Commentary Magazine


Pledge-Drive

Does Congress Deserve a Raise? Really?

If there is one thing a sane member of Congress who must run for re-election in a competitive district will never demand, it’s a raise. Even back in the era when Frank Capra was making Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, most Americans thought most politicians (though not necessarily their own representative or senator) were crooks. The idea of paying them more than what already seems like a very generous salary of $174,000 per year for spending the taxpayers’ money like drunken sailors is not the sort of thing swing voters like to hear. So it’s understandable that the only members of Congress quoted in a Roll Call story that generated cable news coverage yesterday — Representatives Alcee Hastings and Steny Hoyer — were men who faced largely token opposition last year in safe seats. Nor is it likely than even their complacent constituents will be all that sympathetic to laments about the high cost of housing in Washington. But is there any substance to their argument that low pay will lead to a situation where only the rich can serve?

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If there is one thing a sane member of Congress who must run for re-election in a competitive district will never demand, it’s a raise. Even back in the era when Frank Capra was making Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, most Americans thought most politicians (though not necessarily their own representative or senator) were crooks. The idea of paying them more than what already seems like a very generous salary of $174,000 per year for spending the taxpayers’ money like drunken sailors is not the sort of thing swing voters like to hear. So it’s understandable that the only members of Congress quoted in a Roll Call story that generated cable news coverage yesterday — Representatives Alcee Hastings and Steny Hoyer — were men who faced largely token opposition last year in safe seats. Nor is it likely than even their complacent constituents will be all that sympathetic to laments about the high cost of housing in Washington. But is there any substance to their argument that low pay will lead to a situation where only the rich can serve?

The reasons why Hastings and Hoyer’s idea doesn’t have much traction aren’t any secret. Let’s start with the fact that the 174,000 per annum salary is far more than the vast majority of Americans will ever make. Add to that the fact that Congress is filled with self-serving hyper-ambitious people who are profligate spenders of other people’s money at a rate that exceeds the ability of the Treasury to pay for all their promises. With the national debt at a record high and getting higher every second, what right do already well-paid members of Congress have to ask for more? Throw in the fact that polls consistently show that Americans disapprove of Congress by margins of 50-60 percent and it’s hard to say that they have earned a merit-based pay hike.

To that, advocates of higher pay say that if you want to get quality people you have to pay them something approximating what they might earn in the private sector. Compared to what they could make as lawyers or in other professions, most members of Congress could make a lot more. But it’s always been understood that if you want the honor of public service, you can’t expect to get rich. Or at least, you should hope to do so by honest means.

Moreover, as this chart shows, today’s Congressional pay is, if you account for inflation over the course of the history of the republic, pretty much in line with or more than what their predecessors earned in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Representatives and senators have always received a respectable salary that put them on an even basis with the upper middle class and that’s true today as well.

That said there is one big difference between the Congresses of the past and that of today. In the first decades of the country’s history, Congress only sat for a few months out of every year. Members went to live in the capital on a temporary basis and then went home. Once the Congress began to meet on a more or less full time basis, members simply moved to Washington and stayed there other than holiday visits home or during campaigns. That genteel era ended a long time ago. Nowadays representatives and senators are expected to come to meet with constituents every weekend. That means those who don’t live within commuting distance of the Capitol are forced to have a second residence. And that’s where the cost of housing comes in.

Even then, that creates a situation where members and especially those with families are faced with a daunting financial dilemma. Given the high cost of housing, this reduces members to the sort of measures that don’t jive with a middle class lifestyle for adults. Without personal wealth at their disposal, members have been forced to share apartments or even bunk in their offices. So when Hastings says that Congress is becoming a place where only the wealthy may serve, he isn’t merely seeking to expand the power of big government or soak the taxpayers even more than he and his fellow liberal Democrats do on a regular basis.

It should be remembered that one of the great electoral reforms of 19th century Britain was the idea of paying members of parliament. Until then only the wealthy or those in the pocket of a patron could serve. Those who advocate campaign finance reform already claim that today. But while their efforts to limit or eliminate political speech are primarily aimed at silencing voices outside of the party establishments or the mainstream media, it is increasingly the case that Congressional service involves personal sacrifices that reduce the quality and the independence of Congress.

A Congressional pay raise or even cost of living increases factored into their pay (which were not implemented in recent years) is a political nonstarter and rightly so. But perhaps its time to consider a housing allowance for members that would allow more of them to live in a more befitting the dignity of their office. We don’t want or need to treat members as if they were high-flying CEO’s but neither should we punish or beggar them merely for the sake of making a point about their profligate ways. Ambition and hunger for power ensures a never-ending supply of candidates for Congress no matter what their pay. But helping to reduce the ranks of the wealthy in Congress is an idea that should appeal to conservatives who worry about whether their representatives understand how taxes hurt growth and the pocketbooks of their constituents as much as it does to liberals. The relative pittance it might take to help get them off their office couches might have a beneficial impact on their work and the quality of recruits.

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Rand Paul’s Worst Case Against the PATRIOT Act: It’s Unpopular,So Gut It

On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul took the floor of the U.S. Senate to reprise his marathon speech in opposition to the metadata collection and warehousing programs that were exposed as part of the PATRIOT Act in 2013. Those programs were revealed in documents leaked by NSA defector and current beneficiary of Russian hospitality, Edward Snowden. While speaking in opposition to those programs, Paul made the claim that the American public is with him. But are they? The data suggests that it might not be true that the nation is standing with Rand as they were two years ago.

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On Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul took the floor of the U.S. Senate to reprise his marathon speech in opposition to the metadata collection and warehousing programs that were exposed as part of the PATRIOT Act in 2013. Those programs were revealed in documents leaked by NSA defector and current beneficiary of Russian hospitality, Edward Snowden. While speaking in opposition to those programs, Paul made the claim that the American public is with him. But are they? The data suggests that it might not be true that the nation is standing with Rand as they were two years ago.

Paul’s arguments against these programs then, as they are now, are not entirely without merit, but a debate over on the virtue of the various information netting and retention programs contained within that post-9/11 counterterrorism bill is beyond the scope of this post. Certainly, Paul’s contention that these programs deserve public scrutiny is not unwarranted. They have been subject to precisely the scrutiny Paul recommends for nearly 24 months. Moreover, Paul would not have had the opportunity to mount a pseudo-filibuster in opposition to these programs today if a federal court had not determined that the PATRIOT Act’s information gathering programs must be approved individually and not, as Sen. Mitch McConnell had liked, as a blanket reauthorization of that sprawling counterterrorism law.

None of this is to say that Paul’s arguments against the National Security Agency’s sweeping data collection powers are baseless. He made a rather compelling argument, in fact, when he contended that the use of information obtained via NSA surveillance programs that was used during the prosecution of a criminal case (albeit against a terror suspect) exceeds the bounds of the powers granted to the government by the PATRIOT Act.

But for all of Paul’s compelling arguments, he also made more than a few unconvincing claims designed to poison the public against the NSA’s programs. Perhaps the most risible contention Paul made in opposition to the NSA’s information gathering programs is that they should be repealed because they are simply unpopular.

“I think if you look at this and you say, ‘Where are the American people on this?’” Paul asked. “Well over half the people, maybe even 60 percent of the people, think the government has gone too far.”

“But if you want an example of why the Senate or Congress doesn’t represent the people very well, or why we’re maybe a decade behind, I’ll bet you it’s 20 percent of the people here would vote to stop this. To truly just stop it,” the senator contended. “At the most.”

“Whereas it’s 60, 70 percent of the public would stop these things,” Paul continued, citing an ever-increasing majority of the public that is supposedly opposed to the NSA’s programs.

“You’re not well-represented,” he added. “I think the Congress is maybe a decade behind the people. I think it’s an argument for why we should limit terms. I think it’s an argument for why we should have more turnover in office, because we get up here and we stay too long and we get separated from the people.”

Yes, senator, lawmakers in Congress who are ostensibly privy to classified intelligence briefings are on average more protective of the NSA’s surveillance programs than the general public. That is not a mark against these programs, and certainly no argument in favor of term limits; it’s an argument in their favor.

As for Paul’s claim that somewhere between 50 and 70 percent of the public would do away with the NSA’s surveillance programs if they had the chance, it’s hard to find recent data that supports this assertion that does not result from surveys commissioned by the ACLU. A recent Pew Research Center poll paints a far more complex picture of how the public views the NSA’s programs in a world that is now characterized by a resurgent radical Islamist threat and is routinely imperiled by self-radicalized, ISIS-inspired lone wolves.

While 61 percent of those polled in a survey released in March say they are “less confident the surveillance efforts are serving the public interest,” it’s far from clear that this majority of respondents would do away with the NSA’s programs entirely. 82 percent of those polled are comfortable with the government monitoring the communications of suspected terrorists. Another 60 percent are unperturbed by the prospect of monitoring the communications of elected U.S. officials and foreign leaders. A narrow majority, 54 percent, say that they are not uncomfortable with federal officials monitoring the communications of non-U.S. citizens.

“Yet, 57% say it is unacceptable for the government to monitor the communications of U.S. citizens,” Pew’s release read. “At the same time, majorities support monitoring of those particular individuals who use words like ‘explosives’ and ‘automatic weapons’ in their search engine queries (65% say that) and those who visit anti-American websites (67% say that).”

The issue of NSA surveillance is nowhere near as black and white as it was when the Snowden leaks were initially revealed. There are some good arguments in support of Paul’s position on NSA surveillance. Those that the senator made at the open of his latest marathon floor speech on the matter are not among them.

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Should Israel Take Obama’s Iran Payoff?

For months, President Obama has been trying to find a way to silence Israeli objections to a nuclear deal with Iran. Up until now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been adamant in his opposition to what he and many Americans feel is an effort to appease the Islamist regime that will have catastrophic consequences for the security of both the United States and Israel. But, if reports are correct, the Israeli government is preparing to make the best of an awful situation by accepting a massive military assistance package from the U.S. in exchange for what an unnamed senior administration official describes as “some quiet from the Israelis.” While it can be argued that expediency demands that Netanyahu seek to get what help from the Americans that he can, with the outcome of the nuclear negotiations still hanging in the balance, this isn’t the moment for the Israelis to go into the tank for Obama on Iran.

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For months, President Obama has been trying to find a way to silence Israeli objections to a nuclear deal with Iran. Up until now, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been adamant in his opposition to what he and many Americans feel is an effort to appease the Islamist regime that will have catastrophic consequences for the security of both the United States and Israel. But, if reports are correct, the Israeli government is preparing to make the best of an awful situation by accepting a massive military assistance package from the U.S. in exchange for what an unnamed senior administration official describes as “some quiet from the Israelis.” While it can be argued that expediency demands that Netanyahu seek to get what help from the Americans that he can, with the outcome of the nuclear negotiations still hanging in the balance, this isn’t the moment for the Israelis to go into the tank for Obama on Iran.

As the Israeli press is reporting, the Americans are prepared to pay what the administration official called, “a hefty price” for Israel’s silence in the upcoming months as a nuclear agreement is debated in Congress. That price will supposedly include up to 50 advanced F-35 fighter jets and anti-missile batteries. Given the importance of maintaining Israel’s qualitative edge over potential Arab and Iranian foes, it’s a tempting offer. Especially alluring for the Israelis is the prospect of more Iron Dome batteries as well as funding for more short-range David’s Sling batteries and the long-range Arrow-3 missile defense.

If, as seems likely, there is nothing Israel can do to prevent the U.S. from appeasing Iran and signing a weak deal that may not even guarantee rigorous inspections, then perhaps the only rational alternative is to accept a bribe from the administration for their silence. The same reasoning led some Arab countries to attend a summit here last week which, though boycotted by the kings of both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, resulted in a U.S. promise about selling them more advanced military hardware. Even if it was accompanied by a weak guarantee of their security that impressed no one, let alone Iranians, the Arabs were not so proud that they turned down U.S. assistance.

Moreover, it can be argued that if Israel doesn’t accept Obama’s bribe now, the offer may be off the table once the nuclear agreement is a done deal. The U.S. has been openly threatening to abandon Israel at the United Nations once the nuclear deal is put to bed. It’s not likely that they’ll be as forthcoming in the next year and a half. Given the ongoing threat of another war with Hezbollah or Hamas, anything that can help augment the Jewish state’s anti-missile defense arsenal is vital.

But even though the outcome of the Iran talks seems like a foreordained conclusion now, Netanyahu would be foolish to throw in the towel on the nuclear question. There are four key reasons why this is so.

The first is that no matter how much of a done deal the Iran negotiations seem, there is still no guarantee that the Iranians won’t ultimately pull out of them. Given the sweet deal that Obama has given them that would make no sense. The president hopes to create a new entente with Tehran but predicting Iran’s behavior is never easy. It is always possible that the Iranians will torpedo the talks in the hopes of getting an even sweeter offer from an administration that is desperate for detente with the Islamist regime. Until proven otherwise, the Israelis should not do anything that would be seen as a seal of approval for even more far-reaching Western concessions.

Second, though the process by which Congress will vote on a potential deal with Iran is geared towards guaranteeing its passage, there is still a sliver of hope that opponents of a dangerous deal will be able to hold support for the president to lower than one-third of the House and Senate thus preventing a presidential veto. If the Israelis were to take Obama’s bribe, it would be even more difficult to persuade many Democrats to vote against the president’s wishes. It would also give the false impression that the strong arguments they raised against the Iran deal appeasement were insincere.

Third, as important as the planes and anti-missile batteries are, they aren’t a real answer to the strategic threat that Iran poses for Israel. As the Arab states have also realized, Iran’s bid for regional hegemony has gotten a shot in the arm from Obama. Addressing Iran’s dangerous adventurism in the region will require more than an arms package.

Last, as weak as their position may be vis-à-vis Obama, the Israelis shouldn’t act as if they are desperate. As desperate as the situation seems, Congress still has Israel’s back and will likely vote in all the arms Israel needs, even if the administration doesn’t request it. Just as important, Obama won’t always be president. In 20 months, someone else will be sitting in the Oval Office. While there are no guarantees, the likelihood is that his successor won’t be making the same mistake and seeking to distance the U.S. from Israel. Anything Obama is offering now will likely still be available for them in the future. Surrendering a principled position on Iran simply isn’t worth the hardware that Obama is offering them. Netanyahu must hang tough and hope for the best, confidant that both Congress and the next president will be someone that he can trust more than Obama.

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We Need More Islamist Radicals in the Pentagon!

The United States has been fighting a global war on terror, or a crusade against man-made disasters, for almost 14 years, and it has been more than 17 years since Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States. (Perhaps President Bill Clinton could explain to President Barack Obama why it’s not wise to assume that declarations of death to America are not heartfelt). Alas, America’s strategy has not yet brought victory. Islamists are on the rampage across Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Nigeria, the Gaza Strip, and the suburbs of Paris.

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The United States has been fighting a global war on terror, or a crusade against man-made disasters, for almost 14 years, and it has been more than 17 years since Osama Bin Laden declared war on the United States. (Perhaps President Bill Clinton could explain to President Barack Obama why it’s not wise to assume that declarations of death to America are not heartfelt). Alas, America’s strategy has not yet brought victory. Islamists are on the rampage across Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Nigeria, the Gaza Strip, and the suburbs of Paris.

Perhaps, rather than adopt a military strategy that takes the fight to the Islamist radicals, it’s time to have American forces follow the advice of American diplomats, politicians, and generals who have long involvement counseling our allies and partners about their own counter-terror strategies.

Take Iraq, which is now reeling from the capture of Ramadi by the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). A number of analysts have doubled down on the accusation that motivating ISIS is Baghdad’s sectarian refusal to work with its Sunni communities. If only Baghdad would include more Sunni tribesmen and ex-Baathists in government and the Iraqi army, then the problem would go away. There’s a certain comforting logic to this and so perhaps it should be replicated in Washington: If the problem is disillusionment among Islamists at lack of political power, essentially, an easily addressable grievance, why not bring more Islamists into the Pentagon? And if they don’t accept the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution in law, that’s no matter. After all, many Baathists don’t accept the legitimacy of the Iraqi constitution, but U.S. advice is that such trivial things don’t matter. And let’s ignore the fact that every time men like Gen. David Petraeus have forced the Iraqis to include Islamists and Baathists in their structures, the result has been Islamists and Baathists stabbing the Iraqi government in the back.

With tongue stuck even further in cheek, it’s important to understand that, even if Baghdad doesn’t have any clear Sunni partner—every Sunni delegation that meets with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has as their chief demand that he not listen to the other Sunni delegations which also claim to represent the same communities—how much outrage the supposed lack of Baghdad’s generosity sparks in the Sunni world. After all, if ISIS’ rampage in Iraq is the fault of the Iraqi government rather than ISIS’ religious and financial sponsors and furthermore, if ISIS’ misogynistic and murderous ideology really is not the motivating factor, then outrages at the Abadi government and, for that matter, Iran, surely explains why ISIS is all the rage in the Sinai Peninsula, Yemen, Libya, and increasingly Afghanistan as well. When Boko Haram seizes and enslaves Nigerian Christian girls, the logic of America’s approach to Iraq suggests that Boko Haram’s motivation is outrage at Baghdad rather than a twisted, religious interpretation that endorses murder, rape, and slavery.

Likewise, if inclusivity in government is paramount, perhaps what the United States needs is not more beer summits or Oval Office lectures, but an invitation from Obama to have Karl Rove and Valerie Jarrett share a desk. And I’m sure Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations, won’t mind alternating months on duty with John Bolton. After all, a big tent always leads to happy, efficient government, right?

Or, rather than implement Washington’s advice to Baghdad, maybe it’s time to live our own advice to Jerusalem. Want peace between Israel and a radical group like Hamas that openly calls for genocide in its charter? More concessions are in order, the more unilateral, the better. So, perhaps, rather than fight the Islamic State, it’s time to offer a foothold. No one would really mind if Delaware disappeared, so perhaps it’s time to pull back from Dover Air Force Base and raise the black flag of ISIS over the Delaware Legislative Hall.

To be perfectly serious, there is no magic diplomatic or political formula to drain the swamp of Islamic radicalism. And while Iraqi governance leaves much to be desired, to attribute the rise of ISIS to Baghdad is essentially to blame the victim.

Can Iraq reform politically in a way that puts the onus of governance on local authorities, regardless of how and to whom they pray? Yes. Iraqis would accept administrative federalism, with certain caveats from the Kurds. Are the Iranians a panacea? No. To rely on Iran is like treating an ingrown toenail with a deadly dose of radiation. But are all the Shi’ites pro-Iranian puppets? No, although Americans treating them as such could result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. The fact of the matter is that Sunni refugees from Al-Anbar and even Mosul prefer to be in Najaf and Karbala than in Kurdistan, because Shi’ite sectarian discrimination isn’t as ingrained as the ethnic discrimination practiced in Kurdistan. Tales of looting and lynching in Tikrit turned out to have been wildly exaggerated. As the Sunni government in Tikrit renewed its function after that city’s liberation, one of the first things they did was work to build a memorial to all of those Shi’ites massacred by the Islamic State at Camp Speicher.

When advising the Iraqi government, Israeli government or, for that matter, the Egyptian and Tunisian governments or any other state struggling against Islamist terrorism, it would behoove American policymakers, diplomats, and generals to consider a simple question: Would the same advice applied to the United States enhance the U.S. fight against terrorism, or would it at best miss the point and at worst exacerbate conflict? Because ideology and not grievance drives Islamist terrorism, the anecdote must address that ideology and not simply seek to paper over grievance. And if the fallacy of an ideology cannot be immediately exposed, then the only answer is to kill the ideologues rather than tilt at windmills.

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How to Answer the Question of the Week

I am mystified as to why Republicans are always so polite to journalists who are, obviously, allied to the liberal side of American politics and are willing to carry water for it.

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I am mystified as to why Republicans are always so polite to journalists who are, obviously, allied to the liberal side of American politics and are willing to carry water for it.

For instance, for the last week, journalists have been asking Republican presidential hopefuls a question. “Knowing what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq in 2003?” All the candidates have answered the question, some better than others. Jeb Bush did the worst job and had to amend his answer not once but twice.

But why answer it at all? The question is a pointless hypothetical, utterly irrelevant to the politics of 2015. Its transparent purpose is to avoid talking about the fast gathering disaster of Iraq today.

So, if I were running for president (alright, no snickering in the back of the room, please), I’d answer in one of two ways. First way, ask the journalist a question. In response to “Knowing what you know now, would you have invaded Iraq in 2003,” ask “Knowing what you know now, would you have abandoned Iraq in 2011?” and then talk about how the new president in 2017 will have to deal with the results of the most shockingly inept American foreign policy since Woodrow Wilson sailed for Paris a century ago.

The second way to answer would be to ask, “Excuse me, is this a history show or a news show? Are you a historian or a journalist? If the latter why aren’t you asking about what I would do in the future, not what I would have done in the past? Are you trying to protect the Obama Administration from the criticism it so richly deserves for its disastrous foreign policy?” When the journalist, inevitably, says no to that, say, “Well, you could have fooled me. How about asking me an honest question?”

As Glenn Reynolds likes to say, punch back twice as hard.

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Obama Insists It’s ‘Not a New Cold War,’ But It Sure Looks Like One

It is a testament to the persistent influence of hard power and the dominance that state actors enjoy in the international arena that the Obama administration’s fondest hopes for Russia’s rehabilitation have been thoroughly and permanently dashed. The president took office with the hope that props acquired from a local Staples and an obstinate commitment to overlook the Kremlin’s revanchism would transform Putin’s government into a responsible global actor. That naiveté has been dispelled, but not before hundreds if not thousands of lives were lost and America’s approach to global grand strategy suffered a variety of debilitating setbacks.

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It is a testament to the persistent influence of hard power and the dominance that state actors enjoy in the international arena that the Obama administration’s fondest hopes for Russia’s rehabilitation have been thoroughly and permanently dashed. The president took office with the hope that props acquired from a local Staples and an obstinate commitment to overlook the Kremlin’s revanchism would transform Putin’s government into a responsible global actor. That naiveté has been dispelled, but not before hundreds if not thousands of lives were lost and America’s approach to global grand strategy suffered a variety of debilitating setbacks.

It seems like a generation ago that the president embarked on an effort to “reset” bilateral relations with Russia. The administration imagined that Moscow had mounted a cross-border invasion of neighboring Georgia and carved off Abkhazia and South Ossetia as a response to George W. Bush’s “cowboy diplomacy.” The White House was shown the error of their ways when Russia invaded another neighboring country, this time outright annexing occupied territory rather than erecting the complicated fiction that these provinces had been liberated from their oppressive former parent states. In the interim, Barack Obama leveraged Russia’s desire to preserve their client Damascus so as to help extricate him from his commitment to enforce his “red line” for action against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad by force. In doing so, Barack Obama consigned that country to years of a bloody civil war characterized by the repeated use of chemical weapons on civilian populations.

While the administration steadfastly refuses to address the conflict in Ukraine outside the context of financial sanctions, none of which have had an appreciable effect on Russian behavior, the United States appears to be getting serious about the threat posed by Moscow’s irredentism.

On Wednesday, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin revealed that the United States is preparing to respond aggressively to alleged Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The West believes that Russia violated the terms of that Soviet-era treaty by developing and pledging to forward deploy nuclear delivery vehicles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. “The State Department admitted publicly last July that the U.S. government believes Russia is violation of the treaty,” Rogin observed. “Privately, top administration officials have known that Russia was in violation since at least 2012, because it has tested ground-based cruise missiles with the prohibited range.”

Two U.S. officials briefed on the options said that the Pentagon has submitted a list of potential countermeasures to the National Security Council, but the White House has yet to schedule a high-level NSC meeting to discuss and decide what to do. Some of the more aggressive options would include deploying more land-based military hardware to NATO allies for missile defense near the Russian border, to counter the new Russian cruise capability. Expanded targeted sanctions and added patrols near Russian space are less aggressive options on the table.

The European theater is not the only space in which the West and Russia are waging a sub rosa conflict. On Monday, American officials were informed that Russia had closed a key military transit corridor that allowed NATO allies to support and resupply forces serving in Afghanistan with non-lethal aid. Russia determined to close that transit route that had been in use since 2008 due to the fact that NATO combat mission in Afghanistan ended in December of last year, although over 12,000 foreign servicemen and women remain deployed there.

“Russian observers said there was a clear political element to Mr. Medvedev’s order, in light of Russian unhappiness with Western sanctions over Ukraine and Crimea and suspicions that NATO’s presence in Afghanistan is being extended indefinitely,” the Washington Times speculated.

Just days after pro-Moscow forces in Ukraine used a Russian-supplied anti-aircraft missile to shoot MH 17 out of the sky, taking the lives of 298 primarily Western civilians in the process, Obama assured the press that America and Russia were not entering into a “new Cold War.” But with military balancing and counterbalancing ongoing in Europe and Central Asia, the return of nuclear brinkmanship, and diplomatic offensives designed to de-escalate tensions becoming an increasingly pressing priority, it sure looks like one.

The United States and Russia have always maintained a divergent set of strategic objectives, but the theaters in which Moscow and the West are coming into conflict are rapidly proliferating. If the president had entered office with a reasonable understanding of Russia’s perspective and its long-term strategic aims, much of the threat the Kremlin presently poses to the geopolitical order might have been managed more effectively.

Better late than never, I guess.

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Ruth R. Wisse on COMMENTARY’s Unmatched Influence

Irving Kristol once called COMMENTARY the most influential magazine in Jewish history. Certainly, no publication had a greater influence on me as I evolved from adolescent reader (arguing over its articles with my father and older brother) into a “frequent contributor” who made it my intellectual home. The magazine did not exploit American freedom to escape from civilizing duty but rather activated the intertwined responsibilities of citizens and members of a group. American Jewry can boast of many contributions to the welfare of this country and the Jewish people, but few as fortifying as COMMENTARY.

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Irving Kristol once called COMMENTARY the most influential magazine in Jewish history. Certainly, no publication had a greater influence on me as I evolved from adolescent reader (arguing over its articles with my father and older brother) into a “frequent contributor” who made it my intellectual home. The magazine did not exploit American freedom to escape from civilizing duty but rather activated the intertwined responsibilities of citizens and members of a group. American Jewry can boast of many contributions to the welfare of this country and the Jewish people, but few as fortifying as COMMENTARY.

2015 Pledge Drive_green_thin

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Resolution for Families of Kurdistan’s Disappeared?

Iraqi Kurdistan might be the toast of town today. With at least four separate lobby firms and a multimillion dollar budget, it continues to promote itself as stable, secure, and democratic; an oasis of sanity in an insane region. The reality is more nuanced.

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Iraqi Kurdistan might be the toast of town today. With at least four separate lobby firms and a multimillion dollar budget, it continues to promote itself as stable, secure, and democratic; an oasis of sanity in an insane region. The reality is more nuanced.

Kurdistan is stable, but security is based on a devil’s bargain. Iranian influence is as great in Iraqi Kurdistan as it is in Baghdad. Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani has free reign in Kurdistan and is a frequent visitor to both Sulaymani and Erbil. There is no phone call or private conversation with Kurdish officials whose transcript is not read in Tehran within an hour, either because the Iranians eavesdrop or because the Kurds deliver whatever the Iranians ask. The fact that so many American visitors see the Kurds are altruistic toward the United States only enhances Iranian power. Kurds may like Americans, but they also remember Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s betrayal of the Kurdish revolution in 1975 and President Ronald Reagan turning a blind eye toward Saddam’s chemical weapons use in 1988.

The notion that Kurdistan is democratic is risible. The parliament is rubber-stamp; the president has out-served his term; and a personality cult surrounding regional leader Masoud Barzani is enforced with an iron fist. Even if American diplomats have little historical awareness, and Congressmen even shorter memories, Kurds have two major grievances about their leadership they have been unwilling to forget.

The first grievance involves collaboration. Documents seized from Saddam Hussein after his fall shows unequivocally shows that some senior members of both Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) had collaborated with and reported to Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service; none have lost their jobs for their betrayal, let alone faced justice. In 1996, Barzani himself invited Saddam’s dreaded Republican Guards into the Kurdish capital Erbil to protect him against Kurdish rivals. Barzani’s willingness to collaborate with Saddam only eight years after Saddam used chemical weapons against Kurds and also had killed 8,000 members of Barzani’s tribe has become a symbol of the cynicism of the Kurdish leadership.

The second grievance involves the status of the disappeared. Kurdish officials often talk about democracy, but what the Kurds actually have is a carefully calibrated power sharing. The problem Kurds have with elections is that the political party leaders will not accept defeat or willing to serve in opposition. They know government institutions are neither strong nor independent enough to allow a mechanism back into power once that is lost. After the 1992 elections, the KDP and PUK split power. Every KDP official was matched with a PUK deputy and vice versa. Suspicion was rife, and war broke out as the PUK accused the KDP of cheating on revenue sharing.

The resulting conflict was bloody. Between 1994 and 1997, KDP and PUK Peshmerga fought each other to a standstill, with the KDP accepting Saddam’s support and the PUK enjoying some Iranian backing. Thousands were killed, but not everyone died on the battlefield. The two sides took approximately 400 prisoners. Some were captured in combat, but security forces loyal to either Barzani or Talabani arrested many others at home.

To this day, neither the KDP nor the PUK will acknowledge what happened to the prisoners and where they are buried. Sadly, not every mass grave in Iraq was filled by Saddam or, later, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh).

Recently, lists have circulated about the missing. Approximately, 200 were KDP or PUK members captured by the other side. According to some of their family members, not all were captured in combat; some PUK members had turned themselves in when the KDP captured Erbil and Barzani promised them safety. They expected they would be sent to the PUK as party to a prisoner transfer; they never expected the firing squad. In addition, sixty-seven were Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas captured during fighting between the KDP and PKK. Eleven were members of Islamic parties that the PUK captured, and 50 were civilians arrested by PUK or KDP security forces on terrorism charges. Today, the PUK anti-terrorism force is run by Talabani’s nephew and the KDP corollary is run by Barzani’s son; to suggest that both do not have access to the records of their respective organizations is not credible.

Recently, according to Kurdish journalists, Karim Sinjari, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s Interior Minister, has written to the KRG parliament’s human rights committee reporting that none of the disappeared is alive. He provided no further details. Many Kurds believe that the KDP ordered the execution of its prisoners at Akre Prison, while the PUK put their prisoners to death in the PUK’s secret prison on Azmar mountain which, ironically, was once a facility for Saddam’s secret services.

On May 11, families of the missing protested in front of parliament. Parliamentary speaker Yousif Mohammed met the protestors and promised top form a committee to investigate the issue, and have said it may even be possible to question Karim Sinjari under oath in parliament. They accuse Sinjari of having a direct role in some of their murders and demand to know the whereabouts of their graves.

Western diplomats may want to allow bygones to be bygones, but the issue might not be so easy. Many senior Kurdish officials have American passports, British passports, Swedish passports, and German passports and it is quite possible—indeed, from what I hear, likely—that the victims’ families will seek recourse in U.S. and European courts when those alleged to have complicity have the relevant citizenship. No longer will what happened in Kurdistan stay in Kurdistan. Nor will the State Department be able to prevent some of what may be coming.

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Obama Needs a New ISIS Strategy

“U.S. Rethinks Strategy to Battle Islamic State After Setback in Ramadi.” So reads the headline today in the Wall Street Journal. I hope that’s true—a rethink is certainly needed after the cascading string of disasters culminating in the fall of Ramadi—but I remain skeptical.

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“U.S. Rethinks Strategy to Battle Islamic State After Setback in Ramadi.” So reads the headline today in the Wall Street Journal. I hope that’s true—a rethink is certainly needed after the cascading string of disasters culminating in the fall of Ramadi—but I remain skeptical.

For one thing, a rethink would have to begin with the acknowledgment that the current strategy isn’t working. But although the White House is now willing to grudgingly concede that the fall of Ramadi is a “setback” (government-speak for a “defeat”), White House spokesman Josh Ernest still claims that “overall”  the president’s anti-ISIS strategy is still working. “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time that there is a setback in the campaign against ISIL?” Ernest truculently demanded. In a similar vein, the Journal quotes a “senior defense official” as saying: “The Department believes the current course of action is the right one.”

As long as the White House and Pentagon remain in a state of denial, they are unlikely to radically rethink their failing strategy. And indeed the Journal article offers scant evidence of such a rethink. It simply says that the White House “is poised to accelerate the training and equipping of Sunni tribal fighters” and to deliver “1,000 shoulder-held rockets” to Baghdad. In other words, pretty much more of the same strategy that hasn’t been working.

What would it take for the US strategy to be more successful? I laid out some ideas in this Council on Foreign Relations policy memo. Among other points, I suggested lifting the prohibition on “boots on the ground”—i.e., allow US military personnel to accompany Iraqi forces on operations—and also increasing the size of the US force from the current 3,000 to 10,000 to 25,000 personnel.

In a similar vein, the military analysts Fred and Kim Kagan wrote yesterday: “A few thousand additional combat troops, backed by helicopters, armored vehicles and forward air controllers able to embed with Iraqi units at the battalion level, as well as additional Special Forces troops able to move about the countryside, would certainly prevent further gains [by ISIS]. They could almost certainly regain Ramadi and other recently lost areas of Anbar, in cooperation with local tribes. They might be able to do more.”

Beyond the military dimension there is an important political component missing in the US anti-ISIS strategy. Obama is expecting that Baghdad will arm Sunnis. But Iran has a de facto veto in Baghdad and it has no interest in arming any Sunnis. Iran also has no real desire to defeat ISIS—the existence of ISIS gives Iran a good excuse to grab power in the Shiite regions of Iraq following the strategy it has previously used in Lebanon and Syria. As long as we subordinate our anti-ISIS strategy to Baghdad/Tehran, it is bound to fail.

The US needs to make a major effort to bolster the power of independent Iraqis such as Prime Minister Abadi and to decrease the power of Iranian agents such as Hadi al-Amari, head of the Badr Organization, the largest Shiite militia. Such an effort would have to start at the top, with President Obama, and would involve sending more dynamic senior military and civilian representatives to Baghdad. The US needs to engineer a political deal to give Sunnis some degree of autonomy, guaranteed by the US. Otherwise, Sunnis will refuse to fight ISIS if they fear that by doing so they will simply be subordinating themselves to radical Shiite domination.

The US is not entirely powerless in Iraq even now, as the administration showed last year by orchestrating the toppling of Nouri al Maliki as prime minister. But ever since then, the White House seems to have ignored Iraqi politics, figuring that its work had been done. As a result, while prime ministers have changed, the underlying reality of Iranian dominance has not.  Indeed, even out of office, Maliki continues to exercise considerable power while Abadi’s own authority is considerably limited.

Reversing the losing course of the war against ISIS will require taking some difficult steps in both the military and political arenas beginning with the dispatch of more US troops. But alas there is no sign that the administration is truly open to the kind of fundamental recalculation that would be needed.  And as long as the strategy remains the same, expect more of the same results: which is to say, more gains by ISIS and the Shiite militias. And those gains will come not only in Iraq but also in Syria and as far afield as Libya.

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Iran Isn’t Budging. Will Obama?

When the Obama administration trumpeted the conclusion of a framework nuclear deal with Iran last month, it assured skeptics that its terms would be enforced by rigorous inspections. The agreement would, the president and his foreign policy team told us, be verified by a system that would grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to Iran’s acknowledged facilities as well as any “suspicious sites” in the country. At the time, administration officials said that Iranian statements saying the U.S. interpretation of the as yet unwritten accord was incorrect were purely for domestic consumption. But with only a little more than a month remaining before the June 30 deadline for completing the agreement, Iran’s Supreme Leader is once again reminding the Americans that their hopes for a deal that could be verified are unfounded. In remarks broadcast today on Iranian television, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there be no such inspections. After two years of getting the Americans to concede on virtually all of their demands in order to secure a deal, Khamenei is counting on Obama folding again.

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When the Obama administration trumpeted the conclusion of a framework nuclear deal with Iran last month, it assured skeptics that its terms would be enforced by rigorous inspections. The agreement would, the president and his foreign policy team told us, be verified by a system that would grant the International Atomic Energy Agency access to Iran’s acknowledged facilities as well as any “suspicious sites” in the country. At the time, administration officials said that Iranian statements saying the U.S. interpretation of the as yet unwritten accord was incorrect were purely for domestic consumption. But with only a little more than a month remaining before the June 30 deadline for completing the agreement, Iran’s Supreme Leader is once again reminding the Americans that their hopes for a deal that could be verified are unfounded. In remarks broadcast today on Iranian television, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said there be no such inspections. After two years of getting the Americans to concede on virtually all of their demands in order to secure a deal, Khamenei is counting on Obama folding again.

As the New York Times reports:

“The impudent and brazen enemy expects that we allow them talk to our scientists and researchers about a fundamental local achievement but no such permission will be allowed,” Khamenei told military commanders in Tehran Wednesday, in remarks broadcast on state TV. “No inspection of any military site or interview with nuclear scientists will be allowed.”

Khamenei said interviewing Iranian nuclear scientists would be an affront to Iran’s dignity.

“I will not allow foreigners to interview — which is tantamount to interrogation — the prominent beloved scientists and sons of this nation,” he said.

That flatly contradicts the characterization of the accord that we heard from President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Indeed, it is, if anything, a toughening of the Iranian position on inspections. Combined with their insistence that economic sanctions must be lifted immediately and permanently once the terms are finalized, it presents a very different picture of the post-deal world than the one we’ve been getting from the administration.

Is Khamenei bluffing? That’s the position of the administration’s defenders who tell us that this is all posturing for the Iranian public and will be forgotten once the hard work of finishing the negotiations is undertaken. But there are two problems with that argument.

The first is that the pattern of U.S.-Iran diplomacy over the course of the negotiations points in only one direction: an American retreat from its positions about inspections and sanctions.

Remember that it was only 29 months ago during the foreign policy debate with Mitt Romney that President Obama said that any deal with Iran would be predicated on the dismantling of their entire nuclear program. But once re-elected, his negotiators walked that position back step by step to the point where the current deal would allow Iran thousands of nuclear centrifuges and to continue conducting nuclear research. Instead of ending the Iran nuclear threat for all time, the deal will expire within 10-15 years. That leaves Tehran an option for a bomb that would not even require it to cheat but allows them to wait patiently for it to be over before the Islamist regime may do as it likes.

Why shouldn’t the Iranians expect that Obama, who considers the Iran deal the centerpiece of his vision for the future of the Middle East and his foreign policy legacy, to fold again? Why would anyone think the president would risk throwing it all away merely to force Tehran to comply on these points when he has never stood his ground in the talks before?

But even if we think the U.S. will try to budge the Iranians, what Khamenei is doing is setting up the final round of talks in such a manner as to ensure that his representatives are in the strongest possible position. By taking such a public stand, it will mean the Americans will treat even the most minimal concessions on Iran’s part, even if they don’t involve actual transparency as great victories. The result will be a far weaker deal than even the flimsy framework that Obamas presented last month.

Throughout this process, Iran has regularly taken Obama to the cleaners on every key issue. The question remains whether Congress, which has given itself the right to vote on an Iranian deal, albeit in a manner that virtually guarantees its approval, is paying attention to these details. It is not too late for principled Democrats to send a strong signal to the White House that they will abandon the president if he doesn’t get the full inspection regime he has promised them. If they don’t, it will be hard to blame the Grand Ayatollah for thinking that he is on the verge of another astounding and completely undeserved diplomatic triumph at Obama’s expense.

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The Myth of the Progressive Movement

When the last of the GOP’s viable conservative alternatives to Mitt Romney had been dispatched, a sense of fatalism briefly consumed the right’s ideological stalwarts. They knew that, eventually, they would be compelled to pull the lever for the technocratic father of socialized health care in America. Those who did not engage in a process of self-delusion designed to assuage their own guilt over this condition raged futilely against the prevailing winds.

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When the last of the GOP’s viable conservative alternatives to Mitt Romney had been dispatched, a sense of fatalism briefly consumed the right’s ideological stalwarts. They knew that, eventually, they would be compelled to pull the lever for the technocratic father of socialized health care in America. Those who did not engage in a process of self-delusion designed to assuage their own guilt over this condition raged futilely against the prevailing winds.

Reason’s A. Barton Hinkle scoffed that it would not be “easy” for conservatives to justify supporting Romney. “And it’s especially hard because it requires them to do the one thing they most revile Romney for: change positions for the sake of political expedience,” he wrote.

The conservative movement that had appeared ascendant amid the tea party wave of 2010 had run out of steam just 18 months later. Some wondered whether the conservative insurgency was a mere figment in the first place.

Similarly, the political commentariat is forever touting the progressive populist movement that they claim is today only just dawning. Though the voices in print and on television that foresee a great progressive tide on the horizon are also surely cheering on its arrival, they are not without evidence to support this contention. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s popularity and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s progressive manifesto, compiled with the support of luminaries like Susan Sarandon and Van Jones, validate the notion that the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left is a broad-based phenomenon.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spent an inordinate amount of time appealing to the supposedly ascendant left wing of her party, even despite the absence of a viable presidential primary challenger. But just as the Republican Party’s base was not convinced by Romney’s unctuous claim to have governed “extremely conservative” as the Bay State’s chief executive, the progressive wing is justifiably skeptical of Clinton’s liberal bona fides.

In opposition to a proposed free trade agreement with a variety of Asian nations, Senate Democrats demonstrated just how lame of a duck President Barack Obama had become when they denied him trade promotional authority earlier this month. In response to progressives’ suspicions of this proposed trade deal, Clinton has adopted a cagey stance on the matter. Though she has taken $2.5 million in speaking fees from pro-trade groups and has called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” of free trade agreements, she would have her left flank believe that she is now deeply conflicted about the potentially negative effects free trade will have on American labor.

On what the progressive wing now regards as the defining civil rights issue of our time, the legal right of gay and lesbian couples to wed, Clinton was suspiciously slow to embrace the consensus position. She came out in favor of same-sex marriage only after President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden did the same. When probed by NPR’s Terry Gross about her evolution on the issue, Clinton lashed out defensively. It was an understandable fit of pique on her part; Clinton’s husband signed the Defense of Marriage Act and a travel ban for individuals infected with HIV into law, both of which the gay community has long regarded as betrayals from the last Democratic president.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Hillary Clinton’s close aides at the State Department attempted to withhold politically sensitive documents from being revealed to the public as a result of successful FOIA requests. This Machiavellian approach to governance is hardly surprising from Clinton’s team, but the documents they were attempting to suppress should raise eyebrows. Some of them pertained to the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, a project vehemently opposed by the environmental left. One of the emails uncovered was addressed to Paul Elliott, a lobbyist for the firm seeking approval for that pipeline and a former staffer on Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid.

“In one email, the [Ottawa] embassy official sent Mr. Elliot a message saying “Go Paul!” after he circulated some potentially positive news on the pipeline plan,” the Journal revealed. “She also complimented an appearance by the CEO of the company seeking to build Keystone XL.” The Friends of the Earth, the environmental group that successfully secured the release of these documents, called it the “smoking gun” that revealed the Clinton State Department’s pro-pipeline bias. Clinton has refused to take a position on Keystone, leading many environmentalists to draw their own unflattering conclusions.

There is a reason why President Barack Obama will attempt to link the trade promotional authority he wants to the threat of climate change in a report released on Wednesday morning. However dubious the link between these two issues, the White House is gambling that the progressive left’s near religious devotion to the cause of reducing carbon emissions will trump their antipathy toward free trade. But outside of the U.S. Senate, where a handful of committed ideologues can derail just about any initiative, is there any evidence to suggest that the progressive movement is worthy of this kind of deference?

If the Democratic Party’s far left was going to advance a truly liberal candidate for the presidency, that window is rapidly closing. There is no shortage of prospective usurpers who might assume the mantle of progressive champion ahead of 2016, but they have been largely cowed by Clinton’s stature within her party. As Republicans acquiesced to the inexorable Romney juggernaut in 2012, Democrats are apparently forced to come to terms with Clinton’s predestined ascension to the nomination.

A truly dominant political force would extract more concessions from Clinton and Obama than halfhearted mollification and lip service. At the moment, neither of them seems to think that more substantive concessions are necessary. For all the self-serving television presenters who are forever presaging the progressive moment that is about to dawn, there is precious little evidence to support that conclusion.

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Elliott Abrams: How COMMENTARY Does It

It’s notorious, and true, that government officials hardly read anything. Memos, sure; nowadays, emails and tweets as well. But magazines? People barely have time to eat lunch or see their kids, so how can an intellectual monthly affect public affairs?

The question is a good one. How did COMMENTARY do it?

The answer is that officials, like all citizens following American foreign policy, need a way to understand the world around them. When prevailing theories fail, when conventional wisdom is clearly at variance with what they see before their eyes, the outcome for senators and congressmen and White House officials is what the shrinks call cognitive dissonance. They may say one thing but believe another, or simply be unable to square previous beliefs and policies with the clear effects of U.S. conduct. They’ve lost the ability to explain the world.

And then came COMMENTARY, offering month after month of piercing, bracing analysis–and value judgments of right and wrong, and clear writing about American gains and losses. Here was an insistence on looking reality in the face. Here was plain argument, seeking no quarter intellectually and giving none.

And it mattered. It shamed some people, and emboldened others; COMMENTARY demanded that we conform policy to the opportunities and dangers that really faced America. In years of confusion and obfuscation, that striking clarity changed policies, and changed American conduct, because it changed the way we understood the world.

2015 Pledge Drive_green_thin

It’s notorious, and true, that government officials hardly read anything. Memos, sure; nowadays, emails and tweets as well. But magazines? People barely have time to eat lunch or see their kids, so how can an intellectual monthly affect public affairs?

The question is a good one. How did COMMENTARY do it?

The answer is that officials, like all citizens following American foreign policy, need a way to understand the world around them. When prevailing theories fail, when conventional wisdom is clearly at variance with what they see before their eyes, the outcome for senators and congressmen and White House officials is what the shrinks call cognitive dissonance. They may say one thing but believe another, or simply be unable to square previous beliefs and policies with the clear effects of U.S. conduct. They’ve lost the ability to explain the world.

And then came COMMENTARY, offering month after month of piercing, bracing analysis–and value judgments of right and wrong, and clear writing about American gains and losses. Here was an insistence on looking reality in the face. Here was plain argument, seeking no quarter intellectually and giving none.

And it mattered. It shamed some people, and emboldened others; COMMENTARY demanded that we conform policy to the opportunities and dangers that really faced America. In years of confusion and obfuscation, that striking clarity changed policies, and changed American conduct, because it changed the way we understood the world.

2015 Pledge Drive_green_thin

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Reconsidering Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen, the 74-year-old Turkish Islamic thinker, has long been the subject of controversy in both American and Turkish policy circles. Born in Erzurum, Turkey, he taught and preached in Turkey for decades. His writings have focused on the interplay between religion, modernism, and interfaith tolerance, though his critics have suggested that his public and private statements were often at odds with each other. He came to the United States in 1999 seeking medical treatment for diabetes, among other ailments. While in the United States, videotapes surfaced which apparently showed Gülen suggesting his goal was to change Turkey’s system to make it more religious. Gülen and his supporters say the tapes were manipulated and his remarks twisted and taken out of context, but others suspected a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Gülen chose to stay in the United States rather than face prosecution in Turkey. After all, then as now justice was not the highest priority for the Turkish judicial system. He has since lived in Pennsylvania, near the Poconos town of Saylorsburg, at a small forested compound with houses and a meeting hall overlooking a small pond.

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Fethullah Gülen, the 74-year-old Turkish Islamic thinker, has long been the subject of controversy in both American and Turkish policy circles. Born in Erzurum, Turkey, he taught and preached in Turkey for decades. His writings have focused on the interplay between religion, modernism, and interfaith tolerance, though his critics have suggested that his public and private statements were often at odds with each other. He came to the United States in 1999 seeking medical treatment for diabetes, among other ailments. While in the United States, videotapes surfaced which apparently showed Gülen suggesting his goal was to change Turkey’s system to make it more religious. Gülen and his supporters say the tapes were manipulated and his remarks twisted and taken out of context, but others suspected a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Gülen chose to stay in the United States rather than face prosecution in Turkey. After all, then as now justice was not the highest priority for the Turkish judicial system. He has since lived in Pennsylvania, near the Poconos town of Saylorsburg, at a small forested compound with houses and a meeting hall overlooking a small pond.

Back in 2009, the Middle East Quarterly, a policy journal which I used to edit, published an article by Turkey expert and translator Rachel Sharon-Krespin about Gülen. The article ascribed malevolent motives to Gülen’s work. John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, in contrast, embraces Gülen’s work and teaching and affirmed his sincerity. Several years ago, the New York Times reported on the controversy over assessments of Gülen, as has Der Spiegel.

In my own writing, I have often been suspicious of the Gülen movement, although as I reflect, I realize I may have been misread the movement. While this post will be lengthy, the topic remains relevant and may be interesting to those focused on Islam and reform, and so I hope to address why I was suspicious, and why I have slowly been changing my mind. Over time, the basis for my suspicion of the movement has been multifold, although much of it had little to do with Gülen himself.

My Ph.D. work was in Iranian history, and while my dissertation did not involve Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, I had long studied his life and writing. Whereas Khomeini today is remembered for his revolutionary radicalism both in the United States and Iran, many Americans forget how Khomeini and his supporters sold the ayatollah to the West. In the U.S.-based, Persian language journal Iranshenasi, Jalal Matini, the chancellor of Ferdowsi University in Mashhad between 1975 and 1978, chronicled some of Khomeini’s quotes about his philosophy and vision for the future. In short, Khomeini told Westerners what they wanted to hear about his disinterest in personal power or the imposition of religious rule, and gullible reporters and diplomats ate it up. There were no shortage of useful idiots. Here, for example, is Richard Falk, at the time a professor of international law at Princeton who had the ear of Jimmy Carter, singing Khomeini’s praises in the New York Times.

Khomeini was not alone in fooling the West. The Muslim Brotherhood co-opted the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. They promised young Egyptians democracy, and there were many Western journalists, diplomats, and analysts who believed them. But the Muslim Brotherhood is a strictly hierarchical organization that does not tolerate internal debate and discussion. Their management philosophy is “listen and repeat.” Once in power, Mohamed Morsi like Khomeini eschewed his promises and any rhetoric of democracy and compromise and began to transform Egypt into an authoritarian, religious state. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may not be a panacea to Egypt’s ills, and it may be impossible to gauge his true popularity given the repression that continues to exist in Egypt, but there is little doubt that his coup was extremely popular among Egyptians, including many disenfranchised youth who had once taken the Muslim Brotherhood at their word.

Perhaps nowhere has deception been as great as with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Diplomats and many former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey—Mark Parris, Morton Abramowitz, Ross Wilson, Robert Pearson, Marc Grossman—swore by Erdoğan and his alleged commitment to democracy (only Eric Edelman was an exception; he alone called Erdoğan correctly from the beginning as Wikileaks shows). They were not alone. President George W. Bush also praised the Turkish leader. “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom,” he said. Erdoğan, of course, was no democrat. Rather, he was and is a bigot and a despot. Neither the White House nor any serious diplomat carry his water anymore; they recognize him for what he is.

So, the West has gotten burnt at least three times by embracing Islamists who preached democracy, only to see their rhetoric was empty. That does not mean, however, that all clerics and others who hold Islam dear are so cynical. To dismiss all such clerics or would-be reformers is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the West finds no partners nor can Muslims find leaders who can push a path which rolls back the hatred and radical interpretations spread by decades of Saudi and Iranian oil money.

That said, my suspicious understanding of Fethullah Gülen was driven by other considerations. Gülen has always emphasized education. This is laudable. The best schools in Azerbaijan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Africa, and elsewhere are affiliated with his movements. These schools do not proselytize, although they do embrace religious values. Regardless, they regularly turn out the best and brightest in their societies. These men and women in turn form networks, help each other with entry into governments or business, and often give back to the movement. Such networks can be secretive, and that secrecy can also breed suspicion. Suspicion can be justified, but it is not always so.

Another litmus test I use to judge movements is how forthright they are. Take the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO): It regularly spins off front groups to try to entrap the greedy or naïve. If the MKO was open and honest, they would just say who they are instead of trying to launder their history the way they do. Now, every Gülenist movement I know does not hide its ideology or its belief in the teachings of Gülen, but the ever expanding network of names and groups created a whiff of confusion. Turkey-watchers knew what each group was, but many others who became involved had no idea they were working with a Gülenist group. Sometimes, Gülenist groups seemed to try to co-opt individuals in organizations that did not know Turkey or who wanted a free trip, in order to suggest some institutional links where none existed.

Also contributing to my suspicion has been the fact that so much of the outside scholarship dedicated to Gülen’s work has been funded by Gülen’s charities. Over the years, I have known a number of his followers, and too often came to interpret his views by their actions. One Turkish diplomat, for example, tweeted favorably about University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt’s book The Israel Lobby, which basically argued that Jewish Americans who disagreed with Walt and Mearsheimer held dual loyalty, an anti-Semitic attitude which has found a following among some intellectuals.

Likewise, some writers for Zaman, a newspaper affiliated with the movement, also used terminology and cast aspersions with regard to U.S. policymakers that sometimes crossed the line into anti-Semitism, and other columnists close to the movement sometimes falsified quotations although, to be fair, they apologized. Also coloring my assessment were the frequent discrepancies between the manner in which Zaman covered stories versus how its English language edition, Today’s Zaman, sanitized the same stories to make them more palatable to the Western ear. Some of Gülen’s followers may be anti-Semitic or prone to conspiracy, but is it fair to judge a whole movement by a few bad apples? After all, while no political movement in the United States is as cohesive as those in Turkey, there are men and women among both the right and the left in the United States who engage in conspiracy, are cynically political and are frankly embarrassing to their political allies. Guilt by association is a favorite past time of some politicos, but engaging in it is unfortunate when it becomes a way to side step more serious debate. That said, even while there are some followers who are bigoted and unrepentant, what is also true of the movement is that whatever differences they have, political or religious, they do not hesitate to sit down and discuss them openly and with civility. At the height of my political spat with the Gülenists, their door was never closed to me (they were for a long time housed in the same building as my American Enterprise Institute office). That shows self-confidence and principle, something that, for example, Erdoğan’s followers don’t have. During a recent visit to Turkey, for example, a former AKP member who once headed the German Marshall Fund’s office in Turkey worked to ensure that AKP members not accept meetings with myself and others whom he considered critical; likewise, the Kurdistan Regional Government also regularly seeks to handpick audiences in order to ensure that every question is a softball. Such strategies reflect a political culture that stresses sycophancy and dictatorial control rather than one that embraces inclusion.

The major basis for my suspicion about Gülen and his movement, however, was how his followers appeared to carry water for Erdoğan. And, indeed, it long appeared to me and others that followers of Gülen were working in an unholy alliance with Erdoğan in order to transform Turkish society fundamentally away from its Kemalist past and to blur the line between mosque and state. And perhaps they were, although, I also recognize it is equally possible that Erdoğan fooled Gülen’s followers by depicting his ultimate goals as far more moderate and democratic than reality has now shown them to be. Many Turks also suspect the Gülenists as contributing to the false evidence used to purge secularists, military officers, and nationalists.

What cannot be disputed is that, approximately a year-and-a-half ago, Erdoğan turned on Gülen and his followers. He launched a purge throughout the bureaucracy which, while not bloody, would nevertheless make Stalin proud. Any one even suspected of supporting Gülen or his myriad charities and schools—thousands and thousands of people—could and did find themselves out of a job without due process and, in some cases, could find themselves in prison. These are men and women who are sometimes responsible for feeding and clothing numerous children and parents, all of whom are now cut off. Erdoğan now demands that Gülen be extradited to Turkey where, perhaps, it would be easier to serve Gülen some figurative or literal polonium tea. Extradition would be wrong. Under no circumstances should the United States give any credence to Erdoğan, an increasingly unhinged and unrestrained dictator.

One of the more interesting debates right now in Turkey involves when Erdoğan changed. I have treated Erdoğan and his inner circle with suspicion almost from the beginning, and was once in a small minority, even among so-called neoconservatives. Many others have come around, whether it was because of Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas, his conspiratorial ravings, his increasing anti-Americanism, his corruption, his response to the Gezi protests, or now the crackdown on Gülen and his followers. A question which many liberals, businessmen, and one-time supporters of Erdoğan now consider is whether or not they should have spoken up sooner against Erdoğan. Then again, the important thing is that they have recognized Erdoğan for what he is. And the fact that Gülen is now critical of Erdoğan gives pause for thought.

But just as Erdoğan has changed with time—even if his ideology has been consistent, his tactics have become far less nuanced—so too might Gülen have changed. Sixteen years is a long time to live in the United States, and Gülen is not isolated. He has seen both the American judiciary at work as well as hospitals. It may sound trite, but seeing how Americans treat each other as equals in contrast to how Erdoğan acts as a sultan can wear off. And, movements learn from their mistakes. Even if Gülen’s followers once collaborated with Erdoğan and caused a lot of damage when they did so, now that they find themselves on the opposite end of Erdoğan’s wrath provides a lesson which many have learned.

Was I right to be suspicious of the Fethullah Gülen and his movement? To some extent, yes. But was I at times unfair to the group? Absolutely. I regret that I once speculated that Gülen’s return to Turkey could mirror Khomeini’s return to Tehran, a comparison which became headline news in the often polemical Turkish press. Indeed, for that comparison, I apologize. Would I want to be judged by the same standards by which I judged the movement? Probably not. Does that mean I endorse the movement? No, I do not. But I am willing to listen to them.

That said, I do believe that while Gülenists and myself have followed radically different paths, when it comes to Turkey today, Erdoğan’s radicalism, the importance of the free market and business, and well as the importance of tolerance in society, and education, there is room for consensus.

Aside from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his Republican Peoples Party (CHP), no political party dominated by a charismatic leader in Turkey has survived that leader’s death. After Adnan Menderes was executed after the 1960 coup, his Democrat Party disappeared. Likewise, the Motherland Party did not survive Turgut Özal death in 1993. While Erdoğan, as president, should theoretically be above Turkish politics, he remains as partisan today as when he was prime minister. He also remains as domineering of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) over which he is an authoritarian lord. When Erdoğan is gone—and he knows that if he ever steps down, he will likely die in prison or in exile in Saudi Arabia—then the AKP will not survive. It will fracture and fragment, and the politics of compromise amidst coalitions may return. In that future, the followers of Fethullah Gülen will likely play a positive role and they undo the system of fear and the cynical use of religion that defines the Erdoğan era.

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Terrible News: Robert Wistrich Has Died

Robert Wistrich, the distinguished and gentlemanly historian of anti-Semitism, has died suddenly at the age of 70. His article “Judeophobia and Marxism” appeared in our December 2014 issue, and his “The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism” in our March 2013 issue. Stephen Daisley took the measure of Robert’s work in his review of the masterly From Ambivalence to Betrayal. I will miss him, and COMMENTARY will miss him, and everyone who believes in the importance of serving as witness to Jew-hatred will mourn him.

Robert Wistrich, the distinguished and gentlemanly historian of anti-Semitism, has died suddenly at the age of 70. His article “Judeophobia and Marxism” appeared in our December 2014 issue, and his “The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism” in our March 2013 issue. Stephen Daisley took the measure of Robert’s work in his review of the masterly From Ambivalence to Betrayal. I will miss him, and COMMENTARY will miss him, and everyone who believes in the importance of serving as witness to Jew-hatred will mourn him.

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Not Pro-Peace? Judge Palestinians By the Same Standard as the Israelis

Less than a week after his new government was sworn in, European and American critics are once again lambasting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His appointment of Interior Minister Sylvan Shalom as the head of the country’s negotiating team in potential talks with the Palestinians is being panned as emblematic of the coalition’s inability to make peace. Shalom is a hawkish member of Likud and has in the past stated his opposition to a Palestinian state. Coming a day after Netanyahu reaffirmed the country’s commitment to opposing the redivision of Jerusalem on the 48th anniversary of its unification during the Six Day War, the naming of, as far his critics are concerned, the misnamed Shalom seemed to solidify the government’s international image as opposed to peace. But there are two problems with this point of view. One is that both Netanyahu and Shalom have committed themselves to negotiate in good faith. The other is that whatever one might think of the Israelis, it’s fair to ask why foreign critics don’t judge Palestinian negotiators by the same standard applied to Israelis.

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Less than a week after his new government was sworn in, European and American critics are once again lambasting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His appointment of Interior Minister Sylvan Shalom as the head of the country’s negotiating team in potential talks with the Palestinians is being panned as emblematic of the coalition’s inability to make peace. Shalom is a hawkish member of Likud and has in the past stated his opposition to a Palestinian state. Coming a day after Netanyahu reaffirmed the country’s commitment to opposing the redivision of Jerusalem on the 48th anniversary of its unification during the Six Day War, the naming of, as far his critics are concerned, the misnamed Shalom seemed to solidify the government’s international image as opposed to peace. But there are two problems with this point of view. One is that both Netanyahu and Shalom have committed themselves to negotiate in good faith. The other is that whatever one might think of the Israelis, it’s fair to ask why foreign critics don’t judge Palestinian negotiators by the same standard applied to Israelis.

There’s little doubt that the Obama administration has no expectation that the Netanyahu government will give them what they want in terms of concessions to entice the Palestinians back to the table. The State Department dismissed Shalom’s appointment with what Foreign Policy termed “a shrug” as if to indicate that the president and Secretary of State John Kerry don’t really care who Netanyahu designates for the job of negotiator.

Like most members of his party, Shalom has been a skeptic about the peace process. He has said he will vigorously pursue a deal with the Palestinians and has a reputation as a pragmatist. But some people are suggesting, as the Times of Israel pointed out, that his true mission is to sabotage the talks. That is hardly likely since Netanyahu has never closed the door to negotiations in any of his previous three terms in office. No matter his positions on the shape of a potential deal, the prime minister views the continuation of talks as being in his best interests in terms of both domestic politics and the country’s foreign policy.

But while others are lamenting the comparison between Shalom and his predecessor in this role, Tzipi Livni, it should be pointed out that having an ardent advocate of a two-state solution leading the Israeli delegation at the talks didn’t make a bit of difference. The Palestinians blew up the talks last year when Fatah signed a unity pact with Hamas and decided to pursue recognition at the United Nations in an end run around the peace process. Though a bitter critic and rival of Netanyahu, Livni confessed that it was not the prime minister who torpedoed Kerry’s initiative. Rather, she said, it was Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas who showed once again that he was incapable of making peace even if he wanted to do so.

That’s a key point that Western Israel-bashers consistently forget. Israel has already offered the Palestinians statehood and almost all of the territory they demanded three times between 2000 and 2008 and refused to talk seriously to Livni last year in what amounts to a fourth “no” to peace. Were they to come to the talks prepared to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders would be drawn they would find that no Israeli government would be able to resist taking them up on a two-state solution. But they can’t or won’t, a fact that renders the identity of the Israeli negotiators a piece of meaningless trivia.

But even if you want to be cynical about Shalom’s commitment to the process, it bears asking why the same people who think him insufficiently devoted to peace have no problem accepting and even praising Palestinians who do far worse. PA negotiator Saeb Erekat has regularly denounced Israel and engaged in libelous attacks on it while always denying it the right to be a Jewish state. His boss, PA leader Abbas, embraces and honors terrorists with Jewish blood on their hands, and has also incited Palestinians to attack Jews in order to compete with Hamas for popularity with a public that links bloodshed with political legitimacy. There has never been a Palestinian negotiating team that hasn’t stated positions that are far more extreme than anything Shalom ever said, yet never are they denounced as obstacles to peace.

Unlike with the Israelis, no one says Erekat’s belief in the “right of return” disqualifies him for the talks even though that marks him as a man that will never accept Israel’s existence. But Shalom’s skepticism is treated as proof that Israel won’t negotiate. Instead of worrying about the Israelis, who have already shown they’ll trade land for the hope of peace (and got terror instead), it’s time for the international community to start holding the Palestinians accountable. Until they do, they’ll never have an incentive to start talking in good faith.

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Obama’s Orwellian World

At his press briefing today, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl if our war strategy against the Islamic State is a success. “Overall, yes,” Earnest replied.

Overall, that answer is untrue. Overall, that answer is insane. Overall, that answer is Orwellian.

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At his press briefing today, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked by ABC’s Jonathan Karl if our war strategy against the Islamic State is a success. “Overall, yes,” Earnest replied.

Overall, that answer is untrue. Overall, that answer is insane. Overall, that answer is Orwellian.

To show how utterly dishonest this claim is, you might want to look at these pictures of members of the Islamic State holding a massive military parade in West Anbar, celebrating their victory in Ramadi. That would be Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in Iraq, which fell completely to militants of the Islamic State on Sunday. This represented, in the words of the New York Times, “the biggest victory so far this year for the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the vast areas of Syria and Iraq that it controls.”

But that victory by ISIS shouldn’t obscure the fact that, according to the Wall Street Journal, “Islamic State leaders in Syria have sent money, trainers and fighters to Libya in increasing numbers, raising new concerns for the U.S. that the militant group is gaining traction in its attempts to broaden its reach and expand its influence. In recent months, U.S. military officials said, Islamic State has solidified its foothold in Libya as it searches for ways to capitalize on rising popularity among extremist groups around the world.”

And those gains in Libya, in turn, shouldn’t obscure the fact that last week, as the Associated Press points out, “The Islamic State group … seized more territory in Syria’s central province of Homs amid clashes with government forces that left dozens dead and wounded on both sides.”

The Islamic State’s gains in Libya, in turn, shouldn’t conceal the fact that “Militants in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Nigeria’s fearsome Boko Haram – all once linked to al Qaeda – have … pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

Beyond all these gains in individual countries — because of these gains in individual countries — CBS News reports, “ISIS has a dynamism and fervor that has seemed to fade for al Qaeda.”

Remember when President Obama pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State? And assured us earlier this year that the Islamic State is “on the defensive and … is going to lose”? Those pledges were bluster, just as was Mr. Obama’s assurance that if Syria’s Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, he would be crossing “a red line for us.” President Assad used chemical weapons — and Mr. Obama did nothing in response.

The world — our adversaries and our allies — got the message. President Obama’s words mean nothing. He’s supine. He’s weak. He’s a laughingstock.

That is bad enough. But for the president and his press secretary to enter an Alice in Wonderland world makes things even worse. There is no known universe in which our current war strategy against the Islamic State can be considered, overall, a “success.” In fact it is, by virtually every objective measure, a failure. And not just any failure. It is the latest link in a chain of catastrophic foreign policy failures by Mr. Obama.

For Josh Earnest to claim that what we are witnessing in Iraq and throughout the Middle East is evidence of success is beyond spin. It’s beyond insulting. It is literally unbelievable. The contempt Mr. Earnest and the president he serves have for the truth, and the American people, is stunning. It’s a kind of corruption that is rare and worrisome to find in any political office, but especially in the presidency. And as Mr. Obama’s failures continue to multiple, so, we can assume, will his administration’s deceptions.

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The White House Deploys Spin and Denial in Response to Setbacks in Iraq

If you’re getting the impression that the White House sees the latest ISIS advances in Iraq culminating in the fall of Ramadi as a political setback rather than a strategic nightmare, you’re not alone.

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If you’re getting the impression that the White House sees the latest ISIS advances in Iraq culminating in the fall of Ramadi as a political setback rather than a strategic nightmare, you’re not alone.

“Ramadi has been contested over the last 18 months. We’ve always known the fight against ISIS would be long and difficult, particularly in Anbar Province,” White House Deputy Press Sec. Eric Shultz conceded on Monday. “There’s no denying that this is, indeed, a setback.”

Apparently, Schultz’s boss resented his deputy’s demoralizing candor. On Tuesday, he went about offering a variety of dubious claims designed to tamp down speculation that the president’s strategic approach to the war against the Islamic State was in shambles.

During Tuesday’s press briefing, White House Press Sec. Josh Earnest urged reporters to “maintain perspective” when reporting of the fall of the capital of Anbar Province, a key city situated just 70 miles from Baghdad. Though he hinted that the president might entertain a “tweak” or two to his strategic approach to the war, Earnest insisted that the West’s tactical approach to the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is regularly modified according to circumstances on the ground.

“We have seen important progress that has been made, but there have also been periods of setback,” Earnest insisted. When pressed on whether the president believes that the war against ISIS is generally a success, Earnest insisted, “overall, yes.”

Courting the charge of insensitivity, Earnest mocked reporters for engaging in figurative self-immolation over the fall of a second major Iraqi city to the ISIS insurgency. “Are we going to light our hair on fire every time there’s a setback?” the exasperated press secretary said of the Sunni militia’s efficacy on the battlefield, perhaps failing to recall that this terrorist organization is composed of a number of proficient arsonists.

If the White House’s communications team set out to abate their humiliation over the abject and empirical collapse of America’s halfhearted war fighting strategy in the Middle East, they failed rather spectacularly. Not only are these comments reflective of a dangerous frivolousness on the part of this administration, they are indicative of the unsettling reality that the White House views the trifurcation of Iraq along ethno religious lines as a political challenge to be messaged away.

It is not merely the military front in the war against ISIS that is collapsing. The fall of most of Anbar has given way to a bloody purge of government officials and anyone who ever worked closely with U.S.-allied institutions in Iraq. Officials in Baghdad believe that some 500 civilians and soldiers have been murdered while another 5,000 were displaced since Friday, when ISIS began its final assault on Ramadi. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered the Shiite militias loyal to Tehran to descend on a military base near the occupied provincial capital in preparation for a counterassault, despite the White House’s concerns that a Shiite-led attack on a Sunni-dominated city could ignite a sectarian civil war.

The war on ISIS’s assets is equally bereft of successes. Despite a successful mission conducted by U.S. Special Forces which resulted in the death of a figure described as the Islamic State’s CFO, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that ISIS’s finances are generally healthy.

“The Islamic State has revenue and assets that are more than enough to cover its current expenses despite expectations that airstrikes and falling oil prices would hurt the group’s finances, according to analysts at RAND Corporation, a nonprofit that researches public policy,” the Times revealed. “The group minimizes costs by looting military equipment, appropriating land and infrastructure, and paying relatively low salaries. The group also limits its vulnerability by shifting operations, transitioning between expanding its territory and fueling terrorist activity.”

Given all this, the administration has the temerity to blame House Republicans for setbacks in Iraq by failing to pass a new authorization to use military force in Iraq and Syria – a measure that, as written to the White House’s specifications, would constrain coalition military planners and limit the freedom of action they presently enjoy.

In early February, American military planners trumpeted ill advisedly their intention to mount the assault to liberate Iraq’s second city, Mosul, from ISIS terrorists in the late spring. That optimistic plan has been subject to some revision in the interim. With another major city in ISIS’s hands, the portions of that country in need of liberation are accumulating rapidly.

Even before Earnest’s buck-passing escapade, it was clear to most observers that the White House was focused more on managing public opinion than safeguarding Iraqi security. Today, there should be no doubt about the president’s priorities.

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Are Americans Prepared to Let ISIS Win?

The Iraqi government’s catastrophic defeat at Ramadi has brought into focus the fact that, as our Max Boot noted yesterday, ISIS is winning and the U.S. and its allies are losing. Though the White House and the Pentagon remain in denial about recent developments, there is little doubt that the U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is an abysmal failure. Though bombing and Special Forces raids have inflicted damage on the group, it remains in control of much of Iraq and Syria. To the extent its efforts to expand the so-called caliphate have been restrained, that has been largely due to the efforts of Iran-backed militias that have given Tehran an even greater say in the country’s fate. But while Iraqis flee the onset of the ISIS butchers, it cannot have failed to come to the attention of both ISIS and Iran that Americans are currently paying more attention to the argument about the initial decision to invade the country in 2003. All of which raises the question not so much about the administration’s lackluster effort to prevail as it does about whether the American people are ultimately prepared to shrug off ultimate defeat in Iraq as they once did in Vietnam.

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The Iraqi government’s catastrophic defeat at Ramadi has brought into focus the fact that, as our Max Boot noted yesterday, ISIS is winning and the U.S. and its allies are losing. Though the White House and the Pentagon remain in denial about recent developments, there is little doubt that the U.S. strategy to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the terror group is an abysmal failure. Though bombing and Special Forces raids have inflicted damage on the group, it remains in control of much of Iraq and Syria. To the extent its efforts to expand the so-called caliphate have been restrained, that has been largely due to the efforts of Iran-backed militias that have given Tehran an even greater say in the country’s fate. But while Iraqis flee the onset of the ISIS butchers, it cannot have failed to come to the attention of both ISIS and Iran that Americans are currently paying more attention to the argument about the initial decision to invade the country in 2003. All of which raises the question not so much about the administration’s lackluster effort to prevail as it does about whether the American people are ultimately prepared to shrug off ultimate defeat in Iraq as they once did in Vietnam.

Last month was the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and most of the coverage focused, as it has always done, on the American evacuation of Saigon and the stories about the last people to escape the city as it fell to North Vietnamese troops. For the most part, the American memory of the war ends at that point with little if any thought given to the question of what happened to the country after the U.S. gave up. The horrors of the “re-education” camps and the ordeal of the boat people have largely slipped down the collective memory hole. Though some writers, such as Norman Podhoretz tried to address the moral questions raised by the communist victory, as far as the overwhelming majority of Americans are concerned, Vietnam no longer existed once the war ended. We washed our hands of it as if blaming the Vietnamese people more than the U.S. leaders who had plunged the nation into the war for the suffering that America had endured during the long conflict.

I reference this disturbing fact because the current debacle with ISIS and the general indifference toward it here raise the question of whether Americans are going through a similar process with respect to Iraq. It would seem obvious that during a week when it appears that a loathsome Islamist organization is taking control of places like Ramadi for which Americans fought and bled only a few years ago that we would be intensely debating the wisdom of President Obama’s efforts to make good on his pledge to defeat ISIS. But there’s no sign that the White House feels any particular pressure to reassess its half-hearted approach to the war.

As was true of Vietnam, the overwhelming majority of Americans — Republicans as well as Democrats — have now come to the conclusion that the U.S. invasion was a mistake. Though the world is better off without a monster like Saddam Hussein and, as some GOP candidates have pointed out this week, the decision was reasonable given what we knew then, few now think it was a good idea. Indeed, given the rise of Iran as its rival collapsed, it’s possible to argue that the horrors of Saddam’s regime notwithstanding, the war hurt U.S. security in the long run. If the current debate about the war’s origins are any indication, it will take a lot more videos of ISIS beheading or burning hostages to galvanize Americans into thinking they ought to do something more to stop it. The trauma of the war is such that the success of the surge that won the war in 2007 and 2008 after initial setbacks and the subsequent spectacle of Iraq’s collapse after President Obama pulled U.S. troops seems to be less important in the minds of much of the press and the people than the pointless finger pointing about what happened in 2003.

Seen in that light, it appears a lot of Americans would like Iraq to fade from our consciousness, as Vietnam once did, like a bad dream. But the problem with that attitude is that while the atrocities visited on the Vietnamese people by the communist victors in that war were awful, they were largely contained to a Southeast Asia that America could afford to ignore even during the Cold War. Not even genocide in Cambodia rattled Americans enough to revisit their decision to forget about that war. So, too, many of us may think we can do the same in Iraq regardless of how bad thing might be as it falls into the hands of ISIS or Iran’s allies.

Unlike Vietnam, Iraq is located in the middle of one of the most strategic regions in the world. As ISIS has proved as it branches out to Libya, it cannot necessarily be contained in Iraq and Syria. Nor can an Iran that is, thanks to President Obama’s desire for détente with the Islamist regime, prepared to compete with ISIS for regional hegemony, leaving moderate Arab nations and Israel to look to their own defenses.

Like it or not, Iraq can’t be as easily put in America’s rear-view mirror as Vietnam was. If President Obama can’t be motivated to do more than to contain ISIS or minimize its gains, his foreign policy legacy will be a disaster that will bedevil his successor and the people of the Middle East. Unlike that triumph of North Vietnamese communism that Norman Podhoretz rightly decried but which did not prove to be a strategic threat to the U.S., an ISIS victory will be a catastrophe. Though Americans may still prefer to pick at the scar of our misguided decision to enter the war, eventually they’re going to have to come to grips with the need to win it or pay the consequences.

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The Left’s Obscene Virtue of Self-Censorship

The ideal that art should serve no higher purpose than its own existence has always been something of a utopian goal. Aspiring authoritarians have a nagging tendency to want to harness the power of artistic expression for their own peculiar aims. This is an anti-republican impulse the left once shunned, but it appears to be making a comeback.

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The ideal that art should serve no higher purpose than its own existence has always been something of a utopian goal. Aspiring authoritarians have a nagging tendency to want to harness the power of artistic expression for their own peculiar aims. This is an anti-republican impulse the left once shunned, but it appears to be making a comeback.

The Soviets were famously censorious, but the Kremlin also used art and expression to advance its political objectives. But if the methods they applied were unique, the goals of Soviet bureaucrats were not.

“Soviet efforts to instill new cultural norms for everyday life were part of long-standing aspirations throughout Europe to solve social problems and reshape society,” wrote David Lloyd Hoffmann in Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941. “Since the nineteenth century European political leaders, social reformers, and industrialists had sought to instill values of cleanliness, sobriety, and discipline in the working poor. Their efforts were motivated not only by instrumental hopes of molding a healthy and productive workforce but by aesthetic and altruistic ambitions to uplift the masses, to educate them, and to better their lives.”

Art, you see, is optimized when it is a vehicle for societal evolution. Those who would harness the power of expression for utilitarian ends do not perceive themselves autocrats but rather pragmatists. The starry-eyed creatives in their charge must be guided toward productive pursuits and the useful application of their talents. Of course, what begins as suggestion soon evolves into a directive. It is not long before the empowered well-meaning progressive compels society’s artist to use their gifts wisely or suffer the repercussions.

Those who were fortunate enough to outlive European communism recall that, of the many indignities they were forced to endure, forcible state-sponsored censorship was not nearly the most excruciating. It was the fact that this condition inevitably resulted in self-censorship that was the most painful consequence of authoritarianism. For fear of the Stasi’s ubiquitous eyes and ears, the average East German learned to not only cease expressing themselves in an uninhibited manner but to bury those thoughts that might cause them or their loved ones hardship. That is the most complete form of submission.

Stifling free expression for the good of the state is once more a Russian value. The imposition of laws designed to enforce selective codes of morality has again forced Russian artists to self-censor Or else. One particularly literary theater and film director recently described the condition of being forced to choose between self-censorship and running afoul of authorities as being trapped “between Scylla and Charybdis.”

This doesn’t happen overnight. The cultural degradation wrought by the best intentions of the reformers takes years to metastasize into censorship. The mechanisms through which the vulnerable are shielded from discomforting thought develop over the course of decades. The process often begins imperceptibly, but the trained eye can see it in its nascent stages. It is the application of that perspective that renders Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s ostensibly fatuous and self-serving condemnation of Game of Thrones so dangerous.

In service to the new demands associated with a culture of “social justice,” a concept distinct from objective justice, Missouri’s U.S. Senator castigated the HBO drama for daring to depict the unseemly aspects of life; namely, sexual assault. “Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones,” McCaskill wrote on her Twitter account. “[S]tupid. Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.”

This casual admonition would be easily dismissed if running afoul of the ever-evolving concepts of social justice did not have dire career consequences for the accused. Livelihoods have been lost for offending the sensibilities of the left’s culture warriors, even years after the supposed offense has occurred. It is in this climate that the senator offered her opinion on the artistic virtue of the depiction of a brutal assault, a not atypical occurrence for this popular gritty drama on a premium cable network.

“We’re developing a culture of easy virtue,” National Review’s David French averred in 2013, “where concern for the poor can substitute for helping the poor, where the right words can cover the wrong actions, and where thumbing out 140 outraged characters constitutes ‘social action,’ so long as you choose the right target for your hate.”

Somewhere down the line, the retributive activists in our midst shifted tactics. Today, talk is cheap. Enforced conformity of thought and the criminalization of dangerous concepts is the new righteousness. For a modest fee, aspiring educators can today take a course on how to teach controversial subjects without being fired. It’s a worthwhile investment. To carelessly challenge assumptions today is to invite a backlash from the mollycoddled “safe space” advocates who wield unparalleled and wholly unwarranted deference from administrators. It seems those budding tyrants have an ally in the U.S. Senate.

The wall is marred with handwriting. The canaries are all dead. It’s impossible to ignore the ubiquitous signs indicating that another period in American life characterized by enforced censorship imposed by the well meaning is dawning.

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What Should Citizenship Mean?

Immigration is shaping up to be one of the major issues of the 2016 presidential campaign, and President Barack Obama’s fait accompli, legal or otherwise, to give five million illegal aliens amnesty has permanently changed both the debate and the scale of the problem. There were, according to conservative estimates, 11.2 million illegal aliens living in the United States as of November 2014. In addition, illegal immigrants give birth to several hundred thousand children each year, all of who automatically become Americans because of birthright, jus soli citizenship.

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Immigration is shaping up to be one of the major issues of the 2016 presidential campaign, and President Barack Obama’s fait accompli, legal or otherwise, to give five million illegal aliens amnesty has permanently changed both the debate and the scale of the problem. There were, according to conservative estimates, 11.2 million illegal aliens living in the United States as of November 2014. In addition, illegal immigrants give birth to several hundred thousand children each year, all of who automatically become Americans because of birthright, jus soli citizenship.

Personally, I’m in favor of immigration—legal immigration—but have little tolerance for illegal immigration, and find it especially noxious that the U.S. government is effectively allowing illegal immigrants to cut in front of the line in having their immigration status resolved.

Missing in the immigration debate, however, is what citizenship should mean: Is citizenship just a matter of a passport and taxes, or does it confer an ideological contract? About a decade ago, as part of a conference in the Netherlands, I had the opportunity to sit down with city councilmen in Rotterdam to discuss assimilation. One basic question stumped our hosts: What does it mean to be Dutch? Underlying their ability to answer was cultural equivalence: How could anyone require competence in the Dutch language? Knowledge of Dutch history? Dutch liberal values?

In the United States, many immigrants, and especially illegal immigrants, seek a better life—and economic opportunity, and many also seek to support their relatives back in their country of origin. Far fewer seem to choose America for the values it represents. Indeed, too many seem to treat those values with disdain.

It’s all well and good to give five million illegals amnesty, but there has yet to be a public debate on why they have come and what their eventual citizenship should mean once they are on that path. The question is not only relevant for economic migrants making the trek from Latin America, but also for the flood of East Asian, African, and Middle Eastern migrants.

It’s easy to appreciate multiculturalism: It’s far easier to sample the world’s cuisines, fashions, and celebrations in the United States than anywhere else. But at the same time, multiculturalism is not always positive. Different cultures embrace different values and think in different ways. Oppressing women and girls, for example, may be common in Saudi Arabia, but it is not acceptable in the United States. The caste system may exist in India, but no Indian should be untouchable in the United States, nor would the caste system be an excuse for housing or other discrimination among Americans of Indian descent. Many Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans engage in female genital mutilation. There should be no cultural exemption for that practice within the United States, nor should the United States accept the slavery which exists in Mauritania, nor the exploitation of child labor that occurs in Bangladesh or China, just because “that’s the way it has always been” back in those countries.

While multiculturalism on balance is positive, so too is cohesion and assimilation. How does assimilation balance with cultural identity? Cultural identity is the patina and may influence the home, but assimilation should be based on the common core of values that makes America exceptional. The values enshrined in the founding documents of the United States should not be some à la carte buffet. The Constitution should trump any religious or other cultural text when the rights and principles enshrined come in conflict. Women and girls from conservative Muslim countries should have the same rights and freedoms as any other American woman or girl. If their fathers, brothers, or uncles do not like it, then that family doesn’t belong in the United States, and they could just as easily migrate elsewhere.

Likewise, America was founded on a notion of individual liberty and smaller, restrained government. To flee a socialist state and then seek the same sort of government direction in the United States belies the notion that individual liberty matters to the migrant. Likewise, to flee sectarian war in Yemen, Syria, or Iraq but retain biases if not hatred toward others of a different religion suggests an export of a problem rather than a new beginning.

So what to do? There are no easy answers, but the question about what American citizenship should mean should be a preliminary discussion before any amnesty, change of status, or reform of the system. A secondary debate is how the common core of citizenship should be taught. The bare bones citizenship test—how many states, how many senators, when is Independence Day celebrated, etc.—does little to promote citizenship. Can citizenship be taught in a public education system presided over by so many seemingly embarrassed by America’s legacy? Candidates have become so caught up in numbers of immigrants and process, but they too often avoid the elephant in the room: What does it mean to be an American? What values must all Americans share, and what values should be disqualifiers? The 2016 Republican field is as large as it is diverse, and the Democratic field is heating up. Candidates may like to avoid the tough questions, but with both parties having started the United States down the slippery slope toward immigration amnesty, perhaps it actually pays those who wish to lead the free world to define what it should mean to be an American.

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