He noted that sub-Saharan Africa has had a bleak history for the last 500 years. First the infamous slave trade and more recently colonial rule that was often oppressive and denied Africans their rightful place in the sun. But he noted that those days are over and now it is up to Africans to make their own future. As the Wall Street Journal put it:
…he argued that history is no excuse for a failed future.
“For too long, I think that many looked to the outside for salvation and focused on somebody else being at fault for the problems of the continent,” he said. He notably confined his discussion of U.S. aid to two oblique paragraphs, while devoting the better part of his speech to urging Africans to build stronger and more tolerant democracies. Traditions such as female genital mutilation, or keeping girls out of school, or sticking to Masai, Kikuyo, Luo or other tribal identities, he said, “may date back centuries; they have no place in the 21st century.”
At times Mr. Obama reminded us of Paul Wolfowitz, the former World Bank president who ran afoul of that organization by insisting that it actively fight corruption instead of merely pushing aid money out the door. Graft, the President said, is “not something that is just fixed by laws, or that any one person can fix. It requires a commitment by the entire nation—leaders and citizens—to change habits and change culture.”
This was very good advice, but I wonder why he confines this advice to Africans. After all, African-Americans shared much of the same bleak history. They were ripped from their homelands, forced to work for the benefit of others, and, even after the abolition of slavery, suffered an all-pervasive bigotry and discrimination. But here, too, those days are over. Instead of encouraging black Americans to look to the future and not wallow in the past, to make the changes necessary in the black community to break the culture of dependency, however, the Democratic Party and most black leaders do exactly the opposite.
The reason is not hard to see. It suits the political interests of liberals and black leaders such as Al Sharpton to encourage black dependency on government. After all, if more and more blacks moved up into the middle class, they would be less inclined to vote Democratic.
As the Journal noted, “Mr. Obama has the personal background and standing to make these points to an African audience with an unapologetic clarity and a resonance that other Western leaders can’t match.” Equally, the country’s first black president has the personal background and moral authority to make the same points at home. The fact that he has not is one of his greatest failings as president.
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Good Advice Abroad but Not at Home
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Yasss, Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers' Party of Korea!
It’s become a familiar pattern. In the manic pursuit of traffic, accolades, or any number of perverse incentives that have little to do with good journalism, the mainstream political press stumbles into a controversy. The controversy prompts a backlash mostly among, but not limited to, conservatives and is summarily disregarded as bad faith posturing. Pretty soon, we’ve all forgotten what the subject of the controversy was in the first place as we ease into familiar forms of partisan warfare like a warm bath. This was the trajectory of the scandalous coverage of North Korea’s diplomatic presence in South Korea for the Olympics, but the tribal animosities between media creator and consumer must be put aside here. The North Koreans’ are playing a 70-year-old game, and the press would do well to avoid unwittingly advancing North Korean objectives.
The latest cycle began as so many do in the age of the advertising-generated revenue model: with the reckless pursuit of eyeballs. The opening ceremonies at the Pyeongchang Olympics featured the usual pomp and ceremony; hundreds of moving parts, meticulously trained performers, and a fleet of independently operated drones that made artwork suspended in the sky. Ho hum. What truly fascinated the Western press was the appearance of North Korean despot Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, in the dignitaries’ box just feet away from Vice President Mike Pence. She scowled at Pence. Pence sat stoically for North Korea’s athletes. Everyone played their roles. It was all rather perfunctory. What was remarkable, however, was the extent to which the press bought in to the alleged sincerity of the display.
What began as a cautious appreciation for the contempt the North Korean delegate cast in the vice president’s direction quickly transformed into something more menacing. To retroactively justify what was at first a partisan reflex, the press fabricated a narrative in which Kim Yo-jong was depicted as the belle of the Olympic ball. CNN basked in the “foil” she presented to the idea of North Korea as “militaristic” and quoted sources who said she demonstrated that women could lead, even if she’s only leading an open-air prison. The Washington Post cooed over the “barely-there makeup,” “simple purse,” and “no-nonsense” hairstyle of “the Ivanka Trump of North Korea.” “North Korea has emerged as the early favorite to grab one of the Winter Olympics’ most important medals,” Reuters remarked, “the diplomatic gold.”
Conservatives failed to ignore this unctuous display, providing journalists an excuse to dismiss the substance of their criticisms as mere virtue signaling. To the extent that the press did change course, it was to address their critics by passive-aggressively doubling down on the original offense. You could be forgiven for thinking that, at this point in the cycle, none of this has much of anything to do with North Korea.
On Monday, Reuters noted that this “prim, young woman with a high forehead and hair half swept back quietly gazes at the throngs of people pushing for a glimpse of her,” kept her “head held high” as she returned to her Stalinist home. New York Times observed the “sprinkle of freckles” on Kim’s cheeks and set the bar for success at ground level when it noted that her capacity to smile “seemed to endear her to some observers.” The Times was most direct in its attempt to refute its conservative critics. Kim Yo-jong, they noted, appeared at the presidential palace, dined with the South Korean president, was asked to make impromptu toasts, and delivered her brother’s invitation to host his South Korean counterpart in Pyongyang. Pence, meanwhile, sought to keep his distance from North Koreans and so found himself on the outside presumably looking in. North Korea’s display of “soft power” amid a “charm offensive” had simply outflanked the vice president.
It is hardly remarkable that a “Sunshine policy” administration in Seoul would seek rapprochement with North Korea. “Sunshine” presidents are ideologically predisposed to accept at face value any overture from the North Korean regime, no matter how insincere. The history of those overtures suggests that they serve only to relieve immediate crises in North Korea and preserve the regime’s viability rather than advance the prospects for peace.
Moreover, the notion that Mike Pence blew it by failing to applaud the joint North-South Korean athletic delegation is as of yet unsupported. When South Korean President Moon Jae-in announced that there would be a joint Korean display at the opening ceremony, it was met with groans from the Korean public. Here was a hard-won symbol of national pride that the North was simply appropriating, and that the country’s president was just giving away.
It’s hard to appreciate any of this if you’re inclined to view Korean politics through the chauvinistic prism of American domestic affairs.
Covering Korean politics like a trite fashion show isn’t harmless; it aids North Korea’s objectives. The chief preoccupations of “Sunshine” presidents—reconciliation and reunification—haven’t changed since Kim Dae-jung served in the Blue House, but South Korea surely has. It is a stratified society with an increasing mistrust for its representative government. With North Korea’s nuclear program ramping up, the public has rediscovered the value of the alliance with the United States, but that condition shouldn’t be taken for granted. Every so often, mass anti-U.S. demonstrations erupt over tensions involving the military’s presence on the peninsula or suspect trade practices. The U.S., too, is a nation with evolving views on the utility of alliances. Republicans in thrall to vaguely isolationist sentiments and progressives for whom Donald Trump, not the Kim regime, is the gravest threat to world peace are coming to terms with the idea that South Korea, and the U.S., might be better off alone.
Pyongyang has one goal: to decouple Seoul from Washington and weaken the U.S. military presence on the peninsula as a prelude to reunification on their terms. That is achieved through public opinion. You are the battlefield on which this struggle is being fought. Journalism that sees North Korean efficacy in blinkered South Korean credulity helps Pyongyang. Journalism that conveys the idea that the Republic of Korea is ungrateful to the United States helps Pyongyang. Journalism that glosses over North Korea’s sadism, criminality, and the threat it poses to world peace helps Pyongyang. Journalism that glamorizes the head of North Korea’s propaganda and state security apparatuses simply because she’s not Mike Pence isn’t journalism.
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Podcast: Instability at home and abroad.
The bizarre celebration of North Korea’s regime—through its representative, Kim Jong Yo, and its cheerleading squad—leads the COMMENTARY podcast crew to wonder at the degradation of the U.S. media and the continuing foolishness of the very idea of the “Olympic spirit.” We also consider the White House domestic-abuse mess and the dangers of conflict between Israel and Iran. Give a listen.
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The freedom to follow.
Brexit was supposed to liberate Britons from unaccountable government, PC orthodoxy, and high-handed bureaucracy. But who needs Brussels mandarins when supposed Conservatives in Westminster are beholden to the same orthodoxies?
That’s the question religious leaders in the U.K. are asking themselves as Prime Minister Theresa May’s government prepares to make it mandatory for all schools–including private, faith-based institutions–to teach an ultra-progressive sex education curriculum. Under the proposal, all schools would be required to teach children from age 4 and up “age-appropriate” content that includes information about same-sex marriage and transgenderism. Catholics, evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and others with traditional views on sex and gender would have to comply. No exceptions.
Former Education Secretary Justine Greening first floated the idea last March on the ground that the current law is “outdated,” since many religious schools are exempt from the sex-ed curriculum requirements. The prime minister sacked Greening last month, but her successor, Damian Hinds, recently told Parliament that he remains committed to the compulsory sex-education agenda.
Greening made no effort to disguise the ideology behind her policy push, telling Sky News in July that “it is important that the church, in a way, keeps up and is part of a modern country. We have allowed same-sex marriage, that’s a massive step forward for the better. And for me, I think people do want to see our major faiths keep up with modern attitudes.”
Dame Louise Casey, another senior government adviser, singled out Catholics in particular. It is “not OK for Catholic schools to be homophobic and anti-gay marriage,” she testified in the House of Commons. “I have a problem with the expression of religious conservatism because I think often it can be anti-equalities.”
Yet it isn’t only Catholics who have found themselves on the sharp end of the government’s anti-religious drive. Last year, a government regulator threatened a private Jewish school in London with closure over its refusal to teach students about homosexuality. The failure to teach about homosexuality and gay marriage, the inspector said, deprives the students of “a full understanding of fundamental British values” and limits their “spiritual, moral, social and cultural development and does not promote equality of opportunity in ways that take account of differing lifestyles.”
Bear in mind that that was under existing regulations and distinct from the curriculum issue. The new rules make it even easier for the government to control what private and religious schools can and can’t teach about sex and gender. Nor is it clear that parents would have a right to withdraw their children from these courses. That this is happening under a Tory government tells you that the future of religious freedom and parental autonomy in the U.K. is bleak.
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A debacle becomes a disaster.
For the last two weeks, Washington has been fixated on a farcically complex issue involving the oversight of federal law-enforcement and intelligence agencies. In the minds of most voters, however, the president’s well-received State of the Union Address probably loomed larger than the squabbling over whose memo was the most scandalous. That’s over.
The first post-State of the Union news cycle began on Friday, the third day of the story involving the firing of a White House staffer credibly accused of physically abusing women. Until today, Donald Trump could claim to have been a victim here. He was kept in the dark about the alleged batterer in his midst by an overprotective staff, many of whom bungled the controversy surrounding his exposure. No more. Trump has now managed to put himself at the center of a controversy that will have legs.
The Porter story was already ugly before Trump became involved. On Wednesday, a report detailing the White House staff secretary’s alleged abuses of women with whom he had been involved was published to widespread revulsion. The report included graphic images of the damage he had done to one of his alleged victims and provided details of the temporary protective order sought and obtained against him by another. The White House immediately rushed to Porters’ defense. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued a glowing defense of Porter’s character and comportment. Communications Director Hope Hicks was reportedly involved in the drafting of one of those statements, despite her romantic involvement with the accused.
Sources in the White House told reporters that ranking members of the administration wanted Porter to weather the scrutiny—they thought he could survive it. But he couldn’t. The scandal grew worse as the details emerged indicating that the relevant figures in the administration were aware of the allegations against Porter months before they become public knowledge. Porter resigned, only then prompting White House officials like Kelly to claim to have been “shocked” by the revelations about his deputy.
As of Friday morning, Trump had a reasonable claim to denying involvement in all this. His staffers kept him in the dark. Hope Hicks put her personal interests before those of the president. The president was reportedly furious over the compartmentalization of this issue in his White House, as he should have been. That exculpatory narrative went right out the window on Friday when the president finally weighed in on the controversy. His statement must be read in its entirety to be believed:
We wish him well. He worked very hard. We found out about it recently, and I was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well, and it’s a tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now. He’s also, as you probably know, says he’s innocent and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent, so you have to talk to him about that, but we absolutely wish him well. He did a very good job when he was at the White House.
There was no mention of the ordeal endured by any of Porter’s accusers, or the fact that they had to go public with their concerns about him for them to be taking seriously. There was no concern for the wellbeing of women who may be the victims of similar abuse. In fact, from his comments, you could be forgiven for thinking that Trump believed Porter is the victim here.
You can judge the potential for a story to become an all-consuming controversy based on a few simple criteria. Is it easily summarized? Can a lay person who isn’t plugged into the political day-to-day understand it intuitively? Does it reinforce existing preconceptions or biases about the individuals or institutions involved? This story now fits all three of those criteria. No one needs to be politically astute to understand a scandal involving the claim that the president behaved with abhorrent callousness upon learning that one of his staffers allegedly beat women. Moreover, this fits into an existing narrative about Trump’s disregard for the women who accuse men of misconduct—a particularly potent charge in the #MeToo moment.
The ad writes itself. Strings swell to a melancholy crescendo as a grainy image of Porter’s ex-wife Colbie Holderness comes into view, one eye swollen and bruised from an alleged punch to the face. “It’s a tough time for him,” Trump says as the image comes into focus. “We hope he has a wonderful career and he will have a great career ahead of him . . . He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent, so you have to talk to him about that, but we absolutely wish him well.”
The Porter scandal has officially become a Trump scandal.
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When power is on the table, someone will use it.
Today, American soldiers are deployed on sovereign foreign soil without the authorization of the host government. In fact, they’re often in conflict with forces loyal to that government. This is a condition we used to call an invasion. To call it what is, though, would be to shatter a convenient fiction.
It’s been over two years since President Barack Obama authorized the introduction of U.S. boots on the ground in Syria. Eighteen months have elapsed since U.S. forces first clashed with troops loyal to Damascus. During this time, the clashes between U.S. forces and those loyal to Damascus (and Moscow) have increased in intensity and frequency. Moreover, as predicted, with the ISIS threat melting away, the Syrian battlefield is transforming into a contest between the great powers that have a claim to the spoils of that fight. Today, Syrians, Americans, Islamists, Kurds, Russians, Turks, Iranians, and sundry proxy forces are all operating in the same theater, shooting in different directions.
Congress has had many opportunities to take up an authorization that would sanction the executive branch’s use force in Syria, both against non-state actors and the regime in Damascus. It has failed to execute its constitutionally delineated authority, preferring instead to cede that power to the executive branch. By failing to provide guidance to two administrations that wanted nothing more than to avoid involvement in Syria, Congress has allowed negligence and pusillanimity to reign. The result is chaos and crisis.
This is a matter of propriety, not legality. The Trump White House has complied with the feeble and constitutionally dubious War Powers Resolution. The Congressional Democrats and transparency groups are demanding that the White House make public a secret internal memo that supposedly expands on this administration’s view of its legal authority to wage wars abroad with virtually no input from Congress. The indignation on the part of administration critics in the legislature is noteworthy, but that’s about it. There’s nothing nefarious about the White House consulting with itself on war powers, particularly considering the freedom of action it derives from congressional lethargy. Capitol Hill could render this memorandum moot any time it wishes. All it would have to do is take up a resolution authorizing the conflict in Syria that defines the parameters in which the U.S. should operate and the objectives it seeks to achieve.
This is, of course, all a sad academic exercise. Congress has no intention of preserving its authority when it comes to the expeditionary force in Syria. No lawmaker wants to be compelled by public opposition to that ill-defined conflict to vote against a resolution authorizing America’s necessary mission in the Levant. That’s political reality, but it’s not leadership. This president displayed more courage than his predecessor when he explained to the public last year why containing the Assad regime with force was in the national interest—a conclusion the Obama administration shared but was too timid to say out loud. Congress failed to ratify the Trump administration’s approach to this crisis. That was a mistake, but it does not have to become an inviolable precedent. Congress has the opportunity to rectify this error today by taking up a resolution authorizing force against North Korea.
This week, United States envoy Robert Wood reiterated the administration’s belief that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “only months away” from achieving the capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead to the mainland of the United States. Simultaneously, it is developing a second strike capability that can survive preemptive action. The administration sees these as intolerable outcomes and it might use force to prevent it from coming to pass. Whether that is a viable course of action or not, the president is acting it as though it were. It is therefore incumbent on the Congress to behave accordingly.
Recently, behind-the-scenes whispers about the prospect of a “bloody nose” option for North Korea have grown louder. That would consist of a limited airstrike on Kim Jong-un’s nuclear facilities and delivery vehicles. Because the U.S. views the Kim regime as rational and believes its survival is its highest priority, it is assumed that Pyongyang might not respond to a strike as long as the U.S. broadcasted the limits of its scope. To retaliate would invite a much larger war, which the regime would not survive.
This is certainly a fraught prospect based on a lot of untested presumptions. If war were again to come to the Korean Peninsula, it would be too late to debate the prospects for mission success or failure, to say nothing of the threat posed by inaction. This Republican-dominated Congress would surely prefer to control the terms of that debate. If Democrats retake one or both chambers of the legislature, they will be leading this discussion on terms far less favorable for the administration.
The result of a Democrat-led debate on war powers is likely to result in legal encumbrances that would render it difficult if not impossible for the administration to entirely neutralize the North Korean threat. The unique suspicion this president inspires among Democratic voters coupled with widespread resentment toward the process that led so many Democrats to approve an authorization of force against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002 will put pressure on opposition party members they may be unable to resist. These conditions will transform a good-faith debate over the necessity of a strike on North Korea into a cheap political exercise.
When power is on the table, it does not stay on the table for long. The Constitution vests in Congress the authority to legitimize the use of force abroad. If the Republican-led legislature doesn’t exercise its authority, Democrats someday will. If that day comes, it would pay to be prepared. Syria has already gone pear-shaped. A desperate effort on the part of the Obama administration to avoid entanglement in that conflict led to the worst possible outcome: a failed state and a contest among great powers to rule the rubble. A prelude to a conflict on the Korean Peninsula in which political expediency was valued over preparedness risks inviting a disaster that would make Syria look like small potatoes.