Commentary Magazine


Topic: Barack Obama

Obama and the Jewish Left Politicizing Iran

One of the main talking points of those criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to speak to Congress on the question of Iran sanctions is that by opposing President Obama’s stand on the issue, he is turning support for Israel into a partisan question. This would be a grievous fault if he were guilty of doing that, but while Netanyahu’s decision to stick with his planned address is a mistake, those who are characterizing the debate on Iran as one in which the prime minister has undermined bipartisan support for measures that are important to Israel couldn’t be more wrong. And there is no better example of why this interpretation is wrong than the battle being waged to influence Senator Cory Booker. Though support for more pressure on Iran has always had broad bipartisan support, it is the Jewish left and their allies who are doing everything possible to frame the issue as one on which Democrats must blindly follow the lead of the head of their party, principle and the security of Israel be damned.

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One of the main talking points of those criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan to speak to Congress on the question of Iran sanctions is that by opposing President Obama’s stand on the issue, he is turning support for Israel into a partisan question. This would be a grievous fault if he were guilty of doing that, but while Netanyahu’s decision to stick with his planned address is a mistake, those who are characterizing the debate on Iran as one in which the prime minister has undermined bipartisan support for measures that are important to Israel couldn’t be more wrong. And there is no better example of why this interpretation is wrong than the battle being waged to influence Senator Cory Booker. Though support for more pressure on Iran has always had broad bipartisan support, it is the Jewish left and their allies who are doing everything possible to frame the issue as one on which Democrats must blindly follow the lead of the head of their party, principle and the security of Israel be damned.

As NJ.com reports, Booker has always been considered a stalwart supporter of Israel but he is under intense pressure from Democratic partisans to bail on the bipartisan Iran sanctions bill being co-sponsored by Robert Menendez, the senior senator from his state and a fellow Democrat.

Booker received massive Jewish and pro-Israel support in his bid for the Senate but he is nowhere to be seen on the issue of Iran right now. Though the only real chance to get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions is to place additional pressure on the Islamist regime by warning it that more sanctions will be imposed if they continue to stall the negotiations, Booker has been mute on the issue and refused to sign on as one of the numerous co-sponsors of the bill proposed by Republican Mark Kirk and Menendez.

What could be preventing him from taking a stand on which there is a broad pro-Israel consensus? The answer is obvious. It is pressure from the White House and partisan Democrats who are seeking to prey on the blind partisan loyalties of Democrats in an effort to derail the sanctions effort. The president sees the sanctions bill as a threat to his policy because it is precisely aimed at strengthening his hand in the talks with Iran. That’s because he sees the talks as not so much a tool in order to force Tehran to dismantle their nuclear program, as he promised in his 2012 foreign-policy debate with Mitt Romney, but a means by which to advance a new détente with the Islamist regime. And in order to keep this dubious goal on track, he is calling in all of his political markers with fellow Democrats. Since he and Booker have been political allies, he is seeking to use his leverage with the senator in order to get him to toe the White House’s agenda rather than the one followed by Menendez, Charles Schumer, and many other pro-Israel Democrats.

That this effort is being backed by the National Jewish Democratic Council is particularly troubling since it shows just how far partisan fronts will go in terms of discarding their pro-Israel principles in order to do the bidding of their party masters. This is also the case with the left-wing J Street lobby, whose behavior has often given the lie to its claim to be both “pro-Israel” as well as “pro-peace.”

J Street is leading the charge against Netanyahu with a web campaign against the prime minister and Iran sanctions that the Anti-Defamation League has denounced as “inflammatory and repugnant.” In it, J Street has denounced the prime minister claiming, “Netanyahu does not speak for me.” To claim, as they do, that the prime minister’s stand on Iran is “hardline” and therefore out of touch with American Jews is nothing short of astonishing since it assumes that there is some kind of debate about the virtues of détente with Iran within American Jewry or even Americans in general. The ADL has called on Netanyahu to postpone his speech, but even they realize that the tone of the J Street attack on the Israeli is redolent of the sort of dual-loyalty arguments used by anti-Zionists.

It must be understood that the reason why Obama and his Jewish apologists are focusing on Netanyahu’s speech is because they wish to obscure or to downplay the merits of the debate on Iran sanctions. The president and J Street have always taken it as an article of faith that pressure on Israel is a necessary component to the Middle East peace process. This is a fallacy, but they seem to think that support for pressure on Iran is somehow a function of “hardline” Israeli ideology or Republican politics. Nothing could be farther from the truth, as Menendez and other pro-Israel Democrats have continually pointed out. It is only by treating Netanyahu’s foolish but entirely appropriate efforts to influence the sanctions debate as something that is beyond the pale can they avoid having to defend treating Iran with kid gloves. That the NJDC would choose Obama over Israel is disappointing but perhaps understandable give that it is nothing but a partisan front. But for a group that claims to be pro-Israel to be conducting a campaign that can only be described as incitement against the democratically elected leader of the State of Israel illustrates just how disingenuous their “pro-Israel” tag has become.

It is worth noting that Booker co-sponsored a similar bill sponsored by Kirk and Menendez last year that former Majority Leader Harry Reid torpedoed at the behest of Obama. So Booker can’t be opposed to the bill on principle. The only reason for him or anyone else on both sides of the aisle to oppose more sanctions on Iran is pure political partisanship. And it is the Democrats and their spear-carriers like the NJDC and J Street that have divided the pro-Israel community on these narrow grounds purely to advance the agenda of President Obama. Say what you will about Netanyahu’s tactics, but there is no doubt that the people who are trying to turn Israel into a partisan issue are left-wing Democrats, not Netanyahu and the Republicans.

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We Have to Talk About Obama’s Ignorance

In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

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In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

BuzzFeed has posted the transcript of the interview, and when the subject turns to Russia, Obama said this:

You know, I don’t want to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin. I will say that he has a foot very much in the Soviet past. That’s how he came of age. He ran the KGB. Those were his formative experiences. So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he’s missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression. You know, I continue to hold out the prospect of Russia taking a diplomatic offering from what they’ve done in Ukraine. I think, to their credit, they’ve been able to compartmentalize and continue to work with us on issues like Iran’s nuclear program.

As people pointed out immediately, Obama is wrong about Putin and the KGB. Ben Judah, a journalist who recently wrote a book on Putin’s Russia, responded: “The interesting and informative thing about Obama’s view on Putin is how uninsightful and uniformed it is.”

Putin ran the FSB–the successor agency to the KGB–and the difference matters. But what also matters is the emerging pattern for Obama’s view of the world: he has no idea what he’s talking about. The president, as Sam Cooke sang, don’t know much about history. And it’s evident in each major area of conflict the president seeks to solve and ends up only exacerbating.

It is not my intention to run down a list of all Obama’s flubs. Everybody makes mistakes, and any politician whose words are as scrutinized as the president’s is going to have their share of slip-ups. Yes, Obama is a clumsy public speaker; but that’s not the problem, nor is it worth spending much time on.

The problem is that Obama tends to make mistakes that stem from a worldview often at odds with reality. Russia is a good example. Does it matter that Obama doesn’t know the basics of Vladimir Putin’s biography and the transition of post-Soviet state security? Yes, it does, because Obama’s habit of misreading Putin has been at the center of his administration’s failed Russia policy. And it matters with regard not only to Russia but to his broader foreign policy because Obama has a habit of not listening to anyone not named Jarrett. Obama appointed among the most qualified American ambassadors ever to represent the U.S. abroad in sending Michael McFaul to Moscow. But with or without McFaul, Obama let his own naïveté guide him.

Obama has also run into some trouble with history in the Middle East, where history is both exceedingly important and practically weaponized. The legitimacy of the Jewish state is of particular relevance to the conflict. So Obama was criticized widely for undermining that legitimacy in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, puzzling even Israel’s strident leftists. The speech was harder to defend than either his remarks to BuzzFeed or Vox because such speeches are not off the cuff; they are carefully scrutinized by the administration. When Obama could say exactly what he meant to say, in other words, this is what he chose to say.

It wasn’t the only time Obama revealed his ignorance of the Middle East and especially Israeli history, of course. And that ignorance has had consequences. Obama has learned nothing from the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a fact which was reflected quite clearly in his disastrous mishandling of the negotiations and their bloody aftermath. He didn’t understand Palestinian intentions, Israeli political reality, or the lessons from when the U.S. has played a beneficial role in the conflict in the past. The president can simply move on, but Israelis and Palestinians have to pay the price for his learning curve.

And the Vox errors echo throughout the president’s mishandling of the other great security challenge: Islamic terrorism. Such terrorism has contributed a great deal to the undoing of many of the gains in Iraq and the international state system. Here, for example, is a map tweeted out last week by Ian Bremmer, which shows, in his words, “Statelessness overlapping with radical Islam.” We can certainly argue over the chicken-or-egg quality to such an overlap, but the threat radical Islamic violence poses to global order is fairly obvious.

Yet it’s not just the history of Islam and of anti-Semitism that the president gets wrong when trying to spin away the threat of Islamist terror. He also created a firestorm with his faux history of the Crusades in order to draw a false moral equivalence that only obscures the threat.

In other words, it’s a comprehensive historical ignorance. And on matters of great significance–the major world religions, the Middle East, Russia. And the president’s unwillingness to grasp the past certainly gives reason for concern with Iran as well–a country whose government has used the façade of negotiations to its own anti-American ends for long enough to see the pattern.

They’re not just minor gaffes or verbal blunders. They serve as a window into the mind of a president who acts as if a history of the world before yesterday could fit on a postcard. We talk a lot about the defects of the president’s ideology, but not about his ignorance. The two are related, but the latter is lately the one causing a disproportionate amount of damage.

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If We’re at War with ISIS, Ransoms Are Out of the Question

With the confirmation that another U.S. hostage held by ISIS has been killed, President Obama is once again being criticized for refusing to pay ransoms for Americans held by the terrorist group. Throughout the last two years, as ISIS snatched foreigners living or working in areas of Syria and Iraq under their control, most nations have paid increasingly exorbitant amounts to gain the freedom of their nationals. The U.S. has consistently refused to follow this practice or to allow the families of those taken to do so. Now even normally sober observers, such as Aaron David Miller, are calling for a loosening of that policy. But as much as the rise of ISIS can be traced in part to the foreign-policy blunders committed by his administration, the president is still doing the right thing by insisting that ransoms must not be paid.

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With the confirmation that another U.S. hostage held by ISIS has been killed, President Obama is once again being criticized for refusing to pay ransoms for Americans held by the terrorist group. Throughout the last two years, as ISIS snatched foreigners living or working in areas of Syria and Iraq under their control, most nations have paid increasingly exorbitant amounts to gain the freedom of their nationals. The U.S. has consistently refused to follow this practice or to allow the families of those taken to do so. Now even normally sober observers, such as Aaron David Miller, are calling for a loosening of that policy. But as much as the rise of ISIS can be traced in part to the foreign-policy blunders committed by his administration, the president is still doing the right thing by insisting that ransoms must not be paid.

Obama spoke of the death of Kayla Jane Mueller, the Western aid worker whose death has now been confirmed, in an interview with BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith in which he described the difficulty of his decision to opt for rescue rather than ransom. Even the president’s sternest critics must sympathize with him when he says that telling the families of hostages that he will not pay for their liberation is as “tough as anything I do.” He also revealed that he had ordered a rescue mission in which the U.S. reportedly deployed Delta Force commandos into Syria trying to find Mueller and other hostages held by ISIS. According to the president, the raid came a day or two late as the captives had already been moved to another location.

Obama paid tribute to Mueller and contrasted her aid work with “the barbaric organization that held her captive.” But that eulogy won’t satisfy her loved ones who care only about the fact that she is dead, whether at the hands of her captors or, as ISIS has claimed, from injuries incurred when the building in which she was held was hit by bombs dropped from Jordanian planes.

As I’ve written before about this issue, I understand the motivations of the families. Which one of us would not move heaven and earth and be prepared to do anything to save the life of a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or even a close friend? But President Obama’s responsibility is to safeguard the interests and the security of the nation and not just to one or even a few individuals in peril.

It is widely understood that ISIS’s military success has been fueled in no small measure by the profits it has made in selling hostages. If they have overplayed their hand and generated more outrage than fear by beheading Americans or burning a Jordanian prisoner alive, the terrorists have also succeeding in making kidnapping pay handsomely. The problem is not just that the more hostages that are ransomed, the more likely that other Westerners will face a similar fate. It’s that the vast sums ISIS has made in this business have been put to use funding operations that have resulted in their control of much of the territory of two nations and threatening both American security and the future of our allies.

The real point that most of those calling for Obama to relent on this policy are missing is that the West is at war with ISIS. The president is partly responsible for this misperception with his comments that treat Islamist terror as a policing problem and by his foolish refusal to speak of their motivations and purpose. ISIS and other Islamist groups are not mere violent zealots randomly killing people. Their goal is to destroy Western democracy and to force nonbelievers to accept their religious beliefs.

It is true that the U.S. has ransomed hostages before. President Reagan gained the freedom of some Americans held in Lebanon by bribing the Iranian government. Obama bought the freedom of Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier held by the Taliban. But as troubling as both of those examples might be, there is a difference between negotiating with a foreign government and doing an exchange of prisoners of war. Both of those decisions were mistakes, but they are not really analogous to enriching a terrorist group waging a war on the West.

Those who put themselves in harm’s way in Syria, whether out of humanitarian motives or misguided politics, did not deserve to become bargaining chips for barbarians or to be murdered by them. But the president was absolutely right to determine that the only reasonable course of action for the United States was to attempt to rescue them and not to do business with terrorists.

If the U.S. is to prevail in its war with ISIS, it will need more resolute leadership from the president, whose lack of a clear strategy or a willingness to provide a moral clarion call to action is undermining American efforts. He has erred both by refraining from a whole-hearted military campaign and by making deeply troubling statements in which he has made inaccurate analogies between the actions of ISIS and crimes committed by Christians centuries ago.

But he is right to stand his ground on ransoms. Those who are criticizing that decision are not merely wrong. They fail to grasp that in a war, giving your foes the resources they need to kill more Americans would not merely be wrong, but a grave dereliction of duty on the part of the president.

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Obama’s Anti-ISIS AUMF: A Classic Muddle

Yesterday I wrote “here we go again” with President Obama agonizing over another major foreign-policy decision–whether or not to arm Ukraine–even as our enemies push ahead with great determination and cunning. Today we are seeing yet another Obama MO: the tendency, once endless administration deliberations are finished, to produce a split-the-difference solution that doesn’t accomplish as much as it should.

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Yesterday I wrote “here we go again” with President Obama agonizing over another major foreign-policy decision–whether or not to arm Ukraine–even as our enemies push ahead with great determination and cunning. Today we are seeing yet another Obama MO: the tendency, once endless administration deliberations are finished, to produce a split-the-difference solution that doesn’t accomplish as much as it should.

I refer to the president’s request to Congress to pass an Authorization for the Limited Use of Military Force (ALUMF) against ISIS. Now, the U.S. has been bombing ISIS since August and the administration has been talking about how to produce an AUMF that will allow Congress to weigh in without unduly cramping the president’s options. The result of all these deliberations? A request that allows the president “to use the Armed Forces of the United States as the President determines to be necessary and appropriate against ISIL or associated persons or forces.” So far so good: this is the kind of robust authority that the president needs to fight this band of jihadist fanatics.

But then come the limitations. First, the authority does not extend to “the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground operations.” Second, the authority will expire in three years. Presumably these are sops intended to appeal to Democrats in Congress and a few Republican isolationists who are upset about the prospect of the U.S. waging “another” war in the Middle East. But do they make any sense?

The way the first restriction is worded–what the heck is an “enduring offensive ground operation” and how does it differ from a “temporary defensive ground operation”?–will, admittedly, make it largely meaningless. But still: the intent is clear and it’s to prevent the U.S. from engaging in ground combat against ISIS even if there is no good tactical alternative to such action.

Likewise the deadline–a favorite Obama limitation on the use of military force–is not as binding as it sounds. After all, if Obama has been able to fight ISIS for more than six months based on his executive authority and with no AUMF, it stands to reason that a future president could continue such action even after the AUMF expires. But the symbolism is clear–it is meant to imply that the U.S. will end its anti-ISIS operation within three years, whether that group is defeated or not.

This may be welcome to the ears of anti-war Democrats, but to our allies and enemies in the Middle East this, along with the restriction on the use of ground combat forces, sends a message of irresolution that will make it tougher for our troops to accomplish their mission.

At least we can be grateful that Obama is not seeking the repeal or rewrite of the unlimited post-9/11 AUMF against al-Qaeda, something he has been talking about doing since at least 2013. The last thing the U.S. military and intelligence community need are greater limitations on their ability to combat the monsters who burn and behead hostages.

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An Administration With a Blind Spot About Anti-Semitism

President Obama’s recent interview with Vox included an astonishing characterization of one of the most notorious recent terror attacks. As he did in his initial reaction to the assault on a kosher deli in Paris, the president did not call it an act of anti-Semitism or say that those slaughtered were singled out for murder because they were Jews. Even worse, he told Vox that those responsible for the attack on the Hyper Cacher had decided to “randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a Paris deli.” The day after such a glaring misstatement of fact, one might expect the White House to walk back this remark in some way. But, instead, both White House spokesman Josh Earnest and State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki doubled down on the president’s tortured logic in a stunning display of Orwellian doubletalk. Instead of just a president with a blind spot about anti-Semitism that comes out when he is interviewed, it is now clear that the United States has an administration with a blind spot about anti-Semitism.

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President Obama’s recent interview with Vox included an astonishing characterization of one of the most notorious recent terror attacks. As he did in his initial reaction to the assault on a kosher deli in Paris, the president did not call it an act of anti-Semitism or say that those slaughtered were singled out for murder because they were Jews. Even worse, he told Vox that those responsible for the attack on the Hyper Cacher had decided to “randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a Paris deli.” The day after such a glaring misstatement of fact, one might expect the White House to walk back this remark in some way. But, instead, both White House spokesman Josh Earnest and State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki doubled down on the president’s tortured logic in a stunning display of Orwellian doubletalk. Instead of just a president with a blind spot about anti-Semitism that comes out when he is interviewed, it is now clear that the United States has an administration with a blind spot about anti-Semitism.

To have made such a statement once might be just a gaffe. To do it twice revealed that the president has a blind spot about anti-Semitism that somehow prevents him from either admitting that the incident was anti-Semitic or condemning it as an incident in which Jews were targeted. But today we learned that this is not just a rhetorical tic. It is now official U.S. policy to claim that when Islamist murderers go into a kosher deli looking for Jews to kill, they are not targeting Jews or acting out of religious bias.

Earnest ‘s insistence that the Hyper Cacher was not chosen by the terrorists because of the likelihood that it would be filled with Jews shopping for the Sabbath is mind-boggling. So, too, is Psaki’s belief that calling it an act of anti-Semitism is a question so complex that only the local French authorities investigating the crime can know for sure.

Why the adamant refusal to label an unambiguous act of anti-Semitism what it is?

One reason is the natural resistance on the part of this administration to admit mistakes especially when the president commits them. President Obama is a notoriously thin-skinned individual who clings to the conceit that he understands every issue better than his critics. Few administrations like to concede they have erred but this one is particularly allergic to that type of transparency.

But this problem goes deeper than that.

This is an administration that is loath to say that Islamist terrorists represent a significant minority of adherents of their faith. Indeed, as I noted yesterday, this understandable desire to avoid casting the conflict as one of the West against Muslims has been exaggerated to the extent that the president now poses as the pope and claims that he has the authority to determine who does or does not reflect the true version of that faith.

But now apparently this reluctance to admit that Islamists terrorists are Muslims extends to refusing to say that Jewish victims were Jewish or that the killers were trying to kill Jews. In doing so, the administration seems to think that denying that it was an act of anti-Semitism will absolve it of any responsibility to speak up against Jew hatred or to acknowledge the way the virus of anti-Semitism has spread among Muslims.

It goes without saying that this controversy and the embarrassing lengths to which Obama’s whims required Earnest and Psaki to foreswear both logic and honesty were entirely unnecessary. Acknowledging the obvious anti-Semitic nature of the Hyper Cacher attack has no real policy implications. No one expects the administration to do anything about anti-Semitism except to condemn it. In fact any mention of the attack is not a trick question. It is a layup for the president who could easily pose as a defender of Jewish interests and an opponent of hate by merely saying he is appalled by the targeting of Jews in France or anywhere else. Obama and his mouthpieces could have done this easily without being roped into unwanted action or even expressing sympathy for Israel as a refuge against anti-Semitism. But though speaking out against anti-Semitism is a cost-free way of demonstrating both sensitivity and a zealous defense of human rights, it is apparently too much to ask of a president who feels free in his last two years in the White House to say and do as he likes.

But there is a cost attached to Obama’s refusal to speak about anti-Semitism and his firm orders to underlings to copy his oblivious stand. By that I do not refer to a political cost for Obama who will never again have to face an electorate, including an American Jewish community that gave him the lion’s share of their votes despite his obvious hostility to Israel. Instead it is the Jews of Europe, who continue to be targeted because of their faith amid what even Obama’s State Department termed a “rising tide of anti-Semitism,” who will pay the price for his refusal to speak the truth about violent Jew hatred.

Islamist terrorists and their state sponsors in Iran will not be slow to pick up on this signal from Washington that the Jews are on their own. If the president and his spin masters won’t speak about anti-Semitism, you can be sure that those ginning up these attacks and engaging in the most vile forms of delegitimization will interpret it as a sign that the U.S. isn’t interested in the fate of the Jews.

Were the president prepared to speak responsibly about terrorism he would do more than acknowledge that the Hyper Cacher was singled out because it was filled with Jews. He would, instead, connect the dots between these acts of terror and the hate spread by an Iranian regime that he is pursuing with offers of détente. But it is hardly surprising that a president who treats Israeli acts of self-defense against terror as an obstacle to his foreign policy goals would treat the siege of the Jews of Europe as beneath his notice.

An administration with a blind spot about anti-Semitism is one that is not only encouraging more such attacks. It is also demonstrating that is unready to defend anyone against an Islamist scourge that this president dares not call by its right name.

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Our Agonized President

Sigh. Here we go again. The law professor turned president is having another one of his endless policy reviews. Previously he agonized over, inter alia, whether to surge troops in Afghanistan (yes—but with a timeline and a force cap), whether to arm the Syrian resistance (not really), and whether to attack Bashar Assad for crossing the “red line” on chemical weapons use (yes then no). Now the issue is whether to send Ukraine “defensive” but “lethal” weapons.

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Sigh. Here we go again. The law professor turned president is having another one of his endless policy reviews. Previously he agonized over, inter alia, whether to surge troops in Afghanistan (yes—but with a timeline and a force cap), whether to arm the Syrian resistance (not really), and whether to attack Bashar Assad for crossing the “red line” on chemical weapons use (yes then no). Now the issue is whether to send Ukraine “defensive” but “lethal” weapons.

As in past administration policy reviews, word is leaking out about which insiders favor which course of action. Now, for example, both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Kerry have signaled they favor sending arms. But their views don’t necessarily count for much. After all in 2012, Secretary of Defense Panetta, Secretary of State Clinton, and CIA Director Petraeus all favored arming the Syrian rebels and Obama still said no.

In such important matters, Obama appears to be increasingly disdainful of his professional policy advisers, turning inside to a handful of insiders such as Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, and Ben Rhodes—and relying, of course, primarily upon his own formidable intellect even if that intellect has frequently led him astray. Thus we are once again being treated to the spectacle of Obama struggling mightily to make up his mind while trying to put off a decision for as long as humanly possible. In the case of Ukraine, this means endless consultations with German Chancellor Merkel (who opposes arming the Ukrainians), and waiting for fruitless negotiations between the EU and Russia to play out for the umpteenth time.

Is it any wonder, then, that Russia has been advancing so readily? Vladimir Putin doesn’t agonize—he acts decisively and with great determination. Knowing what he wants, and knowing also that the Leader of the Free World is too busy agonizing to effectively oppose his imperialist designs, Putin has managed to wrest away from Kiev not only Crimea but much of the eastern part of the country too. And that land grab continues unabated while Obama wrings his hands over whether to let the Ukrainians fight for their freedom.

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Include Israel at ‘Countering Violent Extremism Summit’

On February 18, President Barack Obama will host a summit on “Countering Violent Extremism.” The summit, the White House says, will build on its earlier report, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” In theory, such a summit could be important—or as important as any diplomatic powwow can be. But, once again, rather than lead, President Obama appears willing to follow.

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On February 18, President Barack Obama will host a summit on “Countering Violent Extremism.” The summit, the White House says, will build on its earlier report, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.” In theory, such a summit could be important—or as important as any diplomatic powwow can be. But, once again, rather than lead, President Obama appears willing to follow.

During the previous incarnation of Obama’s “Global Counter Terrorism Forum,” the president acquiesced to Arab and Turkish demands that he exclude Israel. Just as Mary Robinson, while serving as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, transformed her flagship “World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” into a platform celebrating racism, racial discrimination, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia, so too did Obama transform a counter terrorism forum into a celebration of those states most responsible for Islamist terror.

Unless he stands firm—and overcomes his apparent personal antipathy toward the Jewish state to ensure that Israel has a seat at the table—Obama will simply be affirming the success of violent extremism and furthering it rather than countering it.

Nor should Obama’s personal feelings toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu play any role in a decision to invite or exclude. After all, if whom Obama likes becomes the litmus test, then he will simply be affirming the worst suspicions of his administration: that he not only works with those like Turkey’s increasingly off-kilter President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, repressive Cuban dictator Raúl Castro, or Nigeria’s corrupt president Goodluck Jonathan, but actually approves of them.

The ball is in Obama’s court. Alas, it seems like the Countering Violent Extremism conference will be yet one more own-goal on Obama’s scorecard.

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The Obama-Merkel Press Conference: What Were They Thinking?

There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

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There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

The press conference was a mess. And its lack of purpose contributed mightily to that fact. The president and the chancellor are indeed two very important Western leaders–at certain times, and on certain issues, the two most important Western leaders. Ukraine is one such issue. The problem today was not that Merkel and Obama are meeting or that they’re talking to the press about it. The problem was that they called a press conference to say absolutely nothing.

The question that seemed to put this most into stark relief was when a German reporter asked Obama the following:

You said that you have not yet made a decision as to whether weapons ought to be delivered to Ukraine. What would be your red line? What would be the red line that needs to be crossed for you to decide [to arm the Ukrainians] and what do you think this will hold by way of a promise, because the chancellor said it will make matters worse? And what can the Nobel laureate Obama do to defuse this conflict?

Obama’s response could basically be broken down into three parts. The first was to push back on the idea that the Ukrainian military is being left to fend completely for itself:

It’s important to point out that we have been providing assistance to the Ukrainian military generally. That’s been part of a longstanding relationship between NATO and Ukraine. And our goal has not been for Ukraine to be equipped to carry on offensive operations, but to simply defend itself. And President Poroshenko has been very clear. He’s not interested in escalating violence; he is interested in having his country’s boundaries respected by its neighbor.

The second part is to concede that he’s basically given up on issuing red lines since he doesn’t mean them anyway:

So there’s not going to be any specific point at which I say, “Ah, clearly lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here.” It is our ongoing analysis of what can we do to dissuade Russia from encroaching further and further on Ukrainian territory? Our hope is that is done through diplomatic means.

And finally, his indication that despite everything that’s happened, he hasn’t really adjusted his approach to Russia:

And I just want to emphasize here once again, for the benefit not just of the American people but for the German people, we are not looking for Russia to fail. We are not looking for Russia to be surrounded and contained and weakened. Our preference is for a strong, prosperous, vibrant, confident Russia, that can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges. And that’s how I operated throughout my first term in office.

What viewers saw here was a complete lack of urgency on the part of the two most important Western leaders with regard to Russia. That was the theme. And Merkel joined in later in the presser, with a plea for patience and hope that quickly devolved into a rambling, longwinded version of one of Obama’s favorite quotes about the arc of history bending toward justice.

Merkel was asked: “Can you understand the impatience of the Americans when they say we ought to now deliver weapons? And what makes you feel confident that diplomacy will carry the day?” She responded by counseling even more patience:

Whenever you have political conflicts such as the one that we have now between Russia and Ukraine, but also in many other conflicts around the world, it has always proved to be right to try again and again to solve such a conflict. We’ve spoken at some length about the Iranian conflict. Here, too, we are expected to try time and again. There’s always a point where you say well all of the options are on the table, we’ve gone back and forth. But then one has to think again.

It kept going downhill from there. Merkel brought in “the Middle East conflict” (presumably the Arab-Israeli conflict), which is certainly not the comparison you’re looking for if you live in eastern Ukraine. She then jumped to the division of Germany–a nearly five-decade split finally resolved near the end of the Cold War. Again, not remotely encouraging for anyone seeking to end the bloodshed in Ukraine.

It all brings the viewer back to the original question: What on earth was the point of this? All the press conference succeeded in doing was to tell Russia there was no red line and to tell Ukraine that the West was willing to wait half a century to see how this all shakes out. To those in Ukraine watching that press conference, it was probably terrifying. To our allies elsewhere, it was probably horrifying. But for those of us watching here in the States, it was simply mystifying.

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Obama’s Blind Spot About Anti-Semitism

There has been a great deal of justified criticism about President Obama’s unwillingness to respond to terrorist outrages with the sort of moral leadership that can rally the West to fight back. His comments at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast in which he sought to create a false moral equivalency between ISIS’s horrific burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot and the Christian West’s past sins during the Inquisition and even the Crusades have been rightly blasted for his tone-deaf approach to terrorism. The president seems so mired in his deep ambivalence about the West’s role in world history that he is unable to play his part as leader of the free world in what is, like it or not, a life-and-death struggle against truly evil forces. It is also revealed in his administration’s refusal to call Islamist terrorism by that name. But just as troubling is his unwillingness to address one of the primary characteristics of this brand of terror: anti-Semitism. In an interview with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, he described the terror attack on a Paris kosher market as a “random” event rather than an act of murder motivated by Jew hatred. Though it won’t get the same attention as his outrageous speech last week, it gives us just as much insight into the president’s foreign-policy mindset.

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There has been a great deal of justified criticism about President Obama’s unwillingness to respond to terrorist outrages with the sort of moral leadership that can rally the West to fight back. His comments at last week’s National Prayer Breakfast in which he sought to create a false moral equivalency between ISIS’s horrific burning alive of a captured Jordanian pilot and the Christian West’s past sins during the Inquisition and even the Crusades have been rightly blasted for his tone-deaf approach to terrorism. The president seems so mired in his deep ambivalence about the West’s role in world history that he is unable to play his part as leader of the free world in what is, like it or not, a life-and-death struggle against truly evil forces. It is also revealed in his administration’s refusal to call Islamist terrorism by that name. But just as troubling is his unwillingness to address one of the primary characteristics of this brand of terror: anti-Semitism. In an interview with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, he described the terror attack on a Paris kosher market as a “random” event rather than an act of murder motivated by Jew hatred. Though it won’t get the same attention as his outrageous speech last week, it gives us just as much insight into the president’s foreign-policy mindset.

It should be recalled that in the immediate aftermath of the shootings at the Hyper Cacher market by killers associated with those who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo massacre days earlier, President Obama also refused to call it an act of anti-Semitism. That was, in its own way, as shocking as the president’s decision to not send any high-ranking U.S. official to the Paris unity march that took place to protest the murders or to go himself as did many other Western leaders.

But official American statements that did mention anti-Semitism and the subsequent rally boycott overtook this controversy. The kerfuffle over that initial comment was soon forgotten. But the president’s return to this topic has brought that statement back to mind.

His Vox comments are, in fact, far worse than his initial reaction which was more a matter of omission than a conscious twisting of events. Here’s what the president said in response to a question about whether the media is blowing terrorist incidents out of proportion:

It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concerned when you’ve got a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.

Let’s first note that his characterization of the assailants again omits their Islamist loyalties and the fact that religion was the motivating factor for their crime. This is consistent with administration policy that seeks to cleanse ISIS, al-Qaeda, or other Islamists of any connection with the Muslim faith. This is absurd not just because it is wrong. It also puts Obama in the position of trying to play the pope of Islam who can decide who is or is not a real Muslim, a responsibility that no American president should try to usurp.

But it is also significant that once again the president chooses to treat a deliberate targeting of a Jewish business filled with Jewish customers as something that is random rather than an overt act of anti-Semitism. Doing so once might be excused as an oversight. The second time makes it a pattern that can’t be ignored.

This is a peculiar talking point especially since the increase of anti-Semitism in Europe with violent incidents going up every year is something that even the Obama State Department has dubbed a “rising tide” of hate.

Why does the president have such a blind spot when it comes to anti-Semitism? His critics will jump to conclusions that will tell us more about their views of Obama than about his thinking. But suffice it to say that this is a president who finds it hard to focus on the siege of Jews in Europe or of the State of Israel in the Middle East. Nor can it be entirely coincidental that a president who treats Israeli self-defense and concerns for its security as a bothersome irritant to his foreign policy or seeks to blame the Jewish state’s leaders for obstructing a peace process that was actually blown up by the Palestinians would have a blind spot about anti-Semitism.

To address the spread of violent anti-Semitism in Europe would require the administration to connect the dots between slaughters such as the ones that took place at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher and the hate spread by the Islamists of Iran with whom Obama is so keen on negotiating a new détente. To put these awful events in a context that properly labels them an outbreak of violent Muslim Jew-hatred would require the administration to rethink its policies toward Israel as well as Iran. And that is something this president has no intention of doing.

You can’t defeat an enemy that you refuse to call by his right name. That’s why ignoring Islamism and calling ISIS and the Paris killers mere “zealots” or “extremists” not only misses the point but also hampers the West’s ability to resist them. By the same token, the omission of any discussion of anti-Semitism about an event that was an unambiguous act of Jew hatred similarly undermines the effort to strike back at such atrocities. When a president calls one of the more egregious acts of anti-Semitism in recent years a mere “random” shooting, it trivializes the victims and places the U.S. on the wrong side of the moral divide. In doing so, Obama does the nation and the cause of freedom a grave disservice.

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A Strategic Retreat for Netanyahu?

Reuters is reporting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering making changes to his planned speech to Congress to placate his critics and lower the temperature on his split with the White House over Iran sanctions. If true, it’s the right call on Netanyahu’s part. And both possibilities floated in the article are reasonable alternatives to the initial plan.

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Reuters is reporting that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering making changes to his planned speech to Congress to placate his critics and lower the temperature on his split with the White House over Iran sanctions. If true, it’s the right call on Netanyahu’s part. And both possibilities floated in the article are reasonable alternatives to the initial plan.

The fact that the story leaked at all is a good indication that Bibi’s office has been searching for a way out of this impasse and wants to quiet the furor over the speech. If he’s not going to give the address to a joint session of Congress, he certainly wants the press to stop acting like he is. As Jonathan pointed out last night, Netanyahu walked into a trap–but that doesn’t mean that, out of pique or pride or stubbornness, he has to stay there. Sometimes you just get beat, and the Obama White House, which created the drama by not objecting to the invitation until after Bibi accepted it and then throwing a public fit, won this round.

No matter how well Netanyahu and Ambassador Ron Dermer know American politics, partisan gamesmanship is pretty much all Obama’s team thinks about, and this is their home turf anyway. Being right isn’t always enough in politics–a lesson Netanyahu is re-learning now. As Reuters reports:

As a result, Israeli officials are considering whether Netanyahu should speak to a closed-door session of Congress, rather than in a prime-time TV address, so as to drain some of the intensity from the event, a source said.

Another option is for the prime minister to make his speech at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Washington the same week, rather than in Congress.

“The issue has been under discussion for a week,” said a source close to the prime minister’s office. “(Netanyahu) is discussing it with Likud people. Some say he should give up on the speech, others that he should go through with it.”

A story like this getting to the media usually means one of two things: either Netanyahu is the force behind the u-turn and he wants to create some momentum and political space for it, or some of those close to him want to force his hand. The answer to that question is often irrelevant; the idea that Netanyahu plans to change the speech will take on a life of its own now.

The story can also serve another purpose: to help Netanyahu save face in retreat. The Reuters story warns it may be too late for Bibi to change course, because it’ll look like he’s being pushed around:

If he withdraws now it may make him look weak with core voters. Furthermore, he needs an opportunity to play up his tough-on-Iran credentials before election, with national security an overriding issue for voters.

The louder the opposition to Netanyahu’s speech became, the more it looked like giving in would be conceding to the mob. But leaking this now changes the story. Obama’s attack dogs in the mainstream press might simmer down a bit, and they may even want to run with this to box Netanyahu in by furthering the storyline that he’s a reasonable guy and is willing to back off and defer to Obama.

In other words, the Netanyahu administration could take advantage of American reporters’ desire to please their king in the White House. It’s part of what has worked against Netanyahu from the start here. Initially, the administration spun the New York Times into writing that Obama hadn’t been consulted before Netanyahu accepted Speaker Boehner’s invitation. That was false, but the White House knew the Times would print it even if it weren’t true if it painted Israel in a negative light. Which they did.

The Times has since corrected their story, in essence conceding the fact that this whole drama was cooked up by Obama. But the key for the White House was just to give the false story a head start so it became conventional wisdom. Which is what happened. So Politico’s recent story on the controversy contains this line: “The fact that neither Boehner nor Dermer cleared the speech first with the White House…” followed by another reference to claims that “Boehner politicized the speech by inviting Netanyahu behind the White House’s back.” Politico recently hired two veteran foreign-policy hands as editors, but you can tell even publications like Politico still look over the New York Times’s shoulder to copy the Grey Lady’s notes instead of digging for the truth.

Were Bibi to back down here, he would also highlight another fact the media is missing: Obama’s latest stunt, pressuring Democrats (and his vice president) to publicly spurn the Israeli prime minister, is one more example of the wrecking ball Obama has been taking to the pro-Israel left. This is another case of Netanyahu being right not being enough; he’s got to find a way to preserve bipartisan support for Israel despite Obama’s efforts to split Congress and align Democrats against Jerusalem.

If that means retreating, so be it. Sometimes that’s what it takes. And the ball is in Bibi’s court; Obama refuses to be the bigger man here, so someone has to step up.

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Get Off Your High Horse, Mr. Obama

Part of the problem with President Obama’s recent National Prayer Breakfast speech, as Michael Rubin has pointed out, is that it provides a simplistic and incomplete understanding of the Crusades. (You might also read this First Things review, “Inventing the Crusades,” by Thomas F. Madden.)

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Part of the problem with President Obama’s recent National Prayer Breakfast speech, as Michael Rubin has pointed out, is that it provides a simplistic and incomplete understanding of the Crusades. (You might also read this First Things review, “Inventing the Crusades,” by Thomas F. Madden.)

But the president’s remarks also demonstrate a simplistic and incomplete understanding of Christianity. By that I mean when Mr. Obama, in warning Christians not to get on their “high horse” when talking about the problems in Islam, said, “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

True enough–but it’s also true that slavery and segregation were overthrown by those who justified their actions in the name of Christ. And if the president insists on making comparisons between Christianity and Islam, then it needs to be said that while Christianity has struggled with religious intolerance in its past, it has almost everywhere made its inner peace with religious tolerance and pluralism. On the other hand, true religious freedom has been quite rare in Muslim-majority communities throughout history. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen. It doesn’t mean that most Muslims embrace the version of Islam being practiced by ISIS. And it certainly doesn’t mean that individual Muslims can’t assimilate themselves in America. Millions do, and they are wonderful contributors to our nation.

But it does mean that in the here and now, the problems we see are emanating not from within Christianity but from within Islam. Even Islamic leaders, like Egypt’s General Sisi, admit as much. Yet the president of the United States, alas, does not. He continues to act as if he’s an Islamic scholar, declaring what is and what is not “true” Islam. Mr. Obama is clearly no theologian, so it’s best he drop the pretense. His core argument–that Islamism has nothing at all to do with Islam–is utterly detached from reality. Let’s just say it’s not happenstance that the Islamic State is not called the Reformed Presbyterian State. “Allahu Akbar” isn’t Yiddish.

Then there’s the matter of timing. The president went to the National Prayer Breakfast to call attention to the long-ago sins of Christianity in the aftermath of a particularly savage and brutal killing by the Islamic State, in which they doused a Jordanian pilot in flammable liquid and put him in a cage before burning him to death. Beheadings, it appears, are passé for jihadists. Decapitation isn’t vivid enough for them. Yet Barack Obama, being Barack Obama, decided it’s his job to insist on moral equivalence–or, to be more precise, to insist on immoral equivalence.

I do believe that if President Obama and his administration weren’t so clueless in his understanding of Islamism–remember that the Ft. Hood massacre was referred to as “workplace violence” and jihadist attacks were examples of “man-caused disasters”–and if he wasn’t so reticent in his fight against it, Mr. Obama’s slip-shod detours into the history of the Crusades and the Inquisition might have been more tolerable. As it is, the president was clearly using his speech to the National Prayer Breakfast not only to justify his own imaginary world, but to try to put those who are speaking the truth about militant Islam on the defensive. If that’s what Mr. Obama was hoping to achieve–well, he achieved the opposite. For goodness’s sake, even NBC’s Andrea Mitchell is criticizing him. Memo to Barack Obama: When you’ve lost Andrea Mitchell, you’re losing the debate.

One final observation: President Obama likes to portray himself as a man who is unusually self-reflective and self-critical. The contrary is the case. As Ross Douthat points out, Mr. Obama is a partisan and a progressive who takes to “highlighting crimes that he doesn’t feel particularly implicated in (how much theological guilt does our liberal Protestant president really feel about the Inquisition?) and the sins of groups he disagrees with anyway (Republican Cold Warriors, the religious right, white conservative Southerners).” That is to say, Obama is engaging in a dishonest and cynical game in which he relishes putting himself above his country or his professed faith and then likes to peddle that as humility.

A friend wrote me and said that if Mr. Obama wanted to have performed a real act of humility and self-criticism during his National Prayer Breakfast speech, he could have said something like this:

Lest we get on our high horse, let’s be more honest about where we have allowed ourselves to be misled in the name of religion. I myself worshipped for years in a church that distorted the Gospel of Christ in the name of a racialist message of hatred and intolerance towards my brothers and sisters of other races. It was not until I started campaigning for President that I realized just how misguided Reverent Wright was, and how far he had distorted religion to serve his political purposes.

That statement would have been far more honest, far more self-reflective, and far less cynical. Which may explain why there was no chance Mr. Obama would utter these words.

It’s long past time Mr. Obama get off his high horse. Vanity is difficult to take in anyone–but it’s especially difficult to take in a person of such staggering incompetence and intellectual shallowness.

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The Race Non Sequitur, Iran and Netanyahu

After two weeks of watching the debate over his proposed plans to speak to a joint session of Congress on Iran sanctions next month become increasingly bitter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be thinking he has no choice but to give the speech. A “senior government official” told the Jerusalem Post today that the prime minister had no plans to back down and postpone the speech until after the Knesset elections later in March. Apparently, Netanyahu thinks waiting until later in the spring to speak would be too late. With reports surfacing that the president has sought to persuade the Congressional Black Caucus to boycott his speech, the willingness of the administration sink so low as to play the race card against Israel illustrates that it no longer matters how right Netanyahu might be. Though his message about the danger from Iran is one that Congress and the American public need to hear, what he and his advisors seem not to understand is that the politics of the controversy have outstripped its content.

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After two weeks of watching the debate over his proposed plans to speak to a joint session of Congress on Iran sanctions next month become increasingly bitter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be thinking he has no choice but to give the speech. A “senior government official” told the Jerusalem Post today that the prime minister had no plans to back down and postpone the speech until after the Knesset elections later in March. Apparently, Netanyahu thinks waiting until later in the spring to speak would be too late. With reports surfacing that the president has sought to persuade the Congressional Black Caucus to boycott his speech, the willingness of the administration sink so low as to play the race card against Israel illustrates that it no longer matters how right Netanyahu might be. Though his message about the danger from Iran is one that Congress and the American public need to hear, what he and his advisors seem not to understand is that the politics of the controversy have outstripped its content.

The reports about the White House signaling the Black Caucus that the speech should be seen as a domestic political issue rather than one about a difference of opinion over foreign policy is particularly ominous. It was bad enough that Democrats construed the decision to accept the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner as a partisan intrusion into an American policy dispute. But if African-American politicians and even ordinary citizens are being told that Netanyahu’s appearance at a joint session is motivated out of disrespect to the first black president of the United States rather than a belief that the administration’s opposition to more sanctions on Iran is bad policy, then the problem Israel is facing is far worse than even some of the prime minister’s critics had thought.

At this point, the informal movement to boycott Netanyahu’s appearance is gaining the sort of momentum that gives it a life of its own. Republicans and Netanyahu’s supporters both here and in Israel may think most congressional Democrats are bluffing and some might be. But even a partial boycott would undo any good that the speech might have done in the first place.

Netanyahu needs to recall that the reason his May 2011 speech to Congress was such a triumph was that the cheers and the dozens of standing ovations he received were bipartisan. It was a humiliation for Obama, who never before and never since has been given such a reception in the Congress, because the thunderous applause demonstrated that the pro-Israel coalition was genuinely bipartisan. The cheers from both sides of the aisle were a sign that both congressional parties rejected Obama’s ambush of Netanyahu on that trip and backed the Israeli’s stand. Perhaps Netanyahu and his advisors believed they could replicate that triumph now when the stakes are even higher with the administration pursuing détente with Iran and seeking a deal that would allow it to become a nuclear threshold power. But with Democrats and blacks now perceiving the speech to be a partisan ploy, any chance of that is gone.

Let’s concede again that this situation is not so much the product of a Netanyahu blunder as it is of a cynical political strategy employed by the administration. There was no breach of protocol in the invitation, as we now know that Boehner’s office informed the White House of the plan before Netanyahu accepted it. Nor was this a matter of the Israelis favoring the GOP over the Democrats, as the Israeli government rightly understood that a majority of the president’s party supported more sanctions. Indeed, the bill Netanyahu favors is co-sponsored by as many Democrats as Republicans and Senator Robert Menendez has publicly and personally challenged the president on the issue without anyone accusing him of being against his own party or showing disrespect to the first African-American president. (In fact, it was Obama who showed disrespect to Menendez and other Democrats by speciously claiming that the only reason they opposed him on the issue was to please donors—a code word for supporters of Israel). Those who are piling on Netanyahu with such criticisms, like Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Reform movement, are saying more about their own partisan loyalties than telling us anything about Netanyahu.

Netanyahu deserves criticism for not anticipating that a speech during a congressional debate on the issue would be perceived as maladroit. But it is Obama who has politicized Israel and sought to make it a partisan issue, not Netanyahu or the GOP. Even worse, by injecting the non sequitur of race into this mess, Obama seems to be employing the sort of tactics we’d expect from his friend, race hustler Al Sharpton, not the leader of the free world. This is the worst sort of divisive politics that pits not only the two parties against each other but also two minority groups. Historically, most members of the Congressional Black Caucus have followed the example of Martin Luther King Jr. and been strong supporters of the State of Israel. Though many Democrats have drifted away from Israel in recent years, for Obama to play the race card in this way so as to buttress a policy that has nothing to do with the interests of African-Americans is disgraceful.

It is more than obvious that the smartest thing Netanyahu can do is to cease walking into the trap that Obama has laid for him. That this trap is to the president’s discredit, rather than that of Netanyahu, is irrelevant to the question of whether he should change his plans. The race non sequitur and the partisan issue are real even if they shouldn’t be. A veto-proof majority of both houses of Congress in favor of more pressure on Iran and against acceptance of it as a nuclear threshold power exists. Netanyahu needs to take himself out of the debate now so that majority can be re-assembled and that more sanctions can be passed.

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The Crusades Weren’t the Grievance Pundits Believe

By injecting moral equivalency into the National Prayer Breakfast by comparing the violence of the Crusades with that of the Islamic State (ISIS), President Obama sparked a storm of controversy. Obama is hardly the first president to step into the mine field of the Crusades, however. President George W. Bush sparked both outrage and considerable self-flagellating in the West when he spoke of a “crusade” against terror.

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By injecting moral equivalency into the National Prayer Breakfast by comparing the violence of the Crusades with that of the Islamic State (ISIS), President Obama sparked a storm of controversy. Obama is hardly the first president to step into the mine field of the Crusades, however. President George W. Bush sparked both outrage and considerable self-flagellating in the West when he spoke of a “crusade” against terror.

The irony of the obsession with either apologizing for or avoiding mention of the Crusades is as important as they were to Christians at the time and perhaps even to broader European history, contemporary Muslims considered them little more than minor irritation.

For the Crusaders, the goal was Jerusalem. But for contemporary Muslims, while Jerusalem might have had some religious significance, Palestine—and, indeed, the entire Arab world—was a backwater. Less than three decades after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the Umayyad dynasty shifted the seat of the Islamic empire to Damascus, and then less than nine decades later, the center of gravity for the Islamic world shifted further east to Baghdad with the establishment of the Abbasid dynasty. The great empires of the Islamic world, however, were non-Arab: The Safavids in Iran, the Ottomans in Anatolia, and the Mughals in India. It may be on the older side, but J.J. Saunders’ History of Medieval Islam is still probably the best-written, detailed, and accessible sketch of the earlier history of the Islamic world out there.

Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade in 1095, and the Crusaders managed to conquer Jerusalem four years later. The Second Crusade a few decades later failed to win Damascus. In 1187, Salahuddin—an ethnic Kurd, not an Arab—regained Jerusalem, leading European Christians to launch the Third Crusade with the aim of winning back the Holy City.

Contemporary Islamic historians, however, largely ignored this Christian campaign for a very simple reason: looming on the horizon was a far greater threat. A young Mongol tribesman—Temüjin—had already begun uniting Mongol tribes and would soon take the name Genghis Khan. As word spread of the Mongol hordes, tens of thousands of refugees fleeing ahead of his horsemen started migrating westward, slowly encroaching on the various Islamic entities that had risen up as the Abbasid dynasty. And the Muslims at the time were to be concerned, given how the Mongolian hordes swept through and conquered Baghdad just a few decades later, shortly after the Seventh Crusade.

Now, perception today is more important than reality. The more the West self-flagellates with regard to the Crusades, the more Islamists feign grievance and claim victimization. The historical truth, however, is different. If any group of people should walk on egg shells, they live in Ulan Bator, not Washington, Paris, London, or Berlin. And even those people–as well as their victims–are so many centuries removed that either outrage or guilt would be nonsense.

Context matters in other ways as well. Even if the Crusades have assumed heightened importance in the Islamist narrative only in recent decades, Many histories of the Islamic world begin in the sixth century when Muhammad was born, or the seventh century when Muhammad began receiving revelations. Arbitrarily starting a narrative with the rise of Islam, however, limits context. This is why Bernard Lewis, the greatest living historian of the Middle East, wrote The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. He consciously wanted to provide rather than ignore Zoroastrian, Jewish, and Christian context to the region. Islam did not arise upon a blank slate. To begin the narrative of grievance with the First Crusade—and depicting that episode as an unprovoked Christian attack on Islam which started tit-for-tat violence which continues to the present—is artificial and arbitrary. The initial Islamic invasions of Egypt and North Africa were an attack on the Byzantine Empire and other Christian communities. In the centuries before the Crusades, there was constant raiding from Islamic communities into Europe and vice versa. Muslim armies invaded Spain, briefly took Sicily, and tried to take Malta.

So Obama might wring his hands at the violence of the Crusades and might draw comparisons to downplay the malign exegesis which enables the Islamic State to enslave and rape Yezidi girls, burn churches, or burn alive captives. But when it comes to grievances over the Crusades, he and others should remember: Offense over the Crusades is more a modern phenomenon than based in the reality of Islamic history.

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Netanyahu’s Counterproductive Theatrics

How can Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be so right and yet be so self-defeating on an issue as important as Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions?

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How can Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be so right and yet be so self-defeating on an issue as important as Iran’s nuclear-weapons ambitions?

First, he is absolutely correct that a nuclear weapons-capable Islamic Republic of Iran poses an existential threat to the State of Israel. Let’s dispense with the notion that the red line for the international community should be Iranian production of nuclear weapons rather than nuclear-weapons capability. The difference between the two are a few turns of the screws, perhaps a few days to a week at most, should all the other parts of a nuclear program remain in place, as President Obama appears to accept. And while the intelligence community might be right to say the Iranian government hasn’t decided whether or not to move from capability to arsenal, the simple fact is that the United States does not have the human intelligence capability to know when such a decision is taken until it is too late.

And let’s also dispense with the notion that a nuclear Iran is containable because the Iranian regime isn’t suicidal. The problem with such calculations is that they do not take into account both who within the Islamic Republic would have command and control over a nuclear arsenal and what might happen if the regime becomes mortally ill. What if the Iranians again take to the streets in nationwide protests as they did in 1999, 2001, and 2009 and should some within the security services join in the protests in parallel to the collapse of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime in Romania so that it is clear to the world and to the Revolutionary Guards that Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision has just a day or two to survive? The most ideological pure unit of the Revolutionary Guards, which would control Iran’s nuclear arsenal, might simply decide to launch to fulfill the Islamic Republic’s ambition before its final demise. After all, who would retaliate against a country that already had regime change?

Netanyahu is also right to be concerned about U.S. resolve. Long before Obama showed American redlines to be meaningless with regard to chemical weapons, Hillary Clinton pioneered the notion of the disappearing redline. While secretary of state, she famously suggested to America’s Arab allies that they need not worry about American abandonment should Iran gain nuclear weapons; the United States would extend them a nuclear umbrella. The Gulf sheikhdoms correctly concluded then that American promises were meaningless; after all, why should they trust the new promise when the United States had consistently sworn that it would never allow Iran to go nuclear in the first place?

So the problem is acute, and Israel has every right to fear its future. How unfortunate it was, then, that Netanyahu brought with him to his United Nations General Assembly a silly, cartoon bomb. Netanyahu’s speech was serious, and the topic even more so, but his cartoon became a distraction. Rather than listen to the speech, those undecided or ignorant of the Iranian nuclear threat learned instead that Netanyahu had brought a cartoon bomb. And the media, deferential to the Obama administration and its positions vis-à-vis Iran and Israel, seized upon the incident to debate Netanyahu’s conduct instead of Iran’s illegal covert enrichment program.

Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation to address a Joint Session of Congress next month is déjà vu all over again. There was momentum within Congress among both Republicans and Democrats to ratchet up pressure on Iran in order to have leverage for a better deal. Even if tempted to exculpate Netanyahu—Obama and his close aides seem to have manufactured the crisis—Netanyahu is at fault for walking into the trap. Now instead of advancing discussion of the Iranian threat, Netanyahu has helped enable a situation whereby the discussion once again has shifted from Iran to Netanyahu himself.

There is a way out: Netanyahu can come as planned and address AIPAC, and seek to have Speaker John Boehner postpone the address to Congress until after the Israeli elections. It might mean two trips, but it will solve the problem.

Still, that will not be enough. Netanyahu spent much of his boyhood in suburban Philadelphia. He understands American politics, as do his close aides and associates like Israel’s current ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer. Neither Netanyahu nor Dermer can plead ignorance of American politics. That Netanyahu keeps allowing himself to fall into such traps is either an individual failure or a failure of Team Netanyahu. If the fault is not all Netanyahu’s, he must recognize that loyalty to his inner circle of advisors should not trump accountability for such bad advice and decisions.

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Can Iran Be Trusted On Nukes? Can Obama?

Though a vote won’t be held on a new Iran sanctions bill until late March, the question of what is exactly going on in the talks between the West and Tehran deserves more attention. The chattering classes have focused largely on a pointless dispute about whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak to Congress in March about Iran. But the real issue is the substance of the current negotiations. As a Washington Post editorial noted yesterday, the clear intent of the Obama administration is to acquiesce to Iran’s demands to be allowed to keep its nuclear infrastructure as well as treat the regime, as a legitimate regional power in the Middle East is no longer in much doubt. That leaves observers asking two very important questions. One is whether Iran can be trusted to keep the terms of any nuclear deal it signs. The other is whether the Obama administration can be trusted to hold the Iranians accountable.

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Though a vote won’t be held on a new Iran sanctions bill until late March, the question of what is exactly going on in the talks between the West and Tehran deserves more attention. The chattering classes have focused largely on a pointless dispute about whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu will speak to Congress in March about Iran. But the real issue is the substance of the current negotiations. As a Washington Post editorial noted yesterday, the clear intent of the Obama administration is to acquiesce to Iran’s demands to be allowed to keep its nuclear infrastructure as well as treat the regime, as a legitimate regional power in the Middle East is no longer in much doubt. That leaves observers asking two very important questions. One is whether Iran can be trusted to keep the terms of any nuclear deal it signs. The other is whether the Obama administration can be trusted to hold the Iranians accountable.

As the Post points out, the danger inherent in the administration’s Iran policy is that by letting them keep thousands of centrifuges and a nuclear stockpile that could be quickly re-activated to allow it to build a weapon, the terms currently being discussed will, at the very least, allow the Islamist regime to become a threshold nuclear power. Though he continues to insist, as he has since he first started running for president in 2007, that he won’t let Iran get a nuclear weapon, the president doesn’t seem to have a problem with that. Why? The answer is that Obama believes that the U.S. and Iran have common interests that will allow them to cooperate together in the region and that the ayatollahs have too much to gain from a reconciliation with the West in terms of their nation’s economy to want to risk it all by building a bomb.

But the problem with that formulation is that it is fundamentally mistaken. Iran has no interest in America’s need for regional stability and preserving moderate Arab regimes allied with the West, let alone protecting the existence of the state of Israel. To the contrary, it hopes to threaten both the Arab states and Israel via the threat of a nuclear weapon as well as keeping the pressure on them through the use of its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries and allied terror groups like Hamas. Yet Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon as well as its progress on ballistic missiles means that this is a problem that concerns the entire West and not just Israel and the Arabs.

That is why the bipartisan sanctions bill proposed by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez is so important. It provides at least a measure of accountability to the process since it raises the price for Iran for dragging out negotiations or for continuing to refuse to accept even another weak deal with the West like the interim agreement signed in November 2013.

Even more to the point, is the question of whether even a weak deal, such as the one Obama and Kerry embraced in 2013 can be enforced by this or subsequent administrations. To date, the administration has refused to take seriously charges that the Iranians are already cheating on the interim deal. The dynamic of the process is such that the president views any such questions or even threats of more sanctions with hostility because he sees them as a threat to his goal of a rapprochement with Iran.

This is problematic because so long as Iran believes that Washington won’t take violations of a nuclear deal seriously, it will feel free to push the envelope on more cheating. Since the president has already conceded that, as the Post wrote, “a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and restrict that capability,” it is difficult to believe the Islamist regime will think it need worry about the president abandoning a process to which he has become so devoted no matter what they do.

That brings us back to the question of the sanctions bill. Realists must understand that even if the bill is passed and then a threatened presidential veto is overridden, Congress can’t stop Obama from negotiating with Iran and coming up with a bad deal. Nor is it likely that it will be able to force him to put such a treaty to a vote as the Constitution demands since the president will seek to evade that requirement.

Indeed, even if the bill were to become law, the president could also use waivers in the legislation to prevent its enforcement. This is something of a poison pill that was forced on its sponsors by both political expediency (getting more Democratic votes) and legal technicalities (existing sanctions laws also have waivers that could be used by Obama to thwart this bill). But to the credit of both Kirk and Menendez, they have attempted to write their waivers in such a way as to constrict the president from wantonly ignoring the intent of Congress. Though this and other administrations have used waivers to flout the meaning of laws, doing so in this case will involve not merely a desire on the part of the president to ignore Congress but a willingness to lie about Iran’s conduct.

This is a president who has already demonstrated on a host of issues but most notably on immigration that he is not constrained by the normal Constitutional order or even the rule of law. That means that it is difficult to have confidence that any waiver, no matter how carefully it is drafted, will be able to force the president to hold Iran accountable.

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Iran talks. It’s not just that given its record as well as its regional and nuclear ambitions, Iran is not to be trusted. It’s that President Obama can also not be trusted to pursue a policy that is aimed at stopping Iran from becoming a threshold nuclear power. Without such accountability, there is no reason for Congress or the American people to trust the outcome of the negotiations.

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Give Jordan Drones

Jordan has formally requested that the United States provide it Predators for its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Alas, true to the Obama doctrine of screwing over allies at every opportunity, the United States has refused the Jordanian request.

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Jordan has formally requested that the United States provide it Predators for its fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Alas, true to the Obama doctrine of screwing over allies at every opportunity, the United States has refused the Jordanian request.

This is a mistake. King Abdullah II might have seized the momentum in the current crisis after the Islamic State released a video showing it burning alive Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, but as Kasasbeh’s crash shows in the first place, flying over enemy territory is always a risky endeavor. If Jordan loses another pilot in as barbaric a manner, all bets could be off with regard to the king. After all, the shifts in momentum in the fight against the Islamic State could give any observer whiplash.

It would be ironic if the Obama administration fell back over concerns regarding Israel’s qualitative military edge, given its increasing hostility to Israel’s security needs. Regardless, the qualitative military edge balance was originally crafted at a time when the security situation in the Middle East was far different: Israel faces far greater threats than a surprise Jordanian attack.

The icing on the cake, of course, is that Iran announced earlier this week that it would begin providing its own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to its allies, a move calculated to erode regional security whereas providing Jordan with the equipment it needs to push back the nihilistic forces of the Islamic State would do the opposite.

It’s one thing if Obama doesn’t want the United States to lead, but is far more tragic if he actively seeks to tie the hands of American allies who are willing to step up to the plate.

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The Crisis of American Strategy

President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

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President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

The reason “leading from behind” stuck is, plainly, because it is true. “Leading from behind” is another way of saying “following.” And that is precisely what the Obama administration has done. But Obama’s own stubbornness has impeded his attempts to shake this catchphrase. Rather than actually changing strategy to better assert American leadership, he has spent his time and energy finding creative ways to counter it with rhetoric, not action. And he has failed.

This is evident in the administration’s advance PR for Obama’s new National Security Strategy, his second (and almost certainly last) during his time in office, which is being released today. The administration sent deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes out to spin the New York Times, an exceedingly unwise choice, as his comments make clear:

“There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?”

He’s right about Ebola. But the administration’s confused and clumsy anti-ISIS effort is thus far a failure, as is the administration’s staggeringly weak approach to Russia. Rhodes wants Obama to take credit for colossal failures, because that’s all they’ve got. It is, however, a kind of clever defense of Obama if taken to its logical conclusion: Do you really want Obama to “lead” when this is what happens?

Meanwhile Foreign Policy magazine chose to focus on the phrase “strategic patience”–another piece of transparent, Orwellian spin. What “strategic patience” means in practice is that the administration thinks letting countries like Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria collapse does no harm to American strategic interests, or at least that the harm it does is outweighed by the benefit of watching the international state system disintegrate. (The administration really hasn’t thought this through.)

But in Obama’s defense, if you stick around on Foreign Policy’s website you can see one reason there is such a lack of strategic vision in America. The magazine conducts an annual survey of “America’s top International Relations scholars on foreign-policy research,” and this year’s shows that the ivory tower, at least with regard to international relations, is experiencing a rather horrid intellectual crisis.

For all you can say about Obama’s National Security Strategy, it stems from a better understanding of events than the field of international-relations scholars. In one question, they were asked to list the top foreign-policy issues for the next ten years. Here’s the result:

1. Global climate change 40.96%

2. Armed conflict in Middle East 26.81%

3. Failed or failing states 22.29%

4. China’s rising military power 21.54%

5. Transnational terrorism 21.23%

6. Renewed Russian assertiveness 17.47%

7. Global poverty 16.42%

8. Global wealth disparities 15.66%

9. China’s economic influence 15.51%

10. Proliferation of WMD 14.01%

10. Transnational political violence 14.01%

As you can see, Foreign Policy appears to have accidentally polled the international-relations scholars on Earth-2, a planet where the sun just invaded Ukraine, economic inequality is beheading prisoners in Iraq and Syria, and poverty just hacked America’s second-largest health insurer.

Is inequality a larger foreign-policy issue than transnational political violence and nuclear proliferation? Yes, according to America’s top international-relations scholars; no, according to anyone with a modicum of common sense and access to a newspaper. When you think of it this way, considering Obama’s academic pedigree, it’s a surprise his foreign policy hasn’t been even more of a disaster.

There are some other fun nuggets in the FP survey. For example, they asked the esteemed scholars of this alternate reality, “Who was the most effective U.S. secretary of state of the past 50 years?” I wish I were kidding when I say this was the list they came up with:

1. Henry Kissinger 32.21%

2. Don’t know 18.32%

3. James Baker 17.71%

4. Madeleine Albright 8.70%

4. Hillary Clinton 8.70%

6. George Shultz 5.65%

7. Dean Rusk 3.51%

8. Warren Christopher 1.53%

8. Cyrus Vance 1.53%

10. Colin Powell 1.07%

11. Condoleezza Rice 0.46%

12. Lawrence Eagleburger 0.31%

13. John Kerry 0.31%

There was much mocking of John Kerry on Twitter for coming in dead last here. But I think the rest of the poll vindicates him. Any survey that finds George Shultz on a lower rung than Hillary Clinton is deserving of exactly zero credibility. (Also, “don’t know” coming in at No. 2? International-relations scholars don’t have opinions on America’s high-level diplomacy? OK then.)

What we’re seeing, both within the Obama administration and in the broader academic world, is a shocking dearth of strategic thinking in favor of the various passing fads of conventional wisdom and political correctness. And as the postwar international system continues its collapse, the consequences are plain to see.

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What Obama Should Have Said at the Prayer Breakfast

At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

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At first, I was prepared to defend President Obama’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast from conservatives who excoriated him for comparing (as the New York Times account put it) “the atrocities of the Islamic State to the bloodshed committed in the name of Christianity in centuries past.”

There are legitimate comparisons to be made. Indeed, just as Southern slaveowners once cited the Bible to defend slavery, so now ISIS cites Islamic law to defend its own form of slavery. Just as the Spanish Inquisition once burned heretics at the stake, so now ISIS burns alive a Jordanian pilot. More broadly the religious zealotry, bloodthirstiness, and intolerance of ISIS is indeed reminiscent in many ways, as Obama noted, of the Crusades.

But then I read the actual text of his speech and saw that his message wasn’t: Christianity was once intolerant but it has now reformed itself and Islam should do likewise. That’s an important message similar to the one that Egypt’s President Sisi recently delivered when he called for a “religious revolution” within Islam.

Alas, that’s not what President Obama said. What he actually said was: “And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

He also said: “From a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris, we have seen violence and terror perpetrated by those who profess to stand up for faith, their faith, professed to stand up for Islam, but, in fact, are betraying it.”

Neither statement is true or helpful.

When we see ISIS beheading and burning hostages, and “selling, crucifying, burying children alive,” I’d say we have every right to get on our “high horse” about that–even if Christians in centuries past committed their share of atrocities. In fact we have an obligation to get on our “high horse”–to make clear that ISIS’s conduct violates every norm of civilized behavior and will not be tolerated. To shrug our shoulders and say “everybody does it” is untrue and immoral.

And it is no more likely to succeed as a rhetorical gambit than Obama’s previous forays into moral relativism, such as his 2009 Cairo speech (which I defended at the time), in which he equated Iranian “hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians” with the role the U.S. played in 1953 “in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government.” Such comparisons do not win the U.S. any friends–they don’t make the Iranian mullahs (or even the Iranian people) think what a great guy Obama is for disowning the conduct of the Eisenhower administration, just as ISIS (or even the ordinary people of Syria and Iraq) won’t think he is a great guy for disowning the conduct of the Crusaders. They just think he’s weak, that he’s unwilling to stand up and defend the United States, that he can be taken advantage of.

As for Obama’s claim that ISIS’s actions “are betraying” Islam–a claim he has made in the past–that too is a dubious statement and a presumptuous one for a non-Muslim to make. More accurate would be to say that ISIS’s actions are a betrayal of what we want Islam to be–but just as Christianity could be interpreted in centuries past to justify slavery and burning at the stake, so too Islam can be interpreted today to justify beheading of hostages and the enslaving of children. It does no good to deny the fact–indeed it is hard to imagine us fighting and defeating these Islamist extremists if we don’t recognize that their conduct has some grounding in Muslim tradition and has some support in the Muslim world.

No, that doesn’t mean that most Muslims are jihadists; the vast majority are not. But we need to be honest enough to recognize that ISIS’s actions, however reprehensible, have some real appeal to a minority of the Muslim world (see, for example, this article about Tunisia, which is one of the most moderate and stable corners of the Middle East), and we won’t change that fact by denying it away.

Obama’s speech reveals the fuzzy thinking behind his strategy in what used to be called “the war on terror.” Little wonder that across the greater Middle East–in countries such as Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen–we are losing the struggle. If the president can’t even think clearly on these major issues, he certainly can’t act effectively.

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U.S., Germany, and France to Putin: The World Is Too Weak to Stop You

Vladimir Putin may be reckless, but he seems to be guided by one valuable strategic rule when picking fights in Europe: divide the west to conquer the east. And dividing the west doesn’t just mean dividing Western Europe among itself; it also means dividing Western Europe from the rest of the West. It broadens the (likely apocryphal) Kissinger quote about calling Europe, and updates it for modern times. If you want to talk to “the West,” whom do you call?

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Vladimir Putin may be reckless, but he seems to be guided by one valuable strategic rule when picking fights in Europe: divide the west to conquer the east. And dividing the west doesn’t just mean dividing Western Europe among itself; it also means dividing Western Europe from the rest of the West. It broadens the (likely apocryphal) Kissinger quote about calling Europe, and updates it for modern times. If you want to talk to “the West,” whom do you call?

The sudden rush of new peace conferences to solve the conflict in Ukraine prove this point. This New York Times rundown of the various meetings and pressers and conferences is thorough but also thoroughly maddening. It is headlined “U.S. Joins Europe in Efforts to End Fighting in Ukraine,” but good luck finding any semblance of a workable solution in any of the proposals and declarations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande met in Kiev with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. No progress seems to have been made in halting or turning back the Russian invasion in Ukraine’s east. But that’s not surprising when you consider what the aim of the Franco-German trip was in the first place. As the Wall Street Journal noted today:

The trip also comes as political momentum grows in the U.S. to deliver weapons to Ukrainian forces—a step that the German and French leaders oppose because they say it would only lead to more violence.

So the purpose of German and French diplomatic intervention was to stop the U.S. from helping Ukraine too much. Mission accomplished.

Not that the U.S. is ready to take that step anyway. There continue to be Obama administration figures who support arming Ukraine, but until that group includes President Obama, this is all they’re going to get, as the Times reported:

Mr. Kerry, who announced $16.4 million in humanitarian assistance for eastern Ukraine, plans to press for a new cease-fire.

In a joint appearance with Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Kerry said that France, Germany and the United States were united in supporting a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And he called for Russia to agree to a cease-fire.

“Our choice is a peaceful solution, but Russia needs to make its choices,” Mr. Kerry said.

Russia, in fact, has made its choice–repeatedly. That choice has been a relatively easy one for Putin because no one is willing to defend Ukraine. What would possibly give American officials the idea that Putin would retreat without real resistance? That’s where what is possibly the most damning line in the Times story comes in:

The Obama administration’s hope is that its widely reported deliberations over whether to send defensive weapons to Ukraine and about additional economic sanctions will induce Russia to agree to a halt in the fighting and, ultimately, to a political agreement within the framework of the Minsk accord.

This is strategic ineptitude of the first order. Obama’s defenders like to scoff at the notion of “credibility”–that Obama retreating on a red line in, say, Syria would enter the calculus of someone like Putin when considering American opposition to his invasions of Ukraine. We are told that “credibility” is overrated, but it’s more accurate to say it’s simply unquantifiable.

But you have to ask yourself: why would Vladimir Putin believe Obama’s threats when he doesn’t follow through? You have to make a rational calculation, and right now the smart money will always be on Obama bluffing. It’s just who he is; he says things but doesn’t mean them. The sound of his own voice is pleasing to him, but the content is irrelevant.

Additionally, Obama keeps undercutting any such threat. One way he does this is in the implied threat itself: Obama thinks leaking that the administration is debating arming Ukraine will spook Putin, but that very leak is based on the fact that Obama is personally opposed to arming Ukraine, so it’s toothless.

More importantly, the administration keeps undercutting the idea that the aid would help anyway. On Tuesday, CBS’s Mark Knoller tweeted the administration’s justification for not giving Ukraine military aid. He wrote: “On Ukraine, WH says its (sic) not possible for US to put Ukraine on par militarily with Russia. Stands by objective of diplomatic resolution.”

So here’s Obama’s opinion: Ukraine should not get military aid from the West because even with American help, Russia would still mop the floor with them. And this, according to the Times, is what Obama thinks will intimidate Putin into signing a peace treaty. I’ll offer the president some free advice: telling Putin the world is too weak to stop him isn’t very intimidating.

Yet even if the West got Putin to sign on to a new agreement, nothing will have been accomplished. Putin has been violating the last ceasefire agreement, because there’s no one to enforce it. What Obama, Merkel, and Hollande are working for, then, is a non-solution–an agreement that would allow everyone involved to pretend it’s more than it is, and which would implicitly (if not explicitly) accept Putin’s previous land grabs in Ukraine while asking him nicely–on the honor system–to stop taking more land.

You can see what bothers the Ukrainians about this. They are at war, and high-level delegations from France, Germany, and the United States all flew in to tell them, personally, that they’re a lost cause. They either don’t realize it or don’t seem to care, but three major Western powers just went out of their way to ostentatiously humiliate their besieged ally on the world stage.

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The Obama-Bibi Speech Row: Enough Blame to Go Around

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s high-profile speech before Congress has already backfired even before it was delivered. It is designed to rally support in Congress for extra sanctions on Iran in case nuclear talks fall through. But instead the controversy over the speech is driving Democrats to embrace President Obama’s soft-on-Iran position out of party loyalty if nothing else. Some are even talking about boycotting the speech. In a U.S.-Israel relationship that has already been deeply troubled during the Obama administration, this is another low point.

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Prime Minister Netanyahu’s high-profile speech before Congress has already backfired even before it was delivered. It is designed to rally support in Congress for extra sanctions on Iran in case nuclear talks fall through. But instead the controversy over the speech is driving Democrats to embrace President Obama’s soft-on-Iran position out of party loyalty if nothing else. Some are even talking about boycotting the speech. In a U.S.-Israel relationship that has already been deeply troubled during the Obama administration, this is another low point.

Who’s fault is that? I would ascribe blame both to Netanyahu and Obama.

Start with the prime minister: As Jonathan and others have argued, his decision to accept a speaking invitation from Speaker Boehner without consulting with the administration first was a diplomatic and political blunder. It upset the normal protocol and allowed Obama’s aides to claim that Bibi is (a) posturing for political advantage in Israel just prior to an election and (b) interfering in American domestic politics–even if British Prime Minister David Cameron just did the same thing by lobbying lawmakers, at White House request, against imposing additional sanctions now.

Bibi would have been smart to emulate the Cameron example and limit his own actions and those of his representatives to quiet conversations with senators and representatives–there is no need for a high-profile address to a joint session of Congress when the Israeli government’s views are already known. Bibi has always prided himself on an insider’s knowledge of American politics and a sure touch in getting Israel’s message out. But in this case his political judgment deserted him.

However I believe that Obama also deserves a fair amount of opprobrium for turning this into such a high-profile blowup–indeed Bibi would never have been tempted to do an end-run around the president if didn’t feel that this particular president was inveterately hostile to Israel. The proper reaction for the president, when he found out about the address, would have been to call up Bibi privately and ream him out–while at the same time instructing his aides to leak word that he was perfectly supportive of the speech. That is how allies treat one another: confine differences of opinion to private communications while making a front of unity for public consumption.

But that’s not how Obama and his crew operate. These are, after all, the same folks who last year were quoted calling Netanyahu “chickenshit.” The same folks who are never satisfied with any concession that Bibi makes–whether a freeze on settlements or an apology to Turkey for the Israeli raid on the Gaza Flotilla. The same folks who perpetually apply pressure to Bibi while letting Abu Mazen, the Palestinian president, slide by for all his actions undermining the “peace process.”

So it is no surprise that the administration has been leaking word that Israel will pay a “price” for the speech and openly campaigning for the recall of Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer who is accused of being a Republican apparatchik.

As numerous commentators have noted, it would be nice if the famously cool Obama ever showed half the level of anger against Syria, Iran, North Korea, ISIS, or Russia that he routinely displays against Israel.

So I blame Obama for escalating this crisis–and I blame Netanyahu for playing into his hands.

Israel’s close relationship with the U.S. will survive this crisis and will, I predict, become much warmer under whoever succeeds Obama. Even under Obama, the U.S. remains the most pro-Israel country in the world simply because the American people are the most pro-Israel in the world. But there is no question that damage has been done to this “special relationship” and it could turn out to be long-lasting damage if this spat drives more Democratic politicians to become as critical of the Jewish state as many grass-roots leftist activists already are.

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