Commentary Magazine


Topic: Syria

Clinton’s Task: Spin the Unspinnable

Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, was apparently assembled “with an assist”–according to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani–from what Clinton calls her “book team.” And if Kakutani’s review is any indication, Clinton’s team was burdened by its task.

The book is understood to be Clinton’s campaign manifesto, and the book’s release–officially, tomorrow–is being treated as a campaign launch. Clinton has been dogged by one question in particular: What did she accomplish as secretary of state? She has even been unable to answer the question herself. And though I (like Clinton, presumably) haven’t read her book, early indications are that her book team was unable to answer it as well.

After an undistinguished and at times dismal term as secretary of state, the book had two basic objectives: show Clinton to have accomplished something–anything really; and dispel the image Clinton cultivated of using the prestigious perch as an Instagram-based travelogue. Readers of the Times review will encounter, early on, the following sentence: “The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

This sounds promising. A few paragraphs later, however, they will be told: “For readers who are less policy-oriented, there are personal tidbits strewn lightly throughout, like small chocolate Easter eggs.” It is unthinkable that a great many readers will press on past that sentence, instead reaching for the ginger ale to calm the rising tide of nausea that accompanies particularly greasy Clinton-worship. For those who couldn’t tough it out, spoiler alert: there are precisely zero examples in the review of anything that even approaches portraying Hillary “as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

Oh well. What about Hillary’s other defenders in the press, perhaps those with a steady interest and experience in foreign affairs and issues relating to human rights? Enter Nicholas Kristof. He uses his Sunday column to defend Hillary Clinton’s tenure at State. It is a brutally awkward attempted complement that begins to absentmindedly sound more like a personal indictment. It is the Michael Scott wedding toast of pro-Hillary columns.

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Hillary Clinton’s memoir, Hard Choices, was apparently assembled “with an assist”–according to New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani–from what Clinton calls her “book team.” And if Kakutani’s review is any indication, Clinton’s team was burdened by its task.

The book is understood to be Clinton’s campaign manifesto, and the book’s release–officially, tomorrow–is being treated as a campaign launch. Clinton has been dogged by one question in particular: What did she accomplish as secretary of state? She has even been unable to answer the question herself. And though I (like Clinton, presumably) haven’t read her book, early indications are that her book team was unable to answer it as well.

After an undistinguished and at times dismal term as secretary of state, the book had two basic objectives: show Clinton to have accomplished something–anything really; and dispel the image Clinton cultivated of using the prestigious perch as an Instagram-based travelogue. Readers of the Times review will encounter, early on, the following sentence: “The book itself, however, turns out to be a subtle, finely calibrated work that provides a portrait of the former secretary of state and former first lady as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

This sounds promising. A few paragraphs later, however, they will be told: “For readers who are less policy-oriented, there are personal tidbits strewn lightly throughout, like small chocolate Easter eggs.” It is unthinkable that a great many readers will press on past that sentence, instead reaching for the ginger ale to calm the rising tide of nausea that accompanies particularly greasy Clinton-worship. For those who couldn’t tough it out, spoiler alert: there are precisely zero examples in the review of anything that even approaches portraying Hillary “as a heavy-duty policy wonk.”

Oh well. What about Hillary’s other defenders in the press, perhaps those with a steady interest and experience in foreign affairs and issues relating to human rights? Enter Nicholas Kristof. He uses his Sunday column to defend Hillary Clinton’s tenure at State. It is a brutally awkward attempted complement that begins to absentmindedly sound more like a personal indictment. It is the Michael Scott wedding toast of pro-Hillary columns.

“When politicians have trouble spinning their own glories, that’s a problem,” he begins. That is correct. He continues:

So it was bizarre that Hillary Rodham Clinton, asked at a forum in April about her legacy at the State Department, had trouble articulating it. That feeds into a narrative — awaiting her memoir on Tuesday — that she may have been glamorous as secretary of state but didn’t actually accomplish much.

In fact, that’s dead wrong, for Clinton achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy — just not the traditional kind. She didn’t craft a coalition of allies, like James Baker, one of the most admired secretaries of state. She didn’t seal a landmark peace agreement, nor is there a recognizable “Hillary Clinton doctrine.”

Uh-oh. Is it possible Clinton “achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy” yet that legacy was, at the same time, so subtle as to be unidentifiable even to Hillary herself? Apparently so. But what follows are a series of claims Kristof then, in the next breath, debunks himself.

For example, Kristof says “Clinton recognized that our future will be more about Asia than Europe, and she pushed hard to rebalance our relations.” Yet here’s his very next sentence: “She didn’t fully deliver on this ‘pivot’ — generally she was more successful at shaping agendas than delivering on them — but the basic instinct to turn our ship of state to face our Pacific future was sound and overdue.” She didn’t accomplish her goal, but that’s OK because she recognized, along with everyone else in the entire world, that China is important.

“She was often more hawkish than the White House,” Kristof argues, and notes Clinton’s support for arming Syrian rebels. This was “vetoed” by Obama, Kristof rightly explains, so it’s a bit unclear what part of nonexistent policies established this “hefty legacy” we keep hearing about.

Later, Kristof returns to the well-worn topic of Clinton prioritizing (translation: giving speeches about) the rights of women and girls worldwide. And here’s Kristof’s example: “The kidnapping of the Nigerian schoolgirls in April was the kind of issue Clinton was out front of.” Yes, well, here’s the thing: Clinton wasn’t secretary of state anymore in April; John Kerry was.

It appears Hillary Clinton’s term as secretary of state was so forgettable as to be literally forgotten by her defenders. She is not in office currently, and her impact is, apparently, indistinguishable from when she was actually in office. This is the Clinton “legacy,” such as it is. Even the best “book team” can only dress it up so much.

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Will Syria Kill the Schengen Zone?

I have been in Warsaw for the last several days for a seminar and to give a lecture for the Polish military. This trip was planned well before President Obama’s visit, to which Poles seem indifferent if not mildly cynical: simply put, with Russia looming large and the U.S. wavering in its leadership, it is hard to look from Warsaw to Washington and see a trustworthy ally.

The Polish army has been a faithful and active partner to the United States for well over a decade. Whatever Americans may think about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Poles were by our side, and not simply symbolically: Poles fought alongside Americans and, in some cases, died alongside Americans. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked about “Old Europe” and “New Europe,” he was thinking about Poland.

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I have been in Warsaw for the last several days for a seminar and to give a lecture for the Polish military. This trip was planned well before President Obama’s visit, to which Poles seem indifferent if not mildly cynical: simply put, with Russia looming large and the U.S. wavering in its leadership, it is hard to look from Warsaw to Washington and see a trustworthy ally.

The Polish army has been a faithful and active partner to the United States for well over a decade. Whatever Americans may think about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Poles were by our side, and not simply symbolically: Poles fought alongside Americans and, in some cases, died alongside Americans. When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talked about “Old Europe” and “New Europe,” he was thinking about Poland.

Poland, of course, does not stand alone. It is a member of NATO, a member of the European Union, and a member of the Schengen Zone, enabling passport-free travel to all other signatories to the Schengen Agreement. For me, this meant flying into Germany, clearing passport control, before catching my next flight to Poland. But it also means being able to board a train in Spain, transfer in Paris for a train to Rome, and then fly to Helsinki, all without showing a passport.

As the Poles look at potential future threats and sources of regional instability, Syria of course looms large. As the shooting at the Jewish Museum in Brussels demonstrates, the long-awaited backlash from returning Jihadis from the Syrian civil war has begun. While Poland may not seem a likely target for Islamist terror, the Poles are cognizant of the fact that the breakdown of internal borders within Europe means that European Islamists returning from Syria—where more than a thousand are believed to be fighting—could strike soft targets not only in their home countries but also in Poland, the Baltics, Scandinavia—or any of the other 20 odd members.

Just as Europeans now question the euro as theory crashes into reality, when the big terror attack comes—and thanks to Turkey’s willingness to let radical Islamists transit its borders to enter and exit Syria—it most certainly will come, individual European states may begin to question the wisdom of forfeiting their sovereign control over their borders. It has been more than a decade since al-Qaeda struck in Madrid. But with more than 1,000 hardened al-Qaeda sympathizers who may eventually return home carrying passports giving them the right to cross borders with abandon, Schengen may soon have an expiration date. And with it, goes European dreams of a unified continent. The reverberations of the decision to do nothing with regard to Syria will continue to ripple outward, far beyond the Middle East itself.

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Obama’s Syria Policy Rebuked From the Inside

Robert Ford is one of the outstanding Arabists of his generation—a diplomat who has capably represented American interests in Iraq, Algeria, Syria, and other countries. The New York Times had reported earlier this year that he was next in line to become ambassador to Egypt, yet on February 28 he announced he was stepping down as envoy to Syria and leaving the government.

He did not reveal at the time why he quit—but now he has. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour he said:

Christiane, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground and we have a growing extremism threat.

And there really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy except the removal of about 93 percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials. But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents in contravention of the Syrian government’s agreement in 2013 to abide by the chemical weapons convention. The regime simply has no credibility and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to, frankly speaking.

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Robert Ford is one of the outstanding Arabists of his generation—a diplomat who has capably represented American interests in Iraq, Algeria, Syria, and other countries. The New York Times had reported earlier this year that he was next in line to become ambassador to Egypt, yet on February 28 he announced he was stepping down as envoy to Syria and leaving the government.

He did not reveal at the time why he quit—but now he has. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour he said:

Christiane, I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend the American policy. We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting on the ground and the balance on the ground and we have a growing extremism threat.

And there really is nothing we can point to that’s been very successful in our policy except the removal of about 93 percent of some of Assad’s chemical materials. But now he’s using chlorine gas against his opponents in contravention of the Syrian government’s agreement in 2013 to abide by the chemical weapons convention. The regime simply has no credibility and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to, frankly speaking.

Coming from a soft-spoken diplomat such as Robert Ford, that’s a bombshell. Elsewhere in the interview he made plain that—like David Petraeus, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, and other senior members of the administration—he favored providing more support to the non-jihadist opposition at the beginning of the conflict. He said:

Had there been more military assistance and logistical assistance—and even things like cash—two things would have happened differently. Number one, the opposition would have probably been able to gain more ground a couple of years ago more quickly and been able to go to a negotiating table in a much stronger position; the regime would have been much weaker.

And the second thing is—and this is really important, Christiane—the ability of al-Qaeda and Islamist extremist groups to recruit away from the moderates would have been less. And we would have less of an extremism problem in Syria now. Had there been more systems provided to the moderate forces even a year or two ago, it would have made a big difference.

Alas President Obama failed to follow his advisers’ policy on Syria and is still equivocating about what to do even as the situation goes from bad to worse. Ambassador Ford has delivered a much-needed rebuke from the inside to the president’s scandalous failure to address the worst human-rights and strategic disaster of the past decade. The only wonder is that more administration officials who have staked their careers on the cause of humanitarian intervention are not resigning in protest.

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The Brussels Shooting and Why Europe Won’t Confront Islamic Jew-Hatred

The revelation that the Belgium police have now made an arrest in relation to the recent shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels, and more significantly that the suspect is a Muslim radical who spent time fighting in Syria, confirms what many had suspected about that attack; that it was the work of Islamic militancy and the Jew-hatred that constitutes a core aspect of that ideology. When a similar shooting attack took place in 2012 at a Jewish school in Toulouse, much of the media initially attempted to speculate that this was the work of a far-right white supremacist. No doubt the liberal media was holding out for such a result this time too. But in both cases these attacks were the work of home-grown Islamic extremism. These acts may for the moment only concern a very small number of radicalized individuals, yet such individuals emerge from a much wider sub-culture of hate that Europe’s elites not only attempt to ignore, but that is even excused and legitimated by the prevailing narrative in Europe.

The suspect in question has been named as 29-year old French national Mehdi Nemmouche, who spent a year fighting with rebels in Syria. It’s not as if there haven’t been enough warnings about the dangers represented by the phenomenon of large numbers of European Muslims going to fight in Syria, but if European governments have proven incapable of preventing these individuals from making their way to Syria, then one also has to wonder how they were so easily able to slip back into Europe. Still, the case of the Toulouse shooting provides a noteworthy parallel. The gunman in that case, Mohammed Merah, had already spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan and now it is widely believed that Merah’s sister Souad is also currently in Syria.

It is more than just a little revealing that so many of Europe’s Muslims are drawn to fight for Islamic causes in far off countries in the first place; there are an estimated 600 French Muslims fighting in Syria and almost as many from Britain. It is similarly telling that when these people return they not only continue to engage in acts of violence, but that their violence is directed toward Jews. Of course we shouldn’t ignore the violence against Jews coming from Muslims who haven’t first been radicalized via Syria or elsewhere; on the same day as the shooting in Brussels two French Jews were assaulted in Paris as they were leaving a synagogue. There is hardly space here to rehearse all the recent incidents from Europe of Muslims attacking Jews, but a European Union survey from the fall exposed how in most European countries Muslims were by far the leading group responsible for anti-Semitic incidents, closely followed by individuals identified as being on the far left.  

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The revelation that the Belgium police have now made an arrest in relation to the recent shooting at the Jewish museum in Brussels, and more significantly that the suspect is a Muslim radical who spent time fighting in Syria, confirms what many had suspected about that attack; that it was the work of Islamic militancy and the Jew-hatred that constitutes a core aspect of that ideology. When a similar shooting attack took place in 2012 at a Jewish school in Toulouse, much of the media initially attempted to speculate that this was the work of a far-right white supremacist. No doubt the liberal media was holding out for such a result this time too. But in both cases these attacks were the work of home-grown Islamic extremism. These acts may for the moment only concern a very small number of radicalized individuals, yet such individuals emerge from a much wider sub-culture of hate that Europe’s elites not only attempt to ignore, but that is even excused and legitimated by the prevailing narrative in Europe.

The suspect in question has been named as 29-year old French national Mehdi Nemmouche, who spent a year fighting with rebels in Syria. It’s not as if there haven’t been enough warnings about the dangers represented by the phenomenon of large numbers of European Muslims going to fight in Syria, but if European governments have proven incapable of preventing these individuals from making their way to Syria, then one also has to wonder how they were so easily able to slip back into Europe. Still, the case of the Toulouse shooting provides a noteworthy parallel. The gunman in that case, Mohammed Merah, had already spent time in Afghanistan and Pakistan and now it is widely believed that Merah’s sister Souad is also currently in Syria.

It is more than just a little revealing that so many of Europe’s Muslims are drawn to fight for Islamic causes in far off countries in the first place; there are an estimated 600 French Muslims fighting in Syria and almost as many from Britain. It is similarly telling that when these people return they not only continue to engage in acts of violence, but that their violence is directed toward Jews. Of course we shouldn’t ignore the violence against Jews coming from Muslims who haven’t first been radicalized via Syria or elsewhere; on the same day as the shooting in Brussels two French Jews were assaulted in Paris as they were leaving a synagogue. There is hardly space here to rehearse all the recent incidents from Europe of Muslims attacking Jews, but a European Union survey from the fall exposed how in most European countries Muslims were by far the leading group responsible for anti-Semitic incidents, closely followed by individuals identified as being on the far left.  

Europe’s elites have proven completely incapable of confronting and tackling this worsening phenomenon because they are incapacitated by a worldview that barely even allows them to openly acknowledge the problem. Most types of racism and bigotry in Europe have been swept away not by government legislation but by a culture of political correctness imposed by Europe’s media and cultural institutions that sets such views beyond the pale. Yet because that very doctrine of political correctness holds immigrant communities and particularly Muslims to be a victim group of the highest order, it has become impossible for Europeans to imagine that these people might themselves be the perpetrators of racism and bigotry. The model doesn’t allow for such a notion, especially not when the victims are Jews. Since Europeans perceive Jews as being white, Western, and affluent, that places them on the side of the oppressors and not among the oppressed.

Then there is the Israel factor. As much as critics of Israel like to stress that it’s Zionists and not Jews they take issue with, whenever Jews are attacked, liberals and liberal Europeans inevitably make the Israel connection and in so doing invalidate their own pretense that they view the two as being entirely separate. When Jewish children were mowed down by bullets as they made their way to school in Toulouse and the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton was obliged to concoct some words of sympathy, she stunned observers by using this event to note how, “we see what is happening in Gaza.” It seems that for people like Ashton, it is impossible to acknowledge Jewish victimhood without also footnoting Palestinian suffering, as if in some attempt to explain away whatever has just been done to the Jews in question.

European liberals delight in expressing horror and gleeful outrage at the sight of American Evangelical Christianity. They warn against reactionary Christian attitudes on any social issue that arises in their own country and they are always sure to castigate the Catholic Church whenever the opportunity presents itself (Pope Benedict’s visit to London was marred by large and angry protests). But if Europeans were really concerned about ultra-conservative religious extremism then they would act to prevent the proliferation of radical Islam in Europe. Similarly, if they were serious about ending racism then they would crack down on the only form of racism in Europe today that still kills people: Islamic Jew-hatred.

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The Pandering Hypocrisy of the Supposed Truth-Tellers

Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

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Glenn Greenwald certainly knows his audience. The writer at the center of the reporting on NSA defector Edward Snowden’s pilfered American security files gave an interview this week to Al-Akhbar, a Beirut-based paper whose pro-Bashar Assad extremism was too much even for Max Blumenthal. But Greenwald has a story to tell and a book to sell–it just happens to be a slightly different story depending on his audience.

If he’s talking to PBS, for example, the story is about the American security establishment’s need to return to the policies that “kept us safe with the Cold War. They could certainly keep us safe now,” as well as the necessity of keeping the Internet free to allow its users to flourish and to express themselves without fear or suffocating suspicion. But a pro-Assad publication would necessarily be a bit less concerned about American security, and it certainly wouldn’t much care for the free flow of information and personal expression. So Greenwald calibrates his pitch accordingly:

AA – Is there actual movement on the ground now as a result of the publication of these documents, or is it just lip-service?

GG – There is a lot of movement, just in terms of public attitude. I think the most significant polling data I’ve seen is that every year since 9/11, Pew has asked Americans ‘do you find more threatening: the idea of foreign terrorism, or the government’s threats to your civil liberties?’, and every single year since 9/11 an overwhelming number of Americans have said ‘I fear terrorism more than I do the threat of the government infringing on my rights’, until 2013 when that completely reversed, obviously due to the Snowden disclosures. And you see politicians running in the Senate from both parties against the NSA, you see efforts to introduce bills to limit the NSA’s spying abilities, but the reality is that most of the changes are not going to come from the US government itself.

There will be symbolic gestures designed to pretend they’re doing it, but I think the limitations on the US ability to spy is going to come from a combination of other countries around the world standing together to introduce international regimes or build an infrastructure so the US doesn’t control the physical regime of the internet.

Introducing “international regimes” to control infrastructure in place of the United States or building a system with the U.S. on the outside looking into the control room are two options that would end up rolling back Internet freedom. Perhaps Greenwald thinks this is a fair tradeoff–that it’s worth sacrificing relatively unfettered Internet freedom for the sake of weakening America’s national-security apparatus. But Greenwald knows far too much about this issue to be unaware that that’s precisely what he’s suggesting.

And a publication with a history of supporting the tyrant shedding the most innocent blood in attempting to turn back the tide of the Arab Spring–and who continues to gas his opponents–is a perfect receptacle for this trash. Greenwald isn’t a truth-teller; he’s a panderer who assesses the level of hostility to American national defense in each interlocutor of his and provides them with the ammo to make their case.

Not that this is an earth-shattering revelation. The Greenwald-Snowden collaboration has been a boon to ruthless autocrats and tinpot dictators and the violence and propaganda they promote. But the piece in Al-Akhbar demonstrates the plain fact that those suffering under authoritarian regimes who would use the Internet to attempt to organize dissent have no friend in the Greenwald-Snowden tandem. They are undermined by them.

Greenwald also knew the paper would be a good place to offer some of his obtuse paranoia about another democracy that really gets under his skin:

Glenn Greenwald – We did a pretty big story that unsurprisingly didn’t get as much attention as it deserved in the American media back in September [2013] in the Guardian on how the NSA turns over massive amounts of communications to the Israelis without bothering to minimize it, and there was a Memorandum of Understanding between the Israeli surveillance agency and the NSA that we published, detailing how close the relationship was, and also part of that story there were also documents saying that although the US gives huge amounts of aid to the Israelis the Israelis are actually one of the most aggressive eavesdroppers on the US government and America generally, and that they try to make the relationship completely one-sided on behalf of Israel, so there is that that we published.

AA – Why wasn’t it made a big deal in the US?

GG – Because anything that reflects poorly on Israel is systematically ignored by most of America’s media…

The United States apparently is both an all-powerful global hegemon and bullied repeatedly by a nation the size of New Jersey. Greenwald doesn’t know which theory to believe, so he believes them both.

In any event, the purpose of this interview seems to be Greenwald’s declarations that more documents are coming on American cooperation with governments in the Middle East. Anyone who thought the project of leaking the NSA’s data collection was really going to be about curbing domestic surveillance in the name of constitutional oversight is no doubt feeling pretty silly these days.

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What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

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The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

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The Obama Foreign-Policy “Successes”

President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

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President Obama, in his West Point address, was obviously striking back at critics who claim that his foreign policy is a failure. So what successes does he have to point to? At the beginning of his talk, he listed several:

We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated, and Osama bin Laden is no more.

All of this is true as far as it goes–but it doesn’t go very far.

Yes, Obama has removed U.S. troops from Iraq–but the consequences have been disastrous. Violence is back up to 2008 levels and al-Qaeda in Iraq, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is back in control of major chunks of Anbar Province. Its fighters are now advancing on Baghdad where they regularly set off car bombs while Iranian-backed militias are committing their own atrocities in retaliation.

Yes, Obama is “winding down our war in Afghanistan”–but “their” war goes on unabated. Sure, the president can pull U.S. troops out by the end of his presidency, but that doesn’t mean that the conflict will end. The more likely outcome is that, as in Iraq, our pullout will embolden our enemies and lead to greater levels of fighting.

Yes, “Al-Qaeda’s leadership in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated” and Osama bin Laden killed, but in many ways al-Qaeda itself is stronger than ever. Its affiliates have spread to Mali, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and, above all, Syria, which U.S. intelligence officials warn is now as dangerous to the United States as Afghanistan was prior to 9/11.

I applaud the ingenuity of the president’s speechwriters who managed to put forward their claims in a way that is technically true–but they are presenting a misleading impression and everyone who doesn’t work in the West Wing of the White House knows it.

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Obama vs. His Imagined Critics

In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

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In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

* “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

* “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

*“As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers – no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As President, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war [in Syria], and I believe that is the right decision.”

*“Of course, skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.”

I wonder if Obama or his speechwriters could possibly identify a single person who thinks that it’s a good idea to invade “every country that harbors terrorist networks,” or who thinks that putting American troops into Syria is the way to go, or who argues that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” 

Maybe there is such a person out there but I have yet to meet him or her, much less to find a large movement espousing such views. What Obama is doing here is caricaturing criticism of his foreign policy so he can rebut it more easily. In particular he is conflating “tough action” with “military action” and “military action” with “boots on the ground.”

No one is arguing that we should bomb Russia but many (including me) are arguing that we need a tougher response to Russian aggression to include more wide-ranging sanctions and the stationing of U.S. troops in NATO frontline states. 

Likewise, no one is arguing for sending troops to Syria. But many have been arguing for stepping up assistance to the Syrian opposition and employing air strikes if necessary to aid their campaign to overthrow the Iranian-supported Assad regime. 

Obama himself used just such a combination of covert aid and air strikes to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya—as Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo and as George W. Bush did initially in Afghanistan. This is a relatively low-cost way to project American military power that doesn’t risk putting troops on the ground. But to listen to the West Point address you would think this option doesn’t exist—the only choices Obama seems to recognize now are either diplomatic posturing or a massive, Iraq-style ground invasion.

Finally, no one I know of seriously thinks that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” What many (including me) argue is that, while we should try to utilize multilateral institutions where possible, we should not hold our policy hostage to a failure to win agreement at the UN Security Council—as Obama seems to be doing in the case of Syria and Iran.

In rebutting his many critics, Obama would be more persuasive if seriously engaged their arguments instead of rebutting arguments that no one is making in the real world.

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White House Can’t Regain a Deterrence It Never Had

The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

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The stories previewing President Obama’s upcoming foreign-policy address at West Point leaves the impression that the president might somehow just verbalize a word cloud of catchphrases instead of an actual speech. The New York Times story over the weekend, for example, explains that the president will seek to “chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention.” It quotes national-security aide Ben Rhodes as saying the speech, at tomorrow’s commencement ceremony, is “a case for interventionism but not overreach.”

“People are seeing the trees, but we’re not necessarily laying out the forest,” Rhodes also said. The Times tells us Obama will seek to “offer more than competent crisis management”; engage in “long-shot diplomacy”; make the claim he “showed firm leadership” in uniting the world in scowling at Vladimir Putin; portray the U.S. as “the ultimate guarantor of an international order”; and, of course, he won’t forget good old “coalition-building.” Perhaps taking a cue from the first lady’s Do You Really Need That Second Donut campaign (or whatever it’s called), the president will serve the graduates a guilt-free, low-calorie word salad.

The one policy change alluded to in the speech seems to be a case for doing slightly more than nothing in Syria. But the danger in a speech of clichés and platitudes is that it runs the risk of implying the terms are interchangeable. And there’s one term the administration is contemplating, according to a companion piece the Times ran with its speech preview, that doesn’t possess that sort of portability:

Deterrence, of course, is all about the perception of power. It hinges on convincing adversaries that, with force, guile or economic isolation, you can make them think twice about acting against American interests. And if there is a common element to the complaints being voiced these days about Mr. Obama, it is that he is on the verge of losing the momentum he gained in the first term when his “light footprint” strategy — the substitution of high technology and laser-focused action for brute force — created its own, subtle deterrent effect.

Whatever one’s view of the morality of using drones, the strikes in Pakistan during Mr. Obama’s first term — nearly a sixfold increase over the Bush years — wiped out Al Qaeda’s central command. Then there were the cyberstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the first use of a digital weapon that, with a few keyboard strokes, blew up roughly 1,000 centrifuges and delayed the Iranian program by upward of a year. And of course there was the Navy SEAL mission to kill Osama bin Laden three years ago; the primary mission was to settle scores with the most wanted terrorist on the planet, but the secondary effect was to amplify the message that if you attacked the United States, sooner or later you would be hunted down.

One of the problems with this story is the task of proving a negative. So the Times absurdly asserts that the Obama strategy “created its own, subtle deterrent effect” without offering anything to back it up. It’s fair enough to respond that the public doesn’t generally know what’s been deterred, but for an administration accused of weakness that begins to sound like the embarrassing “saved or created” formulation it used with regard to jobs (which the media also parroted, much to its own discredit). It sounds even more farfetched when you remember the paragraphs immediately preceding that declaration:

[French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius] went on to argue that in failing to enforce red lines with Syria, by backing away from a military strike that he threatened if the country used chemical weapons, Mr. Obama made an error that he is paying for to this day.

A few days later a top Southeast Asian official looked up from his lunch and asked, “If you were running China today, would you be convinced there is anything that America would take the risk of casualties to protect?” Certainly not some uninhabited islands off Japan, he added, referring to one of the several disputed territories China is aggressively claiming as its own.

In other words, the Obama administration’s “deterrent effect” is not so much “subtle” as nonexistent. And if the administration wants to build a true deterrent effect, Syria is the wrong place to look. Had the president hit Bashar al-Assad’s regime directly after it used chemical weapons, it might have established some deterrent to other dictators contemplating the use of chemical weapons. (Though it raises the question of whether we ought to spend our time building deterrence against the method by which dictators kill rather than the killing itself.)

But the president balked. Giving more assistance to the rebels, after they have lost so much momentum and after the administration has suggested its desire to see a stalemate instead of a victory by either side, is unlikely to make much of a difference and it’s certainly not going to establish deterrence. Just who and what behavior would such token gestures deter?

The president, according to the Times, wants to build the case for more intervention in Syria on the grounds that it’s no longer just a humanitarian crisis but one that poses a threat to Western security. That’s true–and it’s about time. But the declaration that he doesn’t want to intervene in humanitarian catastrophes and that he’ll intervene, ever so mildly, in other conflicts years after they begin means he’s not threatening to deter either kind.

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Obama’s Split-the-Difference Foreign Policy

Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

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Ever since Osama bin Laden’s demise in 2011, President Obama’s foreign policy has been moving in a dovish direction which, to the rest of the world, has looked a lot like an American retreat from its global responsibilities. Even onetime Obama supporters have been criticizing him for showing weakness, not strength, when it comes to dealing with Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, and a host of other challenges. The criticism clearly got to Obama, as demonstrated by his widely panned comments about how he was hitting singles and doubles in foreign policy.

Now the administration is trying to project an air of hawkishness with a couple of policy announcements timed to the president’s big foreign-policy address at West Point on Wednesday. First and most significant is a leak that the administration will keep 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year, thus giving the NATO commander, General Joe Dunford, close to the forces he requested–and that Vice President Biden and other administration doves had strenuously opposed. Assuming, that is, what whoever is elected president of Afghanistan (most likely Abdullah Abdullah) will sign the Bilateral Security Accord already negotiated with Washington. There is also news out that the administration will step up training of anti-government rebels in Syria.

At first blush this is a welcome signal of strength from the White House. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with prior administration decisions, the details of the president’s policies can often undermine their stated purpose. So it is again with Afghanistan where, the Washington Post tells us, “The 9,800 troops will be based around Afghanistan until the end of 2015, after which they will be reduced by roughly half and consolidated in Kabul and at the Bagram airfield north of the capital. At the end of 2016, most of those remaining troops will be withdrawn and the U.S. military presence will be confined to a defense group at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.”

Keeping around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan post 2014 makes sense (although it would be even better to keep more troops to provide a greater margin of safety). Announcing in advance that we will reduce their numbers to 5,000 within a year and remove them altogether within two years–no matter the conditions on the ground–makes no sense.

Has the administration learned no lesson from the Afghan surge whose effectiveness was vitiated by the 18-month timeline imposed on the troops’ deployment, thus encouraging the Taliban to wait us out? Obama is making the same mistake again. What he should be doing is announcing that we will keep U.S. advisers in Afghanistan in unspecified numbers as long as the government of Afghanistan requests their presence and as long as the U.S. government judges that they are needed to prevent the Taliban, Haqqanis, al-Qaeda, and other terrorists from making major inroads. Such an announcement will drain the Taliban of hope and fill hard-pressed Afghan security forces with newfound confidence.

In contrast, Obama’s announcement is so half-hearted that the Taliban will still have good cause to think that they can wait us out. Kudos to Obama for not sending only 5,000 troops next year, as some earlier leaks had indicated might be the case. But while maintaining 10,000 troops is much better, imposing a timeline on them is a serious mistake–one that cannot be explained by references to objective conditions in Afghanistan and which makes sense only as a split-the-difference compromise between administration hawks and doves. The president should have learned by now that splitting the difference in foreign policy and especially in matters of troop deployments doesn’t work.

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International Law Is Broken

The redundancy, not to mention the hypocrisy, of the international law regime is hardly any great secret. Just how broken the system has now become was evidenced in recent weeks by two particularly striking rulings. On Thursday Russia and China vetoed the fourth attempt at a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria’s referral to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Given Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own population, and the fact that the death toll in that country now stands at an estimated 162,000, it is unfathomable that a referral to the ICC hasn’t already been accomplished. Yet Syria is not a signatory of the Rome Statute and as such can only be referred to the ICC via the Security Council.  

Britain, however, is signed up to the ICC. And, in a striking juxtaposition to the Syrian case, Britain now finds itself under investigation by the ICC for war crimes that the British army is accused of having committed in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. This recent announcement puts the United Kingdom in the company of such rogue states as Libya, Colombia, and Afghanistan. The ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda made the decision after a complaint lodged in January by the Berlin-based NGO the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. If Bensouda is not satisfied that Britain is sufficiently investigating the conduct of its own armed forces, then the ICC will move to carry out an investigation against the UK.

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The redundancy, not to mention the hypocrisy, of the international law regime is hardly any great secret. Just how broken the system has now become was evidenced in recent weeks by two particularly striking rulings. On Thursday Russia and China vetoed the fourth attempt at a United Nations Security Council resolution on Syria’s referral to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Given Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own population, and the fact that the death toll in that country now stands at an estimated 162,000, it is unfathomable that a referral to the ICC hasn’t already been accomplished. Yet Syria is not a signatory of the Rome Statute and as such can only be referred to the ICC via the Security Council.  

Britain, however, is signed up to the ICC. And, in a striking juxtaposition to the Syrian case, Britain now finds itself under investigation by the ICC for war crimes that the British army is accused of having committed in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. This recent announcement puts the United Kingdom in the company of such rogue states as Libya, Colombia, and Afghanistan. The ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda made the decision after a complaint lodged in January by the Berlin-based NGO the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. If Bensouda is not satisfied that Britain is sufficiently investigating the conduct of its own armed forces, then the ICC will move to carry out an investigation against the UK.

Writing for Gatestone last week, Colonel Richard Kemp noted that in previous years Britain has been silent in the face of the double standards and lawfare being waged against Israel at the UN. Kemp reminds us how, unlike America and five other European countries who voted against the Human Rights Council’s decision to endorse the Goldstone Report against Israel, Britain remained silent and simply abstained from voting at all on this matter. To this Kemp invokes the renowned words of German Pastor Martin Niemoeller: “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me.” Britain remained silent when the utterly duplicitous forces of international law came for the Jewish state, and now Britain finds itself next in line.

Some might be tempted to gloat at this turn of events–at the fact that, unlike Israel and America, the British blindly signed themselves over to the Rome Statute, and that the tables have been turned against the British who failed in their fundamental moral obligations to stand up for Israel against the tyrannies that populate the UN. Yet anyone who cares about the West and about the world’s democracies can’t find anything to be pleased about here. The actions of China and Russia at the Security Council are a stark reminder of the folly that sits at the heart of international law. That is the notion that countries—including those who have no respect for the rule of law within their own borders—will police one another fairly, and not exploit the international law system to advance their own national interests and those of their allies.

The gap between the Utopian delusions of those who constructed the international law regime and the sorry reality of international law in practice could not have been better demonstrated than by the events of the last two weeks. A genocidal regime in Syria now finds itself rendered virtually immune from prosecution while Britain, a country that not only upholds human rights but acted in Iraq to overthrow a human-rights abusing regime, is now being hauled before the scrutinizing eyes of the ICC.        

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The Obama Presidency Descends Into Farce

According to the Washington Post:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of ­instances” in recent months.

“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.

“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”

We have now reached the farcical stage in the Obama presidency.

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According to the Washington Post:

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Thursday that he has seen “raw data” indicating that the Syrian government
has used chlorine gas as a chemical weapon in a “number of ­instances” in recent months.

“There will be consequences” if evidence of new chemical use is confirmed, Kerry said, but “we’re not going to pin ourselves down to a precise date, time, manner of action.”

Speaking after a meeting here of the Syrian opposition’s principal international backers, he also said they had agreed to expand humanitarian, diplomatic and military aid to the rebels.

“I’m not going to discuss what specific weapons or what country may . . . be providing or not providing” the arms, he said. “I will say that out of today’s meeting, every facet of what can be done is going to be ramped up. Every facet.”

We have now reached the farcical stage in the Obama presidency.

Does Secretary Kerry understand how much of a joke it is for him to threaten “consequences” if evidence of new chemical weapons by the Assad regime turns out to be true? Given the Obama administration’s track record on Syria–with “red lines” drawn and erased, with its refusal to arm opposition groups early on, with agreeing to negotiations that have empowered the Syrian regime–it is better that Mr. Kerry keep his mouth shut than to speak and provoke ridicule.

The president and his secretary of state’s words long ago were emptied of meaning. So please, for your sake and ours, give up on the bluster. It only makes a shameful situation worse. 

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Iran’s War on America

According to BBC Monitoring, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) provincial website for the western province of Hamadan bragged about how involved the Revolutionary Guard has become in Syria. Mohammad Eskandari, the IRGC commander in Malayer, said the IRGC had trained and prepared 42 brigades and 138 battalions to fight in Syria. “Militarily speaking, they are absolutely ready to fight the enemy,” he declared, adding, “Today’s war in Syria is, in fact, our war with the United States that takes place in Syrian territory.”

The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—those very same aspects about which Iranian negotiators refuse to give a full accounting—are the purview of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear that they are unwilling to accept or abide by anything to which Iranian nuclear negotiators agree with their American counterparts.

So, basically, one Iranian official claims victory over the United States in Syria. And a senior IRGC commander readily acknowledges his view that Iran is at war with the United States. That the IRGC represents the ideological guardians of the supreme leader’s vision makes the statement even more worrying. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response is to ignore it.

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According to BBC Monitoring, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) provincial website for the western province of Hamadan bragged about how involved the Revolutionary Guard has become in Syria. Mohammad Eskandari, the IRGC commander in Malayer, said the IRGC had trained and prepared 42 brigades and 138 battalions to fight in Syria. “Militarily speaking, they are absolutely ready to fight the enemy,” he declared, adding, “Today’s war in Syria is, in fact, our war with the United States that takes place in Syrian territory.”

The military aspects of Iran’s nuclear program—those very same aspects about which Iranian negotiators refuse to give a full accounting—are the purview of the IRGC. And the IRGC has made clear that they are unwilling to accept or abide by anything to which Iranian nuclear negotiators agree with their American counterparts.

So, basically, one Iranian official claims victory over the United States in Syria. And a senior IRGC commander readily acknowledges his view that Iran is at war with the United States. That the IRGC represents the ideological guardians of the supreme leader’s vision makes the statement even more worrying. And President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry’s response is to ignore it.

Back in 1998, al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States, but the Clinton administration couldn’t be bothered to take it seriously. There followed attacks in the United States embassies in East Africa, an attack on the USS Cole offshore Aden, Yemen, and finally the 9/11 attacks.

How strange it is after that experience that the response of the Obama administration to a declaration of war against the United States is to offer an ever-increasing series of concessions and incentives to the country whose trusted military elite have made that declaration.

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Assad’s Chemical War Continues

Human Rights Watch–not exactly an organization that has ever been accused of neocon warmongering–has just released a report concluding that there is strong evidence “that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014.” 

The organization reached this conclusion after “interviews with 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel,” and reviewing “video footage of the attacks, and photographs of the remnants.” HRW finds that “these attacks killed at least 11 people and resulted in symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine in nearly 500 other people.”

Now in the greater scheme of things, 11 more dead people in Syria is hardly a shocking development–not when more than 150,000 people have already been killed in the awful civil war. But these 11 deaths are particularly inconvenient for the Obama administration which made such a big deal of its “red line” on the use of chemical weapons and which is hoping to tout the success of an agreement that has resulted in the removal of some 92 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons so far.

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Human Rights Watch–not exactly an organization that has ever been accused of neocon warmongering–has just released a report concluding that there is strong evidence “that Syrian government helicopters dropped barrel bombs embedded with cylinders of chlorine gas on three towns in Northern Syria in mid-April 2014.” 

The organization reached this conclusion after “interviews with 10 witnesses, including five medical personnel,” and reviewing “video footage of the attacks, and photographs of the remnants.” HRW finds that “these attacks killed at least 11 people and resulted in symptoms consistent with exposure to chlorine in nearly 500 other people.”

Now in the greater scheme of things, 11 more dead people in Syria is hardly a shocking development–not when more than 150,000 people have already been killed in the awful civil war. But these 11 deaths are particularly inconvenient for the Obama administration which made such a big deal of its “red line” on the use of chemical weapons and which is hoping to tout the success of an agreement that has resulted in the removal of some 92 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons so far.

What to do about the fact that Assad seems to be using chemicals again? My guess is nothing. The administration seems to be rather embarrassed about this gruesome development and is no doubt hoping it will go away. But it won’t. And if the U.S. does absolutely nothing about it, this will be only the latest sign of American prestige falling precipitously in ways that can only cheer our enemies and rivals in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea–and discourage our allies around the world who must be wondering what American security guarantees are worth anymore. 

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How Turkey Helps Jihadists in Syria

The problem of Islamist extremism among the opposition groups in Syria has become a major rallying cry for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and a source of concern even among those in the United States sympathetic to the opposition. The Syrian opposition has always been fissiparous, and so it is hard to ensure that weaponry given to the “moderate” opposition wouldn’t be transferred to more radical groups let alone simply seized by them.

Rather than simply shrug shoulders and walk away, however, it is well past time the international community moved to stop the most radical elements from entering Syria. Many policymakers might imagine that this is an impossible task: Syria has more than 1,350 miles of borders. But it is not true that most extremists or al-Qaeda wannabes hide out in the middle of the desert and crawl on their bellies under cover of night to reach Syria. The simple fact is that many of the radicals fighting in Syria and sullying the name of the moderates transit Turkey.

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The problem of Islamist extremism among the opposition groups in Syria has become a major rallying cry for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and a source of concern even among those in the United States sympathetic to the opposition. The Syrian opposition has always been fissiparous, and so it is hard to ensure that weaponry given to the “moderate” opposition wouldn’t be transferred to more radical groups let alone simply seized by them.

Rather than simply shrug shoulders and walk away, however, it is well past time the international community moved to stop the most radical elements from entering Syria. Many policymakers might imagine that this is an impossible task: Syria has more than 1,350 miles of borders. But it is not true that most extremists or al-Qaeda wannabes hide out in the middle of the desert and crawl on their bellies under cover of night to reach Syria. The simple fact is that many of the radicals fighting in Syria and sullying the name of the moderates transit Turkey.

CNN has reported on the jihadis flying into Hatay and then paying bribes to Turkish border guards to cross into Syria. Now the Kurdish media based in Syria has interviewed captured jihadis who have talked about how they, too, transited Turkey.

It is ironic that Turkey has, for mainly ideological and sectarian reasons, largely led the diplomatic calls for the United States to be more active in its assistance to the Syrian opposition but has, through its very actions, created the chief impediment to such action. Perhaps rather than organize high-profile conferences or new photo opportunities replete with empty American promises, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to instead pressure Turkey to stop serving as the chief route for terrorists flooding into Syria.

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Obama’s Holocaust Hypocrisy

Yesterday President Obama was in Los Angeles to hobnob with some of his biggest fans in Hollywood. He gave his usual stump speech blaming the Republicans for all the country’s ills at a private fundraiser where he rubbed elbows with Barbra Streisand and Jeffrey Katzenberg. After that, he attended a gala for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation where he was honored with the organization’s Ambassador of Humanity Award and where he listened to Conan O’Brien tell jokes about Donald Sterling and was serenaded by Bruce Springsteen. Showering Democratic presidents with love and cash is what Hollywood liberals do and there’s no point complaining about it. Obama’s award was, no doubt, part of the price for getting him to show up at the event. But like the undeserved Nobel Peace Prize that he collected in the first year of his presidency, the notion that he is in some way deserving of an honor that is linked to a Holocaust memorial or the fight against the current crop of international despots that threaten world peace is hard to swallow.

While much of what he said in accepting this award about opposing anti-Semitism and defending the State of Israel was praiseworthy, it is difficult to read some of the president’s remarks at the event without wincing. As our Michael Rubin wrote yesterday about Samantha Power, Obama’s United Nations ambassador, the disconnect between this administration’s rhetorical flourishes about its opposition to human-rights violators and the reality of what it is actually doing—or to be more precise, what it is not doing—is staggering.

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Yesterday President Obama was in Los Angeles to hobnob with some of his biggest fans in Hollywood. He gave his usual stump speech blaming the Republicans for all the country’s ills at a private fundraiser where he rubbed elbows with Barbra Streisand and Jeffrey Katzenberg. After that, he attended a gala for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation where he was honored with the organization’s Ambassador of Humanity Award and where he listened to Conan O’Brien tell jokes about Donald Sterling and was serenaded by Bruce Springsteen. Showering Democratic presidents with love and cash is what Hollywood liberals do and there’s no point complaining about it. Obama’s award was, no doubt, part of the price for getting him to show up at the event. But like the undeserved Nobel Peace Prize that he collected in the first year of his presidency, the notion that he is in some way deserving of an honor that is linked to a Holocaust memorial or the fight against the current crop of international despots that threaten world peace is hard to swallow.

While much of what he said in accepting this award about opposing anti-Semitism and defending the State of Israel was praiseworthy, it is difficult to read some of the president’s remarks at the event without wincing. As our Michael Rubin wrote yesterday about Samantha Power, Obama’s United Nations ambassador, the disconnect between this administration’s rhetorical flourishes about its opposition to human-rights violators and the reality of what it is actually doing—or to be more precise, what it is not doing—is staggering.

Let’s specify that Spielberg’s Foundation, which centers on collecting the testimony of Holocaust survivors, is very much to the famous director’s credit. Like his film Schindler’s List, which led Spielberg to take up this work, it is a worthy effort to preserve the memory of the victims and the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators. But the notion that Obama’s policies have been inspired by the imperative that the world not stand by silently when other crimes against humanity are committed, as the award and the rhetoric heard at the event seem to imply, is absurd.

During his speech, the president spoke both of the hate that still stalks the globe and the challenges this creates:

We only need to look at today’s headlines — the devastation of Syria, the murders and kidnappings in Nigeria, sectarian conflict, the tribal conflicts —to see that we have not yet extinguished man’s darkest impulses.  There are some bad stories out there that are being told to children, and they’re learning to hate early.  They’re learning to fear those who are not like them early.

And none of the tragedies that we see today may rise to the full horror of the Holocaust — the individuals who are the victims of such unspeakable cruelty, they make a claim on our conscience.  They demand our attention, that we not turn away, that we choose empathy over indifference and that our empathy leads to action.  And that’s not always easy.  One of the powerful things about Schindler’s story was recognizing that we have to act even where there is sometimes ambiguity; even when the path is not always clearly lit, we have to try.   

That’s all quite true. But coming from the mouth of the man who has stood by impotently as the Syrian tragedy escalated into a conflict that has taken up to 150,000 lives including perhaps as many as 11,000 children, Obama’s pieties about remembering the Holocaust ring hollow.

In Syria a small-scale conflict centering on the efforts of a brutal dictator to remain in power might have been ended quickly by a decisive Western intervention. But since Obama preferred, as is his wont, to “lead from behind,” it grew into a bloody war in which Assad, assisted by the operatives of Iran and Hezbollah and supported by Russia, has slaughtered the Syrian people by the tens of thousands. Like Power’s astonishing rhetoric about the need for action against such crimes, Obama’s words give new meaning to the word hypocrisy.

But while he basked in the glow of Hollywood’s approval and honor for his supposed stand for human rights, it should be remembered that this is also the president who is trying desperately to appease and craft a new détente with perhaps the most brutal anti-Semitic regime in the world in Iran. While Iran’s leaders have denied the Holocaust and threatened the globe with the possibility of a new one via their drive for nuclear weapons, Obama has been consistently slow to enact sanctions and seems determined to forge new bonds with a government that embodies all that he purports to oppose. His diplomacy that is supposed to be aimed at stopping the Iranian nuclear threat is instead empowering the regime and only seeking to delay their move toward a bomb.

No one should begrudge the president the right to defend his policy of impotence on Syrian atrocities or his inability to even make good on the enforcement of his “red line” on Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Nor should we deny him the opportunity to justify his drive toward appeasement of Iran. But that he should do so while claiming to honor the memory of the Holocaust and the need for the U.S. never to stand by again while such horrors are perpetrated is intolerable.

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What the New York Times Omits on Syria

Reading through the New York Times this morning, there is a lengthy story by Anne Barnard about a deal brokered and now executed to allow Syrian rebels to withdraw from Homs. It’s a very good piece of reporting, but it misses two very important things which add a great deal of context to the story.

First of all, Homs is not simply “a bellwether for a nation slowly, brutally, unraveling,” and “a diverse community increasingly split among sectarian lines as populations fled, neighborhoods were destroyed and rebels held out in the Old City.” Rather, Homs is perhaps strategically the most important city in Syria. Damascus, the capital, is geographically peripheral. A quick look at a roadmap of Syria reveals that anyone who wants to control Syria has to control Homs.

Barnard is right that displacement and murder have changed the face of Syria: The violence witnessed in that country has not been random, but has been as directed as it was in the former Yugoslavia. No matter who wins in Syria, what they inherit will be a country of cantons, and the commerce and communication between them will be controlled by whomever the power is in Homs. That the rebels have now left Homs is the most indisputable evidence so far that the regime is winning.

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Reading through the New York Times this morning, there is a lengthy story by Anne Barnard about a deal brokered and now executed to allow Syrian rebels to withdraw from Homs. It’s a very good piece of reporting, but it misses two very important things which add a great deal of context to the story.

First of all, Homs is not simply “a bellwether for a nation slowly, brutally, unraveling,” and “a diverse community increasingly split among sectarian lines as populations fled, neighborhoods were destroyed and rebels held out in the Old City.” Rather, Homs is perhaps strategically the most important city in Syria. Damascus, the capital, is geographically peripheral. A quick look at a roadmap of Syria reveals that anyone who wants to control Syria has to control Homs.

Barnard is right that displacement and murder have changed the face of Syria: The violence witnessed in that country has not been random, but has been as directed as it was in the former Yugoslavia. No matter who wins in Syria, what they inherit will be a country of cantons, and the commerce and communication between them will be controlled by whomever the power is in Homs. That the rebels have now left Homs is the most indisputable evidence so far that the regime is winning.

More interesting is Barnard’s cursory reference to Iran’s role in the deal. “The Homs deal, worked out between security officials and rebel representatives in the presence of Iran’s ambassador to Syria, also calls for insurgents in Aleppo Province, to the north, to lift their longstanding blockade of two villages….” She later notes, “The deal was the broadest and most ambitious yet, and in a sign of its importance to the government, it included the first visible foray by Iran, Mr. Assad’s most crucial ally, into such talks.” What Barnard omits is that the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Mohammad Reza Ra’ouf Sheibani, comes not from Iran’s diplomatic corps (where, admittedly, he previously served as a deputy foreign minister and as ambassador to Lebanon), but rather from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It’s common for the Iranians to send IRGC and, more specifically, Qods Force operatives to act as ambassadors to countries they see as key: Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. What Barnard fails to mention is that the Homs agreement was effectively brokered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Then, again, to suggest that under Obama’s watch the IRGC is supervising and confirming the defeat of Syrian rebels probably isn’t a narrative The New York Times wants to acknowledge.

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When American Interests Become Impossible to Ignore

The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

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The debate over whether and how to intervene in foreign conflicts tends to center on American interests, with special emphasis on threats to the U.S. This is especially true in civil wars and internal conflicts in countries with which we do not have any expressly delineated obligations. After all, even those opposed to NATO’s expansion might hesitate to suggest we renege on a mutual defense treaty.

This would seem to prejudice policy against humanitarian intervention, but in reality noninterventionists have settled on a kind of “boots on the ground” commitment as the red line. That’s why, as Jonathan wrote earlier, we don’t hear many voices protesting efforts to help recover the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram the way we do when the subject turns to Syria. But in a globalized world it’s no simple thing to argue that we have no interests–or even threats–at stake in the Syrian civil war, as a couple of stories this week make clear.

From the outset the noninterventionists’ arguments suffered from two weaknesses. The first was inconsistency, holding both that American interests are best served by the two sides in the war weakening each other in a bloody status quo but also that we don’t have interests at stake. The second was an unwillingness or inability to look past the present moment or anticipate the consequences of inaction for American interests. On Friday the Washington Post reported that American security officials were now grappling with the same threat that worried European officials months ago:

FBI Director James B. Comey said Friday that the problem of Americans traveling to Syria to fight in the civil war there has worsened in recent months and remains a major concern to U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials.

In a wide-ranging interview with reporters at FBI headquarters, Comey said the FBI is worried that the Americans who have joined extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda in Syria will return to the United States to carry out terrorist attacks.

“All of us with a memory of the ’80s and ’90s saw the line drawn from Afghanistan in the ’80s and ’90s to Sept. 11,” Comey said. “We see Syria as that, but an order of magnitude worse in a couple of respects. Far more people going there. Far easier to travel to and back from. So, there’s going to be a diaspora out of Syria at some point and we are determined not to let lines be drawn from Syria today to a future 9/11.”

Comey declined to give a precise figure for Americans believed to be involved in the Syrian struggle but said the numbers are “getting worse.”

Passport-holding American jihadists are certainly a threat. Now, in fairness to noninterventionists, you can still identify this as a threat and believe that it’s not one we can or should prevent through intervention. But the idea that the civil war in Syria doesn’t have global implications and isn’t creating a burgeoning threat to U.S. interests or security is not a plausible argument.

It’s also not so easy to take each conflict in a vacuum. Some realists and liberal interventionists were hailing the modest intervention in Libya to decapitate the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. But “leading from behind” left behind an anarchic nightmare that resulted in a deadly attack on the American mission, the flow of arms to Mali, and now jihadists to Syria. Eli Lake reports that Libya has become a “Scumbag Woodstock” according to intelligence officials: “The country has attracted that star-studded roster of notorious terrorists and fanatics seeking to wage war on the West.”

Lake writes that officials don’t consider the situation in Libya to be as much of a terrorist threat as Syria, “But Libya is nonetheless intricately involved in funneling fighters into Syria, and its lawless regions provide an ideal haven for al Qaeda affiliates and fellow travelers.” Those who believe this was inevitable are underestimating American capabilities, but that is still miles ahead of the “it’s none of our business” chorus, who look positively ridiculous at this point.

Aside from security threats, there’s the not-inconsiderable matter of global health. As Bloomberg reports, the conflicts in Syria and elsewhere are enabling polio to make a comeback, and spread:

The spread of polio to countries previously considered free of the crippling disease is a global health emergency, the World Health Organization said, as the virus once driven to the brink of extinction mounts a comeback. …

The disease’s spread, if unchecked, “could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious, vaccine-preventable diseases,” Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration, told reporters in Geneva today. “The consequences of further international spread are particularly acute today given the large number of polio-free but conflict-torn and fragile states which have severely compromised routine immunization services.”

To their credit, humanitarian interventionists argued from the outset that the West had an obligation to stop the slaughter. And as is now clear for all to see, those who argued we had an interest in stopping the slaughter were right too.

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Boko Haram and the Isolationists

When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

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When the Obama administration announced yesterday that it is prepared to assist the Nigerian government in efforts to recover the girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terrorist group, the announcement was greeted with general satisfaction. Far from criticizing the president for sticking his nose into the business of other countries, voices on both the left and the right agreed with the decision to provide Nigeria with a team of experts, including military and law enforcement officers, along with hostage negotiators and psychologists. Indeed, there were not a few prepared to send in the U.S. Marines or fly over drones or do whatever it takes to save the girls or to bring their captors to justice.

I concur with those sentiments. Though the obstacles to a successful foreign intervention in Nigeria may have more to do with the dysfunction of the government in Abuja than in Western reluctance to get involved in an African battle, the case for intervention in Nigeria is easy to make. The defense of human rights has always been an important element in U.S. foreign-policy objectives and the notion of the West standing by and doing nothing while young girls are enslaved and sold with impunity in this manner is intolerable. But while we all join in expressing outrage about Boko Haram’s crimes, it’s fair to ask why Americans or their leaders aren’t similarly exercised about the atrocities being committed against children in Syria. The casualties in the fighting in Syria between the Assad regime and its opponents have reportedly taken the lives of up to 150,000 people, of which at least 11,000 are believed to be children. And yet both the administration and isolationists on both the left and the right tell us it’s none of our business. Does anyone else see this as a demonstration of our lack of honesty or at least consistency in our approach to foreign policy?

The story of the abducted girls of Nigeria seized our attention because of the enormity of this crime, the brazen nature of the criminals who openly brag of their “right” to kidnap and abuse girls, and, as our Michael Rubin aptly pointed out yesterday, the religious motivation behind their crime. It is also a neatly contained sort of tale that allows television news to do what it does best: pull on our heartstrings with a human-interest story. After all, Americans weren’t particularly bothered by Boko Haram’s reign of terror in part of Nigeria that had taken the lives of thousands of people, including children before this week. But since this lurid crime is more easily understood than Boko Haram’s previous depredations or the complexities of the Syrian civil war, everyone, including those who are generally opposed to any sort of U.S. involvement in foreign squabbles, is prepared to use the full power of the Pentagon to save these children.

This tells us a lot about how easily manipulated we are by images but it also ought to make us think twice of the implications of a rising tide of isolationist spirit that has influenced American decision making in recent years. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have drained the public of its appetite for foreign adventures, especially in the Middle East.

But let’s say that we accept, even though we shouldn’t, President Obama’s cowardly excuses that he is doing the best he can and that after prevaricating for so long on Syria, there’s nothing that can be done now. Let’s pose another not entirely hypothetical question: What will be the American public’s attitude if, in the coming years after the last American troops have left Afghanistan, the Taliban sweeps to victory and returns to power in Kabul in an orgy not just of murder but of rape in which women and girls are once again the particular objects of their hostility? If Afghan girls are once again being imprisoned in their homes or sold into slavery, will the same people who are today calling out the Marines on behalf of the Nigerian kidnapping victims be crying out for America not to stand by in silence? Don’t bet on it.

Perhaps it is too much to ask people to be consistent. But the isolationists who want no part of the global war being waged on the West by Islamist terrorists need to remember that the consequences of our indifference to their crimes are serious. The U.S. may not be able to solve every problem in the world or be its policeman. Yet neither can we pretend that the horrors perpetrated by these Islamists have nothing to do with us. Anyone expressing outrage about Nigeria should remember that the U.S. has made a conscious decision to ignore crimes just as bad in Syria and have set in motion a train of events that may lead to even worse in Afghanistan.

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Why Doesn’t Samantha Power Resign?

Samantha Power made her name as a reporter on genocide. After working as a freelance reporter in Bosnia, she penned her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell, that castigated the American response to genocide in places like Rwanda. Clinton administration officials were too willing to turn a blind eye. Few were willing to undercut career trajectories or put ambition aside to address the issue. Most simply continued with their climb up the Washington ladder, hoping that the problem would go away. Alas, it never does.

Fast-forward a couple decades: Power created and chaired the Atrocity Prevention Board, a body that, alas, seems to be more symbolic than real; it certainly has no success to its name. The administration to which Power has dedicated herself these past five years has sat aloof as a small civil conflict in Syria accelerated and transformed into one of this century’s cruelest conflicts. Power seemed to imply as much when she gave pointed remarks during a ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Museum on April 30. “And to those who would argue that a Head of State or government has to choose only between doing nothing and sending in the military,” she declared, “I maintain that is a constructed and false choice, an accompaniment only to disengagement and passivity.”

How sad it is that Power has apparently come to personify all she once condemned: She is happy to posture and to preach, but wholly unable or unwilling to sacrifice her ambition. She sees herself as a future secretary of state and so doesn’t want to make waves, or at least big waves. But if ethnic cleansing reaches genocidal levels in Syria, that’s just the price that will have to be paid.

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Samantha Power made her name as a reporter on genocide. After working as a freelance reporter in Bosnia, she penned her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell, that castigated the American response to genocide in places like Rwanda. Clinton administration officials were too willing to turn a blind eye. Few were willing to undercut career trajectories or put ambition aside to address the issue. Most simply continued with their climb up the Washington ladder, hoping that the problem would go away. Alas, it never does.

Fast-forward a couple decades: Power created and chaired the Atrocity Prevention Board, a body that, alas, seems to be more symbolic than real; it certainly has no success to its name. The administration to which Power has dedicated herself these past five years has sat aloof as a small civil conflict in Syria accelerated and transformed into one of this century’s cruelest conflicts. Power seemed to imply as much when she gave pointed remarks during a ceremony at the U.S. Holocaust Museum on April 30. “And to those who would argue that a Head of State or government has to choose only between doing nothing and sending in the military,” she declared, “I maintain that is a constructed and false choice, an accompaniment only to disengagement and passivity.”

How sad it is that Power has apparently come to personify all she once condemned: She is happy to posture and to preach, but wholly unable or unwilling to sacrifice her ambition. She sees herself as a future secretary of state and so doesn’t want to make waves, or at least big waves. But if ethnic cleansing reaches genocidal levels in Syria, that’s just the price that will have to be paid.

What Power doesn’t recognize, if she truly cares about principle and hasn’t cynically exploited it all along, is that if she were to resign she might not only bring the spotlight to problem about which she professes such concern, but might also force her commander in chief’s hand in a way that she hasn’t been able to do in any Cabinet meeting. Indeed, it might actually augment her cache among the progressive left and, frankly, among the right as well. I wouldn’t hold my breath, however. Rather than a model for principle, Power seems to personify why the American response to genocide has always been so weak.  

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