Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. foreign policy

Congress Can’t Fill Obama’s Leadership Void

In recent decades, many political observers and historians have often lamented the creation of an “imperial presidency” whose power was virtually unchecked by other branches of the government. Concerns along these lines have grown in the last five years as President Obama seemed even less concerned with respecting the limits the Constitution placed on the executive branch than most of his predecessors as he sought to enlarge the scope and the power of the federal government on domestic issues, especially with regard to his signature health care legislation, ObamaCare. But as we have learned in the last week, when it comes to foreign policy this is a president who has gone in a completely different direction.

As John, Peter, and Max noted over the weekend, the president’s vacillation over whether to respond to Syria’s crossing of the “red line” he had enunciated last year over the use of chemical weapons culminated in a last-minute decision to postpone a strike on the Assad regime and to instead wait for unnecessary congressional approval. In doing so, he made a laughingstock of America’s credibility and caused allies and enemies to question whether this administration had the will to act or could be trusted to keep its word. Optimists may say that the president’s efforts to sell Congress on backing his plan for limited strikes as well as the statements of some congressional leaders will undo the damage done by the White House’s Hamlet act. But it must be understood that not even decisive statements, like that of House Speaker John Boehner offering support this morning to the president, cannot save the situation.

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In recent decades, many political observers and historians have often lamented the creation of an “imperial presidency” whose power was virtually unchecked by other branches of the government. Concerns along these lines have grown in the last five years as President Obama seemed even less concerned with respecting the limits the Constitution placed on the executive branch than most of his predecessors as he sought to enlarge the scope and the power of the federal government on domestic issues, especially with regard to his signature health care legislation, ObamaCare. But as we have learned in the last week, when it comes to foreign policy this is a president who has gone in a completely different direction.

As John, Peter, and Max noted over the weekend, the president’s vacillation over whether to respond to Syria’s crossing of the “red line” he had enunciated last year over the use of chemical weapons culminated in a last-minute decision to postpone a strike on the Assad regime and to instead wait for unnecessary congressional approval. In doing so, he made a laughingstock of America’s credibility and caused allies and enemies to question whether this administration had the will to act or could be trusted to keep its word. Optimists may say that the president’s efforts to sell Congress on backing his plan for limited strikes as well as the statements of some congressional leaders will undo the damage done by the White House’s Hamlet act. But it must be understood that not even decisive statements, like that of House Speaker John Boehner offering support this morning to the president, cannot save the situation.

The implications of the congressional debate that will ensue on the future of American foreign policy are clear. Given the growth of isolationism on the right and the left, Obama’s decision to punt on Syria has opened the gates for those who have advocated for an American retreat from global responsibilities to gain more influence. Even if, as it is to be hoped, a majority of both houses of Congress vote to back American action in Syria, it’s not likely that the result of what will follow in the coming days will convince the world that America is still prepared to lead. Although there are good reasons to worry about any intervention in Syria, the arguments for inaction are unpersuasive. Given the stakes involved in letting Assad survive in terms of increasing the power of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies and the precedent set in terms of allowing the use of chemical weapons, the case for action in Syria is powerful.

Boehner deserves credit for speaking up after meeting with the president and making it clear the leadership of the House of Representatives is not prepared to bow to the growing chorus of politicians who are more concerned with placing limits on the executive or opposing Obama at every turn than the need to stand up against genocidal dictators. Given the refusal of many Republicans to stand up to the Rand Paul wing of their party, it is refreshing for the normally cautious House speaker to show his willingness to put the national interest above partisan concerns.

But no matter what Boehner or people like John McCain or Peter King say this week, there is no substitute for presidential leadership. As I wrote last week, it is axiomatic that liberal Democrats are far better placed to convince a majority of Americans that military action is needed in any circumstance than a conservative Republican. Though the left is just as uncomfortable with the assertion of American power as many on the right, there is little doubt that the president is far better placed than his predecessor was or any Republican might be to rally the country behind a policy that would draw a line in the sand about weapons of mass destruction. But with Obama faltering, no one should labor under the illusion that a divided Congress can either stiffen his spin or step into the leadership vacuum he has left.

The implications of the president’s bungling of Syria for the Iranian nuclear threat are clear. Even if the president actually does intend to keep his word to prevent Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon, his ability to deter Iran or to get them to take his threats seriously has been materially damaged in the last month. For all of the often-justified worries about the dangers of an unchecked “imperial presidency,” there is no substitute in our system for a president who is willing to lead in the midst of a foreign crisis. Until President Obama leaves the White House, that is a handicap this nation and the world that looks to the United States for leadership cannot overcome. 

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Arabs Give Obama the Bush Treatment

There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

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There may be some Americans who still cling to the image of Barack Obama as a magical figure with the power to transform his country’s image. That was the Obama we were told five years ago the world would embrace because his election would signal a return to America’s status as the defender of all that was good after eight years of George W. Bush’s evil cowboy act that had caused everyone to distrust us. But if there is anything to be learned from the prelude to whatever it is that the administration will do about Syrian chemical attacks, it is that the myth of Obama’s ability to make the U.S. loved in the Third World is officially dead.

As it turns out, Arabs and Muslims are today reviling Barack Obama’s America for proposing military action that is aimed at protecting Arabs and Muslims from atrocities in Syria. That is more or less the same thing that happened when George W. Bush sought to overthrow the Taliban oppressors of Afghanistan and Iraq’s madman tyrant Saddam Hussein. Whatever it is that the U.S. winds up doing in Syria will not have the imprimatur of the United Nations, and it will be opposed by the Arab League even though that august body has been vocal in its criticism of the Assad regime and supportive of efforts to effect regime change in Damascus. But the use of U.S. force to punish an Arab government for using chemical weapons against its own people is still a bridge too far for them. As the U.S. prepares to attack Syria, it will do so without a U.N. endorsement or even encouragement from those Arab governments that hate Assad. What exactly is the difference between this and Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that the American left (including Obama himself) mocked so much? Not much.

While the Arab League is not the most consequential institution in the world, its opposition to Obama’s plans is telling. As the New York Times notes:

The vast majority of Arabs are emotionally opposed to any Western military action in the region no matter how humanitarian the cause, and no Arab nation or leader has publicly endorsed such a step, even in countries like the Persian Gulf monarchies whose diplomats for months have privately urged the West to step in. In the region, only Turkey has pledged to support intervention.

This is important not so much because it illustrates the hypocrisy of the Arab League and the opinion of the so-called Arab street but because it demonstrates the utter lack of success of President Obama’s efforts to appease them during the course of his administration. Not his Cairo speech which sought to validate Muslim myths of victimization at the hands of the West, nor his fights with Israel, his efforts to work with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or his withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan have convinced anyone there that Obama’s America is any less of an inherent enemy to the Arabs than Bush’s America.

Just as Muslims claimed that American wars fought to save Muslim lives in Somalia, Kuwait, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were really expressions of American imperialism, now Obama’s war in Syria is treated the same way. If the injustice of this charge rankles the president, he should remember that Bush had just as much if not more reason to complain of unfair treatment abroad and at home from critics like his successor.

Of course, despite the fears of the president’s American critics, these Arab opponents of America have a point. Though, as Elliott Abrams writes in the September issue of COMMENTARY, the president has sought to portray himself as a “citizen of the world” rather than an American exceptionalist in the manner of his predecessors, the world understands that this is an artificial construct that is doomed to fail.

What we are about to witness in Syria is not only what appears to be a symbolic expression of American temper that will do nothing to change the situation on the ground and possibly strengthen a dictator and his dangerous allies if they are seen as surviving or defeating an American attack. It is also a demonstration of the bankruptcy of Obama’s foreign-policy approach. Though he will never admit it, Syria is the final proof that the magical Obama many Americans thought they elected was a figment of their imagination.

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Obama on Egypt: The Clueless Presidency

There’s some soul searching going on in the Obama administration as it ponders how they got sidelined in Egypt as the situation there got out of control in a spiral of violence. As the New York Times details in a post-mortem of U.S. policy, the administration went all out to persuade the military that had overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood to compromise and allow the Islamists to rejoin the government. Among other efforts to cajole them or to threaten aid cutoffs, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made 17 often-lengthy phone calls to Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi trying to get him to make nice with the Brotherhood. They even sent two Republican senators—John McCain and Lindsey Graham—to continue the pressure in person in Cairo. And they’re baffled as to why they were ignored as Sisi ordered police and troops to clear out the Brotherhood’s armed camps in Cairo this week.

The easy answer to their questions is that unlike Sisi and the military, President Obama and his foreign policy-team continue to fail to understand that the conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game. The choice there is between the military and the Brotherhood and the transformation of a key Arab country into an Islamist stronghold. This failure to comprehend the nature of the conflict has led inevitably to paralysis. This spectacle of American impotence is worrisome no matter what you think the U.S. should do about Egypt. But it’s not unrelated to the administration’s other foreign-policy failures that are piling up in the Middle East. Having failed to act decisively to try to avoid a far bigger bloodbath in Syria, and content to waste years on futile diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear threat while devoting disproportionate effort on reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks that have little chance to succeed, it’s obvious that Egypt isn’t the only venue where Obama has demonstrated his cluelessness. As Sisi prepares to decide whether to enact a ban on the Brotherhood that might bring the confrontation in Egypt to a head, it’s important to understand that Obama’s failure in Egypt is not unrelated to his problems elsewhere. The common thread is a refusal to abandon its preconceptions and to look at facts rather than fiction inspired by ideology.

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There’s some soul searching going on in the Obama administration as it ponders how they got sidelined in Egypt as the situation there got out of control in a spiral of violence. As the New York Times details in a post-mortem of U.S. policy, the administration went all out to persuade the military that had overthrown the Muslim Brotherhood to compromise and allow the Islamists to rejoin the government. Among other efforts to cajole them or to threaten aid cutoffs, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made 17 often-lengthy phone calls to Egyptian General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi trying to get him to make nice with the Brotherhood. They even sent two Republican senators—John McCain and Lindsey Graham—to continue the pressure in person in Cairo. And they’re baffled as to why they were ignored as Sisi ordered police and troops to clear out the Brotherhood’s armed camps in Cairo this week.

The easy answer to their questions is that unlike Sisi and the military, President Obama and his foreign policy-team continue to fail to understand that the conflict in Egypt is a zero-sum game. The choice there is between the military and the Brotherhood and the transformation of a key Arab country into an Islamist stronghold. This failure to comprehend the nature of the conflict has led inevitably to paralysis. This spectacle of American impotence is worrisome no matter what you think the U.S. should do about Egypt. But it’s not unrelated to the administration’s other foreign-policy failures that are piling up in the Middle East. Having failed to act decisively to try to avoid a far bigger bloodbath in Syria, and content to waste years on futile diplomacy on the Iranian nuclear threat while devoting disproportionate effort on reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks that have little chance to succeed, it’s obvious that Egypt isn’t the only venue where Obama has demonstrated his cluelessness. As Sisi prepares to decide whether to enact a ban on the Brotherhood that might bring the confrontation in Egypt to a head, it’s important to understand that Obama’s failure in Egypt is not unrelated to his problems elsewhere. The common thread is a refusal to abandon its preconceptions and to look at facts rather than fiction inspired by ideology.

In Egypt, Obama’s main problem is his lack of understanding of the threat that the Muslim Brotherhood poses to both the non-Islamist majority in that country as well as to the region. Having bought into the myth that the Brotherhood’s rise in the aftermath of the fall of the Mubarak regime was an expression of democratic sentiment, it refused to see that if it was allowed to take power it would quickly move to destroy any opposition. The U.S. pressured the military to let Mohamed Morsi take office and then continued to urge them to stand aside as he proceeded to demonstrate that the Brotherhood had little interest in democracy. Even as 14 million people took to the streets to demand that Morsi step down, the president continued to preach restraint and then stood by in puzzlement when the military realized that this was probably their last chance to save their country. Even now, the administration seems stuck in the same mythical “Arab Spring” mindset that is predicated on the idea that a totalitarian movement like the Brotherhood is compatible with liberal democracy. Since they don’t understand what led to the events of the last week, how can we expect the Obama team to put forward a coherent position on what happened and what may unfold in the days to come?

This is a familiar pattern.

Obama came into office thinking that he could charm the Iranians into giving up their nuclear ambitions and that American pressure on Israel could magically create peace with the Palestinians. If problems arose elsewhere in the Middle East, he thought they would be easily resolved with bad guys like Bashar Assad conveniently leaving the stage because President Obama said he “must go.” So as we now peruse the Middle East, we see an Iran that thinks it can go on fooling the West with a diplomatic process intended to stall talks until they can build a nuke while the United States invests precious time and energy on muscling Israel into making concessions to a Palestinian Authority that has no interest in ever signing a peace agreement. And Bashar Assad, with the help of his Iranian and Hezbollah allies, remains in power while winning a civil war that Obama could have spiked two years ago with a timely push.

While critics from both the left and right assail Obama’s indecision that–as I noted on Friday–protects neither American interests nor values in Egypt, this is yet another symptom of an administration that remains besotted with the same preconceptions that it brought to Washington in 2009. While he laments his lack of good choices and the fact that America’s ability to influence events is limited, it is the president’s refusal to face facts about the Brotherhood and some of his other blind spots that is most to blame for the fact that he has left American foreign policy hanging in the wind at a decisive moment in history.

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Peter King Points Out GOP Weakness

It’s doubtful that any of the prominent Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 are shaking in their boots about the prospect of Peter King joining the race. The congressman from New York has many virtues, but it’s unlikely that too many people outside of the circle of his closest friends regard him as a future president or even a candidate who could make even a minor splash in GOP caucuses and primaries. To say that he hasn’t a prayer of winning the nomination would be to understate the odds facing such an effort. Nor does it appear that even King thinks that much of his chances, since the trial balloon he floated yesterday in an interview with ABC news made it very clear that his purpose is not so much to put together a serious effort to win the presidency as it is to give voice to mainstream views on foreign policy in his party that he feels are being given short shrift.

While it’s easy to scoff at a man whose ambitions clearly outstrip his national appeal, King is right about the vacuum in the party on foreign policy issues. The Long Island representative who has earned a reputation as one of the Republicans’ leading spokesmen on national defense and issues relating to the threat from terrorism is worried that the isolationist views of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are not only gaining support in the GOP but are not being contested by leading figures who are thinking about the White House. At the moment, none of the leading contenders are taking issue with the ideas being floated by Paul and to a lesser extent by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, or speaking up about the dangers of such a course that is bad policy and bad politics. As much as the national debate is understandably focused on domestic issues involving the need to cut back on President Obama’s drive to expand the scope and the power of government, Republicans cannot hope to win in the future by abandoning their traditional position as the party that believes in a strong American defense and a forward posture toward foreign threats.

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It’s doubtful that any of the prominent Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 are shaking in their boots about the prospect of Peter King joining the race. The congressman from New York has many virtues, but it’s unlikely that too many people outside of the circle of his closest friends regard him as a future president or even a candidate who could make even a minor splash in GOP caucuses and primaries. To say that he hasn’t a prayer of winning the nomination would be to understate the odds facing such an effort. Nor does it appear that even King thinks that much of his chances, since the trial balloon he floated yesterday in an interview with ABC news made it very clear that his purpose is not so much to put together a serious effort to win the presidency as it is to give voice to mainstream views on foreign policy in his party that he feels are being given short shrift.

While it’s easy to scoff at a man whose ambitions clearly outstrip his national appeal, King is right about the vacuum in the party on foreign policy issues. The Long Island representative who has earned a reputation as one of the Republicans’ leading spokesmen on national defense and issues relating to the threat from terrorism is worried that the isolationist views of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul are not only gaining support in the GOP but are not being contested by leading figures who are thinking about the White House. At the moment, none of the leading contenders are taking issue with the ideas being floated by Paul and to a lesser extent by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, or speaking up about the dangers of such a course that is bad policy and bad politics. As much as the national debate is understandably focused on domestic issues involving the need to cut back on President Obama’s drive to expand the scope and the power of government, Republicans cannot hope to win in the future by abandoning their traditional position as the party that believes in a strong American defense and a forward posture toward foreign threats.

The problem King is pointing out here is that a lot of conservatives are either distracted by domestic priorities or intimidated by the Paul drive to bring the isolationist ideas first championed by his crackpot father into the mainstream from the fever swamps where they have always dwelt. The natural cynicism about government felt by most Republicans has grown during the Obama presidency to the point that Paul’s aberrant views about counter-terror policy are starting to look rational. No one likes foreign conflicts or the burden of paying for national defense, but a failure to address these concerns is a formula for even worse problems in the future. As much as the Kentuckian made a splash with his filibuster over the use of drone strikes, his idea that ordinary citizens need to fear a U.S. drone strike on people sitting in Starbucks is not only absurd; it is a direct blow aimed at America’s capacity to defend itself against genuine threats.

But rather than denouncing Paul’s attempt to undermine the national consensus on the war against Islamist terror, most prominent Republicans have ignored it or given it tacit support. Like former ambassador John Bolton, who sent up some smoke signals of his own last month about a presidential run, all King is doing is alerting us to the fact that someone needs to put forward a coherent response to Paul that will assure the country that the GOP hasn’t retreated into an isolationist funk that will undermine any hope that it can appeal to moderates or Reagan Democrats who will never vote for an isolationist.

Of course, there are possible Republican candidates who can stand up to Paul on foreign and defense policy. One such person is Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is an outspoken advocate of a freedom agenda and strong defense. But King still holds a grudge against Rubio for voting against the initial package of aid for the victims of Hurricane Sandy because it contained the usual litany of earmark projects that had little to do with helping those affected by the storm. Others, such as Paul Ryan, Chris Christie or Jeb Bush, might also eventually take on Paul’s views. But until one of these potential contenders starts publicly disagreeing with Paul and Cruz on these issues, people like King and Bolton are going to think there is no alternative but to jump in to provide an alternative to the isolationist trend.

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Obama Looking for Love in Wrong Places

After a miserable May in which he found himself beset by a trio of scandals, President Obama sought solace in foreign policy this month. But June hasn’t proved to be much better for the president as a disastrous meeting with the president of China was followed by an equally problematic confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland. Nor was he likely to do better elsewhere in Europe, where he was once held in high esteem. Today’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin only emphasized the contrast between the ecstatic reaction he received there from a huge audience in 2008 and the tepid response he got today to a laundry list of foreign policy proposals including a call for reductions in nuclear weapons that will likely go nowhere. As even the president’s cheering section at the New York Times noted today in an astonishingly frank assessment of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the president has been looking for love in all the wrong places abroad and now finds himself alienated from allies, despised by America’s foes and saddled with friendships with Middle East Islamists that are as embarrassing as they are unproductive.

The string of foreign policy setbacks on the heels of a domestic meltdown shows that Obama is already deep into the usual second term malaise suffered by presidents who won reelection. But the problem here isn’t just a run of bad luck. As the Times discusses, Obama has trouble relating to foreign leaders and has made some astoundingly bad choices in selecting those to whom he became close. The bad chemistry not only makes for silly photo ops, like the awkward confrontation with Putin that was a clinic in how to read bad body language. Nobody expects an authoritarian like Putin to favor America or its policies. But what we are witnessing again this week is a president who is unable to muster significant foreign support for his policies or to mend fences with friends. That Obama’s election was greeted abroad with joy only makes it that much more noticeable that his former fan base no longer has any use for him. Where once we were told that Obama would end America’s isolation, now even the Times is willing to concede that George W. Bush was a better diplomat:

Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

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After a miserable May in which he found himself beset by a trio of scandals, President Obama sought solace in foreign policy this month. But June hasn’t proved to be much better for the president as a disastrous meeting with the president of China was followed by an equally problematic confrontation with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Ireland. Nor was he likely to do better elsewhere in Europe, where he was once held in high esteem. Today’s speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin only emphasized the contrast between the ecstatic reaction he received there from a huge audience in 2008 and the tepid response he got today to a laundry list of foreign policy proposals including a call for reductions in nuclear weapons that will likely go nowhere. As even the president’s cheering section at the New York Times noted today in an astonishingly frank assessment of the failure of Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the president has been looking for love in all the wrong places abroad and now finds himself alienated from allies, despised by America’s foes and saddled with friendships with Middle East Islamists that are as embarrassing as they are unproductive.

The string of foreign policy setbacks on the heels of a domestic meltdown shows that Obama is already deep into the usual second term malaise suffered by presidents who won reelection. But the problem here isn’t just a run of bad luck. As the Times discusses, Obama has trouble relating to foreign leaders and has made some astoundingly bad choices in selecting those to whom he became close. The bad chemistry not only makes for silly photo ops, like the awkward confrontation with Putin that was a clinic in how to read bad body language. Nobody expects an authoritarian like Putin to favor America or its policies. But what we are witnessing again this week is a president who is unable to muster significant foreign support for his policies or to mend fences with friends. That Obama’s election was greeted abroad with joy only makes it that much more noticeable that his former fan base no longer has any use for him. Where once we were told that Obama would end America’s isolation, now even the Times is willing to concede that George W. Bush was a better diplomat:

Mr. Obama differs from his most recent predecessors, who made personal relationships with leaders the cornerstone of their foreign policies. The first George Bush moved gracefully in foreign capitals, while Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush related to fellow leaders as politicians, trying to understand their pressures and constituencies.

“That’s not President Obama’s style,” said James B. Steinberg, Mr. Clinton’s deputy national security adviser and Mr. Obama’s deputy secretary of state.

If Obama can’t get his way on economic issues with China, or on Syria or Iran with Europe, it’s not exactly a surprise. The list of foreign leaders who apparently can’t stand the former apostle of hope and change is getting longer every day.

Obama came into office determined to pick fights with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and succeeded in creating a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations that he has spent the last two years seeking to fix. He has always had problems with Germany’s Angela Merkel but now is also in trouble with France’s Francois Hollande, in spite of the fact that he looked to the new French president as an ally against the German chancellor.

But the real key to America’s foreign policy woes in the age of Obama is not so much the enemies that Obama has made as it is his choice of friends.

As the Times rightly recalls, a big part of the deep chill with Putin—with whom the supposedly confrontational cowboy Bush managed to maintain cordial relations and open communications despite deep differences on the issues—is the way Obama went out of his way to cultivate Dmitry Medvedev, the functionary that Putin put into the Russian presidency while he was term-limited out of the office. Even foreign policy novices knew that Medvedev was a cipher but, as the Times notes, Obama decided he was the man America needed to cultivate:

Mr. Obama spent nearly four years befriending Mr. Putin’s predecessor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, hoping to build him up as a counterweight to Mr. Putin. That never happened, and Mr. Obama now finds himself back at square one with a Russian leader who appears less likely than ever to find common ground with the United States on issues like Syria.

Even a foreign policy neophyte would have known that no good would come of such a foolish initiative but Obama, who even told Medvedev that he would have more flexibility to help Russia after being reelected, now finds himself with a Russian rival that is not only opposed to his policies but bearing a personal grudge.

Similarly, Obama bragged openly that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was his best foreign buddy and thought his close relationship with the Islamist would bear fruit in Middle East peace as well as help on Syria and Iran. But not only has Erdoğan made peace between Israelis and Palestinians even less likely and undermined sanctions against Iran, his repression of peaceful demonstrators protesting the drift to authoritarianism in Turkey gives the lie to Obama’s pose as a friend of freedom. His embrace of Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, whose push for total power for his Muslim Brotherhood government was eased by Obama’s support, is just as much of an embarrassment.

After less than five years in office, it’s not just that European idealists are disillusioned with Obama because he has chosen to continue and even expand Bush’s counter-terrorism policies while still trying to pretend to be different. What we witnessed at the G-8 and virtually every other foreign encounter of this president is a man who is in completely over his head. Far from fixing the country’s problems abroad, he has worsened them with arrogant dismissals of friends, weakness that has encouraged enemies and friendships with leaders that no American president should embrace. Abroad, this isn’t just a case of second term blues; Barack Obama’s incompetence is a problem that keeps getting worse.

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Obama’s Multiplying Foreign Policy Failures

On April 23, 2007, then-Senator and future presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said this:

Until we change our approach in Iraq, it will be increasingly difficult to refocus our efforts on the challenges in the wider region – on the conflict in the Middle East, where Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain; on Iran, which has been strengthened by the war in Iraq; and on Afghanistan, where more American forces are needed to battle al Qaeda, track down Osama bin Laden, and stop that country from backsliding toward instability… Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?

Just yesterday the Obama administration admitted what our allies have long said – that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. At least 80,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, there are almost 1.5 million refugees, and the number of internally displaced persons has rise to more than four million. (Tony Blair discusses Syria in this op-ed.) Moreover, as the Washington Post reports 

As fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement wage the battles that are helping Syria’s regime survive, their chief sponsor, Iran, is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become… after the Assad regime’s capture of the small but strategic town of Qusair last week — a battle in which the Iranian-backed Shiite militia played a pivotal role — Iran’s supporters and foes alike are mulling a new reality: that the regional balance of power appears to be tilting in favor of Tehran, with potentially profound implications for a Middle East still grappling with the upheaval wrought by the Arab Spring revolts.

That’s not all.

The Syrian civil war is badly destabilizing our most reliable Arab ally, Jordan. Lebanon is increasingly fragile. In Egypt and across North Africa the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power. Since Mr. Obama withdrew American forces in Iraq, sectarian violence has markedly increased there, with the hard-won gains from the Bush administration’s surge being washed away. The war in Afghanistan is going poorly, while relations with the Karzai regime are quite bad, limiting American leverage in that nation (our much-trumped retreat of forces from Afghanistan have of course limited our leverage as well). Turkey is struggling to contain a political crisis that has threatened the nation’s economy and paralyzed the government. There are no prospects for genuine peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Libyan people are weary of two years of militia violence that has kept the country in chaos and stalled reform, with the government weak and unstable. And al Qaeda is ascendant in North Africa.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

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On April 23, 2007, then-Senator and future presidential candidate Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said this:

Until we change our approach in Iraq, it will be increasingly difficult to refocus our efforts on the challenges in the wider region – on the conflict in the Middle East, where Hamas and Hezbollah feel emboldened and Israel’s prospects for a secure peace seem uncertain; on Iran, which has been strengthened by the war in Iraq; and on Afghanistan, where more American forces are needed to battle al Qaeda, track down Osama bin Laden, and stop that country from backsliding toward instability… Now it’s our moment to lead – our generation’s time to tell another great American story. So someday we can tell our children that this was the time when we helped forge peace in the Middle East.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way, has it?

Just yesterday the Obama administration admitted what our allies have long said – that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against opposition forces. At least 80,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, there are almost 1.5 million refugees, and the number of internally displaced persons has rise to more than four million. (Tony Blair discusses Syria in this op-ed.) Moreover, as the Washington Post reports 

As fighters with Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement wage the battles that are helping Syria’s regime survive, their chief sponsor, Iran, is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become… after the Assad regime’s capture of the small but strategic town of Qusair last week — a battle in which the Iranian-backed Shiite militia played a pivotal role — Iran’s supporters and foes alike are mulling a new reality: that the regional balance of power appears to be tilting in favor of Tehran, with potentially profound implications for a Middle East still grappling with the upheaval wrought by the Arab Spring revolts.

That’s not all.

The Syrian civil war is badly destabilizing our most reliable Arab ally, Jordan. Lebanon is increasingly fragile. In Egypt and across North Africa the Muslim Brotherhood has gained power. Since Mr. Obama withdrew American forces in Iraq, sectarian violence has markedly increased there, with the hard-won gains from the Bush administration’s surge being washed away. The war in Afghanistan is going poorly, while relations with the Karzai regime are quite bad, limiting American leverage in that nation (our much-trumped retreat of forces from Afghanistan have of course limited our leverage as well). Turkey is struggling to contain a political crisis that has threatened the nation’s economy and paralyzed the government. There are no prospects for genuine peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. The Libyan people are weary of two years of militia violence that has kept the country in chaos and stalled reform, with the government weak and unstable. And al Qaeda is ascendant in North Africa.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

My point in running through this parade of horribles isn’t to blame President Obama for every one of them. That would be silly. But it would be just as silly to pretend that Mr. Obama isn’t responsible for much, and in some cases most, of the multiplying failures we’re seeing sweep the world.

This much is clear: The president’s policies have, by almost every objective measure, failed. And they have failed by his own standards, his own promises, and his own words. What he said would happen has not; and the things he complained about have gotten worse. His incompetence in international affairs is staggering; and in some of these circumstances it will take years, in some cases decades, and in some cases generations to undo the damage, if we ever do.

What Barack Obama must know, at least in his quiet, private moments, is that conducting foreign policy turned out to be a lot harder than critiquing someone else’s foreign policy. That words aren’t substitutes for actions. That preening arrogance and empty threats don’t actually shape events on the ground. And that there is a high human cost to ineptitude.

After eight years the damage of the Obama legacy will be extraordinary. But the damage may be most acute in foreign policy, where events are continuing to spin out of control and our commander-in-chief doesn’t have any idea how to stop it.

This is not what America’s “moment to lead” and its “new beginning” was supposed to look like. 

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Rand Paul’s Dangerous Approach to Iran

Rand Paul’s efforts to establish foreign policy credentials in advance of a likely 2016 presidential campaign escalated yesterday with a major speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he sought to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Paul defined himself as being neither an isolationist like his extremist father Ron nor a neoconservative. He hopes that this address, like his recent trip to Israel, will make it clear that he cannot be dismissed as an outlier on defense and security matters. But his campaign to cast himself as the second coming of Reagan is not believable. Judging by his remarks, his real role models are Cold War containment strategist George Kennan and James Baker, secretary of state under the first President Bush whose “realist” policies did little to prepare the country for the post-Soviet world or the threat from Islamist terror.

Unlike Baker, who made little secret of his contempt for Israel, Paul is being very careful these days to give the Jewish state some love even though his position on aid to it misses the point about its strategic dilemma. But on the most important issue facing Israel—the Iranian nuclear threat—Paul placed himself clearly outside of the mainstream. The key takeaway from the speech was that the Kentucky senator wants to put containment of a nuclear Iran back on the table. Though he tries to couch this in terms that make it seem as if he is being a tough advocate of a true conservative foreign policy, he has put himself even to the left of Barack Obama on Iran.

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Rand Paul’s efforts to establish foreign policy credentials in advance of a likely 2016 presidential campaign escalated yesterday with a major speech at the Heritage Foundation in which he sought to claim the mantle of Ronald Reagan. Paul defined himself as being neither an isolationist like his extremist father Ron nor a neoconservative. He hopes that this address, like his recent trip to Israel, will make it clear that he cannot be dismissed as an outlier on defense and security matters. But his campaign to cast himself as the second coming of Reagan is not believable. Judging by his remarks, his real role models are Cold War containment strategist George Kennan and James Baker, secretary of state under the first President Bush whose “realist” policies did little to prepare the country for the post-Soviet world or the threat from Islamist terror.

Unlike Baker, who made little secret of his contempt for Israel, Paul is being very careful these days to give the Jewish state some love even though his position on aid to it misses the point about its strategic dilemma. But on the most important issue facing Israel—the Iranian nuclear threat—Paul placed himself clearly outside of the mainstream. The key takeaway from the speech was that the Kentucky senator wants to put containment of a nuclear Iran back on the table. Though he tries to couch this in terms that make it seem as if he is being a tough advocate of a true conservative foreign policy, he has put himself even to the left of Barack Obama on Iran.

Paul’s premise is that the U.S. should be unpredictable, but by raising doubts as to whether the Iranians should fear a military action to prevent them from gaining nuclear capability, he is actually telegraphing exactly what he would do about this threat if he were president: nothing. Though he tells us he doesn’t want Iran to go nuclear, his primary objective is to avoid any foreign military entanglements, even those, like Iran, that wouldn’t necessarily involve boots on the ground or a long-term land war. As such, all this talk from him about considering containment is merely an excuse for ignoring a problem that threatens to destabilize the entire Middle East, undermine Western security, and pose an existential threat to the state of Israel.

The senator’s attempt to claim that Israelis are having a debate about Iran that Americans are not also misunderstands what is happening in Israel. It is true that some former intelligence officials there have criticized the Netanyahu government on Iran. But their disagreement is not about whether Iran should be contained but whether Israel can or should act on its own. There is little dissent there about the idea that the U.S. should act to stop Iran, and it is on that point that Paul would like to inject some ambiguity rather than the certainty that is needed if Iran is ever to step back from the nuclear brink.

Just as important as this potential blunder is his misapplication of Kennan’s containment ideas to the conflict with radical Islamists. Kennan’s idea worked to some extent because the two superpowers of the postwar era were prevented by the existence of nuclear weapons from engaging in a traditional direct war against each other. Containment allowed the U.S. to try, not always successfully, to prevent the spread of Communism around the globe without triggering World War III. If, in the end, the West prevailed it was because its efforts to combat Soviet expansionism and its raising of the ante in the arms race made it clear to the Russians they couldn’t win. But the current struggle with the Islamists is nothing like that. Neither the Iranians nor their terrorist auxiliaries and allies can be counted on to behave with the relative restraint exercised by Moscow.

Paul’s call for an unpredictable American policy in which force could potentially be used in some situations and not in others misunderstands the lessons of containment. Though some of the U.S. responses to Communist encroachment, like Vietnam, didn’t turn out well, the results from American decisions not to respond in Africa and Asia were just as disastrous and encouraged further trouble. Though Reagan did not try to liberate captive peoples, a strategy that he derided as unrealistic, he also made sure that the Soviets were resisted everywhere. The long-term impact of these interventions–such as U.S. support to the resistance in Afghanistan–was unfortunate, but allowing them a free hand there would not have advanced American security and might have put off the date of Soviet collapse.

Paul says he wants a strategy to deal with our foes that does not appease them. Some of his instincts on this topic are right, such as his vote against the sale of F-16 aircraft to the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt as well as his general opposition to providing arms to Arab countries that might use them against our ally Israel. But an America that disengages from the Middle East in the way that he envisions and which signals, as he would, that it may tolerate a nuclear Iran, is just as dangerous as appeasement. The only thing about this that is credible is his dedication to avoiding war. Everything else in his vision is merely a rationalization for the principle of non-intervention no matter how grievous the consequences of that stand might be.

The path that he would chart for the country is not a middle way between certain war and appeasement. It is, at best, a charter that would enable Iran to assume regional hegemony without having to worry much about U.S. force and a threatened Israel. At worst, it is a blueprint for American decline that will make the world a much more dangerous place.

Though his speech demonstrates a certain grasp of history and the desire of Americans to avoid replays of Iraq and Afghanistan, when the elements are boiled down to their essentials, it must be seen as merely a sophisticated gloss on the libertarian ideas that his father presented in a much more primitive manner. His call for what he thinks is a Reagan-like constraint abroad is merely an excuse to reduce defense spending and to refuse to engage in conflicts that cannot be wished away.

As wrongheaded as this foreign policy manifest may be, it is a good deal more presentable than Ron Paul’s woolly isolationism and thus will make his quest for the GOP presidential nomination more viable. But it should also end the brief flirtation with the senator that some in the pro-Israel community have been engaging in since November. Paul’s desire to put containment of Iran back on the table is a refreshing change from Chuck Hagel’s inability to articulate the administration’s nominal stand. The administration’s stand on Iran has been all rhetoric and no action so far, but even that is better than what Paul has proposed. Anyone looking to Rand Paul for a fresh Republican face that can put forward a sensible foreign policy strategy needs to keep looking.

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Third Intifada Would Derail Obama Policy

Behind much of the Obama government’s pressure on Israel over the past four years has been the idea that concessions to the Palestinian Authority would strengthen moderates and increase the chances of peace. Of course, 20 years of such concessions have done no such thing, as even the so-called moderates are unwilling or incapable of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Though the U.S. split from its European allies on the question of supporting an upgrade of the PA’s status at the UN, the administration appears ready to back a new push for peace in the coming year aimed at boosting PA President Mahmoud Abbas against his Hamas rivals. But as Khaled Abu Toameh reports, a shift in the strategy employed by Abbas’s Fatah may render the president’s plans moot.

As Abu Toameh writes in his blog for the Gatestone Institute, Fatah and Hamas may be working together in the coming months rather than against each other. Their common goal will be to capitalize on the “victories” won by Hamas in its military standoff with Israel and Fatah at the UN by launching a new round of violence whose purpose will be to heighten Israel’s diplomatic isolation. If this is true, it won’t silence those who will persist in believing that Israeli settlements or other distractions from Palestinian intransigence are the real obstacle to peace. But it will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the president to sell the Israelis on the idea that Fatah is a partner for peace.

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Behind much of the Obama government’s pressure on Israel over the past four years has been the idea that concessions to the Palestinian Authority would strengthen moderates and increase the chances of peace. Of course, 20 years of such concessions have done no such thing, as even the so-called moderates are unwilling or incapable of recognizing the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. Though the U.S. split from its European allies on the question of supporting an upgrade of the PA’s status at the UN, the administration appears ready to back a new push for peace in the coming year aimed at boosting PA President Mahmoud Abbas against his Hamas rivals. But as Khaled Abu Toameh reports, a shift in the strategy employed by Abbas’s Fatah may render the president’s plans moot.

As Abu Toameh writes in his blog for the Gatestone Institute, Fatah and Hamas may be working together in the coming months rather than against each other. Their common goal will be to capitalize on the “victories” won by Hamas in its military standoff with Israel and Fatah at the UN by launching a new round of violence whose purpose will be to heighten Israel’s diplomatic isolation. If this is true, it won’t silence those who will persist in believing that Israeli settlements or other distractions from Palestinian intransigence are the real obstacle to peace. But it will make it difficult, if not impossible, for the president to sell the Israelis on the idea that Fatah is a partner for peace.

As Abu Toameh writes:

Emboldened by the “victories,” Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal recently reached a secret agreement on the need to launch a “popular intifada” against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian sources in Ramallah revealed.

The two men believe that such an intifada at this stage would further isolate Israel and earn the Palestinians even more sympathy in the international arena, the sources said.

Abbas and Mashaal are aware, the sources noted, that the Palestinians are now not ready for another military confrontation with Israel — neither in the West Bank nor in the Gaza Strip.

That is why the two men agreed that the best and only option facing the Palestinians these days is a “popular intifada” that would see Palestinian youths engage in daily confrontations with Israeli soldiers and settlers, especially in the West Bank.

The Palestinian leadership knows they are best served by televised violence that pits a powerful Israeli military against seemingly helpless Palestinians rather than by terror attacks or missile strikes. But it isn’t likely that their concerted campaign of low-level violence won’t soon escalate to the sort of attacks on Jewish targets that have always bolstered the popularity of the Palestinians groups that carry them out.

Nor is it likely than even a re-elected Barack Obama, who would no longer need to fear a backlash from Jewish voters over Israel, would be able to sustain a diplomatic campaign against a re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu while Fatah and Hamas were engaged in a competition over which presented the toughest approach to the Israelis.

The motivation for Abbas to join forces with Hamas is clear. As Haaretz reports today, a new poll shows Abbas would lose an election against Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh if an election were held. While Abbas, who is currently serving the eighth year of a four-year presidential term, may have no intention of allowing a free vote that would give the Islamist dictators of Gaza a chance to run the West Bank too, the poll shows Hamas’s violence gives it a crucial electoral advantage. The same survey said that were Haniyeh to face Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader serving multiple life-in-prison terms for the murders he ordered during the second intifada, he would lose.

As Abu Toahmeh writes, Hamas and Fatah do have different short-term goals. Fatah hopes to force Israel to retreat from all of the territory it won in 1967, including in Jerusalem and its suburbs where they would hope to create an independent Palestinian state, albeit not one prepared to end the conflict. On the other hand, Hamas still believes it can destroy Israel altogether.

This demonstrates the foolishness of the discussion on the left about the need for the U.S. to join Egypt and Turkey and recognize Hamas. But it should also illustrate the folly of a new diplomatic initiative whose Fatah beneficiaries have made common cause with the so-called extremists of Hamas. The illusions that many Israelis harbored about Fatah’s peaceful intentions were exploded by the terror of the second intifada. It remains to be seen whether the fantasies of foreign liberals, including those in the administration, will survive a third.

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More Questions About the Pauls and Israel

Last week, Senator Rand Paul went to some lengths to try and convince readers of COMMENTARY that the qualms that I expressed about his record on Israel were unfounded. Suffice it to say that I think despite his expressions of friendship to the Jewish state, most Republicans, as well as most Americans, are going to have a hard time reconciling his opposition to military aid to Israel as well as support for defense cuts and a reduced role for America around the world with the idea that he supports the alliance. But if the senator is serious about convincing his party that he can be relied upon to have Israel’s back, he has a much bigger problem than anything I have to say about the issue: his father, Rep. Ron Paul.

Though Senator Paul has tried to carve out a different, more establishment-friendly niche for himself in Washington than his gadfly father, his support for the latter’s presidential runs and clear admiration for the man’s principles and positions are a matter of record. And in case anyone forgot about the erstwhile presidential challenger’s stands on Israel, he gave us a reminder today with a blog post on his official congressional website. Titled, “How to End the Tragedy in Gaza,” Rep. Paul does not blame Hamas for starting the latest fighting. Instead, he blames Israel and, more to the point, American backing for Israel, for enabling the conflict. Though his son has not said anything like that in recent years, this is the sort of false and destructive rhetoric that is catnip to many of the extremist libertarians who form the family fan base and who will, no doubt, be the foot soldiers in Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential run. While it may be unfair to expect any man to distance himself from his father, unless the senator makes a clear effort to disavow his father’s positions on the Middle East, his attempts to portray himself as a friend to Israel will flop.

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Last week, Senator Rand Paul went to some lengths to try and convince readers of COMMENTARY that the qualms that I expressed about his record on Israel were unfounded. Suffice it to say that I think despite his expressions of friendship to the Jewish state, most Republicans, as well as most Americans, are going to have a hard time reconciling his opposition to military aid to Israel as well as support for defense cuts and a reduced role for America around the world with the idea that he supports the alliance. But if the senator is serious about convincing his party that he can be relied upon to have Israel’s back, he has a much bigger problem than anything I have to say about the issue: his father, Rep. Ron Paul.

Though Senator Paul has tried to carve out a different, more establishment-friendly niche for himself in Washington than his gadfly father, his support for the latter’s presidential runs and clear admiration for the man’s principles and positions are a matter of record. And in case anyone forgot about the erstwhile presidential challenger’s stands on Israel, he gave us a reminder today with a blog post on his official congressional website. Titled, “How to End the Tragedy in Gaza,” Rep. Paul does not blame Hamas for starting the latest fighting. Instead, he blames Israel and, more to the point, American backing for Israel, for enabling the conflict. Though his son has not said anything like that in recent years, this is the sort of false and destructive rhetoric that is catnip to many of the extremist libertarians who form the family fan base and who will, no doubt, be the foot soldiers in Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential run. While it may be unfair to expect any man to distance himself from his father, unless the senator makes a clear effort to disavow his father’s positions on the Middle East, his attempts to portray himself as a friend to Israel will flop.

Ron Paul’s position on Israel has been consistent. Though he, too, occasionally tries to paint his stand as one that is friendly to the Jewish state, he does more than just oppose military aid. He believes the U.S. is at fault for being Israel’s steadfast ally. The congressman’s belief in the moral equivalence of the two sides in the conflict is clear:

US foreign policy being so one-sided actually results in more loss of life and of security on both sides. Surely Israelis do not enjoy the threat of missiles from Gaza nor do the Palestinians enjoy their Israel-imposed inhuman conditions in Gaza. But as long as Israel can count on its destructive policies being underwritten by the US taxpayer it can continue to engage in reckless behavior. And as long as the Palestinians feel the one-sided US presence lined up against them they will continue to resort to more and more deadly and desperate measures. 

One needn’t waste time pointing out that the idea of “inhuman conditions in Gaza” is a myth fostered by Israel’s enemies or that there is nothing “reckless” about a nation reacting to the firing of hundreds of missiles on its citizens and sovereign territory with a counter-attack. But the most telling point about this piece is that the libertarian leader’s ideas about moral equivalence extend beyond his hostility to Israel. They also apply to American measures of self-defense against terrorists:

Last week, as the fighting raged, President Obama raced to express US support for the Israeli side, in a statement that perfectly exemplifies the tragic-comedy of US foreign policy. The US supported the Israeli side because, he said, “No country on Earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” Considering that this president rains down missiles on Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and numerous other countries on a daily basis, the statement was so hypocritical that it didn’t pass the laugh test. But it wasn’t funny.

This goes to the heart not only of Ron Paul’s hostility to the exercise of American power but also to that of his son. Plenty of so-called foreign policy “realists” share their prejudice against Israel and willingness to buy into Arab propaganda about the Middle East conflict. But both the Pauls have a problem with American efforts to combat al-Qaeda, or to restrain rogue Islamist regimes like the one in Iran. That puts them clearly outside the mainstream of the Republican Party and renders Rand Paul’s presidential hopes and growing influence a threat to any hopes of the GOP recapturing the White House in the future.

Rand Paul’s comments don’t usually come across as parodies of far-left rants the way his father’s usually do. But he has made it clear that he shares the elder politician’s core beliefs about American foreign policy. So long as the senator fails to clearly oppose his father’s ideas about the Middle East and the role of the U.S. in the world, friends of Israel won’t believe what he says about Israel. Nor should they.

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Rand Paul Bombs on Defense Analysis

In an interview with CBS, Sen. Rand Paul argued that the GOP’s “bomb everyone tomorrow” policy is hurting it on the East and West coasts:

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said Monday that Republicans can win in New England and on the West Coast if they’re willing to drop a “we need to bomb everybody tomorrow” foreign policy.

“I think one of the problems we face, as a Republican party, is that we’re behind the eight-ball to begin with,” Paul said on CBS’ “This Morning.” “We’re not winning the West Coast. We’re not winning New England. Maybe we need to embrace more Ron Paul Republicans, more libertarian Republicans. … It means people who are little bit less aggressive on foreign policy. They believe in defending the country, but they don’t believe we need to be everywhere all the time.”

If the Obama’s election illustrated anything, it’s that there’s not a major difference between the GOP and Democratic Party when it comes to a general willingness to intervene and a willingness to use force.

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In an interview with CBS, Sen. Rand Paul argued that the GOP’s “bomb everyone tomorrow” policy is hurting it on the East and West coasts:

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said Monday that Republicans can win in New England and on the West Coast if they’re willing to drop a “we need to bomb everybody tomorrow” foreign policy.

“I think one of the problems we face, as a Republican party, is that we’re behind the eight-ball to begin with,” Paul said on CBS’ “This Morning.” “We’re not winning the West Coast. We’re not winning New England. Maybe we need to embrace more Ron Paul Republicans, more libertarian Republicans. … It means people who are little bit less aggressive on foreign policy. They believe in defending the country, but they don’t believe we need to be everywhere all the time.”

If the Obama’s election illustrated anything, it’s that there’s not a major difference between the GOP and Democratic Party when it comes to a general willingness to intervene and a willingness to use force.

The differences are much more apparent when it comes to where, when and how they choose to intervene, and in areas like diplomacy. The Obama administration has ramped up the drone program, gone into Libya, and surged in Afghanistan. And it’s the Obama administration that leaked stories about the “Kill List” and worked with Hollywood on a movie about the Osama bin Laden raid. By Rand Paul’s logic, Obama should be losing New York and California, which he obviously is not.

Of course Americans don’t want the military getting entangled in unnecessary conflicts. But most would probably disagree with what Ron and Rand Paul view as legitimate reasons for national defense. For example, polls show the majority Americans say they would support a preemptive U.S. strike on Iran’s nuclear program, if it came to that.  People generally understand that sometimes preemptive action needs to be taken to prevent larger conflicts down the road.

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Can Romney Exploit Obama’s Diplomatic Failures?

Politico reports the Romney campaign is about to pivot to foreign policy. There are many good reasons to do so, but those reasons do not include reacting to a series of leaks from foreign policy advisers trying to nudge Romney to pay more attention to the issue (what are they, Supreme Court justices?). Romney has to feel comfortable with his own outlook and ready to deliver a clear foreign policy message and be prepared for the various critiques that will come his way.

And while Obama has constructed a tough image on the world stage by blowing up anyone in the near vicinity of suspected terrorists and shipping prisoners to a Somali hell on earth instead of three-squares-a-day Guantanamo, Obama does have one glaring foreign policy weakness for Romney to exploit: the president’s comprehensive failure on diplomacy.

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Politico reports the Romney campaign is about to pivot to foreign policy. There are many good reasons to do so, but those reasons do not include reacting to a series of leaks from foreign policy advisers trying to nudge Romney to pay more attention to the issue (what are they, Supreme Court justices?). Romney has to feel comfortable with his own outlook and ready to deliver a clear foreign policy message and be prepared for the various critiques that will come his way.

And while Obama has constructed a tough image on the world stage by blowing up anyone in the near vicinity of suspected terrorists and shipping prisoners to a Somali hell on earth instead of three-squares-a-day Guantanamo, Obama does have one glaring foreign policy weakness for Romney to exploit: the president’s comprehensive failure on diplomacy.

Romney can simply take a glance around the world and find a wealth of material to work with:

Asia. The president came into office with a ready-made free trade agreement with South Korea. George W. Bush got the deal done, but back then the Democratic Congress refused to pass pretty much anything with Bush’s name or fingerprints on it. (This was way back when the establishment media were less concerned about “civility” and congressional obstruction.) A huge benefit for Obama (especially for work he hadn’t done), the deal was a no-brainer. But the unions complained, as they do when someone threatens to practice capitalism, and Obama waited until the unions gave him permission to sign the bill, reopening negotiations along the way and forcing the South Koreans to wait.

Obama snubbed India–perhaps the most significant of George W. Bush’s diplomatic successes, endangering our relationship with an important ally. Obama’s initial attempt at diplomacy with the Burmese junta was a humiliating failure, and he began his term by telling China that human rights would now be placed firmly on the back burner, much to Beijing’s delight.

Europe. Obama’s every interaction with the British–from his shabby treatment of Gordon Brown, to his cringe worthy meetings with Queen Elizabeth, to his dismissal of the Churchill bust—has been brutal to watch, but none of those compares to the Obama administration’s refusal to support British sovereignty of the Falkland Islands (which Obama called “the Maldives,” attempting to use the Argentine name for the islands, which he got wrong anyway).

And it’s not just that he capitulated to Russia by scrapping the missile shield plans for Poland and the Czech Republic, but he did so on the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland. Then, nursing a grudge with Polish democracy hero Lech Walesa, he denied Poland’s request that Walesa come to the White House to accept Jan Karski’s posthumous Medal of Freedom on Karski’s behalf while talking about “Polish death camps.” Which brings us to…

Russia. Obama may argue that U.S.-Russia relations are better than they were during the last years of the Bush administration. Romney should let him. Bush and Putin fell out over Russia’s invasion of Georgia and the post-war, meticulously documented campaign of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Russian side on sovereign Georgian territory. Obama improved relations with Russia by dropping America’s demand that Russia comply with the ceasefire agreement and by strong-arming Georgia to drop its hold on Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (the latter of which the administration admitted in May). The administration says Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war in which Bashar al-Assad’s forces are massacring the opposition, and it continues to ask that Russia do something about it. Russia has not–but of course neither have we. Which brings us to…

The Middle East. Aside from the bloodshed in Syria, diplomacy with Iran hasn’t gone too well either. Obama proved to be an opponent of tougher sanctions, first by repeatedly trying to stall and prevent them from taking effect, and then watering them down when they get to his desk. Iran’s fist, needless to say, remains clenched.

Obama has quite obviously made a hash of things with Israel, though that was no surprise to those who followed the 2008 election. He hasn’t visited Israel, though he is sending his secretary of state–who famously berated Benjamin Netanyahu for 45 minutes when a housing committee announced that more Jewish homes would be built in a Jewish neighborhood of the Jewish state’s capital. Netanyahu, of course, had nothing to do with the announcement (it was aimed at embarrassing Netanyahu, not the U.S.) but hey, who has time for details when you’re conducting “smart diplomacy”?

I could go on, by talking about the administration’s buckling to environmentalists’ pressure over the Keystone pipeline deal with Canada, or Obama’s delaying tactics with regard to the free trade agreement with Colombia (another accomplishment gift-wrapped by Bush). But the point is that Obama has amassed quite a list of diplomatic failures—a list Romney is likely to carry with him on his foreign policy tour.

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Obama Still Steamrollering Hillary

Though it seems like a long time ago, one of the most astonishing feats in modern American political history was how Barack Obama came from nowhere to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The historic nature of the Obama presidency has shaped our view of that contest to the extent that in retrospect it now seems inconceivable that almost everyone believed Clinton was the inevitable nominee. A reminder of why the former First Lady and senator didn’t have what it took to beat Obama comes through in a highly flattering profile of the secretary of state in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Though the piece by the Times’s State Department correspondent Steven Lee Myers is more of a public mash note than anything else, it still manages to remind us that though she may be a “rock star diplomat,” the main narrative of this administration’s foreign policy must speak of how Clinton has been steamrollered time and again on policy disputes just as she was during the 2008 campaign.

Myers opens with the account of how Clinton helped secure the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, which was certainly a neat bit of diplomacy on the secretary’s part. But this one tiny victory highlights the fact that Clinton’s years at Foggy Bottom have actually been short on achievements despite the adoring press coverage she continues to receive. Her work on the Middle East peace process, the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear threat and the comical Russian “reset” has been a record of consistent failure. Just as important, as even Myers is forced to admit, Clinton has been more of a “Girl Scout” than a genuine leader within the administration, as she has been overridden on Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and most human rights controversies by the president and his foreign policy advisers.

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Though it seems like a long time ago, one of the most astonishing feats in modern American political history was how Barack Obama came from nowhere to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. The historic nature of the Obama presidency has shaped our view of that contest to the extent that in retrospect it now seems inconceivable that almost everyone believed Clinton was the inevitable nominee. A reminder of why the former First Lady and senator didn’t have what it took to beat Obama comes through in a highly flattering profile of the secretary of state in this coming Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. Though the piece by the Times’s State Department correspondent Steven Lee Myers is more of a public mash note than anything else, it still manages to remind us that though she may be a “rock star diplomat,” the main narrative of this administration’s foreign policy must speak of how Clinton has been steamrollered time and again on policy disputes just as she was during the 2008 campaign.

Myers opens with the account of how Clinton helped secure the freedom of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, which was certainly a neat bit of diplomacy on the secretary’s part. But this one tiny victory highlights the fact that Clinton’s years at Foggy Bottom have actually been short on achievements despite the adoring press coverage she continues to receive. Her work on the Middle East peace process, the Arab Spring, the Iranian nuclear threat and the comical Russian “reset” has been a record of consistent failure. Just as important, as even Myers is forced to admit, Clinton has been more of a “Girl Scout” than a genuine leader within the administration, as she has been overridden on Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia and most human rights controversies by the president and his foreign policy advisers.

Clinton’s achievements at the State Department have been few and far between. She can take some credit for the outcome in Libya, where the U.S. joined the rest of the West in ousting the Qaddafi regime. But even that was tainted by the spectacle of the U.S. “leading from behind” and the lack of a capable follow-up to the fighting in which the chaos in Libya has now spread to Mali.

But the Arab Spring protests have otherwise been an unmitigated disaster for the United States. Clinton’s much ballyhooed ability to make nice that stems from her eight years as First Lady hasn’t done much to advance American interests. Indeed, her faith in her schmoozing skills may have actually been a drawback to U.S. efforts to deal with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Being Clinton’s friend may be what some foreign leaders aspire to, but it didn’t do much for Suzanne Mubarak, a point few in the Middle East missed.

As Senator Lindsey Graham has said, Clinton may be both “classy” and “hard-working,” fine attributes for a middle-level bureaucrat. But her approach to U.S. foreign policy has been all about process and less concerned with tangible results. The international coalition she has assembled on behalf of sanctions against Iran that she often boasts about doesn’t mean much when you consider it took three years to assemble (during which Iran was able to continue working toward its nuclear goal while laughing at the administration’s attempt at “engagement”) and has done nothing to actually stop the Iranians.

Elsewhere, she has presided over foreign policy during a period where American influence over events in Egypt and elsewhere in the region declined. In particular, her sporadic attempts at reviving the Israel-Palestinian talks were disasters. Here again, the president’s “good soldier” loyally did his bidding in picking fights with Israel’s government that only served to reinforce Palestinian intransigence.

But of course, we don’t know what Clinton could really have accomplished if she had her way because as Myers is forced to point out, she has subordinated her own views to those of the president despite differences on keeping a strong American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the need to resist Putin and to promote human rights. In each case, Clinton’s instincts seem to have been on the right side of the issue, but as a dutiful servant of the president, she wound up being the public face of bad policies.

Of course, the president’s views ought to prevail as a matter of principle, but Clinton’s inability to get her way on most issues and willingness to go along to get along tells us a lot about why he won in 2008 and she didn’t. Her “rock star” status has to do with her fame and long stay in the public eye as well as having the smarts to suck up to the press. But for all of her intelligence and abilities, this is not the profile of someone who was ever likely to be president. Though Barack Obama has been a terrible president in most respects, even reading the most flattering coverage of Clinton reminds us why he’s sitting in the Oval Office and she never will.

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West Must Help Syrian Rebels

The news from Syria suggests that the balance of power between the regime and its enemies is shifting against Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists. Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War writes, “The conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime.” The rebel forces, he reports, number 40,000 men and they control their “own de facto safe zones around Homs city, in northern Hama, and in the Idlib countryside,” while the regime still holds “key urban centers in Damascus, Homs, and Idlib,” which were seized in offensives in February and March. The regime has so few loyal forces at its disposal that it will be hard put to mount a major offensive in the countryside while still retaining control of the urban areas.

That point is buttressed by this report from the field filed by Marine infantryman-turned-reporter Austin Tice, who has been embedded with the rebel forces. He writes:

Weeks of observation of Syrian military operations while traveling with rebel forces leave the impression that the Syrian army is unfamiliar with modern military tactics. It rarely engages rebel forces directly and appears instead to rely on poorly aimed and random fire to intimidate its opponents. Helicopters observed in northern and central portions of the country fly at an altitude that prevents their effective tactical employment.

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The news from Syria suggests that the balance of power between the regime and its enemies is shifting against Bashar al-Assad and his loyalists. Joseph Holliday of the Institute for the Study of War writes, “The conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime.” The rebel forces, he reports, number 40,000 men and they control their “own de facto safe zones around Homs city, in northern Hama, and in the Idlib countryside,” while the regime still holds “key urban centers in Damascus, Homs, and Idlib,” which were seized in offensives in February and March. The regime has so few loyal forces at its disposal that it will be hard put to mount a major offensive in the countryside while still retaining control of the urban areas.

That point is buttressed by this report from the field filed by Marine infantryman-turned-reporter Austin Tice, who has been embedded with the rebel forces. He writes:

Weeks of observation of Syrian military operations while traveling with rebel forces leave the impression that the Syrian army is unfamiliar with modern military tactics. It rarely engages rebel forces directly and appears instead to rely on poorly aimed and random fire to intimidate its opponents. Helicopters observed in northern and central portions of the country fly at an altitude that prevents their effective tactical employment.

It is not clear whether this is reflective of incompetence or dual loyalties among the government forces, but whatever the case, it indicates that the Syrian military is not as formidable as it appeared while slaughtering civilians in months past.

The need now is for the West to help the Syrian rebels become better organized. As Holliday writes: “The priority for U.S. policy on Syria should be to encourage the development of opposition structures that could one day establish a monopoly on the use of force. External support must flow into Syria in a way that reinforces the growth of legitimate and stable structures within the Syrian opposition movement.” Achieving that goal will require deeper American involvement with the rebel forces. As I have argued before, this is not a job we can leave to the Saudis or Qataris, lest they wind up backing jihadist groups.

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The State of Post-American Freedom

The New York Times reports CIA operatives are playing at least an indirect role in getting arms to the Syrian opposition. It has become customary among the thoughtful American opposition to pat President Barack Obama on the back for doing the right thing half-heartedly and very late. So, congratulations Mr. President. (See how fair-minded we are!)

Is this the first step in an American effort to get rid of the bloodthirsty dictator—and Iran’s ally—Bashar al-Assad?  Let’s hope so, because it’s become all too clear how thoroughly miserable homegrown liberation efforts are without American involvement. Indeed, one of the most pressing geopolitical questions of our time has become: what do we do about destabilizing freedom movements in the age of American indifference?

The results of Obama’s hands-off doctrine are inarguable.

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The New York Times reports CIA operatives are playing at least an indirect role in getting arms to the Syrian opposition. It has become customary among the thoughtful American opposition to pat President Barack Obama on the back for doing the right thing half-heartedly and very late. So, congratulations Mr. President. (See how fair-minded we are!)

Is this the first step in an American effort to get rid of the bloodthirsty dictator—and Iran’s ally—Bashar al-Assad?  Let’s hope so, because it’s become all too clear how thoroughly miserable homegrown liberation efforts are without American involvement. Indeed, one of the most pressing geopolitical questions of our time has become: what do we do about destabilizing freedom movements in the age of American indifference?

The results of Obama’s hands-off doctrine are inarguable.

Iran’s Green Movement? Stopped in its tracks by the theocratic thugs Washington’s been courting for three-plus years. Torture, arrest, assassination—Iranian democrats faced the full arsenal of fear while the United States pursued an impossible accommodation with Tehran.

In Tunisia, revolt paved the way for Islamist rule. And that’s the success story of the Arab Spring.

Egypt’s Tahrir Square protest turned out to be a military coup d’état in liberal disguise. The only thing threatening the Egyptian army now is the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Without American involvement Egypt has become a war of the horribles, and the public square is a no-man’s land for liberals.

Muammar Qaddafi was poised to slaughter tens of thousands of unorganized rebels and still America resisted involvement. It took Nicolas Sarkozy to lead the free world into halting a mass atrocity. And after reluctant American air power stopped Qaddafi, American reticence saw Libya unravel into a lawless revenge state, while the fighting and weapons reconstituted as a terrorist war in northern Mali.

In Syria, Bashar Assad has gone ahead with the kind of killing the Obama administration congratulated itself on stopping in Libya. The United States has elected illiberal Russia—whose own protesters we’ve ignored—to liberate the Syrian people through diplomacy. It was a move akin to throwing water on a grease fire. Vladimir Putin wasted no time in arming Assad for an escalated civil war.

Let’s put this kaleidoscope of evil up against the conventional wisdom of today’s foreign policy elite. Peter Beinart looked upon the early fruits of the Arab Spring and declared, “The lesson is that even in a post-American world, democracy has legs.” Thomas Friedman looked upon the same and offered a droll warning of his own: “Let’s root for it, without being in the middle of it.” And Fareed Zakaria, the real-time historian of the post-American world, saw that “for the first time in perhaps a millennium, the Arab people are taking charge of their own affairs,” and praised the Libya operation as “a new model in that it involved an America that insisted on legitimacy and burden sharing, that allowed the locals to own their revolution.”

All these claims were very fashionable in their anti-Bush sentiment, but time has exposed them as weak and unsuited to reality. A post-American world is taking shape, but it’s a much nastier place than the American world that birthed it. Locals are indeed owning their own revolutions—revolutions that flail and die out while America “roots” for democracy on the sidelines.

There is a debate to be had about both the moral and strategic consequences of American intervention. There is a much stickier debate to be had about the shape and extent of such intervention. But let us not flatter ourselves that America has been doing the right and good thing by ignoring this tectonic upheaval and showing indifference to the few liberal friends we have in the lands of autocracy and fanaticism.

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The Media’s Apocalyptic Vision of Richard Mourdock

Conservatives often complain that when the mainstream media is forced by events to pay attention to conservative views they have long ignored, the tone of the reporting often is that of an anthropological grant application. The reporters brave the native habitat of conservatives and find that they’re practically human. But that’s actually better than what we witnessed after Richard Mourdock defeated Richard Lugar in the Indiana GOP Senate primary this week.

Lugar, you may have heard, has been in the Senate a very long time, and he is a statesman and throwback to the gilded era of Republican acquiescence–sorry, bipartisanship, and statesmanship. A true mensch, a centrist Republican, Dick Lugar was, above all, a statesman, we are now told. But what about Mourdock, the man vying to replace Lugar in the Senate? Is he a statesman? Let’s find out, by reading some of the liberal write-ups of the election. The results may surprise you.

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Conservatives often complain that when the mainstream media is forced by events to pay attention to conservative views they have long ignored, the tone of the reporting often is that of an anthropological grant application. The reporters brave the native habitat of conservatives and find that they’re practically human. But that’s actually better than what we witnessed after Richard Mourdock defeated Richard Lugar in the Indiana GOP Senate primary this week.

Lugar, you may have heard, has been in the Senate a very long time, and he is a statesman and throwback to the gilded era of Republican acquiescence–sorry, bipartisanship, and statesmanship. A true mensch, a centrist Republican, Dick Lugar was, above all, a statesman, we are now told. But what about Mourdock, the man vying to replace Lugar in the Senate? Is he a statesman? Let’s find out, by reading some of the liberal write-ups of the election. The results may surprise you.

Salon, for example, carries a story titled “Republican Party: Hawks-only club.” The article details how Mourdock’s victory makes the GOP uniformly hawkish on foreign policy. Most of the article is an explanation of why liberals liked Lugar so much, but finally the author gives us the damage: “In practical terms, Lugar’s loss means that U.S. foreign policy will be less civilized, less responsible and less effective.”

I noticed something was missing from this article, however: it omits any mention whatsoever of Richard Mourdock’s views on foreign policy. This is a rather glaring omission, but maybe the reporter’s instincts are right.

To find out, let’s head on over to an expert on foreign policy, Tom Ricks. Ricks maintains a blog on Foreign Policy’s website, and sure enough he weighed in on Mourdock’s victory. He, too, was horrified by the erosion of the foreign policy center. But he has a somewhat different take on what it means. Mourdock’s victory, Ricks admits, “makes me wonder if the great Midwest is turning away from internationalism and back to its pre-World War II isolationism.”

So Salon was wrong? Mourdock is the opposite of a hawkish hawk? He’s actually an isolationist? I wondered what led Ricks to this conclusion, but his post didn’t help me answer that question, because Ricks doesn’t even mention Mourdock’s name, let alone Mourdock’s views on foreign policy.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Reporters sometimes trick politicians into revealing what they think by employing an age-old tactic commonly referred to as “asking them questions.” It turns out that some reporters did. Richard Mourdock, as a supporter of cutting the Pentagon’s budget and skeptical of the mission in Afghanistan, is not a superhawk, as Salon would have it. But he also believes America plays an important role in the world, and that it must not retreat from its responsibilities around the globe. So he isn’t an isolationist either.

But if he’s starting to sound like a mainstream candidate, he’s got you fooled. Richard Mourdock is, according to the sandwich board Jonathan Chait has been wearing around town, the harbinger of doom. This is an interesting point of view coming from Chait, who is the author of the magnum opus of leftist anti-intellectualism and anthem of paranoid incivility, “Mad About You: The Case for Bush Hatred.” Some things have changed since Chait published his plea for incivility–namely, we have a Democratic president. So now it’s time to protect “social norms”–specifically, he says, court-related social norms permitting the confirmation of a president’s court picks. Mourdock cited Lugar’s support for President Obama’s Supreme Court picks in his case against the incumbent senator, mirroring a Republican approach to politics that is, in Chait’s view, bringing upon us a “crisis of American government.”

Some have pointed out that the collapse of the nomination process was brought about by Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden when they took a sledgehammer to “social norms” during the confirmation process of Robert Bork. That’s true. But I’d like to defend Chait somewhat. I, too, have been concerned about the collapse of social norms.

For example, it was once a social norm never to use the filibuster against a circuit court nominee. But then George W. Bush nominated Miguel Estrada, an undeniably qualified candidate, to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The Democrats were playing the long game, however, and were willing to buck social norms in order to prevent the Republicans from starting a process that would end with a conservative Hispanic judge on the Supreme Court. So they blocked Estrada.

In October 2003, the Associated Press reported that Democrats were preparing to expand their use of the filibuster to everything the GOP put forward. “Perhaps we ought to prepare some bumper stickers that say ‘Obstruction: It’s not just for judges anymore’,” remarked Republican John Cornyn.

More recently, Harry Reid has perfected a tactic called “filling the tree” to prevent Republicans from even being able to offer amendments on bills. Reid and the Democrats are, it turns out, innovators in the means to tear down social norms and prevent the government from functioning as it was intended. In fact, it’s now been more than three years since Reid’s Senate passed a budget.

But hey, at least he didn’t criticize a Democratic nominee who was confirmed anyway. Now that would just be uncivil.

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What Price Friendship?

If President Obama wrote a thesaurus, he’d probably list “friendship” and “respect” as synonyms. When he and his allies seek affirmation for their foreign policy, they cite the friendly relations they have with some of the world’s worst dictators and would-be dictators.

Obama is willing to hand dissidents and defectors back to their oppressors; write human rights off the agenda with Russia; and calls Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one of his closest friends. Previously, he reached out to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

Establishing friendly relations with dictators is not hard: All one needs to do is cede all principle and give them everything they want. Take Kim Jong-un: While even Obama would not go so far, he could make the young North Korean demigod America’s closest ally if only he would abandon South Korea, withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula, and provide all the luxury goods money could buy.

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If President Obama wrote a thesaurus, he’d probably list “friendship” and “respect” as synonyms. When he and his allies seek affirmation for their foreign policy, they cite the friendly relations they have with some of the world’s worst dictators and would-be dictators.

Obama is willing to hand dissidents and defectors back to their oppressors; write human rights off the agenda with Russia; and calls Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan one of his closest friends. Previously, he reached out to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

Establishing friendly relations with dictators is not hard: All one needs to do is cede all principle and give them everything they want. Take Kim Jong-un: While even Obama would not go so far, he could make the young North Korean demigod America’s closest ally if only he would abandon South Korea, withdraw U.S. forces from the Korean peninsula, and provide all the luxury goods money could buy.

To court Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, Obama effectively throws Great Britain under the bus and suggests merit in her claims to the Falkland Islands. To support the “reset” with Russia, the Obama administration basically allowed Russian strongman Vladimir Putin to dictate terms for the START Treaty; and to better relations with Iran, Obama has ceded Iran not only the right to enrich uranium despite hard-fought UN Security Council resolutions declaring the opposite, but with a nod and a wink decided to allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapons capability, basically putting Iran within a week of building a bomb whenever its leaders choose to take that step. That Iranian powers-that-be make clear they will never allow rapprochement with Washington is simply a fact Obama chooses to ignore.

Obama’s embrace of Turkey has been little better: To win Erdoğan’s friendship, Obama not only turned a blind eye to the Turkish populists’ efforts to curtail civil rights and liberties but also his embrace of terrorism and religious incitement. While Obama can point to Turkey’s participation in Afghanistan, the Turks have hardly been onboard with American goals there. To win Erdoğan’s embrace, Obama has had to turn a blind eye toward the prime minister’s loathing of Israel, a deep-rooted hatred which now interferes with U.S. and NATO core interests. With an intelligence chief who openly sympathizes with Iran, and a military which seeks to reverse engineer American technology, military cooperation with Turkey comes at a high price. The only silver lining radar system is a different story, but even that cooperation is less than meets the eye.

The 2012 presidential election will be far more about the economy than foreign policy. Governor Mitt Romney is staking a clear position vis-à-vis both Iran and Israel, but when it comes to countries like Turkey, it might be time for him to explain whether maintaining the ties between Washington and Ankara are worth the cost.

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Obama Will Have to Walk Fine Line on Foreign Policy Message

Vice President Biden gave a foreign policy address at NYU this morning, which, as you could probably guess, included numerous references to the fact that Osama bin Laden is no longer alive. But Biden also floated a new addition to the campaign’s OBL-centric foreign policy message by warning that a Mitt Romney presidency would be a rerun of the George W. Bush years.

“[Romney] takes us back to the failed policies that President Obama has dug us out of,” said Biden. “He would take us back to dangerous and discredited policy that would…make America less secure.”

The bulk of Biden’s speech was focused on attacking Romney. But it was full of apparent contradictions: Romney is too much of a hard-liner, but also can’t be counted on to make tough decisions. Romney is too inexperienced, and yet Obama was fully prepared in 2008. Romney has no interest in foreign policy and would outsource decisions to the State Department, and yet he’s also a dangerous ideologue who is “mired in a Cold War mindset.”

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Vice President Biden gave a foreign policy address at NYU this morning, which, as you could probably guess, included numerous references to the fact that Osama bin Laden is no longer alive. But Biden also floated a new addition to the campaign’s OBL-centric foreign policy message by warning that a Mitt Romney presidency would be a rerun of the George W. Bush years.

“[Romney] takes us back to the failed policies that President Obama has dug us out of,” said Biden. “He would take us back to dangerous and discredited policy that would…make America less secure.”

The bulk of Biden’s speech was focused on attacking Romney. But it was full of apparent contradictions: Romney is too much of a hard-liner, but also can’t be counted on to make tough decisions. Romney is too inexperienced, and yet Obama was fully prepared in 2008. Romney has no interest in foreign policy and would outsource decisions to the State Department, and yet he’s also a dangerous ideologue who is “mired in a Cold War mindset.”

The speech illustrated the difficult line the Obama campaign will have to walk on its foreign policy message. It will have to simultaneously tout its accomplishments, which have practically all been achieved through the continuation (and escalation) of robust, Bush-era policies, while attacking Romney as Bush redux.

Yes, Obama has succeeded at killing a large number of al-Qaeda targets – but he did this by ramping up the drone program. Yes, Obama was able to locate and kill Osama bin Laden – but he did this by using intelligence and gathering methods put into place by the Bush administration. Yes, Obama has increased Iran’s isolation in the world – but only because hawks in Congress strong-armed him into implementing sanctions that he originally opposed.

Biden had to argue today that Romney would be too meek and indecisive to accomplish these things, but was also so hawkish and ideological that he would lead the U.S. into dangerous conflicts. It was a disjointed message, and one that didn’t draw much applause from the audience full of NYU students at the College Democrat event.

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Rubio Blasts Republican Isolationists

Jonathan is right, Marco Rubio is far more prepared for the VP slot than Sarah Palin in 2008. Case in point: he delivered an impressive speech on foreign policy earlier today at the Brookings Institute. He even lost the last page of his remarks (every speaker’s nightmare) but managed to take it in stride.

The full text of the speech is worth reading here, but his direct repudiation of the isolationist streak within his own party is drawing the most attention:

I am always cautious about generalizations but until very recently, the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate had shifted.

On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand, I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.

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Jonathan is right, Marco Rubio is far more prepared for the VP slot than Sarah Palin in 2008. Case in point: he delivered an impressive speech on foreign policy earlier today at the Brookings Institute. He even lost the last page of his remarks (every speaker’s nightmare) but managed to take it in stride.

The full text of the speech is worth reading here, but his direct repudiation of the isolationist streak within his own party is drawing the most attention:

I am always cautious about generalizations but until very recently, the general perception was that American conservatism believed in a robust and muscular foreign policy. That was certainly the hallmark of the foreign policy of President Reagan, and both President Bush’s. But when I arrived in the Senate last year I found that some of the traditional sides in the foreign policy debate had shifted.

On the one hand, I found liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans working together to advocate our withdrawal from Afghanistan, and staying out of Libya. On the other hand, I found myself partnering with Democrats like Bob Menendez and Bob Casey on a more forceful foreign policy. In fact, resolutions that I co-authored with Senator Casey condemning Assad and with Senator Menendez condemning fraudulent elections in Nicaragua were held up by Republicans. I recently joked that today, in the U.S. Senate, on foreign policy, if you go far enough to the right, you wind up on the left.

The far-left and far-right don’t just agree on the embrace of American decline, but also on the other problematic attitudes that tend to go along with isolationism and non-interventionism, including antipathy toward Israel and indifference to human rights in other countries. As a young senator elected with Tea Party support, Rubio is in a prime position to rebut creeping isolationism/non-interventionism among the conservative grassroots.

Rubio gave a broad outline of his vision for U.S. foreign policy, which is heavily influenced by Robert Kagan’s arguments on the myth of American decline (Kagan has also advised Romney on foreign policy). Rubio spoke passionately about human rights and called the spread of political and economic freedom across the world “a vital interest” for the U.S. He acknowledged that working in coalitions with other countries is often helpful, but added that these coalitions are most successful when the U.S. takes the lead. And he argued that if military action needs to be used against Iran, then Israel shouldn’t be left to shoulder the burden on its own.

Still, this is a speech that Rubio could have delayed for a few months. The fact that he decided to give it today, at the height of speculation over his possible VP nod, seems to indicate that he’s either interested in the job, or just wants to give the impression that he is.

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Mearsheimer’s Conspiracies Get Wackier

On Sunday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired a feature examining the special relationship between Israel and the United States. The special included three academics and John Mearsheimer, of The Israel Lobby fame. Mearsheimer outdid himself.

Mearsheimer’s misreads why successive U.S. administrations embraced Israel from the Kennedy administration onwards. President Eisenhower, of course, sought to cast his lot with the Arabs—handing Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser his greatest victory—but learned quickly that Arab states made poor allies. Israel may have been only one state among many in the Middle East, but each White House quickly learned that against the context of the Cold War, Israel had America’s back.

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On Sunday, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired a feature examining the special relationship between Israel and the United States. The special included three academics and John Mearsheimer, of The Israel Lobby fame. Mearsheimer outdid himself.

Mearsheimer’s misreads why successive U.S. administrations embraced Israel from the Kennedy administration onwards. President Eisenhower, of course, sought to cast his lot with the Arabs—handing Arab nationalist leader Gamal Abdul Nasser his greatest victory—but learned quickly that Arab states made poor allies. Israel may have been only one state among many in the Middle East, but each White House quickly learned that against the context of the Cold War, Israel had America’s back.

As Mearsheimer heads to the present day, he rehashes his usual talking “It’s also important to recognize that supporters of Israel have great influence in the American media,” he claims although, fortunately, he leaves out the lobby’s penchant for making Hamantaschen from the blood of Christian children.

That Mearsheimer claims, “there’s no meaningful Arab lobby” is risible, however. If one accepts Mearsheimer’s definition that “the lobby is a loose coalition of individuals and groups that work actively to push US foreign policy in a pro-Israel direction,” then Mearsheimer might be called part of the “Hamas lobby” in America, as he and his friends seek to push the United States in the opposite direction.

It is when the radio host turns to the end of the Cold War that Mearsheimer takes his conspiracies to a new level:

There is no question that as a result of the 1979 revolution in Iran and the subsequent hostage crisis, that the United States had bad relations with Iran. However, the Iranians were very interested at different points in the 1990s and even in the 2000s in trying to improve relations with the United States, and the United States itself was interested in improving its relations with Iran. But this never happened and the main reason is that Israel was deeply committed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to making Iran the bogeyman for the United States and for Israel in the Middle East

Now, there certainly was optimism in certain circles once Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989 that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Rafsanjani would change Iran’s direction. That was reflected in George H.W. Bush’s inaugural address. But the elder Bush—even with Brent Scowcroft at his side—quickly learned that Iran was not serious. Israel had nothing to do with it.  The same lesson was learned by Austria and Germany, both sites of Iranian assassinations in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course, there was also the Khobar Towers attack. Mohammad Khatami, but Khatami’s attempts at may have charmed Mearsheimer even superficial reform foundered against the opposition of hardliners and regime-sponsored vigilante groups. Mearsheimer is ignorant if he does not realize that it was during the 1980s and 1990s that Iran revived its nuclear and ballistic missile program, and built a formidable base almost from scratch.  It was during the period that it solicited the assistance of rogue Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, as well.

Mearsheimer’s animus blinds him to reality, however, and so he continues:

The Israelis understood that in the absence of the Soviet Union there was no strategic room for a special relationship. So what was needed was to create a threat, a common threat. I think the Israelis concluded in the early ‘90s that Iran was that threat. And since the early 1990s, the Israelis have worked overtime to portray Iran as the second coming of the Third Reich and to make the argument that the United States cannot engage in diplomacy with Iran. And of course there are all sorts of evidence that that’s what’s happening today with regard to the Iranian nuclear program.

That’s right: According to Mearsheimer, the Israelis and the “Israel lobby” manufactured the Iranian nuclear threat so that Israel could entrap the United States. Never mind Iran’s repeated threats to eradicate the Jewish state. Here, Mearsheimer displays an obsession not only with American Jews, but also an almost racist condescension toward Iranians whom he does not credit as independent actors. Nor does Mearsheimer accept—perhaps his ideological blinders prevent him from seeing—Iranian aggression toward American troops or its aid and assistance to Al Qaeda including free passage for the 9/11 hijackers, or its increasing bellicosity in the Persian Gulf.

In every generation brings a new class of useful idiots who allow ideology to blind them to reality. In Mr. Mearsheimer, they have found their chairman.

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