Commentary Magazine


Topic: foreign policy

Jeb Bush’s James Baker Problem

Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

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Last month, Governor Jeb Bush unveiled a foreign-policy team with a number of Republican heavy hitters from the past three Republican administrations, and soon thereafter delivered a foreign-policy address at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The big question that many analysts asked was whether Jeb Bush would lean more toward his father’s vision of foreign policy than toward his brother’s. The underlying spin behind that question was that the elder Bush had more foresight with regard to the application of military force and understood the limits of power. While both men oversaw an invasion of Iraq, many foreign-policy analysts and journalists approve of Operation Desert Storm but consider Operation Iraqi Freedom to have been a historic mistake. That’s something historians will decide. But a better question than which Bush would Jeb hone most closely to in foreign policy might be whether, given his most senior advisors, a Jeb Bush foreign policy would differ substantively from that of President Barack Obama.

Jeb Bush gave a fine speech, even if a bit anodyne. Sure, Jeb criticized Obama’s “inconsistent and indecisive” leadership on the world stage, but that’s an issue of style and competence, not philosophy. Pretty much any successor to Obama, whether Democrat or Republican, will do better on the world stage. The same holds true for Jeb Bush’s insistence that red lines should matter. Few presidents would disagree, Obama being the exception. Calling for greater economic growth at home is also a no-brainer: Would any president really want moribund growth? Greater defense spending is a step in the right direction, as so many military and national-security experts and scholars across the partisan divide recognize.

While it may be commendable that Jeb Bush has hired folks who represent different sides of past policy debates, former Secretary of State James Baker who, alongside former Secretary of State George Shultz, is Jeb’s most senior and, perhaps because he is not fishing for a job himself, most influential advisor, has a track record of policy recommendations that hone closer to what Obama has implemented than the clean break Jeb Bush suggests he wants.

Baker was co-chair back in 2006 of the Iraq Study Group, better known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission which, in the darkest days of the Iraq war, not only counseled the type of retreat which George W. Bush refused but also blessed the idea of unilateral retreat which Barack Obama implemented. Baker went further, however, and worked into the report a call for Israel to make concessions under fire and the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to be rewarded. Both a latent hostility to Israel and a benign reading of the Syrian regime have long been characteristic of Baker’s philosophy, as they have been Obama’s. Remember, Obama came into office believing Assad was a reformer and, despite the horrific civil war in subsequent years, now appears ready to again legitimize Assad as a partner. Baker also sought to partner with Iran in order to resolve difficulties in Iraq, leading to this brilliant David Zucker parody featuring Baker.

If there’s one thing that the past decade should have made clear it is that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not central to the divisions and problems which undercut Middle Eastern stability and American national security. The whole Iraq Study Group was a put-up job, with Baker and Lee Hamilton stroking the egos of those testifying all the while ignoring the substance of their input while aides wrote a pre-ordained report. As such, Baker should be held fully accountable for the report’s often counterproductive and self-defeating recommendations.

Alas, the Baker-Hamilton report was the rule rather than the exception. Against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential campaign, Baker traveled to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he appeared to give an endorsement of the type of diplomacy with rogue regimes which George W. Bush shied away from, but which Obama had made the centerpiece of his campaign. Then, again, this merely restated the policy which Baker blessed as secretary of state with regard to North Korea. In The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War, and Peace, 1989–1992, he explained, “Our diplomatic strategy was designed to build international pressure against North Korea to force them to live up to their agreements.” In reality, however, Baker pioneered a philosophy which Obama has now perfected; that is, a belief that a bad deal is better than no deal, even if it means turning a blind eye toward an enemy’s cheating. As the State Department negotiated with Pyongyang, Baker accepted North Korea’s insistence that limited inspections regarding North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure to sites “agreed upon between the two sides,” in effect giving Pyongyang a veto. Baker offered this concession even though the CIA had warned that North Korea was hiding parts of its nuclear program. Such a philosophy laid the groundwork for a process that culminated during the Clinton administration in “The Agreed Framework,” an achievement celebrated in Washington but treated disdainfully in Pyongyang as the North Korean regime pocketed associated aid and accelerated its drive toward a nuclear bomb. Baker, however, bragged in his memoirs (published after the Agreed Framework was signed) that “American diplomacy [was] directly responsible for an end to six years of intransigence by the North.”

Much of Baker’s positive reputation comes from how he and George H.W. Bush handled Operation Desert Storm. And, for this, they deserve plaudits. What is interesting, however, is how Baker was for Saddam before he was against him. On February 15, 1990, after the Voice of America broadcast an editorial into several Arab countries celebrating the collapse of dictatorship in Eastern Europe and castigating Iraq as belonging to a club whose leaders maintained power “by force and fear, not by the consent of the governed,” Saddam was furious. Rather than defend the premise and maintain moral clarity, the Bush administration apologized and decided that the secretary of state, James Baker, would personally clear future editorials. Again, instinct matters.

Baker has been outspoken in his support for Jeb Bush. While Baker is friendly with Jeb Bush’s father, that did not stop the former secretary of state from signaling his displeasure with the governor’s brother. It is hard to imagine Baker giving such full-throated support to Jeb Bush unless he sees in Bush a kindred spirit. If that’s the case, then there is much to worry about as Jeb Bush develops his foreign policy.

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Antonio Weiss, Elizabeth Warren, and the Spirit of the Constitution

When Elizabeth Warren led a campaign of misleading demagoguery against President Obama’s nominee for an under secretary of the treasury job, she was trying to make a point at the expense of someone else’s career. But since her success was temporary and Antonio Weiss has, as predicted, joined the administration anyway, Warren’s populist stunt has inadvertently raised questions about the entire premise of the Senate’s role in approving executive branch nominees.

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When Elizabeth Warren led a campaign of misleading demagoguery against President Obama’s nominee for an under secretary of the treasury job, she was trying to make a point at the expense of someone else’s career. But since her success was temporary and Antonio Weiss has, as predicted, joined the administration anyway, Warren’s populist stunt has inadvertently raised questions about the entire premise of the Senate’s role in approving executive branch nominees.

To recap: Obama chose Weiss, but his background in investment banking irked Warren, who loudly opposed the nomination in ways that proved her ignorance of the relevant issues but increased her celebrity and her rabid fan base. It was precisely the type of behavior that should not be rewarded, but unfortunately it’s also the type of behavior that works. So Weiss withdrew his nomination.

But that was not going to be the end of it. Here is what I wrote last month about how this would end: “Weiss will join the Treasury anyway, and give the same advice, not be much undercut by whoever eventually fills the under secretary seat. … Warren’s victory is, then, entirely symbolic. It will have no effect on policy. All it will do is act as an implicit threat to future nominees, pour encourager les autres.”

And that’s precisely what happened. As Bloomberg reports:

Eight days after joining the Treasury Department as an adviser, Antonio Weiss was the lead U.S. official listed at a meeting with Wall Street executives. It’s a role typically played by the undersecretary for domestic finance — the same post Weiss lost after Democratic senators stymied his nomination.

Weiss’s presence at that Feb. 3 meeting on quarterly debt sales shows him diving into many of the same tasks that would have come with the undersecretary’s job. The former Lazard Ltd. global head of investment banking is now working on issues ranging from debt management to housing finance and global market developments. One big difference: his job as counselor to Secretary Jacob J. Lew doesn’t require Senate confirmation.

The question–and it’s a fair one–is this: Does Antonio Weiss’s current job description violate the spirit of the separation of powers and the Senate’s advise-and-consent role in executive branch appointments?

Over at National Review, Charles Cooke says yes. Cooke writes that quality of candidate–and, by extension, the truthiness of the campaign against him–is beside the point: “Ultimately, I couldn’t care less whether Weiss is a better choice than Elizabeth Warren’s preferred candidate. If the Senate didn’t want him, he doesn’t get the job.”

He explains:

At first blush it must seem rather suspicious that the only functional difference between Weiss as undersecretary for domestic finance and Weiss as counselor to Secretary Lew is that the latter position “doesn’t require” the Senate confirmation that Weiss was so publicly denied. But first blushes are for schoolboys and bigots and haters, and for those wild-eyed radicals who would happily risk seeing into what sort of proto-Somalian hellhole the United States might fall if the Treasury secretary were to be denied an adviser for a few weeks. Here, as so often, we should presume that the president knows better than the other co-equal branches, and conclude that politics must not be permitted to intrude upon his getting his own way. Apologies to Elizabeth Warren and Dick Durbin, who made it their business to block Weiss’s nomination; but you know not what you do.

I support Cooke’s general defense of procedure here, but I don’t think it’s being violated in this case, for three reasons.

The first is that process matters. There is no way to prevent a government official from soliciting the advice he’s looking for. Having a Senate-confirmed spot in government is about more than hiring. It’s why it’s not inappropriate that Susan Rice landed at the exceptionally powerful National Security Council when opposition to her from the Senate chased the administration away from making her secretary of state. Yes, it’s a different job title, but so is Weiss’s. And since policy is made in the White House, Rice is arguably more influential toward the shape of American foreign policy as national security advisor than she would have been at State.

The second is that the purpose of the opposition matters. The truth is that Rice would likely have been confirmed. The problem for Obama was that Republicans wanted to use the confirmation hearings to press the administration (and especially Rice) on Benghazi. For Weiss, it wasn’t clear Warren had the votes to reject his nomination. What she wanted was to make a point about the administration’s supposedly too-cozy ties to Wall Street and demonstrate her growing clout in the Democratic Party. So yes, Weiss was hired this way to avoid the Senate’s “advice and consent” (mostly “advice”), but neither is it fully accurate to say that, in this case as in many others like it, “the Senate didn’t want him.”

The third reason is that you could say the same about recess appointments. But wait, you object, the recess power is in the Constitution! Indeed it is. And what is its purpose? If the purpose is to prevent debilitating vacancies while the Senate is out of session, then its popular use today unquestionably violates the spirit of that process.

Presidents use recess appointments for controversial nominees who would be otherwise “unconfirmable” by the Senate. Does this not trash the very concept of the Senate’s role in choosing nominees? If we follow this line of thinking, we should oppose any appointment that would otherwise go through the Senate. (Cooke may in fact agree; I’m not claiming to know, merely making a broader point.)

And if the spirit of the Constitution is not violated by recess appointments made for this purpose, then the case for Weiss is even stronger. We can then say that the framers allowed for the workaround in cases other than coincidental recess.

And we might glance at the way presidents choose their advisors for some perspective. If we must oppose Weiss’s hiring in this case for these reasons, then we might as well indict the executive branch’s general conduct in foreign policy. Was the diplomatic opening to Cuba arranged by the American secretary of state or even Foggy Bottom appointees? No it was not; it was arranged by presidential advisor (and Susan Rice deputy) Ben Rhodes, whose position is not subject to Senate confirmation. And we could say the same about the entire system of “special envoys” through which presidents approach foreign affairs.

There is a danger here, without question. And the growth of the administrative state and its army of unaccountable bureaucrats would surely horrify the framers, for a variety of reasons. But Weiss’s hiring is probably not one of them.

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Jeb’s Strength Is Also His Weakness

Jeb Bush traveled to Chicago today to give a speech on foreign policy that demonstrated a good command of important issues as well as some cogent critiques of the Obama administration. But most observers were parsing each line in the speech seeking the answer to the question on seemingly everyone’s mind: Would a third President Bush be more like Bush 41 or Bush 43? Jeb’s answer is that he will be his own man even as he presented a list of foreign-policy advisors peppered with figures from both of those presidencies setting up the possibility that a Bush 45 administration would be divided between realists like James Baker and neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz. But while his ability to summon such broad support from the GOP foreign-policy establishment is a clear strength, like much else about his candidacy it is also a weakness. In a year in which the Democrats will be trying to recycle the Clinton magic of the 1990s, the prospect of a third Bush presidency won’t provide a strong contrast that a fresh face might provide.

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Jeb Bush traveled to Chicago today to give a speech on foreign policy that demonstrated a good command of important issues as well as some cogent critiques of the Obama administration. But most observers were parsing each line in the speech seeking the answer to the question on seemingly everyone’s mind: Would a third President Bush be more like Bush 41 or Bush 43? Jeb’s answer is that he will be his own man even as he presented a list of foreign-policy advisors peppered with figures from both of those presidencies setting up the possibility that a Bush 45 administration would be divided between realists like James Baker and neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz. But while his ability to summon such broad support from the GOP foreign-policy establishment is a clear strength, like much else about his candidacy it is also a weakness. In a year in which the Democrats will be trying to recycle the Clinton magic of the 1990s, the prospect of a third Bush presidency won’t provide a strong contrast that a fresh face might provide.

As Politico notes today, the rollout of Jeb’s foreign-policy platform was just as professional and well thought out as the rest of his campaign. “Shock and awe” is a good way to describe the Bush blitz that drove Mitt Romney out of the race and has put other challengers on notice that if they wait much longer to line up staff and donors, Bush will have stolen a march on them they may not be able to make up.

Moreover, the same applies to Jeb’s foreign-policy views. His speech projected strength both in terms of his unabashed desire to “take out” ISIS terrorists and to reject engagement and appeasement of Iran. Putting his finger on a key problem of the Obama administration’s approach, he said that he, like many Americans, had come to doubt whether the president thinks U.S. power “is a force for good.” He rightly noted that the administration’s record is one that has caused it to be no longer trusted by friends or feared by allies.

Nor was he shy about mentioning Iraq, the memory of which is considered to be his greatest weakness as many voters might blame Jeb for the unpopular war his brother took the U.S. into. He correctly praised the 2007 surge that essentially defeated al-Qaeda and left W’s successor with a war that was won. Obama, whose abandonment of Iraq led to both the rise of ISIS and the strengthening of Iran, squandered that victory. Bush also took aim at Obama’s handling of the nuclear negotiations with Iran, a problem that his brother punted on during his time in power. He correctly accused him of seeking to “manage” the nuclear threat rather than to solve it.

Moreover, in a clear shot across the bow of the White House, Bush said he was interested in hearing what Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu had to say about Iran when he speaks to Congress next month and that he felt the U.S. had already given away too much to Tehran in the nuclear talks.

All this positions Bush as a serious foreign-policy voice that compares favorably to most of his rivals for the nomination. Bush’s ability to articulate a traditional GOP message of international strength contrasts particularly with Rand Paul’s views, which bear a troubling resemblance to those of Obama. It also shows him to be better prepared to be commander in chief than the pack of governors and former governors lined up against him, including fast-rising Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who refused to answer questions on the topic when in London last week.

But Bush’s speech also reminded us why there is good reason to be skeptical about his front-runner status. Though his mother has finally come around to supporting the idea of another member of her family becoming president, Jeb needs to win over the party’s grass roots too. Bush comes into the race as not only the leading member of his party’s establishment but as the candidate who is already pledged to run against the base on issues like immigration and common core. That may ultimately help him win the general election, but it might make it difficult for him to gain the GOP nomination.

In a year when terrorism and Obama’s weakness has elevated foreign policy to the front burner of American concerns, Bush’s foreign-policy competence gives him a clear leg up on virtually every other Republican contender with the possible exception of Marco Rubio. But his ability to summon the party mandarins on his behalf is also a sign that he needs to provide a rationale for his candidacy that is more compelling than it being his turn in the family rotation.

Today was a good start for Bush. But merely saying that he’s going to be his own man even as he lines up his father and brother’s men behind him will not be good enough to convince voters that there is a reason to vote for Jeb. The coming year will give him plenty of opportunities to prove that he really is something different despite the Bush brand in a contest that will ultimately place him up against another retread like Clinton. Shock and awe is all well and good for the beginning of a war, but it will take more than that to carry him through a crowded primary field.

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ISIS’s Rise Means 2016 May Be a Foreign-Policy Election

In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

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In Britain on a trade mission, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was quizzed about foreign policy at a session at London’s Chatham House. But rather than say anything that might help bolster the potential 2016 candidate’s foreign-policy credentials, Walker channeled mid-20th century Senate giant Arthur Vandendberg and acted as if partisan politics really should stop “at the water’s edge” and avoided saying anything that might be taken as a criticism of President Obama or even an opinion about various world crises. That might be considered principled, but if Walker wants to actually win his party’s nomination he’ll have to do better in the future (as well as avoiding being trapped into giving equivocal answers about his belief in evolution). That the exchange happened the same day that Congress began considering the president’s proposal for a new war powers resolution authorizing the use of force in the Middle East also means the same lesson will apply to other candidates. Though conventional wisdom tells us that economic questions will always dominate presidential elections, the rise of ISIS has ensured that anyone who is thinking about the White House needs to have a coherent vision of American foreign policy.

As our Max Boot termed it, Obama’s proposal for authorizing U.S. actions against terrorists in the Middle East is “a classic muddle.” By attempting to balance the administration’s allergic reaction to a U.S. commitment that might actually defeat ISIS while providing a legal basis for its ongoing half-hearted efforts, the president has provoked criticism from both the right and the left. But rather than being a compromise that makes sense, it merely confirms for those who weren’t already convinced that the president has no real strategy for eliminating ISIS or even for significantly “degrading” it.

It’s not clear what exactly will come out of the Congress as both House and Senate leaders struggle to come up with a formula that makes more sense than the administration’s attempt to set up one with limitations that ensures the U.S. can’t prevail in the conflict. But while his critics may demand that the president demonstrate that he has a path to victory over ISIS, they have very little leverage over his choices. No matter the outcome of the votes on a force authorization, nothing can make the president prosecute this war with conviction. Indeed, the U.S. is increasingly showing signs that the president is more interested in making common cause with Iran than in actually rolling back ISIS’s vast territorial gains in Iraq and Syria. That means the connection between Obama’s equivocal approach to the nuclear talks with Iran is not only worrisome in and of itself but a sign of an overall strategy in which the U.S. will acquiesce to Iran becoming a nuclear threshold state and obtaining regional hegemony in return for cooperation against ISIS.

All this makes it even more important than it normally might be that potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates have more to say about foreign policy than platitudes. In 2008 the presidential contest—or at least the Democratic nomination that year—was essentially decided on the basis of Barack Obama’s adamant opposition to the Iraq war. Yet every new ISIS atrocity and terror attack is going to make it harder for anyone—whether on the right or the left—to run on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of the Middle East or to avoid conflicts.

For Democrats, this might make it even harder for those outliers with the temerity to challenge the Hillary Clinton juggernaut to get some traction by outflanking her on the left with another anti-war campaign. For Republicans, the more attention paid to ISIS murders of Americans, the harder it will be for Rand Paul to break out from the ideological box that his libertarian isolationist base has put him.

Nevertheless, Republican candidates need to do more than merely carp at Obama or issue ringing rhetoric about fighting terror. Unlike in 2008 and 2012, when many Americans thought they were electing a president to get them out of unpopular wars, the force authorization vote ensures that whoever wins next year will be leading a war effort that may well dominate their presidencies.

Unless something very unexpected happens in the next year, Republican candidates will be competing in primaries where they will be expected to tell us how they are prepared to beat an enemy that is, contrary to President Obama’s assurances, very much not on the run. That gives an advantage to a candidate like Senator Marco Rubio, who has been speaking with some authority on foreign policy throughout his first term in the Senate. Jeb Bush will have to also show whether his approach to foreign policy is, as some reports have indicated, a knockoff of his father’s “realist” policies that may not provide much of a contrast with Obama’s equivocations. By contrast, it puts those GOP governors that many of us have been assuming will be formidable candidates on the spot to quickly get up to speed on foreign policy. Walker is not the only one who fits in that category, but after his recent surge in the polls in Iowa, it’s obvious that if he wants to stay on top, he’s going to have to say something more than “no comment” about Iran.

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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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Obama’s Words v. Reality

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order. ” — President Obama, September 10, 2014

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“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order. ” — President Obama, September 10, 2014

“The United States is closing its embassy in Yemen to the public until further notice, the embassy said in a statement on Monday amid political turmoil after that nation’s government resigned last week under pressure from the Houthi rebel movement. ‘The U.S. Embassy will be closed to the public until further notice out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting the Embassy. We are continuously analyzing the security conditions and will resume consular operations as soon as our analysis indicates we are able to do so safely,’ the statement said.” — Reuters, January 26, 2015

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“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free. Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights. Now, all of us have a responsibility to support the new Libya — the new Libyan government as they confront the challenge of turning this moment of promise into a just and lasting peace for all Libyans.” — President Obama, September 21, 2011

“The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said. ‘Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,’ spokeswoman Marie Harf said.” — the Daily Mail, July 26, 2014

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“We’re demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

“Unexpectedly, at the height of the Ukrainian winter, war has exploded anew on a half-dozen battered fronts across eastern Ukraine, accompanied by increasing evidence that Russian troops and Russian equipment have been pouring into the region again… The renewed fighting has dashed any hopes of reinvigorating a cease-fire signed in September and honored more in name than in fact since then. It has also put to rest the notion that Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, would be so staggered by the twin blows of Western sanctions and a collapse in oil prices that he would forsake the separatists in order to foster better relations with the West. Instead, blaming the upsurge in violence on the Ukrainians and the rise in civilian deaths on ‘those who issue such criminal orders,’ as he did on Friday in Moscow, Mr. Putin is apparently doubling down, rather than backing down, in a conflict that is now the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkan wars…. newly emboldened separatist leaders have abandoned all talk of a cease-fire. One of the top leaders of the Russian-backed rebels said Friday that his soldiers were ‘on the offensive’ in several sectors, capitalizing on their capture of the Donetsk airport the day before.” — New York Times, January 23, 2015

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“And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission [to defeat the Islamic State] by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. We need that authority.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

‘“The analogy we use around here sometimes [in describing ISIL], and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,’ Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. ‘I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.'” — President Obama, quoted in the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

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“We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”–“Obama on the World,” Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 8, 2014

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“I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.” — Barack Obama, September 6, 2008

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The Smartest Guy Ever to Be President Isn’t Quite As Smart As He Thinks

Barack Obama is really, really smart. I know, because he told me so during his State of the Union address. Our president is especially smart on foreign policy. I know because Mr. Obama told me that, too. “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership,” the president said. “We lead best when … we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now. And around the globe, it is making a difference.”

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Barack Obama is really, really smart. I know, because he told me so during his State of the Union address. Our president is especially smart on foreign policy. I know because Mr. Obama told me that, too. “I believe in a smarter kind of American leadership,” the president said. “We lead best when … we don’t let our fears blind us to the opportunities that this new century presents. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now. And around the globe, it is making a difference.”

Of course it is.

Take how smart the president has been in combating ISIS (aka ISIL and the Islamic State). On Tuesday night Mr. Obama informed us that he was asking Congress to pass a resolution to authorize the use of force against the Islamic State. This comes precisely a year after our really, really smart commander in chief referred to ISIS as a “jayvee team.” That prediction was so prescient that the president decided to deceive us about it.

Here are some other examples of the shrewdness of the president. In his speech on Tuesday, Mr. Obama declared, “We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort [to defeat the Islamic State], and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.” This comes after the president said last August that the notion that arming Syrian rebels would have made a difference has “always been a fantasy.” The president apparently believes that supporting what he deemed a fantasy–one military official told the press they are calling the moderate Syrian opposition “the Unicorn” because they have not been able to find it–now qualifies as Kissingerian.

The president also declared on Tuesday that “in Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance.” That would be good news–if it were true. But just last week a senior defense official was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “certainly ISIL has been able to expand in Syria.” According to the Journal, “More than three months of U.S. airstrikes in Syria have failed to prevent Islamic State militants from expanding their control in that country, according to U.S. and independent assessments, raising new concerns about President Barack Obama’s military strategy in the Middle East.” NBC’s chief foreign-policy correspondent, Richard Engel, in reacting to the president’s address, said, “Well, it sounded like the President was outlining a world that he wishes we were all living in but which is very different than the world that you just described with terror raids taking place across Europe, ISIS very much on the move.”

The president added, “Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.” Now in commenting on those safe havens we’re denying terrorists, is it indecorous to point out that the Islamic State, located in the Middle East, is the best-armed, best-funded terrorist group on earth and that it “controls a volume of resources and territory unmatched in the history of extremist organizations,” in the words of Janine Davidson of the Council on Foreign Relations? I hope not, since even Mr. Obama’s own secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, has said ISIS is “beyond anything we have ever seen.” (That’s some jayvee team.)

Mr. Obama was also brainy enough to declare his foreign policy a terrific success on the very day that a Shiite militia group took over the presidential palace in the Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, “sparking fresh concerns about a country that has become a cornerstone of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.” Which reminded me of how President Savant held up Yemen as a model of success only last September, telling us, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” Which in turn reminded me of Libya.

It was in the fall of 2011 when President Obama, speaking to the United Nations and announcing yet another of his grand achievements, declared, “Forty two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free.” Mr. Obama went on to say, “This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights.” And what a success it was. Just last summer, in fact, the United States, because of rising violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias, shut down its embassy in Libya and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort. Earlier this month King’s College George Joffe wrote, “Libya seems finally to be about to descend into full blown civil war.” Call it another Model of Success during the Obama era.

Our percipient president also declared in his State of the Union speech, “Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.” That assertion is so reality-based that (a) the Washington Post fact-checker declared “there is little basis” for the president’s claims and (b) the highest ranking Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, said the more he hears from Mr. Obama and his administration about Iran, “the more it sounds like talking points that come straight out of Tehran.” Oh, and the president made his announcement on the very day that we learned that Russia and Iran are more aligned than ever, having signed an agreement on military cooperation between the two nations.

I also thought it was really smart of the president to declare that “we stand united with people around the world who have been targeted by terrorists, from a school in Pakistan to the streets of Paris”–especially since Mr. Obama was one of the very few leaders in the free world who didn’t stand with the people in the streets of Paris during a three-million-person-plus solidarity march there two weeks ago. The president stayed away even though there was no conflict with his schedule, apart from NFL playoff games, of course. And the president wisely saw fit not to send the vice president, his wife, or a member of his Cabinet to attend the rally, but rather sent as his representative the American ambassador to France. (Give yourself a gold star if you can name her without first googling her.)

For us lesser mortals, the president’s foreign policy–country by country, region by region, crisis by crisis–looks to be a disaster. But it turns out it’s actually a fantastic success. How do I know? Because “the smartest guy ever to become president” told us it is.

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Obama Makes Clear: No Foreign-Policy Recalibration Coming

Listening to President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address last night, I was more struck by what was missing rather than by what was included. The speech, naturally, featured a long wish list of domestic policy proposals (free community college, etc.) that have no chance of passing a Republican Congress. The president, as commander in chief, has more executive authority in foreign policy and yet foreign policy was by and large missing from the speech. By my count it consumed only 1,100 words out of a 6,800-word text–in other words, only 16 percent. It was sandwiched between domestic policy and global warming which are obviously areas that Obama feels much more passionately about.

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Listening to President Obama’s penultimate State of the Union address last night, I was more struck by what was missing rather than by what was included. The speech, naturally, featured a long wish list of domestic policy proposals (free community college, etc.) that have no chance of passing a Republican Congress. The president, as commander in chief, has more executive authority in foreign policy and yet foreign policy was by and large missing from the speech. By my count it consumed only 1,100 words out of a 6,800-word text–in other words, only 16 percent. It was sandwiched between domestic policy and global warming which are obviously areas that Obama feels much more passionately about.

This focus is perhaps understandable given that the economy is looking up and Obama wants to claim credit, whereas there isn’t much to claim credit for in foreign affairs. Mainly Obama tried to claim credit for what he isn’t doing–“Instead of sending large ground forces overseas, we’re partnering with nations from South Asia to North Africa to deny safe haven to terrorists who threaten America.”

This was, once again, a not-so-subtle dig at his predecessor, George W. Bush, and his current critics, such as Senator John McCain, implying that they are warmongers. The implication became even clearer in the section where he promised to veto further sanctions on Iran: “Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran, secures America and our allies, including Israel, while avoiding yet another Middle East conflict.”

Obama is right that he has avoided repeating Bush’s mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead he’s made his own, allowing Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen to spin out of control. All of those countries are consumed in violent civil wars where America’s enemies, both Shiite and Sunni, are gaining ground. Obama was just flat-out wrong to claim that “in Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL’s advance.” ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State may be stopped in Iraq but it hasn’t been rolled back, much less “destroyed,” and in Syria it hasn’t even been stopped–it’s been gaining ground since the U.S. began dropping bombs back in August.

Not surprisingly Obama omitted any mention of Somalia or Yemen, which in September he had cited as a model for fighting ISIS. That model is looking like an Edsel amid recent reports that the Houthis, a Shiite militia backed by Iran, have overrun Yemen’s capital.

Nor, predictably, did Obama make any mention of Boko Haram, which has carved out its own Islamist caliphate in Nigeria much like the Islamic State caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Remember when Michelle Obama joined the hashtag campaign to #BringBackOurGirls? Neither does her husband. The girls are still missing, and Boko Haram has been killing thousands of people but it did not merit a mention in the address.

Also ignored was the U.S.-aided campaign to combat the homicidal Lord’s Resistance Army–a campaign that resulted in U.S. Special Forces capturing top commander Dominic Ongwen, but that has not led to the capture of Lord’s Resistance Army commander Joseph Kony who was the subject of another hashtag campaign (#Kony2012). In fact the only mention of Africa was a well-deserved shout-out “to our troops, our scientists, our doctors, our nurses and healthcare workers are rolling back Ebola, saving countless lives and stopping the spread of disease.”

Likewise Asia–once a key area for the administration, which touted its Pacific Pivot–all but disappeared from the address. No mention of “rebalancing” our military commitments–only an anodyne sentence about how “in the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief.”

Ultimately what was missing from the State of the Union is any hint that Obama is prepared to rethink the “lead from behind” policies that have diminished American power and made the world–especially the Middle East–a much more dangerous place. There was no sign that, a la Jimmy Carter, this president had been mugged by reality and would become a born-again hawk. Instead he sounded confident, energetic, even arrogant in defending his (failed) record. Any recalibration of American foreign policy, it is clear, is at least two years away. That’s a long time given how dangerous the world looks right now.

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Free Bobby Jindal!

In the last couple of days, two quotes from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made the rounds. Neither quote was particularly noteworthy in itself, but the juxtaposition shows why Jindal, who is testing the waters for a presidential campaign, seems to be plagued by false starts. There are two Bobby Jindals, and they are getting in each other’s way.

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In the last couple of days, two quotes from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made the rounds. Neither quote was particularly noteworthy in itself, but the juxtaposition shows why Jindal, who is testing the waters for a presidential campaign, seems to be plagued by false starts. There are two Bobby Jindals, and they are getting in each other’s way.

On Monday, Reason’s Nick Gillespie called attention to a curious statement from Jindal as the governor was courting religious leaders in Iowa: “The reality is I’m here today because I genuinely, sincerely, passionately believe that America’s in desperate need of a spiritual revival.” Jindal added: “We have tried everything and now it is time to turn back to God.”

Gillespie countered that “What ails the government is not a deficit of religiosity but a nearly complete failure to deal with practical issues of spending versus revenue, creating a simple and fair tax system, reforming entitlements, and getting real about the limits of America’s ability to control every corner of the globe.”

I’d add that when we think about the character of the citizenry, it isn’t just about what government policies force people to do (or not to do), nor do we need the president to be the country’s spiritual leader. Politicians who instinctively lean on government action as a way to regulate behavior often forget the ennobling role of freedom in America. Religious freedom has strengthened spiritual practice here in comparison to most other Western nations, and the American ethic of personal responsibility does more to cultivate moral seriousness than presidential speeches about spiritual malaise.

But of course Jindal doesn’t need to be told this. He knows it, and even nods to it in other speeches. Over at the Weekly Standard, Daniel Halper posts a preview of a forthcoming speech on foreign policy that Jindal will deliver in London. Jindal will criticize Hillary Clinton’s “mindless naiveté” in her call for American leaders to “empathize” with our enemies. And the speech challenges Muslim leaders to defend their faith (and their reputations) from the extremists among them. But he will also say this:

In my country, Christianity is the largest religion. And we require exactly no one to conform to it. And we do not discriminate against anyone who does not conform to it. It’s called freedom.

Now, to be fair, Jindal’s two comments are not mutually exclusive. He can believe we need to turn back to God and also that we’re all free to decline to do so. But the spirit of his remarks really calls attention to his great weakness as a candidate: inauthenticity.

Jindal is a wonk–not in the American leftist mold, but actually smart. And he’s a good governor. I suspect this is part of Gillespie’s frustration with Jindal, though I wouldn’t put words in his mouth. Gillespie opens his post with a rundown of Jindal’s accomplishments and conservative bona fides. Here is how Gillespie’s post begins:

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) has proven to be one of the most effective and incorruptible legislators that the Bayou State has had. Unlike a long line of pols from Louisiana, he is neither a demagogue, a racist, nor simply a criminal willing to take bribes and cut shady deals for his pals. A few years back, he pissed off Republicans by rightly insisting that the GOP stop being “the stupid party” when it came to policy debates.

He’s worked hard to help reform school finance in a way that accelerates not just choice for students and parents but better results too; he’s privatized and contracted-out many states services at great savings; and he’s pushed for common-sense policies such as making birth control available without a prescription.

Jindal has also presided over a period of strong economic growth. Last year, when challenged by an MSNBC commentator over his economic record, Jindal said: “In Louisiana, we now have more people working, highest incomes in our state’s history. Larger population than ever before. And the president can’t say all those things about the country. Our economy has grown 50 percent faster than the national GDP, even since the national recession.”

Salivating at the prospect of catching Jindal in a lie, the “fack-checker” site PolitiFact looked into Jindal’s claim and found that “Jindal actually understated the comparison.” Jindal was more right than even he knew. Jindal’s position on domestic energy production is admirable as well.

So Jindal has a fluent grasp of the issues and is fully comfortable discussing them at length. He also has a record to run on. But when Jindal takes his campaign national, he lapses into a particularly striking habit of pandering, perhaps because pandering on identity politics doesn’t come so naturally to him.

Conservatives and libertarians who appreciate what Jindal brings to the table on policy want the campaign to let Jindal be Jindal. Not Mike Huckabee at home and John Bolton abroad. Other prospective candidates fill those roles (such as, well, Huckabee and Bolton).

Jindal isn’t wrong in his critique of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. And he obviously shouldn’t leave any issue completely to his rivals; if he wants to be president, he needs to display a well-rounded political philosophy. But he also needs to be himself. He’s a terrible panderer, and that is one of his finest virtues: he doesn’t know how to pretend to be something he’s not. And so he should stop trying.

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Free Soldiers Make a Free Nation

The godfather of the All-Volunteer military, Martin Anderson, died a few days ago at the age of 78. Anderson was a colleague of mine at the Hoover Institution, but he was working to end the draft before most of us were born. In 1967, he urged presidential candidate Richard Nixon to support the All-Volunteer army in the form of a 27-page technical memo and relentlessly nudged Nixon to make the issue central to the 1968 election. As another colleague, David Henderson, documented, “Anderson wrote the anti-draft speech that Nixon gave on CBS radio during the 1968 election.” After the election, Anderson was the key White House adviser that overrode Pentagon resistance, that organized the famous Gates commission, and that coordinated the legislation ending conscription once and for all in January 1973.

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The godfather of the All-Volunteer military, Martin Anderson, died a few days ago at the age of 78. Anderson was a colleague of mine at the Hoover Institution, but he was working to end the draft before most of us were born. In 1967, he urged presidential candidate Richard Nixon to support the All-Volunteer army in the form of a 27-page technical memo and relentlessly nudged Nixon to make the issue central to the 1968 election. As another colleague, David Henderson, documented, “Anderson wrote the anti-draft speech that Nixon gave on CBS radio during the 1968 election.” After the election, Anderson was the key White House adviser that overrode Pentagon resistance, that organized the famous Gates commission, and that coordinated the legislation ending conscription once and for all in January 1973.

Martin Anderson is a role model for policy wonks–both a brilliant scholar and a successful practitioner who made America a more perfect union. And yet, a staunch few critics still doubt the wisdom of voluntary military service. In the last month of Anderson’s life, two major magazines published cover stories questioning the change. The modern Pentagon personnel system has some alarming flaws, to be sure, but the question is whether we go back to a coercive, conscripted “citizen” army or go further forward to a total volunteer force that gives even more agency to soldiers.

James Fallows is concerned about the cultural chasm widening between Americans who choose to serve in the military and the citizens who don’t or can’t. His cover story for the Atlantic shows a toy soldier, of the monochrome green plastic mold, dropping his rifle, limbs splayed in agony under fire, backlit on black space, overlaid with a promise to explain inside why the “Best Soldiers in the World Keep Losing.”

As a veteran, I can say that Mr. Fallows has our attention. If for no other reason, we’re curious, what does he think we lost? Bosnia? South Korea?

The essay is in places brilliant, poignant, insightful, and flat-out informative. One line to savor: “Of Americans born since 1980, the Millennials, about one in three is closely related to anyone with military experience.” In contrast, three-quarters of Baby Boomers were. This fact is central to the important and ongoing national conversation about the civilian-military gap.

Unfortunately, Fallows makes some large leaps of logic trying to connect that fact to his thesis, which is that America has become a Chickenhawk Nation, in his words. Chickenhawk is a derogatory term applied to politicians who support war but avoid(ed) or take care that their children avoid military service. There’s a whole chickenhawk sub-plot to the never-ending debate among Baby Boomers, some who avoided the draft (e.g., Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Fallows, who wrote about his shame famously in 1975) and others who didn’t (e.g., John McCain, Colin Powell, John Kerry). So, let’s set that aside. What is unfortunate is the logical overstretch: Chickenhawk Nation is ridiculous and tautological all at once.

The tautology is that Fallows thinks the All-Volunteer force (AVF) is a failure because it makes war too easy to start and then too easy to ignore. So if you support violence but don’t practice it, you’re a chickenhawk hypocrite. By extension, you cannot support police unless you personally hunt criminals.

Fallows claims the voluntary nature of military service fosters a public far too safe and cozy and therefore careless about military spending and unwinnable wars. He further asserts that Iraq and Afghanistan are being lost, which is the responsibility of a disengaged democracy. This is where the argument is open to ridicule.

First, the American public was hardly indifferent to the plight of their military in 2004 or 2008, elections centering largely on the Iraq war. In fact, a sign of the piece’s inherent inconsistency is when Fallows himself writes “Hillary Clinton paid a price for her vote to authorize the Iraq War, since that is what gave the barely known Barack Obama an opening to run against her in 2008.” Central premise, self-refuted.

Second, Vietnam was a far less winnable war in the 1960s and ’70s when the draft was in place. Iraq, in contrast, was largely won because the AVF generation of generals (James Mattis, David Petraeus, and many more) pushed the White House to change strategies after 2006. Indeed, Iraq was lost only after 2012, for reasons that have nothing to do with the composition of the force. It has everything to do with who was commander in chief, his withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country, and his impatience with long-term engagement.

I respect the judgment of those who question the strategic value of America’s troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though I disagree. But let’s at least consider some partial successes. No repeat of 9/11-like attacks, albeit for now, is victory. More importantly, no human on earth doubts that America’s enemies are in grave danger, nor that attacks on our soil will be not be doubly answered. That’s credibility.

A deeper kind of success about which I have recently written here in COMMENTARY (“The Good Country”) is that the American strategy of patient, forward deployment, even and especially when it is not self-interested, has benefitted our allies and the world. America’s engagement in Asia and Europe since 1945 created a security umbrella fostering peace and unprecedented prosperity. If this model were applied to the Middle East–supporting allies rather than hunting monsters–it would reshape the Middle East’s future, and on this Fallows might agree.

The best part of Fallows’s reporting is how the Pentagon personnel bureaucracy has become risk-averse and careerist, a transformation invisible to the admiring public. This arguably feeds into a military-industrial complex far harder to crack than Eisenhower could have imagined. His in-depth coverage of the F-35 cost is fantastic. But ask yourself this: Would weapons acquisitions be more efficient and transparent in a conscripted military? Not likely. The real answer, I believe, is that acquisitions officers should be given more autonomy and flexibility, exactly the kind of expertise that could develop in a Total Volunteer Force.

Fallows reports some good news for reform: a new, bipartisan crop of federal legislators after the 2014 elections will double the number of veterans in Congress. There is a raging debate inside the ranks about how to fix the Pentagon personnel system. Most everyone favors a talent management evolution to fix what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called the “institutional concrete,” and these new legislators will be the key to breaking it up. Freshman Congresswoman Martha McSally (R-AZ), a retired USAF officer and of America’s first female combat fighter pilot, spoke in favor of the total volunteer force concept at a Hudson Institute forum in early 2013 and could be the legislative champion that active duty troops have been hoping for.

The Atlantic cover story rightly challenges Americans to think carefully about the civilian-military gap. My own mind is not made up about the gap, not how to fix it nor even sure how serious it is. But I have a sense that fixing the gap and fixing the personnel system are opposite sides of the same coin.

One thing I am confident about, though, is that Fallows’s preference for a return to the pre-1973 practice of conscription is the wrong direction. Over 90 percent of active duty troops and recent veterans are of the same mind–we do not want to serve alongside conscripts. A draft army is less competent, making the nation less secure as it makes service more deadly because it relies on constantly turning over two-year enlistees instead of 20-year professionals. Draft proponents want the public more hostile to foreign wars by threatening its children with coercive service, at the price of making army life more lethal to all soldiers because of draftee incompetence. Is that a moral tradeoff?

It is worth deconstructing the Fallows essay here, which opens with the author watching a televised speech by President Obama while waiting for a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The speech concerned Syria’s civil war, a flash point of debate nationally and within the White House about whether and how to engage with American ground troops. It is an explosive issue. Fallows was riveted. So were the 1.4 million men and women on active duty. In contrast, his fellow air travelers barely cared; they “went back to their smartphones and their laptops and their Cinnabons as the president droned on.”

The entire essay hinges on this moment. Fallows equates the other travelers’ disinterest with the president’s speech to indifference with the military. More likely, most Americans had tuned out what an omnipresent, unpopular president was saying during the 2014 campaign. He suggests that Americans’ deep admiration for the troops is counterintuitive proof of their indifference. In this narrative, civilians admire too much. Where’s the evidence? He cites a handful of distinguished veterans who agree that civilians are fawning, therefore uncritical, therefore (here’s the error) indifferent. That’s a bridge too far.

What Fallows offers next is a comparison of movies and TV shows during the Boomer era versus the modern era. We’re told that 1970s films M*A*S*H and The Deer Hunter show a balance of respect and skeptical insight whereas this decade’s Lone Survivor and Restrepo show an imbalance of admiration and ignorance. Really?

I’m torn here. I find myself agreeing, as many veterans do, that the public is not critical enough of the Pentagon. I think there’s a valid point that public admiration greases wasteful spending. One irony is that overspending on hardware means underspending on people in uniform, with very serious long-term consequences for military manpower. That said, I just don’t buy the argument that the public is out of touch with the military. Deconstructing Hollywood is glib and subjective at best. But even using Hollywood as a barometer, Black Hawk Down and more recent films strike me as telling the same story as the 1970s classics: good men and women bonding together through the adversity of war and the incompetence of the larger bureaucracy, sometimes triumphantly, other times tragically.

The argument that a smaller, professional military also fuels indifference does not wash. Fallows notes that American farmers outnumber soldiers three to one (a stock versus flow comparison, but I quibble) and therefore are exotic territory to the public. By this measure, professional athletes are exceedingly rare. So also are astronauts and Olympic athletes. Are we indifferent to them?

There is a gap between civilians and the military that should worry us, but it’s the opposite of what worries Fallows. The military’s AVF shift toward multi-decade service careers means that senior officers have become self-segregated, not from society, but definitely from modern workplaces. They have adopted the worst of modern bureaucracy but none of the nimbleness of contemporary entrepreneurial culture.

My favorite example of the current Pentagon rigidity is that George Washington would never be allowed to serve as a general in today’s Army. He was a farmer for over a decade before rejoining the ranks and leading the Continental Army. Today, anyone who leaves the ranks is not allowed back in, with rare exceptions. Eisenhower, Lee, Nimitz–none would make flag officer today. This is where we should focus our attention on closing the gap.

If the military was open to re-hiring veterans, even those out of uniform for a decade, it would create what people in the Pentagon are calling a “continuum of service” that could quickly and flexibly supply critical skills–think cyber, database management, cryptography, and bio warfare. It would also break down the wall between civilian and military experiences.

Another sophisticated critique of the AVF comes from James Kitfield: “For their part, members of Congress have not exercised their constitutional prerogative to declare war since World War II. They increasingly seem inclined to cede decisions on the use of military force to the executive branch, preferring to criticize and score political points from the sidelines. For the generations of Americans who have come of age in the all-volunteer era, war has become an abstraction, something best left to the professionals.” Kitfield’s lengthy cover story in National Journal last month was titled “The Great Draft Dodge,” and it also worries about invisible troops, echoing his essay’s protagonist, retired Army three-star General Karl Eikenberry.

The desire to reinstate conscription is based entirely on a vision of a fairer sharing of the burden of military service. Kitfield describes “the accumulating burdens of a decade of conflict.” Fallows talks about the “burdens placed upon” the American military tribe.

In theory, a draft would randomly select young men and women, treating everyone from every community fairly. Advocates ignore the reality of conscription which, in all countries and eras it is utilized, exploits poorer and less educated citizens by granting numerous exemptions. That was the Vietnam experience. I challenge anyone to read Fallows’ powerful 1975 story about escaping the draft and wish its return. “They walked through the examination lines like so many cattle off to slaughter…. While perhaps four out of five of my friends from Harvard were being deferred, just the opposite was happening to the Chelsea boys.”

Critics warned that the volunteer force would be even worse. A young James Fallows, among others, called attention to the skyrocketing percentages of poorer, less-educated enlistees throughout the 70s. He wrote in 1980 that America needed to return to the draft. The fairness critique evaporated, however, when the newly elected Reagan administration gave volunteer soldiers significant pay raises. By the time Reagan left the White House, the quality and reliability of our volunteer troops was far superior to previous eras, and has stayed high ever since, a point President Obama makes all the time. Instead of the low-quality recruits Fallows and other AVF critics warned about, a valid point in 1979 when half of enlistees had no high school diploma, modern enlistees have more education than the typical civilian.

So the critique has changed, if not the critic. Now, we are given little sermons about the “burden.” Always the burden. What if the troops who volunteer don’t think of their service as a burden, but rather think of it as an honor? To wear the Marine uniform is not imposed on any American today. Quite the contrary. Most Americans cannot qualify, let alone attempt to earn the stripes that Marines wear.

The simple truth is that a draft is a burden, but voluntary military service is a privilege. Certainly for the past decade, the millions of Americans who enlisted did so by choice. They chose to fight these wars. I think we who discuss military service should keep that in mind and speak a bit more respectfully about it. To be sure, serving in uniform is hard work, but it’s not a yoke to be shared in the way that so many writers assert.

America is a free country. Freer by definition when military service is voluntary. Any other kind of service isn’t service, after all. It’s servitude.

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The Right’s Unwise Eisenhower Nostalgia

There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

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There is something to be said for the desire to be seen as a political reformer in America today. It suggests energy and creativity, and often reveals a welcome intellectual curiosity. Reform conservatives–“reformicons”–have justly earned this reputation, putting forth serious policy proposals and demonstrating a mastery of details. Some on the right have now come forward to claim the reformicon mantle for foreign policy, in the process adding momentum to the latest trend in Republican foreign-policy thinking: misplaced nostalgia for Dwight Eisenhower.

To be sure, there is much to admire in Eisenhower. But it doesn’t add any clarity to conservative policy planning to admire things about Eisenhower that didn’t actually exist. This week two of the right’s foreign-policy minds, Colin Dueck and Roger Zakheim, wrote a piece for National Review Online sketching out what they say is a reform-conservative foreign policy with a GOP candidate “who will play Eisenhower” as its avatar. As sensible as many of their principles are, the article contains neither much reform nor an accurate portrayal of Ike.

They pitch the coming GOP foreign-policy debate as a modern-day battle between Eisenhower and Taft. They cast Rand Paul as the champion of the Taftites, but I don’t think they’re being quite fair to Paul when they say those on his side of the debate “see American military power itself — rather than external challenges such as Russia, China, or the Islamic State — as the single greatest threat to American interests.” His father, Ron Paul, probably believes this. Rand believes in strategic retrenchment that, I think, underestimates the repercussions of such retrenchment but which does not replicate the noxious rhetoric of his father’s acolytes.

So what would a reform-conservative foreign-policy doctrine look like? Here’s their description:

It would preserve uncontested U.S. military supremacy. It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter. It would work from the understanding that the United States faces a range of serious international competitors that are not about to disappear anytime soon. It would look to push back against our adversaries through robust, coherent strategies of pressure. It would take great care before committing America’s armed forces to combat — and then do so, when finally required, in a deadly serious way.

This sounds almost exactly like … the reigning conservative foreign-policy consensus. I’m not sure what about that description is “reform”–which is fine with me, because those are sound principles. They just happen to be sound principles that have been guiding most conservative foreign-policy thinkers. It’s such a general description, in fact, that I could imagine it appearing on any GOP 2016 candidate’s issues page.

But the authors see this as a back-to-our-roots conservative reform. They write: “President Eisenhower, for example, pursued a national-security policy very much in keeping with the principles cited above.”

He most certainly did not.

The obvious hole in this plot is the second in their list of principles: “It would make clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” If this sounds like Ike to you, we’re having a very strange foreign-policy debate.

Two of the most famous foreign-policy incidents on Ike’s watch were the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising. Eisenhower fumbled the attempt to keep American partnership in the Aswan Dam and influence on the Suez Canal, which Egypt then nationalized. And he forcefully opposed the allies’ attempts to break Nasser’s hold.

In his recent book on postwar American foreign policy, Stephen Sestanovich writes: “Suez was no mere transatlantic disagreement, but a strategic defeat from which Britain and France never recovered. This was, in a sense, Eisenhower’s goal. He and Dulles now went beyond merely wanting American allies to fail. The United States actively and decisively promoted their failure.” Ike’s public stand against Britain, France, and Israel later in the crisis “combined outrage with undisguised pleasure at the chance to join world opinion against old-fashioned imperialism.”

Ike’s decision not to intervene in the Kremlin’s quashing of the Hungarian uprising certainly has many defenders, but I doubt it qualifies as making “clear distinctions between allies and adversaries, while supporting the former and resisting the latter.” Ike’s foreign policy was muddled, improvised, confused, and often shallow. Eisenhower’s caution was followed by the next Republican president, Richard Nixon. It wasn’t until Reagan that Republicans had a foreign policy consistent with the principles Dueck and Zakheim lay out.

Of course, the Iraq War is the elephant in the room, and Dueck and Zakheim choose to acknowledge it this way:

Those of us who are reform conservatives on national-security issues respond to a different set of circumstances than did President George W. Bush more than ten years ago. We have cut our teeth on the debates of the past few years — not prior eras. We did not mastermind Bush’s war in Iraq.

That seems really to be what this is about: the foreign-policy factory worker’s ritual denunciation of Bush. I don’t have a ton of patience for this. I wasn’t part of this supposed evil cabal of warmongers that led us into Iraq either. I was a sophomore in college when the 9/11 attacks enduringly changed our foreign-policy debate. But I don’t feel the need to claim clean hands every time I expound on foreign affairs.

Conservatives who believe that the principles that guided much of Bush’s foreign policy are perfectly acceptable unless they’re held by people who actually served in Bush’s inner circle are engaging in school-cafeteria politics. And transferring Bush’s principles to Eisenhower in order to launder political capital is not constructive. Ike was a hero, and he deserves to be remembered as one. But as president, his foreign policy was eventually left behind for a reason.

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Can Christie Find His Foreign Policy Voice?

He may be openly considering a run for the presidency but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a gaping hole in his resume. Though he has been a leading public figure and a likely presidential candidate, Christie has yet to find his voice on the set of issues for which presidents have the most responsibility: foreign policy. But after years of keeping his voluble mouth shut, even when invited to speak in criticism of President Obama, the governor may be ready to start talking. Speaking in the aftermath of the president’s opening to Cuba, Christie had plenty to say about the president’s mistakes. This may be a case of him not being able to resist commenting when a local issue presented itself. But whatever his motivation, if he really wants to be president, he’s going to have to start speaking on foreign affairs with the same abandon and gusto that he employs on domestic issues.

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He may be openly considering a run for the presidency but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has a gaping hole in his resume. Though he has been a leading public figure and a likely presidential candidate, Christie has yet to find his voice on the set of issues for which presidents have the most responsibility: foreign policy. But after years of keeping his voluble mouth shut, even when invited to speak in criticism of President Obama, the governor may be ready to start talking. Speaking in the aftermath of the president’s opening to Cuba, Christie had plenty to say about the president’s mistakes. This may be a case of him not being able to resist commenting when a local issue presented itself. But whatever his motivation, if he really wants to be president, he’s going to have to start speaking on foreign affairs with the same abandon and gusto that he employs on domestic issues.

The local angle on the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba was the failure of the administration to obtain the return of a fugitive from justice in New Jersey. Joanne Chesimard, a former member of the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army, was involved in a campaign of robberies and attacks on law enforcement officials culminating in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike that left a state trooper dead, the crime for which she was sentenced to life in prison. But her criminal colleagues helped her escape prison in 1979 after which she found her way to Cuba where she lives to this day under the name of Assata Shakur. Though some African-American politicians have opposed efforts to extradite her on the grounds that they believe she was the victim of racially motivated persecution, there’s little doubt about her guilt. In the past, there were reports that the Clinton administration had offered to lift the embargo on Cuba in exchange for the return of Chesimard and 90 other U.S. criminals given safe haven there. Thus, it was disappointing that the Obama administration made no apparent effort to tie her return to the major economic and political concessions the U.S. gave the Castro regime as part of a prisoner exchange. That is especially unfortunate since it was only last year that the FBI formally added her name to its list of “Most Wanted Terrorists.”

Thus, it was both appropriate and timely for the governor to speak up on the issue in a letter sent to the White House in which he rightly said Chesimard’s continued freedom is “an affront” to the citizens of New Jersey and that she must be returned to serve her sentence before any further consideration is given to resuming relations with Havana. But, to his credit, Christie did not stop with that justified yet parochial concern. He went on to say the following:

I do not share your view that restoring diplomatic relations without a clear commitment from the Cuban government of the steps they will take to reverse decades of human rights violations will result in a better and more just Cuba for its people.

In doing so, Christie clearly aligned himself with Senator Marco Rubio and other conservatives who have spoken up against the Cuban deal on the grounds that it will make it less rather than more likely that conditions in the communist island prison will improve as a result of Obama’s decision. It also places Christie in opposition to Senator Rand Paul, who has defended Obama’s opening.

It’s not the first time Christie has been on the other side of an issue from Paul. In the summer of 2013, the governor spoke up and criticized Paul’s effort to force an American retreat from the battle against Islamist terrorists. But that initiative was short lived and, given Christie’s unwillingness to follow up with more details that would demonstrate his command of the issues, seemed to indicate that he wasn’t ready for prime time on foreign policy. That impression was confirmed in the time since then as the governor has often refrained from commenting on foreign policy.

But if he wants to be president, Christie must be able to demonstrate a clear view about America’s place in the world. In the White House, his main antagonists won’t be union bosses or even members of the other party in Congress but rogue nations like Russia, Iran and North Korean. If he is preparing a run for the presidency, the governor must continue to speak out and do so in a consistent and forceful manner. That’s especially true if he aspires, as he seemed to for a while last year, to be the mainstream alternative to Paul’s isolationism. If not, despite his ability to raise money and gain some establishment support, it won’t be possible to take him all that seriously as a candidate or a prospective president.

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The Abandonment of Ukraine and the Realist Fantasy

Two important stories out of the former Soviet Union broke today, each with implications for trade, security, and perhaps even NATO expansion in Europe. The first is the completion, according to the AP, of the Eurasian Economic Union, a customs union between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. This is Vladimir Putin’s counter to the temptation of post-Soviet states to look West for economic integration. The other, and more important, story illustrates the realization of Putin’s fear.

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Two important stories out of the former Soviet Union broke today, each with implications for trade, security, and perhaps even NATO expansion in Europe. The first is the completion, according to the AP, of the Eurasian Economic Union, a customs union between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. This is Vladimir Putin’s counter to the temptation of post-Soviet states to look West for economic integration. The other, and more important, story illustrates the realization of Putin’s fear.

The Wall Street Journal reports out of Kiev that the Ukrainian parliament voted today to drop its “non-aligned” status, which serves as a symbolic rebuke to Putin but also could put Ukraine’s NATO bid back on the table. This is a significant move as far as symbolism goes, but made all the more so by the fact that the ruble spent last week in something of a freefall, causing consumer panic and raising concerns about Putin’s tendency toward aggression when his popularity at home falls. Seen in that light, Ukraine’s move is one of defiance; Russia, after all, still occupies Ukrainian territory and supplies Ukraine with gas as the winter rolls in. Moreover, the ruble will likely bounce back before the Ukrainian hryvnia.

On that note, the editors of the Washington Post sound the alarm:

Mr. Putin may calculate that if he simply stands back, the fragile democratic government in Kiev will be destroyed by an economic collapse during the winter.

Preventing that implosion will require $15 billion in fresh assistance to Ukraine in 2015, on top of the $17 billion International Monetary Fund bailout arranged this year, according to the European Union. President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have been pleading for the funds with the European Union, the IMF and the Obama administration. The response has been less than encouraging.

Ukraine’s leaders must rue their timing. President Obama claims to want to end vestiges of Cold War antagonism, but this usually means–as with Cuba–turning his attention to America’s adversaries. For two decades after the Cold War ended there was a bipartisan consensus that the independent nations in the post-Soviet world were to be helped onto their feet. The Obama administration has constituted a pause in this consensus in order to bring dictators in from the cold. That policy has thus far failed, and failed miserably.

And Ukraine is emblematic of this failure. Obama styles himself something of a realist, but his is a version of great power politics on steroids. It’s ironic, because it’s a throwback to Cold War-era foreign policy. Only instead of using well-placed allies to fight proxy battles, Obama acts as if those countries don’t exist in any meaningful sense. Here is what the president told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday, in response to claims that he’s too easily “rolled” by autocrats abroad:

So, this was said about Mr. Putin, for example, three or four months ago. There was a spate of stories about how he was the chess master and outmaneuvering the West and outmaneuvering Mr. Obama and this and that and the other. And, right now, he’s presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis, and a huge economic contraction.

That doesn’t sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America.

What’s jarring about that passage (aside from the occasional lapse into third person) is the suggestion that Putin has been outplayed because the ruble is plummeting. The Obama administration has hewed to this line throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict: that Putin would overplay his hand and come to regret his recklessness.

But that completely ignores the fact that Russia has, in the process, invaded Ukraine several times, annexed Ukrainian territory, and is maintaining a frozen conflict in the east. Of course America was able to wait out Putin; that was never the question. The problem was that the president of the United States seemed to believe that Russia gobbling up the territory of other countries and then collapsing should be considered a victory, a mark of a successful foreign policy.

A view that myopic and strange is genuinely troubling to America’s allies, as it should be.

Obama is not alone in this. Rand Paul, in his major foreign-policy address, quoted Henry Kissinger’s contention that “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” Paul then added himself: “Ukraine is geographically and historically bound to both regions.”

This address was pitched as “The Case for Conservative Realism.” But, as I have written before, Paul’s foreign-policy views can more accurately be described as Utopian Realism: a realism that applies to a world that doesn’t currently exist but with which Paul prefers to deal.

And that’s understandable, because the world as it is does not lend itself to Obama and Paul’s utopian realist sensibilities. The proper response to Paul’s assertion that Ukraine should be a bridge between east and west because it’s geographically bound to both is: Who asked you? Ukraine is an independent country, and its democratically elected representative government is making decisions for itself. And it doesn’t want to be Paul’s bridge to Russia; it wants to lean West and even consider joining NATO.

If today’s news out of Ukraine tells us anything, it is that the realist view of the conflict is completely divorced from reality. It’s time to adjust our policy accordingly, and that means we need to stop treating Ukraine as collateral damage in our bid to facilitate the region’s economic collapse.

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On Cuba, Rubio Runs Rings Around Obama

The week started off just fine for Marco Rubio, took a hit on Tuesday with the announcement that Jeb Bush is pushing forward with a presidential candidacy, and then improved vastly when the Florida senator got a gift from President Obama yesterday. Obama announced his move toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime, and though plenty of Republicans oppose this new policy, Rubio takes center stage for several reasons.

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The week started off just fine for Marco Rubio, took a hit on Tuesday with the announcement that Jeb Bush is pushing forward with a presidential candidacy, and then improved vastly when the Florida senator got a gift from President Obama yesterday. Obama announced his move toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime, and though plenty of Republicans oppose this new policy, Rubio takes center stage for several reasons.

First, Rubio’s Cuban heritage–his parents fled the island–gives the senator’s objections an authenticity most others lack. This is personal for him. Second, it turns the subject back not only to foreign policy, on which Rubio is more fluent than virtually any other elected politician in the country right now, but also on a specific subject that is right in his wheelhouse. Rubio’s expertise means that while Obama is stumbling through statements filled with straw men and defensive and shallow rationalizations, Rubio can step up to the microphone with almost no notice and run circles around Obama.

Which he did. Here is the video of Rubio’s press conference after yesterday’s announcement. The confidence and the command of the issues are almost unfair to Obama: the president is just completely out of his league on this. He followed up with an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, in which he points out that while there is a serious discussion to be had about the efficacy of America’s prevailing Cuba policy, that doesn’t justify what is obviously a naïve, poorly negotiated deal (an Obama specialty). Rubio writes:

The entire policy shift is based on the illusion—in fact, on the lie—that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people. Cuba already enjoys access to commerce, money and goods from other nations, and yet the Cuban people are still not free. They are not free because the regime—just as it does with every aspect of life—manipulates and controls to its own advantage all currency that flows into the island. More economic engagement with the U.S. means that the regime’s grip on power will be strengthened for decades to come—dashing the Cuban people’s hopes for freedom and democracy.

Of course, like all Americans, I am overjoyed for Alan Gross and his family after his release from captivity after five years. This American had been a hostage of the regime, and it was through his imprisonment that the Cuban regime again showed the world its cruel nature.

But the policy changes announced by President Obama will have far-reaching consequences for the American people. President Obama made it clear that if you take an American hostage and are willing to hold him long enough, you may not only get your own prisoners released from U.S. jails—as three Cuban spies were—you may actually win lasting policy concessions from the U.S. as well. This precedent places a new price on the head of every American, and it gives rogue leaders around the world more clear-cut evidence of this president’s naïveté and his willingness to abandon fundamental principles in a desperate attempt to burnish his legacy. There can be no doubt that the regime in Tehran is watching closely, and it will try to exploit President Obama’s naïveté as the Iranian leaders pursue concessions from the U.S. in their quest to establish themselves as a nuclear power.

Obama’s lack of knowledge about the world, and his refusal to take advice from anyone outside an inner circle that at this point could fit in a phone booth, is on full display in moments like this. And it also holds back his own side in these debates. As Rubio writes, there really is a debate to be had on U.S.-Cuba relations. But Obama is so clumsy and unknowledgeable that you wouldn’t know his side of this argument has merit. (It’s one reason why when Obama goes on speaking tours to promote a policy, that policy inevitably drops in popularity.)

Democrats need someone who understands foreign policy to step in at such times. Obama is just eroding whatever credibility they had.

Another reason Rubio benefits from this is that Obama needs Congress for some of the more significant parts of this policy shift. He needs the Senate, for example, to confirm an ambassador to Cuba. Rubio said he expects to be chairman of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Foreign Relations Committee next session. His message to the administration: “I anticipate we’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated and how you’ll get an embassy funded.”

Republicans should not underestimate how much this helps Rubio maintain a high profile in opposition to Obama. The president has two years left, and for those two years Rubio will be the most important figure standing between Obama and a yet another of his capitulations to foreign dictators. Even if Rubio doesn’t run for president, he will establish his power base in the Senate and put himself in line to set the GOP’s congressional tone on foreign policy. And Democrats will simply have to produce a better foreign-policy mind than Obama’s if they’re going to compete with him.

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The GOP’s Resurging Public Image

The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Scott Clement write about a new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

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The Washington Post’s Dan Balz and Scott Clement write about a new Washington Post-ABC News poll:

Republican victories in the midterm elections have translated into an immediate boost in the party’s image, putting the GOP at its highest point in eight years, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The spike in the party’s standing comes after Republicans picked up nine seats to take control of the Senate, raised their numbers in the House to the highest level in more than half a century and added new governorships to its already clear majority.

In the new poll, 47 percent say they have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, compared with 33 percent in the month before the midterm elections. An equal percentage have an unfavorable view, which marks the first time in six years that fewer than half of Americans said they saw Republicans negatively.

This news is welcome news for the GOP. What it means, I think, is that the American people are giving the Republican Party a careful second look in the aftermath of the multiplying failures of the Obama presidency. (Not only do 50 percent of those surveyed have an unfavorable impression of the Democratic Party; a majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the presidency, the economy, immigration, and international affairs, while a plurality disapprove of how he’s handling the threat of terrorism.) It’s quite striking that those surveyed give Republicans in Congress a nine-point advantage over Obama when it comes to handling both the economy and immigration.

At the same time, this boost in the GOP’s image is at least in part a temporary development, one you’d expect in the wake of a very successful midterm election. To their credit, the congressional leadership of the Republican Party has been smart enough to avoid taking steps that might have led to a government shutdown, which would have more than washed away the progress the party has made without achieving anything useful.

The task of the GOP during the next two years is to act in ways that are responsible and adult-like, that shift perceptions of it from being the Party of No to being the party of prosperity and the middle class. There are limits to what the Republican Party can do without a presidential nominee. But between now and when it chooses one, the GOP can avoid traps set for it by the president, present itself as a principled and constructive force in American politics, and hand off to the eventual nominee a party that is better positioned than it has been in a decade.

That may not be everything–but it wouldn’t be nothing, either.

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Feinstein Putting Petty Politics above National Security

During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

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During the Bush administration and in the wake of 9/11, CIA interrogation policy and extraordinary rendition became a lightning rod for controversy (never mind that the Clinton administration had also embraced rendition). In short, terror suspects were often snatched and transferred for interrogation to other countries, some of which allegedly engage in torture. Senate Democrats launched an investigation, and Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, planned to release the report this week.

On Friday, Bloomberg’s Josh Rogin broke the news that:

Secretary of State John Kerry personally phoned Dianne Feinstein… to ask her to delay the imminent release of her committee’s report on CIA torture and rendition during the George W. Bush administration, according to administration and Congressional officials. Kerry was not going rogue — his call came after an interagency process that decided the release of the report early next week, as Feinstein had been planning,  could complicate relationships with foreign countries at a sensitive time and posed an unacceptable risk to U.S. personnel and facilities abroad.  Kerry told Feinstein he still supports releasing the report, just not right now.

Kerry is absolutely right to delay the report; he would be even more correct to ask Feinstein to table the report forever, if he and she valued the protection of American national interests over petty political vendettas. After all, if Feinstein were truly acting on principle, she would have targeted President Bill Clinton for investigation with the same gusto with which she came after the Bush administration. According to Washington Post columnist and former Bush administration speech writer Marc Thiessen:

…The men who decided to carry out the first extraordinary rendition of a terrorist target — over the legal objections of the White House counsel’s office — were Al Gore and Bill Clinton, according a description of the meeting by the counterterrorism adviser, Richard Clarke, in his memoir, “Against All Enemies.”

Back to Feinstein: Rogin provides further details on how Feinstein has sought to have the report identify in reality if not in name the countries which assisted the United States with extraordinary rendition:

Feinstein was able to ensure that her release would include information about countries that secretly helped the CIA hide and abuse prisoners, although those countries would not be named directly.

This illustrates the unfortunate and growing tendency in Congress and within the Obama administration to treat allies with disdain. If blogger and writer Jeffrey Goldberg is to be believed, a senior Obama administration official called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “chickenshit” and bragged about how Netanyahu couldn’t possibly strike at Iran, hardly a sign of gratitude to a leader who agreed to delay any military strike against Iran at the request of President Obama. Rather than thank Israel for its deference, the White House deliberately sought to humiliate its ally.

In the days, months, and, indeed, years after 9/11, allies bent over backwards to help the United States respond to a growing terror scourge unlike anything the world had ever seen. Some did so reluctantly. Some disagreed with American policy, but bit their tongue and cooperated simply because that is what allies do in times of need when they receive such a request. Feinstein, however, is willing to punish them simply because she does not like George W. Bush. Make no mistake, Feinstein and Kerry may see the world through a partisan lens, but most U.S. allies support what the United States stands for regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. To embarrass these countries for domestic partisan reasons is short-sighted.

The next time the United States has a request—and it won’t matter what party occupies the White House or controls the Congress or what exactly the United States asks—it will be all the more difficult if not impossible to achieve international cooperation. After all, allies might conclude it simply isn’t worth the political risk that they will be targeted because of Washington vendettas that have absolutely nothing to do with them. Feinstein might believe that the United States will never face a parallel to what occurred during the Bush administration, but the nature of crises is that they are simply unpredictable.

Senators should be able to see the big picture, and they should never subordinate national security and national interests to short-term and cynical political agendas. The bigger threats now are the those posed by Russia, Iran, and China, countries which do far worse than the United States on a daily basis. Exposing American operations doesn’t convince the world the Americans are clean; it simply feeds the propaganda outlets in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing.

Don’t like CIA methods and extraordinary rendition? By all means, use all legislative and oversight power to put an end to it. But don’t drag allies into a political debate or air dirty laundry publicly. Don’t damage relations. Trust is at the heart of alliances, and once destroyed, it will never be rebuilt. Let us never punish allies and their leaders for standing by America when the request comes, no matter what politicians may, in hindsight, think of that request.

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On Obama’s Team, Personnel Is Not Policy

Back in 2006 as North Korea was preparing a long-range missile test launch, then-Professor Ashton Carter, a Clinton administration veteran, proposed the following in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with former Defense Secretary William Perry: “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” Carter, clearly more hawkish than many Democratic appointees, appears on the verge of succeeding Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. So should conservatives be thrilled?

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Back in 2006 as North Korea was preparing a long-range missile test launch, then-Professor Ashton Carter, a Clinton administration veteran, proposed the following in a Washington Post op-ed co-authored with former Defense Secretary William Perry: “if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched.” Carter, clearly more hawkish than many Democratic appointees, appears on the verge of succeeding Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. So should conservatives be thrilled?

Not exactly. It’s true that Carter is well qualified, as Max wrote yesterday. He’s also considered brilliant and a more-than-capable bureaucrat. As Eli Lake and Josh Rogin write at Bloomberg, Carter “has been a public advocate for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a step opposed by the more dovish side of the arms-control community. When Carter was an academic, before the Obama presidency, he took a hard line on Iran, arguing that the U.S. should use diplomacy and other kinds of coercion to end the country’s enrichment of nuclear fuel.”

So Carter’s hawkishness on North Korea was not a one-time outlier. Nor was his studious and serious take on nuclear nonproliferation. There are moments when conservatives are bound to look at Obama administration nominees and grade them on a heavy curve. But Carter doesn’t even need the curve. He’s clearly a strong pick for the post on his own merits. He’s also, as Michael Crowley writes, in many ways the opposite of Hagel: “Where Hagel, a former senator, was aloof and unfamiliar with the Pentagon’s machinations, Carter was a fearsomely well-briefed manager.”

So have Republicans, as Lake and Rogin suggest in their column’s headline, found “a New Ally at the Pentagon”? It’s probably the wrong question, because the truth is, it doesn’t really matter all that much. That’s because regardless of how much we habitually lean back on it, a reliable truism is no longer true: in the Obama administration, personnel is not policy.

That’s part of what has changed since 2006–indeed since 2009, when Obama took office–and conservatives viewed Carter as a kind of best-case-scenario appointee for a liberal-Democratic administration. (Hypothetical back in 2006, of course, but very much relevant from 2009 on.) Obama came to office with scant knowledge of virtually all areas of policy, and no real experience to speak of. The hope, at least from conservatives, was that he would rely on the counsel of those who did possess the knowledge and experience Obama lacked. Instead, it turned out, he relies on the counsel of Valerie Jarrett–an unaccountable loyalist with even less relevant knowledge and experience than Obama has.

In fact, the prospective Carter nomination fits with Obama administration practice for all the wrong reasons. As Crowley writes:

“He is brilliant and driven, a policy wonk equally adept at mastering the bureaucracy,” says a former White House official. “He’s also arrogant, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.”

That could be a warning sign in an administration that has already burned through three defense secretaries who resented White House micromanagement of their affairs. In Carter, Obama would be choosing a strong-willed independent thinker who believed the U.S. should have left a robust residual troop force in Iraq and believes the military has been asked to swallow dangerously large budget cuts. Carter’s record on nuclear non-proliferation also suggests he could take a harder line on Iran policy than Obama favors.

That has led some to speculate that there will be a clash of ideas, or at least that this background explains why Obama seemed to go looking under every couch cushion for a possible Hagel replacement before settling on Carter. Obama’s top choices didn’t want to go near the job, for a very good reason: they’d be inheriting Obama’s mess and taking orders from his micromanaging–and maladroit, overwhelmed–inner circle.

Were Obama to let Carter be Carter, the issues raised in Crowley’s profile could produce real friction. They could also produce a policy shift. But that’s not been how Obama operates. Obama may actually like that Carter is more hawkish than he is and has support across the aisle. It feeds what I’ve termed Obama’s Team of Bystanders: the people Obama hires to carry out policies with which they disagree to give a sheen of bipartisanship and open-mindedness where there is none.

So why didn’t Obama just offer Carter the job straightaway? The most likely answer is not Carter’s intelligence, but his awareness of his own intelligence. Obama was elected with the help of a press that pushed the baseless storyline that Obama was exceptionally intelligent. The best way to try to keep up that ridiculous myth was to fill his Cabinet with people like Hagel, John Kerry, Joe Biden, etc.–people who might as well have been the inspiration for the old game show Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?

But Carter “doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” That, and not his policy recommendations, is what sets up a possible conflict with Obama.

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Micromanaging the Managers

In that hallowed Washington ritual known as the trial balloon, the White House today leaked word that Ashton Carter would probably be nominated as the next secretary of defense–assuming no one disapproves too much. And no one has, at least not yet.

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In that hallowed Washington ritual known as the trial balloon, the White House today leaked word that Ashton Carter would probably be nominated as the next secretary of defense–assuming no one disapproves too much. And no one has, at least not yet.

Ash Carter, whom I know slightly, is eminently qualified for the post, having served previously in the Obama administration as deputy secretary of defense and before that as under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. He earned high marks in both posts as a highly competent technocrat.

A physics Ph.D., Rhodes Scholar, and longtime Harvard professor, Carter is a rare commodity in a couple of important respects. First, despite his storied academic pedigree, he is said to be a tough manager who has a blunt-spoken way of expressing things, cutting through the usual bureaucratic obfuscation. Second, in a party that has increasingly leaned to the left, he is also a hawkish Democrat who once advocated a preemptive attack on North Korean missile sites–a suggestion too hawkish even for the George W. Bush administration.

Carter is a fine choice for secretary of defense; in fact he or Michele Flournoy should have gotten the job in the first place when Leon Panetta stepped down, instead of Chuck Hagel. But his selection will hardly fix what ails this administration’s abysmal foreign policy. In fact he may not be able to make much of an impact on the big policy questions at all, which appear to be entirely determined by the president in cooperation with a small coterie of White House aides who lack Carter’s defense-policy qualifications: officials such as Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, and Ben Rhodes. All three of Obama’s secretaries of defense complained about “micromanagement” from the White House and Carter, assuming he is nominated and confirmed, is probably going to be no different.

This administration will not come up with a course calibration on Syria, ISIS, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Israel, or a host of other topics where policy has gotten seriously off-kilter unless the president has a change of heart about his dovish ways. That is possible–Jimmy Carter had such a change of heart after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan–but so far Obama’s ideology has remained remarkably resistant to reality-based course corrections, and there is little reason to think that Ash Carter will have any more luck talking sense to the president than Hagel, Panetta, or Bob Gates did. Especially not if the White House coterie, backed by Vice President Biden, continues to give the president spectacularly bad advice.

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Obama Scapegoating Hagel

In describing why President Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, one senior official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “He wasn’t up to the job.”

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In describing why President Obama fired Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, one senior official told NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski, “He wasn’t up to the job.”

I’m no fan of Mr. Hagel, but this comment is a bit much, don’t you think? After all, it wasn’t Mr. Hagel who referred to ISIS as the “jayvee team,” or erased the “red line” related to Syrian use of chemical weapons, or has been overmatched time and time again by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It wasn’t Mr. Hagel who failed to get a Status of Forces Agreement in Iraq, who failed to aid the Syrian Free Army when people like David Petraeus were urging that it be done, who sat on the sideline during the Iranian “Green Revolution” in Iran, who has so badly mishandled our relations with Egypt and Israel, and on whose watch Libya has collapsed. I could go on, but you get the point.

The problem with Mr. Obama’s national-security record is Mr. Obama, not Chuck Hagel. He is a chief executive of unrivaled incompetence; and for all of Chuck Hagel’s failings, he is virtually a Churchillian figure compared to the president he served.

Chuck Hagel is just the most recent in a long string of excuses and scapegoats offered up by Barack Obama and his courtiers. It’s always somebody else’s fault, never the president’s. Obama & Co. may believe Hagel wasn’t up to the job. But more and more of the nation recognizes that the real ineptitude is found in the former community-organizer-turned-commander-in-chief. Firing Chuck Hagel won’t change any of that.

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Is a National-Security Shakeup Coming?

So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

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So Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is gone but the nuclear talks with Iran seemingly go on and on and on. Tell me: How much has changed?

It is easy to see why Hagel has been jettisoned: the administration needs a scapegoat for the most disastrous U.S. foreign policy since the Carter administration. With ISIS and Putin on the march, while U.S. military capabilities deteriorate due to budget cuts, it has been pretty obvious for some time that the national-security team needed a dramatic overhaul. But firing Hagel is not going to fix the problems–not by a longshot. In fact the very reason he was so expendable was because he had so little influence: Unlike Susan Rice, Ben Rhodes, or Valerie Jarrett, he was not a White House insider.

Instead Hagel (like General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was the good soldier, plodding ahead to carry out the president’s orders without question–no matter how little sense those orders made. As the New York Times noted: Hagel “spent his time on the job largely carrying out Mr. Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back American troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback.”

Indeed one of the few times that Hagel dared in public (or probably in private) to talk back to the president, he earned the ire of Obama and his loyalists for telling the truth. While Obama earlier this year was denigrating ISIS as the “JV team,” Hagel was calling them an “imminent threat to every interest we have” and saying “This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” As the Times drily notes, “White House officials later said they viewed those comments as unhelpful”–Washington code words for the fact that Obama’s top aides were infuriated by Hagel’s truth-telling.

The immediate question is whether Obama will be able to stomach a stronger personality in the secretary of defense job–someone like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta. If so, Michele Flournoy or Ash Carter, both of whom served at the Pentagon earlier in the Obama administration, could fill the job description. But if Obama were truly intent on a radical break with some of his failed policies he would opt for a true outsider like Joe Lieberman or David Petraeus or John Lehman.

Regardless of who fills the job at the Pentagon–or for that matter at State–the reality remains that in this administration all critical decisions are made in the White House by the president with a handful of loyalists who have little independent standing, knowledge, or credibility in national-security affairs. This has been a problem ever since the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, the point at which Obama stopped listening to independent advice and started acting on his own ideological worldview predicated on downsizing the American armed forces and retreating from the world.

If this were a parliamentary system, Obama would long ago have lost a vote of “no confidence” and been forced to step down. But because it’s a presidential system he will remain in power two more years. The firing of Hagel will be a positive step forward only if it signals a complete rethink of the president’s foreign policy a la Carter’s conversion to become a born-again hawk after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

The test of that will be to see how Obama deals with Iran now that nuclear talks have reached an impasse after a year. Will Obama allow the mullahs to drag out negotiations indefinitely while continuing to enjoy sanctions relief? Or will he clamp down with extra-tough sanctions and implement a plan to roll back Iran’s power grab in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen? My bet is that not much has changed in the president’s thinking beyond his desire to see a new, more credible face at the Pentagon, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.

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