Commentary Magazine


Topic: We Can

RE: “Yes We Can, But…”

As Pete pointed out, the president’s appearance on Jon Stewart’s show was a telling one. It’s not only we conservatives who think it was a bad outing for Obama. Dana Milbank observes:

The president had come, on the eve of what will almost certainly be the loss of his governing majority, to plead his case before Jon Stewart, gatekeeper of the disillusioned left. But instead of displaying the sizzle that won him an army of youthful supporters two years ago, Obama had a Brownie moment.

Obama may have thought that he’d get the “cool kid” treatment — the condescending left is full of his kind of people, after all — but, instead, he was the butt of the joke. Milbank continues:

“In fairness,” the president replied defensively, “Larry Summers did a heckuva job.”

“You don’t want to use that phrase, dude,” Stewart recommended with a laugh.

Dude. The indignity of a comedy show host calling the commander in chief “dude” pretty well captured the moment for Obama. He was making this first-ever appearance by a president on the Daily Show as part of a long-shot effort to rekindle the spirit of ’08. In the Daily Show, Obama had a friendly host and an even friendlier crowd.

And yet he wound up looking neither cool nor presidential. Milbank suggests that this was an attempt to compensate for a lousy MTV outing. (Then, “he was serious and defensive, pointing a finger at his host several times as he quarreled with the premise of a question.”) But it was really an attempt to compensate for a lousy two years.

In a real sense, Obama has tried to maintain two contradictory roles. On the one hand, he wants to be the darling of the left and of the cultural elites. He sneers at middle America, turns up his nose at “triumphalism” (as he described pride in the Iraq war effort), finds shoddy our record on human rights, attacks Wall Street, and finds American exceptionalism gauche. But he is also president, commander in chief, attempting to encourage an economic revival, leader of a major national party, and — most important from his perspective — up for re-election in 2012. The darling of the left runs headlong into thechief executive/presidential 2012 candidate. We saw the dramatic clash of these two roles in the debate over the Ground Zero mosque. Obama and the leftist elites vs. everyone else.

But here’s the thing about the leftist elites — nicely personified for this purpose by Jon Stewart. They don’t like a loser. Cool kids are not losers. Their spin doesn’t get by the cynics and the wisecrackers. So, pretty soon, the cool kids have something in common with the rest of America: they conclude that this president is a bumbler and not, after all, the change they were hoping for.

As Pete pointed out, the president’s appearance on Jon Stewart’s show was a telling one. It’s not only we conservatives who think it was a bad outing for Obama. Dana Milbank observes:

The president had come, on the eve of what will almost certainly be the loss of his governing majority, to plead his case before Jon Stewart, gatekeeper of the disillusioned left. But instead of displaying the sizzle that won him an army of youthful supporters two years ago, Obama had a Brownie moment.

Obama may have thought that he’d get the “cool kid” treatment — the condescending left is full of his kind of people, after all — but, instead, he was the butt of the joke. Milbank continues:

“In fairness,” the president replied defensively, “Larry Summers did a heckuva job.”

“You don’t want to use that phrase, dude,” Stewart recommended with a laugh.

Dude. The indignity of a comedy show host calling the commander in chief “dude” pretty well captured the moment for Obama. He was making this first-ever appearance by a president on the Daily Show as part of a long-shot effort to rekindle the spirit of ’08. In the Daily Show, Obama had a friendly host and an even friendlier crowd.

And yet he wound up looking neither cool nor presidential. Milbank suggests that this was an attempt to compensate for a lousy MTV outing. (Then, “he was serious and defensive, pointing a finger at his host several times as he quarreled with the premise of a question.”) But it was really an attempt to compensate for a lousy two years.

In a real sense, Obama has tried to maintain two contradictory roles. On the one hand, he wants to be the darling of the left and of the cultural elites. He sneers at middle America, turns up his nose at “triumphalism” (as he described pride in the Iraq war effort), finds shoddy our record on human rights, attacks Wall Street, and finds American exceptionalism gauche. But he is also president, commander in chief, attempting to encourage an economic revival, leader of a major national party, and — most important from his perspective — up for re-election in 2012. The darling of the left runs headlong into thechief executive/presidential 2012 candidate. We saw the dramatic clash of these two roles in the debate over the Ground Zero mosque. Obama and the leftist elites vs. everyone else.

But here’s the thing about the leftist elites — nicely personified for this purpose by Jon Stewart. They don’t like a loser. Cool kids are not losers. Their spin doesn’t get by the cynics and the wisecrackers. So, pretty soon, the cool kids have something in common with the rest of America: they conclude that this president is a bumbler and not, after all, the change they were hoping for.

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“Yes We Can, But…”

President Obama’s interview with Jon Stewart is getting a lot of attention — and deservedly so. There were, I think, several things to note from the interview.

The first is that I wish that most news anchors and reporters were half as good at interviewing the president as Jon Stewart is. Stewart is, of course, a liberal and he came at Obama from a liberal perspective. But he asked penetrating questions in an engaging manner and, from time to time, succeeded in getting Obama to abandon his usual spin and talking points.

As for Obama himself: he was at times prickly and defensive, sounding almost insulted at having to answer questions that are critical rather than worshipful. Now, all politicians struggle with this; they are, after all, only human. But Obama seems to have a particularly thin skin — and is particularly dismissive of those who don’t buy into his Narrative of Greatness.

Throughout the interview, Obama also found himself hoisted with his own petard. It is Obama who created, by his words and promises, almost Messianic expectations for himself and his presidency. He was going to do so much, so fast, so well. Those expectations have come crashing down around Obama. Stewart’s line of questing was consistent. “Is the difficulty you have here the distance between what you ran on and what you’ve delivered,” Stewart asked the president. Mr. Obama did not seem happy with Stewart’s impertinence. But, at least, out of the interview emerged a new motto from the Obama White House. It’s based on what the president himself said: “Yes We Can — but…” as in “I think what I would say is ‘yes we can, but it’s not going to happen overnight.’”

Most of us missed the qualifiers during the campaign.

There was also the kind of vanity and self-justification we’ve come to expect from the president. ObamaCare is one of the most unpopular major pieces of legislation in American history. Virtually all of the promises Obama has made about it are unraveling. It is one of the reasons Democrats will be handed a devastating defeat on Tuesday. Yet Obama not only defended his health-care bill; he called it “as significant a piece of legislation as we’ve seen in this country’s history.”

Actually, no, at least not in the (positive) way Obama interprets it. But it is one of the worst and most politically damaging pieces of legislation we’ve seen in quite a long while.

Mr. Obama’s presidency is failing. Jon Stewart sees it. Seemingly, only the president does not.

President Obama’s interview with Jon Stewart is getting a lot of attention — and deservedly so. There were, I think, several things to note from the interview.

The first is that I wish that most news anchors and reporters were half as good at interviewing the president as Jon Stewart is. Stewart is, of course, a liberal and he came at Obama from a liberal perspective. But he asked penetrating questions in an engaging manner and, from time to time, succeeded in getting Obama to abandon his usual spin and talking points.

As for Obama himself: he was at times prickly and defensive, sounding almost insulted at having to answer questions that are critical rather than worshipful. Now, all politicians struggle with this; they are, after all, only human. But Obama seems to have a particularly thin skin — and is particularly dismissive of those who don’t buy into his Narrative of Greatness.

Throughout the interview, Obama also found himself hoisted with his own petard. It is Obama who created, by his words and promises, almost Messianic expectations for himself and his presidency. He was going to do so much, so fast, so well. Those expectations have come crashing down around Obama. Stewart’s line of questing was consistent. “Is the difficulty you have here the distance between what you ran on and what you’ve delivered,” Stewart asked the president. Mr. Obama did not seem happy with Stewart’s impertinence. But, at least, out of the interview emerged a new motto from the Obama White House. It’s based on what the president himself said: “Yes We Can — but…” as in “I think what I would say is ‘yes we can, but it’s not going to happen overnight.’”

Most of us missed the qualifiers during the campaign.

There was also the kind of vanity and self-justification we’ve come to expect from the president. ObamaCare is one of the most unpopular major pieces of legislation in American history. Virtually all of the promises Obama has made about it are unraveling. It is one of the reasons Democrats will be handed a devastating defeat on Tuesday. Yet Obama not only defended his health-care bill; he called it “as significant a piece of legislation as we’ve seen in this country’s history.”

Actually, no, at least not in the (positive) way Obama interprets it. But it is one of the worst and most politically damaging pieces of legislation we’ve seen in quite a long while.

Mr. Obama’s presidency is failing. Jon Stewart sees it. Seemingly, only the president does not.

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Yes, We Can…Stay Home

The president, today, speaking to college newspaper editors, previewing what he will tell young voters this week: “You can’t sit it out, you can’t suddenly just check in once every ten years or so on an exciting presidential election and then not pay attention during big midterm elections where we’ve got a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans.”

The problem is that if, as Obama said, “we are the change we have been waiting for,” and the current condition of the country is the change “we’ve been waiting for,” why would “we” choose “us” again? “We” might even go with “them” even though “we” think “they”  bear a greater share of the blame for the mess you’re in. According to a new CNN/Opinion Research poll, “41 percent of adult Americans say congressional Republicans are more responsible for the nation’s economic problems, with 35 percent saying the Democrats are more to blame. … But 47 percent of those questioned say the economic policies of congressional Republicans are more likely to improve economic conditions, with 41 percent saying Democrats in Congress have the better prescriptions.”

In some sense, this is really Obama’s final card to play. He desperately needs to reconstitute the flash mob that arose in that stunning way in 2008 before it dissipated like vapor. Some attribute the loss of this potentially nation-changing political force to the thinness of Obama’s message — which did seem to boil down to change for the sake of change. But that actually might do the Obama voter too little credit. What kind of immediate future does a college-age or graduate-school Obama voter, piling up student-loan debt in preparation for entering a terrible job market, see for himself or herself in ObamaNation? Enough to stimulate him to go out and vote for a congressman or senator for whom he may have no particular interest or taste, but as a secondary means of expressing his enthusiasm for the 2008 vote he cast that seems to have delivered so little?

The president, today, speaking to college newspaper editors, previewing what he will tell young voters this week: “You can’t sit it out, you can’t suddenly just check in once every ten years or so on an exciting presidential election and then not pay attention during big midterm elections where we’ve got a real big choice between Democrats and Republicans.”

The problem is that if, as Obama said, “we are the change we have been waiting for,” and the current condition of the country is the change “we’ve been waiting for,” why would “we” choose “us” again? “We” might even go with “them” even though “we” think “they”  bear a greater share of the blame for the mess you’re in. According to a new CNN/Opinion Research poll, “41 percent of adult Americans say congressional Republicans are more responsible for the nation’s economic problems, with 35 percent saying the Democrats are more to blame. … But 47 percent of those questioned say the economic policies of congressional Republicans are more likely to improve economic conditions, with 41 percent saying Democrats in Congress have the better prescriptions.”

In some sense, this is really Obama’s final card to play. He desperately needs to reconstitute the flash mob that arose in that stunning way in 2008 before it dissipated like vapor. Some attribute the loss of this potentially nation-changing political force to the thinness of Obama’s message — which did seem to boil down to change for the sake of change. But that actually might do the Obama voter too little credit. What kind of immediate future does a college-age or graduate-school Obama voter, piling up student-loan debt in preparation for entering a terrible job market, see for himself or herself in ObamaNation? Enough to stimulate him to go out and vote for a congressman or senator for whom he may have no particular interest or taste, but as a secondary means of expressing his enthusiasm for the 2008 vote he cast that seems to have delivered so little?

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No, Madam Speaker, We Can’t Say THAT!

It seems that a staffer told Nancy Pelosi to walk back the crazy talk:

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement Wednesday addressing criticisms of her remarks yesterday calling for an investigation into the opposition of the Ground Zero mosque.

“The freedom of religion is a Constitutional right,” Pelosi said in the press release. “Where a place of worship is located is a local decision.”

She continued: “I support the statement made by the Interfaith Alliance that ‘We agree with the ADL that there is a need for transparency about who is funding the effort to build this Islamic center. At the same time, we should also ask who is funding the attacks against the construction of the center.’”

So we should investigate whether foreign, jihadist sources are behind the mosque and who’s funding Harry Reid’s opposition? But maybe there will be a clarification tomorrow of her walk-back. To be followed by a statement that she’s awfully glad to be on the opposite side of nearly two-thirds of the country. But it’s really no big deal: “When contacted by The Daily Caller, a spokesperson from Speaker Pelosi’s office said that the press release ‘speaks to her position on transparency on both sides.’ He also said that the outrage over Pelosi’s call for an investigation has been ‘overblown.'” Yeah, the Washington Post has that talking point down.

It seems that a staffer told Nancy Pelosi to walk back the crazy talk:

“House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement Wednesday addressing criticisms of her remarks yesterday calling for an investigation into the opposition of the Ground Zero mosque.

“The freedom of religion is a Constitutional right,” Pelosi said in the press release. “Where a place of worship is located is a local decision.”

She continued: “I support the statement made by the Interfaith Alliance that ‘We agree with the ADL that there is a need for transparency about who is funding the effort to build this Islamic center. At the same time, we should also ask who is funding the attacks against the construction of the center.’”

So we should investigate whether foreign, jihadist sources are behind the mosque and who’s funding Harry Reid’s opposition? But maybe there will be a clarification tomorrow of her walk-back. To be followed by a statement that she’s awfully glad to be on the opposite side of nearly two-thirds of the country. But it’s really no big deal: “When contacted by The Daily Caller, a spokesperson from Speaker Pelosi’s office said that the press release ‘speaks to her position on transparency on both sides.’ He also said that the outrage over Pelosi’s call for an investigation has been ‘overblown.'” Yeah, the Washington Post has that talking point down.

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Joe Klein Joins the Chorus

You can add Joe Klein to those who, like Roger Simon, seem to have airbrushed President Obama’s comments on Saturday out of existence. Klein writes [read more], “I’m proud the President said what he did [his speech at the iftar dinner on Friday],” Klein wrote on Monday, “but he couldn’t legally do otherwise: if he hadn’t supported the mosque, he would not have been upholding the Constitution of the United States.”

Yet on Saturday, Obama said, “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there.”

What part of this sentence can’t Klein and Simon understand?

By Klein’s own logic — I use the word loosely — the president is not now upholding the Constitution. He is, in fact, breaking the law. But like Simon, Klein does not seem able to process Obama’s act of cowardice. It simply does not play into his perception of Obama’s greatness.

Fortunately, there are a few liberal voices who see things for what they were, from the Washington Post, which writes that Obama “muddled his stance and appeared to backtrack in the face of criticism,” to Jon Stewart, who mocks Obama’s campaign slogan (“Yes We Can” is now “Yes We Can. But Should We?”).

You can add Joe Klein to those who, like Roger Simon, seem to have airbrushed President Obama’s comments on Saturday out of existence. Klein writes [read more], “I’m proud the President said what he did [his speech at the iftar dinner on Friday],” Klein wrote on Monday, “but he couldn’t legally do otherwise: if he hadn’t supported the mosque, he would not have been upholding the Constitution of the United States.”

Yet on Saturday, Obama said, “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making a decision to put a mosque there.”

What part of this sentence can’t Klein and Simon understand?

By Klein’s own logic — I use the word loosely — the president is not now upholding the Constitution. He is, in fact, breaking the law. But like Simon, Klein does not seem able to process Obama’s act of cowardice. It simply does not play into his perception of Obama’s greatness.

Fortunately, there are a few liberal voices who see things for what they were, from the Washington Post, which writes that Obama “muddled his stance and appeared to backtrack in the face of criticism,” to Jon Stewart, who mocks Obama’s campaign slogan (“Yes We Can” is now “Yes We Can. But Should We?”).

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Yes We Can … Win in Afghanistan

Andrew Exum has posted a short reply to my critique of his hand-wringing article on Afghanistan. He begins on a nice note: “I respect the heck out of Max Boot and consider him among the smartest of the thinkers often lumped under the label ‘neoconservative’.” (I especially like the way he distances himself from the cliched neocon label.) He then goes on to concede, “Boot is right, to a degree, about political will.” (I had written that, although political will is now lacking in the United States, it could easily be manufactured, if only President Obama were to be slightly more resolute.) But Andrew writes:

I think Boot, like many other neoconservatives, overestimates the importance of U.S. actions and downplays the agency of others. So Afghanistan will definitely be a success if we will it? Sorry, but that’s not how third-party counterinsurgency campaigns work. The actions of others matter as much or more than our own.

For my part, I respect the heck out of Andrew Exum and believe his arguments are worthy of a more detailed examination.

Will Afghanistan definitely be a success if we will it? Nothing is definite, especially not in the confusing realm of warfare. But I think the odds are good — certainly better than 50% — that a reasonable commitment of time and resources can make Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy (which Andrew helped formulate) to succeed. Population-centric counterinsurgency has worked in countries as diverse as Iraq, Malaya, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Oman, and Colombia. Historically speaking (and I say this based on research I’m currently doing for a book on the history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism), it is the most successful counterinsurgency strategy there is. Does that mean it will work in every instance? Of course not. But it works more often than not, and I have yet to see any evidence that Afghanistan is uniquely resistant to such an approach.

There are difficulties, to be sure, principally having to do with weak and corrupt government; but those problems were well known a year ago, when the McChrystal strategy was formulated with Andrew’s input and support. What has changed in the past year to make McChrystal’s approach invalid? Nothing that I can see.

Indeed, the biggest cause for optimism remains intact — namely the unpopularity of the Taliban. Public opinion polls show that only 6% of the Afghan people would like to see them return to power. The percentage is slightly higher in the South but still well short of a majority. The Taliban suffer from a major disadvantage that did not afflict successful insurgencies in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba: they have actually been in power before and people remember how awful they were. Some 90% of Afghans favor the current government for all of its myriad imperfections.

The Taliban are able to make gains only because of the security and governance vacuum that has existed in much of the countryside. Filling that vacuum is certainly difficult and will take a long time. But is it impossible? I think not, because our objectives are fundamentally in alignment with the views of most Afghans. The key, as I stress once again, is whether the U.S. will have the patience and the will to see this war through to an acceptable conclusion — something that Andrew concedes is “probably” a vital interest of ours.

I don’t mean to suggest that the U.S. is capable of doing anything; I don’t think we could transform the moon into Swiss cheese simply by willing it. Can we, working in cooperation with international and local partners, defeat a ragtag guerrilla army of perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters who are widely despised by the population they seek to rule? Yes, we can.

Andrew Exum has posted a short reply to my critique of his hand-wringing article on Afghanistan. He begins on a nice note: “I respect the heck out of Max Boot and consider him among the smartest of the thinkers often lumped under the label ‘neoconservative’.” (I especially like the way he distances himself from the cliched neocon label.) He then goes on to concede, “Boot is right, to a degree, about political will.” (I had written that, although political will is now lacking in the United States, it could easily be manufactured, if only President Obama were to be slightly more resolute.) But Andrew writes:

I think Boot, like many other neoconservatives, overestimates the importance of U.S. actions and downplays the agency of others. So Afghanistan will definitely be a success if we will it? Sorry, but that’s not how third-party counterinsurgency campaigns work. The actions of others matter as much or more than our own.

For my part, I respect the heck out of Andrew Exum and believe his arguments are worthy of a more detailed examination.

Will Afghanistan definitely be a success if we will it? Nothing is definite, especially not in the confusing realm of warfare. But I think the odds are good — certainly better than 50% — that a reasonable commitment of time and resources can make Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy (which Andrew helped formulate) to succeed. Population-centric counterinsurgency has worked in countries as diverse as Iraq, Malaya, the Philippines, Northern Ireland, Oman, and Colombia. Historically speaking (and I say this based on research I’m currently doing for a book on the history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism), it is the most successful counterinsurgency strategy there is. Does that mean it will work in every instance? Of course not. But it works more often than not, and I have yet to see any evidence that Afghanistan is uniquely resistant to such an approach.

There are difficulties, to be sure, principally having to do with weak and corrupt government; but those problems were well known a year ago, when the McChrystal strategy was formulated with Andrew’s input and support. What has changed in the past year to make McChrystal’s approach invalid? Nothing that I can see.

Indeed, the biggest cause for optimism remains intact — namely the unpopularity of the Taliban. Public opinion polls show that only 6% of the Afghan people would like to see them return to power. The percentage is slightly higher in the South but still well short of a majority. The Taliban suffer from a major disadvantage that did not afflict successful insurgencies in countries such as China, Vietnam, and Cuba: they have actually been in power before and people remember how awful they were. Some 90% of Afghans favor the current government for all of its myriad imperfections.

The Taliban are able to make gains only because of the security and governance vacuum that has existed in much of the countryside. Filling that vacuum is certainly difficult and will take a long time. But is it impossible? I think not, because our objectives are fundamentally in alignment with the views of most Afghans. The key, as I stress once again, is whether the U.S. will have the patience and the will to see this war through to an acceptable conclusion — something that Andrew concedes is “probably” a vital interest of ours.

I don’t mean to suggest that the U.S. is capable of doing anything; I don’t think we could transform the moon into Swiss cheese simply by willing it. Can we, working in cooperation with international and local partners, defeat a ragtag guerrilla army of perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 fighters who are widely despised by the population they seek to rule? Yes, we can.

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Nonproliferation We Can Believe In

Each day seems to bring news of another ill-advised policy move by the Obama administration. Today’s comes from a May 6 New York Times article quoting administration officials on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, which George W. Bush shelved in the wake of the August 2008 invasion of Georgia. Obama wants to revive it.

According to the Times, “Reviving the agreement has been a top priority for Russia since Mr. Obama took office.” The issue brief on the agreement from the Nuclear Threat Initiative website outlines these provisions:

If concluded, the agreement would allow cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the development of advanced reactor technologies, production of mixed-oxide (MOX, a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides) fuel, and storage and possible reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel in Russia.

There are sound arguments against moving irresponsibly on any of these provisions, but sending spent uranium of U.S. origin to Russia for storage and reprocessing tops the list. Most of the instances of nuclear smuggling since the end of the Cold War trace back to Russia. The latest incident in which the collusion of Russians is probable occurred in Georgia in March 2010 (though Russian officials deny it). Russian nationals have been involved in all aspects of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, from warhead design to the procurement of prohibited technology and materials. Russia also, of course, has an official role in Iran’s civil nuclear-power program, which only complicates the assessment of Moscow’s true overall involvement.

It’s worth noting, moreover, that the agreement could include the shipment of uranium of U.S. origin to Russia from the other nations whose reactor complexes use our uranium under contract. This would, in and of itself, introduce an additional window of vulnerability into the lifetime security of reactor fuel.

The Times article cites a concern from the deal’s critics that Obama wouldn’t be getting enough from Russia in exchange for reviving the nuclear cooperation agreement. But a more basic criticism is that the agreement would conflict directly with Obama’s own policy emphasis on securing nuclear materials around the globe. The progress of his nonproliferation effort to date looks like a vignette from Monty Python: on the one hand, getting good citizens Chile and Mexico to shuffle some uranium around and accept U.S. help in upgrading their reactors; on the other, hoping to ship U.S. uranium to Russia, the nation with the highest rate of unauthorized uranium leakage. Maybe Obama’s proliferation-security advisers should try Hillary Clinton’s checklist method for a while. Whatever they’re doing now isn’t producing a coherent policy.

Each day seems to bring news of another ill-advised policy move by the Obama administration. Today’s comes from a May 6 New York Times article quoting administration officials on a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, which George W. Bush shelved in the wake of the August 2008 invasion of Georgia. Obama wants to revive it.

According to the Times, “Reviving the agreement has been a top priority for Russia since Mr. Obama took office.” The issue brief on the agreement from the Nuclear Threat Initiative website outlines these provisions:

If concluded, the agreement would allow cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the development of advanced reactor technologies, production of mixed-oxide (MOX, a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides) fuel, and storage and possible reprocessing of U.S.-origin spent nuclear fuel in Russia.

There are sound arguments against moving irresponsibly on any of these provisions, but sending spent uranium of U.S. origin to Russia for storage and reprocessing tops the list. Most of the instances of nuclear smuggling since the end of the Cold War trace back to Russia. The latest incident in which the collusion of Russians is probable occurred in Georgia in March 2010 (though Russian officials deny it). Russian nationals have been involved in all aspects of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, from warhead design to the procurement of prohibited technology and materials. Russia also, of course, has an official role in Iran’s civil nuclear-power program, which only complicates the assessment of Moscow’s true overall involvement.

It’s worth noting, moreover, that the agreement could include the shipment of uranium of U.S. origin to Russia from the other nations whose reactor complexes use our uranium under contract. This would, in and of itself, introduce an additional window of vulnerability into the lifetime security of reactor fuel.

The Times article cites a concern from the deal’s critics that Obama wouldn’t be getting enough from Russia in exchange for reviving the nuclear cooperation agreement. But a more basic criticism is that the agreement would conflict directly with Obama’s own policy emphasis on securing nuclear materials around the globe. The progress of his nonproliferation effort to date looks like a vignette from Monty Python: on the one hand, getting good citizens Chile and Mexico to shuffle some uranium around and accept U.S. help in upgrading their reactors; on the other, hoping to ship U.S. uranium to Russia, the nation with the highest rate of unauthorized uranium leakage. Maybe Obama’s proliferation-security advisers should try Hillary Clinton’s checklist method for a while. Whatever they’re doing now isn’t producing a coherent policy.

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No We Can’t, D.C. Kids

Tucked on page 4 of the Metro section of the Washington Post is a story explaining:

Congress appears likely to keep the D.C. voucher program closed to new students but open to current ones, curtailing the hopes of advocates who had pressed for a full revival of the controversial program. The news is buried deep within a thousand-page omnibus spending bill released Monday by a joint conference of House and Senate Appropriations Committee members.

It was buried in the Post. This seems like rather big news, however. The president who strode into office promising “real” education reform and a willingness to slay vested special interests has, along with the Democrat-controlled Congress, been rolled by the teachers’ union. It seems that the Democrats are prepared to let this very successful and popular program that benefited inner-city kids simply die on the vine:

There is still a chance the program could be reopened to new students, but that appears unlikely given the language in the appropriations bill and general Democratic opposition to vouchers. More than 1,700 students participated in the program in the 2008-09 school year. That number dropped to 1,319 this year because applications were closed to new students in the spring, and some students have graduated or left the program. President Obama has expressed support for keeping the program open only to current students.

This is bad policy and bad politics. At a time when the president and Congressional Democrats are plummeting in the polls and bereft of bipartisan proposals, preserving and even extending school vouchers seems like a no-brainer. Help poor kids? Work across the aisle? Sounds entirely reasonable. But Big Labor is not to be trifled with.

Tucked on page 4 of the Metro section of the Washington Post is a story explaining:

Congress appears likely to keep the D.C. voucher program closed to new students but open to current ones, curtailing the hopes of advocates who had pressed for a full revival of the controversial program. The news is buried deep within a thousand-page omnibus spending bill released Monday by a joint conference of House and Senate Appropriations Committee members.

It was buried in the Post. This seems like rather big news, however. The president who strode into office promising “real” education reform and a willingness to slay vested special interests has, along with the Democrat-controlled Congress, been rolled by the teachers’ union. It seems that the Democrats are prepared to let this very successful and popular program that benefited inner-city kids simply die on the vine:

There is still a chance the program could be reopened to new students, but that appears unlikely given the language in the appropriations bill and general Democratic opposition to vouchers. More than 1,700 students participated in the program in the 2008-09 school year. That number dropped to 1,319 this year because applications were closed to new students in the spring, and some students have graduated or left the program. President Obama has expressed support for keeping the program open only to current students.

This is bad policy and bad politics. At a time when the president and Congressional Democrats are plummeting in the polls and bereft of bipartisan proposals, preserving and even extending school vouchers seems like a no-brainer. Help poor kids? Work across the aisle? Sounds entirely reasonable. But Big Labor is not to be trifled with.

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What Few Would Have Foreseen

President Obama’s decision to send a video of himself to Berlin on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which he said that “few would have foreseen [on that day in 1989] that . . . their American ally would be led by a man of African descent,” is not the first time he assigned that world-historical event a bit part in his own saga. The Wall also played a walk-on role in his election-night victory speech, included in a long litany of “Yes We Can” paragraphs (“A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination”). He mentioned it in his Berlin citizens-of-the-world speech, attributing the fall to the world standing as one.

Benjamin Kerstein has written an eloquent reminder that the fall of Communism was not the result of the world standing as one, but of the long and often despairing efforts of certain people to fight a future to which much of the world was resigned:

This anniversary, this triumph, this vindication, does not belong to all of us. It belongs to the anti-communists of all countries and all parties who fought for it, sometimes at great cost to reputation, family, friendship, sanity, and often life and limb. …

Some, like Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, and many, many others, had to face prison, expulsion, harassment, and the constant threat of death in order to make their plight known to the world. …

[The Hungarian and Czech uprisings were] ignored as the march of history supposedly passed them by … until the wall came down, and even the most dedicated apologists had to admit that the Czechs, the Hungarians, and their supporters had been the wave of the future all along.

In America, presidents of both parties pressed policies on their fellow citizens designed to keep the world standing as two. Richard Nixon brought forth “détente.” Jimmy Carter lectured us about our “inordinate fear of communism.” When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” elite opinion considered it unforgivably rude.

“Tear down this wall” has entered the lexicon of great presidential utterances, but the president who uttered it went unmentioned this week by President Obama. Undoubtedly, as huge numbers of people rushed to freedom 20 years ago, few of them would have foreseen that Obama would become president of the United States. Even fewer would have foreseen that one day an American president would decline to join his fellow heads of state in Berlin to celebrate what happened that day.

President Obama’s decision to send a video of himself to Berlin on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, in which he said that “few would have foreseen [on that day in 1989] that . . . their American ally would be led by a man of African descent,” is not the first time he assigned that world-historical event a bit part in his own saga. The Wall also played a walk-on role in his election-night victory speech, included in a long litany of “Yes We Can” paragraphs (“A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination”). He mentioned it in his Berlin citizens-of-the-world speech, attributing the fall to the world standing as one.

Benjamin Kerstein has written an eloquent reminder that the fall of Communism was not the result of the world standing as one, but of the long and often despairing efforts of certain people to fight a future to which much of the world was resigned:

This anniversary, this triumph, this vindication, does not belong to all of us. It belongs to the anti-communists of all countries and all parties who fought for it, sometimes at great cost to reputation, family, friendship, sanity, and often life and limb. …

Some, like Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, and many, many others, had to face prison, expulsion, harassment, and the constant threat of death in order to make their plight known to the world. …

[The Hungarian and Czech uprisings were] ignored as the march of history supposedly passed them by … until the wall came down, and even the most dedicated apologists had to admit that the Czechs, the Hungarians, and their supporters had been the wave of the future all along.

In America, presidents of both parties pressed policies on their fellow citizens designed to keep the world standing as two. Richard Nixon brought forth “détente.” Jimmy Carter lectured us about our “inordinate fear of communism.” When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” elite opinion considered it unforgivably rude.

“Tear down this wall” has entered the lexicon of great presidential utterances, but the president who uttered it went unmentioned this week by President Obama. Undoubtedly, as huge numbers of people rushed to freedom 20 years ago, few of them would have foreseen that Obama would become president of the United States. Even fewer would have foreseen that one day an American president would decline to join his fellow heads of state in Berlin to celebrate what happened that day.

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What Will Obama Do Without Hillary?

Is victory coming too easily for Obama? What we are seeing tonight is the possibility that the entire Clinton edifice is collapsing far more quickly than anyone imagined. As Jennifer points out, her decision to appear in Texas this evening has a “last stand” quality to it — remarkable for someone who only last week was neck and neck with Obama. Yet if Obama’s victory becomes a foregone conclusion over the next few days, he will have lost the most powerful weapon in his arsenal: his battle against the incumbent Democratic establishment. So long as Obama was in a tight race with Clinton, he could continue to polish his reputation as the man struggling to change the status quo. In that context, “Yes We Can” was an empty but sufficient message, one he could ride all the way through the Pennsylvania primary nearly 10 weeks from now. If Hillary is out of the way, the long-overdue examination of exactly what Obama believes willbegin. Clinton has been a perfect foil for him. That stage of the campaign is almost over, and Obama may soon wish he still had the Clintons to kick around for a while longer.

Is victory coming too easily for Obama? What we are seeing tonight is the possibility that the entire Clinton edifice is collapsing far more quickly than anyone imagined. As Jennifer points out, her decision to appear in Texas this evening has a “last stand” quality to it — remarkable for someone who only last week was neck and neck with Obama. Yet if Obama’s victory becomes a foregone conclusion over the next few days, he will have lost the most powerful weapon in his arsenal: his battle against the incumbent Democratic establishment. So long as Obama was in a tight race with Clinton, he could continue to polish his reputation as the man struggling to change the status quo. In that context, “Yes We Can” was an empty but sufficient message, one he could ride all the way through the Pennsylvania primary nearly 10 weeks from now. If Hillary is out of the way, the long-overdue examination of exactly what Obama believes willbegin. Clinton has been a perfect foil for him. That stage of the campaign is almost over, and Obama may soon wish he still had the Clintons to kick around for a while longer.

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Re: Obama’s Surge

Abe, we won’t really know until California comes in, but it appears that once again, too many Democrats simply refused to hope audaciously, to give up their fear, to say “Yes We Can,” to climb to the mountaintop, to rap along with Scarlett Johanssen…

Abe, we won’t really know until California comes in, but it appears that once again, too many Democrats simply refused to hope audaciously, to give up their fear, to say “Yes We Can,” to climb to the mountaintop, to rap along with Scarlett Johanssen…

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Obama: The New Princess Diana?

This was Christopher Hitchens’s question a year after the death of Princess Diana, which brought forth a “frightful binging and gorging of sentimentality” from the British populace, odd in a nation stoic by reputation. The people of a stiff upper lip had quavered. Hitchens is hardly averse to sentimentality, some of his best writing causes a catch in the throat; it is bogus sentimentality that be abhors. The death of a “hyperactive debutante” didn’t merit the wall-to-wall coverage, acres of flowers, and very public, very group-therapyesque bereavement that it had inspired.

As a 24 year-old male — just the sort of demographic he has solidly won over — I should probably hide while admitting this, but I feel the same away about the Barack Obama phenomenon as Hitchens did about the mourning of Princess Diana. And I’ll risk sounding a little self-satisfied by predicting that should Obama not be the one sworn into office come January 2009, the country will look back on this current presidential campaign feeling a similar sort of collective embarrassment that the British felt about their mourning of “The People’s Princess.” We may even be asking ourselves “What the hell was that all about?” should Obama actually win the presidency, a year or so into his tenure when his unpreparedness becomes manifest.

CONTENTIONS contributor Fred Siegel has a brilliant essay up on the website of City Journal that lays waste to much of the mythology surrounding Barack Obama. Siegel highlights the naivete and contradictions behind Obama’s various claims, from his vow to invade Pakistan unilaterally to his belief that hosting a convention with Muslim nations will bring about the end of Islamic extremism. What is most obnoxious about the Obama candidacy is the belief that his mere presence in the White House will end the world’s problems, for instance, Andrew Sullivan’s assertion that the reason to support Obama, “First and foremost,” is “his face.”

Siegel’s piece is worth reading in full, but I’ll excerpt this short portion:

It will be ironic if in the name of post-partisanship we manage, with the contrivance of both Left and Right, to elect Oprah’s candidate, a man with a narrowly partisan record who has never demonstrated a capacity (rhetoric aside) either to lead or to govern. Only Clinton derangement syndrome can explain the alliance of so many otherwise thoughtful people of both parties who speak well of the candidacy of a man with scant knowledge of the world who has never been tested and has never run anything larger than a senatorial office. The question that we need to ask is whether this man—who candidly admits, “I’m not a manager”—can manage the vast apparatus of the federal government. Will packaging be enough to deal with our problems?

Those who think like Siegel are not uncommon, but you would never know it from the media, which long ago gave up on any pretense of objectivity and is firmly in the tank for Obama. After all, a competitive campaign is not only fun for the journalists covering it, it also translates into better ratings. For the same reason that, during the Diana spectacle, the British media didn’t bother to report on curmudgeonly, unpleasant arguments like the one Hitchens raised, questions about Obama’s fitness for office — for instance, the whole Jeremiah Wright thing — are going unexplored (Mormonism has become a crucial issue for Mitt Romney, yet what the Mormon Church says pales in comparison to Wright). When Richard Cohen brought up the issue last month, Alan Wolfe pronounced it “the single most despicable op-ed of this century so far.” Far from unique, Hitchens’s “revulsion” towards the lachrymose “had been plentiful at the time but didn’t stand a prayer of being reported by a deferential mass media that became an echo chamber and feedback loop to the blubbering classes.” Sound familiar? While Diana had her “Candle in the Wind,” we now get the hip-hop video “Yes We Can.”

It’s long past time that we pause, take a deep breath, and evaluate the presidential candidates using concrete criteria as opposed to vague pronouncements that this or that candidate can “unite” the country or “transcend” this or that division, whether it be racial or political or what have you. It may be that Barack Obama is the best candidate at this moment in time; ultimately, of course, that’s a purely subjective question. But I fear about the emotional baggage that people have invested in his candidacy, and what his most fervent supporters will believe about American democracy should he lose. The country will, in short, become irredeemable. Given the unchecked passion already on display, it may already be too late to save this election from becoming marked, like the decade-old death of a blond divorcée, for its “bogus emotion and mass credulity.”

This was Christopher Hitchens’s question a year after the death of Princess Diana, which brought forth a “frightful binging and gorging of sentimentality” from the British populace, odd in a nation stoic by reputation. The people of a stiff upper lip had quavered. Hitchens is hardly averse to sentimentality, some of his best writing causes a catch in the throat; it is bogus sentimentality that be abhors. The death of a “hyperactive debutante” didn’t merit the wall-to-wall coverage, acres of flowers, and very public, very group-therapyesque bereavement that it had inspired.

As a 24 year-old male — just the sort of demographic he has solidly won over — I should probably hide while admitting this, but I feel the same away about the Barack Obama phenomenon as Hitchens did about the mourning of Princess Diana. And I’ll risk sounding a little self-satisfied by predicting that should Obama not be the one sworn into office come January 2009, the country will look back on this current presidential campaign feeling a similar sort of collective embarrassment that the British felt about their mourning of “The People’s Princess.” We may even be asking ourselves “What the hell was that all about?” should Obama actually win the presidency, a year or so into his tenure when his unpreparedness becomes manifest.

CONTENTIONS contributor Fred Siegel has a brilliant essay up on the website of City Journal that lays waste to much of the mythology surrounding Barack Obama. Siegel highlights the naivete and contradictions behind Obama’s various claims, from his vow to invade Pakistan unilaterally to his belief that hosting a convention with Muslim nations will bring about the end of Islamic extremism. What is most obnoxious about the Obama candidacy is the belief that his mere presence in the White House will end the world’s problems, for instance, Andrew Sullivan’s assertion that the reason to support Obama, “First and foremost,” is “his face.”

Siegel’s piece is worth reading in full, but I’ll excerpt this short portion:

It will be ironic if in the name of post-partisanship we manage, with the contrivance of both Left and Right, to elect Oprah’s candidate, a man with a narrowly partisan record who has never demonstrated a capacity (rhetoric aside) either to lead or to govern. Only Clinton derangement syndrome can explain the alliance of so many otherwise thoughtful people of both parties who speak well of the candidacy of a man with scant knowledge of the world who has never been tested and has never run anything larger than a senatorial office. The question that we need to ask is whether this man—who candidly admits, “I’m not a manager”—can manage the vast apparatus of the federal government. Will packaging be enough to deal with our problems?

Those who think like Siegel are not uncommon, but you would never know it from the media, which long ago gave up on any pretense of objectivity and is firmly in the tank for Obama. After all, a competitive campaign is not only fun for the journalists covering it, it also translates into better ratings. For the same reason that, during the Diana spectacle, the British media didn’t bother to report on curmudgeonly, unpleasant arguments like the one Hitchens raised, questions about Obama’s fitness for office — for instance, the whole Jeremiah Wright thing — are going unexplored (Mormonism has become a crucial issue for Mitt Romney, yet what the Mormon Church says pales in comparison to Wright). When Richard Cohen brought up the issue last month, Alan Wolfe pronounced it “the single most despicable op-ed of this century so far.” Far from unique, Hitchens’s “revulsion” towards the lachrymose “had been plentiful at the time but didn’t stand a prayer of being reported by a deferential mass media that became an echo chamber and feedback loop to the blubbering classes.” Sound familiar? While Diana had her “Candle in the Wind,” we now get the hip-hop video “Yes We Can.”

It’s long past time that we pause, take a deep breath, and evaluate the presidential candidates using concrete criteria as opposed to vague pronouncements that this or that candidate can “unite” the country or “transcend” this or that division, whether it be racial or political or what have you. It may be that Barack Obama is the best candidate at this moment in time; ultimately, of course, that’s a purely subjective question. But I fear about the emotional baggage that people have invested in his candidacy, and what his most fervent supporters will believe about American democracy should he lose. The country will, in short, become irredeemable. Given the unchecked passion already on display, it may already be too late to save this election from becoming marked, like the decade-old death of a blond divorcée, for its “bogus emotion and mass credulity.”

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NEW HAMPSHIRE: Obama Concedes, Not All That Well

Invigorated by his win in Iowa, Barack Obama gave a brilliant speech on Thursday. Disappointed in New Hampshire, Obama is giving a stinker. Maybe he’s not the Risen Demosthenes after all, no matter what E. J. Dionne says. It doesn’t help that the big call-and-response line — “Yes, We Can” — has been adapted from the title of an autobiography by, may G-d forgive me, Sammy Davis Jr.

Invigorated by his win in Iowa, Barack Obama gave a brilliant speech on Thursday. Disappointed in New Hampshire, Obama is giving a stinker. Maybe he’s not the Risen Demosthenes after all, no matter what E. J. Dionne says. It doesn’t help that the big call-and-response line — “Yes, We Can” — has been adapted from the title of an autobiography by, may G-d forgive me, Sammy Davis Jr.

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Are There Any Lessons From Eastern Europe For Iraq?

For some years now, the U.S. has been attempting to establish a democracy in Iraq. Obviously, the effort is going very badly and public support for the war is evanescing before our eyes. Yesterday, another Republican Senator, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, joined Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, in calling for a radical change of course, i.e., a draw-down of American forces followed by withdrawal.

At this point, even many supporters of the democratization effort might be satisfied by the emergence of any sort of government that could impose a semblance of order and keep the forces of Islamism at bay. We may not even get that. An abrupt U.S. pull-out might prompt a horrifically bloody war of all against all. It is difficult to see a silver lining in any of this. But as we stare into the abyss, we should also remember that history can be full of unexpected twists and turns.

In the early 1980’s, the USSR and the countries it dominated—all of them brutal, Communist police states—were trapped in what seemed like an immutable stasis. Two decades later, most of the countries of Eastern Europe are burgeoning democracies, and Russia itself, whatever backsliding is taking place under Vladimir Putin, is not the soul-numbing totalitarian edifice it once was.

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For some years now, the U.S. has been attempting to establish a democracy in Iraq. Obviously, the effort is going very badly and public support for the war is evanescing before our eyes. Yesterday, another Republican Senator, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, joined Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, in calling for a radical change of course, i.e., a draw-down of American forces followed by withdrawal.

At this point, even many supporters of the democratization effort might be satisfied by the emergence of any sort of government that could impose a semblance of order and keep the forces of Islamism at bay. We may not even get that. An abrupt U.S. pull-out might prompt a horrifically bloody war of all against all. It is difficult to see a silver lining in any of this. But as we stare into the abyss, we should also remember that history can be full of unexpected twists and turns.

In the early 1980’s, the USSR and the countries it dominated—all of them brutal, Communist police states—were trapped in what seemed like an immutable stasis. Two decades later, most of the countries of Eastern Europe are burgeoning democracies, and Russia itself, whatever backsliding is taking place under Vladimir Putin, is not the soul-numbing totalitarian edifice it once was.

How did such profound change come about? Aleksa Djilas, among the most brilliant and lucid intellectuals in Eastern Europe (and an occasional COMMENTARY contributor who writes from Belgrade), calls it “one of the most massive shifts in the balance of power that has ever occurred in peacetime,” which he traces to “change in standards of legitimacy,” as Communist authority was discredited, almost by domino effect, across the region.

This profound change had many sources, and one of them was the role played by heroic dissidents, who risked their freedom and their lives to bring liberty to their imprisoned countries. Is there an equivalent force within Iraq or within the broader Arab world? Tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are attempting to build a new life under a new government in the face of murderous attacks by terrorist extremists of various stripes. Should we give up on our efforts to help them, or should we find another path? Is there another path? Or should we just call it quits?

In his recent lecture, “What We Can Learn From Dissidents Under Communism,” worth reading in its entirety, Djilas notes that [i]n spite of all its serious flaws, liberal democracy is the great masterpiece of Western political culture and it is a great blessing that it has spread into many other parts of the world. The West has a right and a duty to do its best to make it encompass the whole of mankind.”

Ringing words, but the question still remains: does any aspect of the East European experience apply to the Middle East? The problem of Eastern Europe, it turns out, was primarily one of regimes and not the society underneath. Is that true of the Middle East, or is the problem of the Arab world not only with the regimes but with the people?

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