cannot stand alone. Economic conservatism is intrinsically linked to political liberty, a liberty meaning not just the right to speak freely on political matters and to vote, but the right to set limits on the central government’s power and regulatory reach. This debate we have had, if possible, even less over the past two decades than the debate on the moral foundations of conservative economics. This very question is what motivated the American colonists to declare independence from the British king, but our public discourse today has fallen into a set of unexamined bromides on topics like the meaning of political liberty and the proper relation of man and the state. Read More

I wholeheartedly agree with Peter Wehner’s point from last week about the need to make the moral case for conservative economics. The case is strong, and it has not been made well or often in general public debate in the last 20 years. The knowledge that there is such a case seems at times like the relic of an earlier era: it harks back to the argument made from the 1940s to the 1970s by a self-designated American rearguard against communism and “creeping socialism.” There was an aspect of national-security immediacy to the question then. In the wake of the Reagan years, however, when a consensus on conservative economics appeared to be in the ascendant and the Soviet Union had been put on an unsustainable defensive, the focus of debate shifted to deviations from conservative economics – and its importance to addressing crises and social problems. The basic outlines of the timeless moral case for conservative economics have largely disappeared from our set of popular understandings.

But this case cannot stand alone. Economic conservatism is intrinsically linked to political liberty, a liberty meaning not just the right to speak freely on political matters and to vote, but the right to set limits on the central government’s power and regulatory reach. This debate we have had, if possible, even less over the past two decades than the debate on the moral foundations of conservative economics. This very question is what motivated the American colonists to declare independence from the British king, but our public discourse today has fallen into a set of unexamined bromides on topics like the meaning of political liberty and the proper relation of man and the state.

In this vein, I took particular notice of the following passage from Peter Wehner’s post today on Sarah Palin mocking the First Lady’s anti-obesity campaign.

… the problem of childhood obesity is real. And there are entirely reasonable steps that can be taken to address it, including (to name just one) banning vending machines from schools. Does that constitute the “nanny state run amok”?

I understand the question is meant to be rhetorical. But there is actually a very large segment of the American population that would answer, “Of course.” The central government’s interesting itself in our obesity because that government has made the cost of our health care “its” problem – and proposing therefore to ban vending machines from schools putatively governed by local school boards and the states – can legitimately be considered at odds with the American idea of government as limited, constitutional, and federal. This arguably puts the proposition at odds, by extension, with the American idea of the citizen, the state, and natural rights.

One key reason for the Tea Party movement is that there has been no real public debate on this most fundamental of topics for at least 30 years. I believe we do not have a common understanding today of where federal intervention in school vending machines stands in relation to political liberty. It’s true Sarah Palin often expresses the more libertarian side of this question with a populist inelegance that may be unhelpful, but that doesn’t mean that the debate is over regarding how much we should let government manage our life choices. That debate must form part of the discussion on conservative economics and morality as we advance toward 2012.

All that said, I concur with Peter’s gentle and well-considered point on mocking Michelle Obama. That’s not the way to introduce this topic. Contrarianism only goes so far: it is generosity of spirit, good humor, and courtesy that will win the day for the aspiring political leader who reclaims these fundamental issues for conservatives.

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