Commentary Magazine


Topic: Joe Biden

Handsy Joe’s Veep Creep and the Media

One of the clearest signs of media bias is when reporters are made more uncomfortable by the act of criticizing the Obama administration than by the behavior they’re criticizing. Case in point: yesterday’s piece in the Washington Post by Nia-Malika Henderson, in which she struggles mightily with the fact that, thanks to conservative objections, Joe Biden’s incredibly creepy behavior toward women in public is getting tougher to ignore.

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One of the clearest signs of media bias is when reporters are made more uncomfortable by the act of criticizing the Obama administration than by the behavior they’re criticizing. Case in point: yesterday’s piece in the Washington Post by Nia-Malika Henderson, in which she struggles mightily with the fact that, thanks to conservative objections, Joe Biden’s incredibly creepy behavior toward women in public is getting tougher to ignore.

Handsy Joe’s veep creep is by now a staple of the Obama administration’s public events. Conservatives have long been frustrated by the pass Biden’s racist comments, obviously false stories, and emptyheaded rhetoric get from the media when the same press would hammer Republicans for even approaching the vice president’s antics. What conservatives would really prefer is not that Biden be run out of town with the same pitchforks and torches employed against Republicans but that the political correctness that suffocates public discourse in America be set aside far more often for both parties.

The latest incident was at Tuesday’s ceremony for new Defense Secretary Ash Carter. While Carter was at the podium, his wife walked up nearby. Joe Biden put his hands on her shoulders, left them there for about thirty seconds, and then leaned in to whisper something in her ear. The screenshot of the whisper quickly made the rounds (the full video of the encounter is here) and conservatives began another round of “What If A Republican Did This?”

But this latest incident had more force than, say, Biden’s comment about Somali immigrants being cab drivers in Delaware (made the same day). That’s because the Obama White House’s “war on women” has played virtually any Republican policy as some sort of insult to women. Additionally, the continuing scandal of false rape allegations, fake campus rape statistics, and the denial of due process to young men accused of sexual assault has created an atmosphere where many men seem to be assumed guilty from the outset. Yet Biden gets a pass.

So Henderson took to the Post to explain Biden’s behavior by claiming he’s just a goofy throwback to an age when accosting women was a more endearing practice. And her defense-which-she-insists-is-not-a-defense of Biden is a perfect example of the lengths liberal journalists will go to convince themselves and the country that they didn’t put a hound and a weirdo a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Here’s Henderson, playing off a column by the Washington Examiner’s Byron York:

Biden is a creature of his time; that’s not so much an excuse as it is context. He is folksy and always (overly) familiar, the kind of guy who name-checks somebody named “Mouse” at an NAACP convention.

Those personality quirks have typically been viewed as part of his charm and political strength. But the recent display does, as York and others suggest, raise the specter of sexism.

Well, no. The display doesn’t raise the specter of sexism so much as conservative journalists fed up with the hypocrisy point out the sexism. Henderson is talking about it because York is talking about it.

Henderson continues:

The right has suggested that if Biden were a Republican, the press would be much harder on him. I’m not so sure that’s the case.

That needs no specific rebuttal, right? It’s too obviously insane to need any further deconstruction, yes? Back to Henderson:

He is given a pass because he is from a different time. There are plenty of older male politicians whose frame of reference in greeting the opposite gender is far too 1960s rather than 2010s; almost none of them are on-camera nearly as much as Biden is.

Sure. And of course that was the reaction when Foster Freiss retold an old birth-control joke, right? No? It’s also worth pointing out that the “he’s old, give him a break” defense doesn’t seem to show up on other issues for GOPers either (like race).

Here’s Henderson’s conclusion:

But as a man who prides himself on his work on women’s issues, Biden might heed his own advice. He said that attitudes are changing about what “constitutes appropriate behavior.” That should probably apply to Joe Biden’s interactions with women too.

Kid gloves doesn’t begin to cover it.

Look, Biden’s not some threatening sexual predator. I’m sure he means well. And in the annals of Democratic Party men, he’s tame. Allahpundit grades such incidents “On a scale of one to Ted Kennedy.” Ted’s more successful brother was probably worse, though he didn’t kill anybody.

On some level, you can’t really expect the party of FDR and Bill Clinton to even notice behavior like Biden’s. But as the Washington Post proves, even if you do finally force them to notice, you can’t make them care. After all, it’s not like Biden’s a Republican.

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Obama’s ISIS Narrative Problem

On the second day of what is actually being billed as the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, President Obama tried again today to explain his strategy for defeating ISIS. But as with his speech on Wednesday, the result was a confusing rhetorical mess that failed to prioritize the need to defeat the terrorists. The president is clearly worried about reinforcing what he considers to be ISIS’s narrative of this war, but in doing so he seems to have actually conceded victory to them. By doggedly sticking to his position that there is no such thing as Islamist terror and by focusing on the economic and political grievances of such groups, the president undermined any notion that the U.S. was committed to the fight. Indeed, rather than bolster the West’s resistance to ISIS, the massive effort expended on this public-relations extravaganza may have only solidified the belief among the terrorists that this president isn’t someone they should either fear or take seriously.

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On the second day of what is actually being billed as the White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism, President Obama tried again today to explain his strategy for defeating ISIS. But as with his speech on Wednesday, the result was a confusing rhetorical mess that failed to prioritize the need to defeat the terrorists. The president is clearly worried about reinforcing what he considers to be ISIS’s narrative of this war, but in doing so he seems to have actually conceded victory to them. By doggedly sticking to his position that there is no such thing as Islamist terror and by focusing on the economic and political grievances of such groups, the president undermined any notion that the U.S. was committed to the fight. Indeed, rather than bolster the West’s resistance to ISIS, the massive effort expended on this public-relations extravaganza may have only solidified the belief among the terrorists that this president isn’t someone they should either fear or take seriously.

According to the president, to say that ISIS is an Islamic terrorist group is to give credence to the organization’s narrative in which they depict their struggle as being one of a Western war against Islam. Instead, Obama and his various minions only talk about “violent extremism,” in a vain effort to deflect attention away from the religious roots of the conflict. But by refusing to acknowledge the religious roots of the conflict and by focusing on talking points about poverty and Muslim frustration with the politics of the Middle East, the president has done exactly what he claims he is not doing: adopting the same narrative promoted by terrorists whose goal is the destruction of the West.

As I noted in my New York Post article on yesterday’s speech, this is not, as the president’s apologists insist, merely a semantic argument. So long as the position of the White House is that the ultimate solution to this conflict is one that revolves more around better community relations than on military action, ISIS has little to worry about.

Let’s acknowledge that the president is right to echo his predecessor, George W. Bush, when he says this isn’t a war between the West and Islam. But by adopting this line as a constant refrain, President Obama is setting up one of his favorite rhetorical devices, the straw man. After all, no one on either side of the political aisle is claiming that it is a war against all Muslims. Rather, it is a fight against a powerful variant of political Islam that can count on significant support throughout the Muslim world. Though he continues to try and set the U.S. government up as an authority who can decide who is really a representative of Islam and who is not, ISIS and its allies have no doubt about their Islamic character. Nor does anyone else.

Remarks by Vice President Biden at the event’s opening doubled down on the president’s previous comments attempting to establish a moral equivalence between Islam and Christianity and Judaism. But like the president’s dubious history about the Crusades, the vice president’s discussion of white supremacist extremists is off the point. That the person who publicized this gaffe on Twitter was someone who once said Israel was a “suspect” in the 9/11 attacks and was considered worthy of an invitation to the summit speaks volumes about the misguided nature of the event. If we are in a war against ISIS, and we are, then we need our leaders to be inspiring us to persevere in that fight, not trying to tell us that Americans are not really very different from a barbarous enemy. In a month in which ISIS has expanded its reach from Iraq and Syria to Libya and in which the group has beheaded and burned to death its captives while its sympathizers gun down journalists, artists, and Jews in the streets of Europe, the White House is more concerned with not offending Muslims than in ramping up a half-hearted military effort against the terrorists.

Just as bad, the president is still stuck on his 2011 talking points about the Arab Spring. Many of us had high hopes for that moment when it seemed as if the Muslim world might embrace democracy as it shucked off the fetters of incompetent autocracies. But those of us who prefer to deal with reality rather than our dreams had to admit that this was largely a delusion. The Arab Spring proved that Islamists were not seeking to reform the Arab world but to enslave it. The people of Egypt figured this out when they overthrew a Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, but the administration still seems to think the rise of Islamists in the last three years is a coincidence they can ignore.

There is nothing wrong with the U.S. government seeking to cooperate with Muslim communities in the fight against terror, but doing so is not a substitute for waging war on ISIS. The president is right that there is a problem with narratives, but it is one that he is perpetuating. The Muslim world needs to be convinced of American determination to defeat ISIS but instead the president offers platitudes that do just the opposite. Moderate Arabs observing the spectacle at the White House the last two days were not reassured by the outreach efforts. Instead, they may be forgiven for thinking that this is a president who is still more interested in appeasing Islamists—like his Iranian negotiating partners—than in vanquishing them. Though the White House summit was oozing good intentions, all America’s enemies may have seen was weakness and irresolution that will inspire them to even greater cruelties and bloodshed in the weeks and months to come.

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Can Bibi Play Chicken with the Democrats?

The last week has been a good one for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Polls testing opinion prior to Israel’s March Knesset elections showed that he had not only made up the 2-3 seat advantage that his Labor Party rivals held a couple of weeks ago but that his Likud Party was now firmly in the lead by the same margin. But while Netanyahu’s chances for reelection to a third term are looking up, his stock in Washington remains down. With Democrats threatening to boycott the speech, it’s clear that what is going on now is game of chicken in which the stakes are getting higher than Netanyahu or his nation can afford to play with. While it is possible that members of Obama’s party are bluffing about having the prime minister speak to a half-empty chamber filled only with Republicans, the question now facing Israel’s government is whether winning this point is worth the damage that the controversy is doing to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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The last week has been a good one for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Polls testing opinion prior to Israel’s March Knesset elections showed that he had not only made up the 2-3 seat advantage that his Labor Party rivals held a couple of weeks ago but that his Likud Party was now firmly in the lead by the same margin. But while Netanyahu’s chances for reelection to a third term are looking up, his stock in Washington remains down. With Democrats threatening to boycott the speech, it’s clear that what is going on now is game of chicken in which the stakes are getting higher than Netanyahu or his nation can afford to play with. While it is possible that members of Obama’s party are bluffing about having the prime minister speak to a half-empty chamber filled only with Republicans, the question now facing Israel’s government is whether winning this point is worth the damage that the controversy is doing to the U.S.-Israel alliance.

Netanyahu sent Ambassador Ron Dermer and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to the Hill yesterday to make peace with prominent Democrats upset about the prime minister’s acceptance of an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress on Iran sanctions. But apparently, members of President Obama’s party were not buying what Dermer was selling and Politico described the exchange as having not only failed to resolve the dispute but also perhaps even made it worse. Some Democrats described Dermer’s surprise at the political furor the Boehner invitation caused as insincere. That’s a bit unfair, since had the ambassador understood what would happen it’s doubtful the plan would have proceeded. But their willingness to attack him in this manner demonstrates just how wrongheaded the scheme was since it has turned Iran from an issue on which there was a bipartisan consensus in Congress into a partisan football.

Let’s specify that this is far more the fault of the administration than that of Israel. The White House has deftly used the issue of Netanyahu’s speech as a wedge by which it sought to force Democrats to take sides in a feud they wanted no part of. But the Israelis must also be judged guilty of misjudging the way Netanyahu’s intervention on sanctions would be perceived. Had he come either before or after the resolution of a debate on which he is arrayed against the president, Netanyahu would have been cheered to the echo as he was in May 2011 after Obama had ambushed him with a peace proposal that tilted the diplomatic playing field in the direction of the Palestinians. But with the White House threatening to have Vice President Biden boycott the speech and with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (who was inexplicably snubbed when invitations were sent out for a meeting between Edelstein and House leaders) also making noises about members staying away, it’s time for Netanyahu to stop pretending he can brazen this affair out.

There are voices within the pro-Israel community that are still calling on the prime minister to show up in Washington and to unleash his rhetorical genius on Congress in an effort to rally Americans behind the common cause of resisting Iran. Netanyahu has an excellent case to make on this issue and President Obama’s opposition to more sanctions is not only wrongheaded, it is indefensible since he is seeking to thwart perhaps the one thing that might force Iran to yield to his demands. But for Netanyahu to play chicken with Democrats in this manner is as shortsighted as it is reckless. Even if Biden, Pelosi, and the rest of the Democrats show up for the speech, it will be no triumph for Netanyahu as he will not be applauded as he has been in the past. If they don’t, he will blamed for having turned Israel into a partisan issue even if many (though not all) in the Democratic Party’s left wing drifted away from Israel long before this dustup.

Let’s also remember that as important as the issue of Iran may be, the current sanctions bill should not be considered a matter of life or death. As I pointed out last week, the bill put forward by Senators Mark Kirk and Robert Menendez already contains a poison pill that undermines its purpose. Since it allows the president to waive enforcement of the new sanctions if he wishes, that is a virtual guarantee that President Obama will not only go on negotiating indefinitely with Iran as he vainly seeks détente with the Islamist regime, but will also continue to thwart any effort to pressure it.

If he is reelected Netanyahu will have some hard decisions to make about whether to simply stand by and let Obama allow Iran to become a nuclear threshold state. It may be that the chance to use force against Iran was lost a few years ago or perhaps Israel still has a military option. But either way, the vote over this sanctions bill will not decide the issue. At this point, Netanyahu has not much to gain and much to lose by stubbornly sticking with his plan. He may fear that backing down will hurt his image at home on the eve of the elections, but I imagine most Israelis are smart enough to recognize that such a decision would be the better part of valor.

Playing chicken with a congressional caucus that has many ardent friends of Israel is a foolish business that needs to stop now. It is long past time for the debate about the wisdom of his original plan to conclude. Netanyahu has long excelled at playing the long game in terms of the strategic interests of his nation. With his reelection looking more secure, he needs to start planning for life after Obama with either a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. It’s time for him to remember that and find a way to back out of a speech that is no longer worth the trouble that it is causing him and the U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Is It Already Too Late for Hillary to Delay Her Candidacy?

Timing is everything, so it’s no wonder Hillary Clinton is thinking hard about when she wants to go from being an informal candidate for president to a formal candidate for president. But one challenge she’s facing is that it may already be too late to adjust the calculus. The news that she is considering delaying her announcement shows why that is.

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Timing is everything, so it’s no wonder Hillary Clinton is thinking hard about when she wants to go from being an informal candidate for president to a formal candidate for president. But one challenge she’s facing is that it may already be too late to adjust the calculus. The news that she is considering delaying her announcement shows why that is.

Politico broke the news this morning that Clinton, seeing no reason to jump in the race just yet, may wait until this summer, some time around July, to announce. It’s not surprising, since the previous times she was expected to announce have come and gone. She’s in a bit of a holding pattern right now; she could announce at any time, and so she never does. But now that she’s far enough into the prospective campaign, her decisions can’t really be made so quietly. To paraphrase the band Rush, if she chooses not to decide she still has made a choice.

The reason for her not to delay her announcement, in fact, is right there in the justification for it. To wit:

Hillary Clinton, expecting no major challenge for the Democratic nomination, is strongly considering delaying the formal launch of her presidential campaign until July, three months later than originally planned, top Democrats tell POLITICO.

The delay from the original April target would give her more time to develop her message, policy and organization, without the chaos and spotlight of a public campaign.

A Democrat familiar with Clinton’s thinking said: “She doesn’t feel under any pressure, and they see no primary challenge on the horizon. If you have the luxury of time, you take it.”

Advisers said the biggest reason for the delay is simple: She feels no rush.

“She doesn’t want to feel pressured by the press to do something before she’s ready,” one adviser said. “She’s better off as a noncandidate. Why not wait?”

There are two reasons here for her to delay her candidacy. One of them is correct but carries too much risk in acknowledging its truth. The other is probably wrong.

Take the first reason: she’s “expecting no major challenge for the Democratic nomination.” Unless Elizabeth Warren runs, which doesn’t seem all that likely right now, this is true. And the way you know it’s true is that it’s virtually impossible to claim any of the other candidates poses a threat to Clinton with a straight face.

Go ahead and try it: tell yourself that Martin O’Malley, or Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown, or self-described socialist Bernie Sanders, or Crazy Uncle Joe Biden stands in the way of Hillary’s coronation. It’s laughable.

But here’s the catch: Hillary can’t say that. The weak non-Hillary field has become part of the narrative of the election. So saying that she’s delaying her candidacy becomes a statement that she can afford to delay her candidacy because her opposition is a collective joke.

This could easily backfire. It could encourage someone else to jump in the race after Hillary does, on the theory that Clinton miscalculated. It could also breed resentment toward her for acting “inevitable.” And it’s possible it would spook the national party into remembering that when Hillary says she’s inevitable, she might actually be trying to paper over weaknesses that would emerge in the general election instead of in the primaries.

There is no surer way for Hillary to cement her reputation as an entitled legacy candidate and elitist with royal self-regard than to declare the field unworthy of her entrance until the crown has been fitted and polished. Even if it doesn’t attract additional candidates, it’s not a storyline she wants to help along.

The second reason was summed up by her advisor: “She’s better off as a noncandidate. Why not wait?”

But is she? I don’t think so. We’re living in a very different media universe even from the last time she ran. Case in point: the New York Times put a reporter on the Clinton beat in the summer of 2013. Soon after the move was made, Times public editor Margaret Sullivan noted that “Mrs. Clinton may consider her future up in the air, but The Times apparently does not. Or at least it’s hedging its bets.”

It was a smart move by the Times, and Chozick’s reporting has rewarded their bet on Clinton’s candidacy.

Certainly, the types of stories that get filed on Hillary from around the political press are different from the ones that would be filed were Hillary officially in the race. But they aren’t benefiting her. Clinton’s gaffes get covered now, and any policy debate allows her to work off the rust ahead of time.

Also, as I noted in December when the press was on her case over her speaking fees, we were going to get some ridiculous and unfair stories because reporters needed copy. Does Hillary want her early-campaign coverage to be shaped by tales of her demands for the provision of crudité and hummus and rectangular-shaped pillows at each commencement address?

Hillary has learned that she can’t bore the press into submission. And that there’s a danger in believing her own hype. At least that’s what she should have learned. Her most recent actions suggest those lessons have yet to sink in.

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Iran Cheating Debunks Biden, Kerry Boasts

Obama administration figures used the annual Saban Forum on Middle East issues in Washington this past weekend to launch their counter-offensive against efforts to pass new sanctions against Iran. Both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the event to tout the wisdom of the decision to allow the negotiations with the Islamist state to go into a second overtime period instead of the finite period they promised a year ago when they were extolling the virtues of a weak interim deal that we were told would soon be followed by an agreement that would end the nuclear threat. But Kerry’s talk of progress toward a deal and Biden’s stereotypical bombast about Iran not getting a bomb on this administration’s watch was given the lie by the report published today in Foreign Policy detailing American charges that Iran is already going on a spending spree buying material that could be used to produce nuclear-weapons grade plutonium for a bomb.

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Obama administration figures used the annual Saban Forum on Middle East issues in Washington this past weekend to launch their counter-offensive against efforts to pass new sanctions against Iran. Both Vice President Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the event to tout the wisdom of the decision to allow the negotiations with the Islamist state to go into a second overtime period instead of the finite period they promised a year ago when they were extolling the virtues of a weak interim deal that we were told would soon be followed by an agreement that would end the nuclear threat. But Kerry’s talk of progress toward a deal and Biden’s stereotypical bombast about Iran not getting a bomb on this administration’s watch was given the lie by the report published today in Foreign Policy detailing American charges that Iran is already going on a spending spree buying material that could be used to produce nuclear-weapons grade plutonium for a bomb.

The Foreign Policy scoop discusses Iran’s efforts to violate international sanctions to purchase components that could be employed at their Arak plutonium plant at which last year’s interim deal compelled the regime to shut down nuclear activity. The allegations are found in a confidential report from a panel of experts that advises a United Nations Security Council committee that oversees compliance with sanctions. The findings showed a marked increase in procurement of equipment related to heavy water production in recent months.

This is significant in and of itself as evidence of Iran’s intention to push ahead toward a bomb on both uranium and plutonium based plants. But it is even more significant because one of the administration’s principle talking points against further sanctions is that the existing laws (to which the administration had to be dragged kicking and screaming) are not only working but that Iran isn’t cheating on them or the interim accord. The evidence of Iranian activity not only debunks these assurances, it also illustrates that U.S. intelligence about what Iran is doing, which is crucial to monitoring compliance with any further agreements on Iran’s part, may not be up to the task of discovering what is really going on in their nuclear facilities.

That all of this is going on while the Iranians have successfully strung along American diplomats in the nuclear talks further diminishes the credibility of the pledges uttered by both Biden and Kerry. At best, Biden’s boast about a bomb not happening on Obama’s watch might be true. The weak agreements the president has promoted in order to vainly pursue his long-sought goal of détente with Iran may not result in an Iranian bomb being produced before January 2017. But the erosion of the sanctions and the West’s agreement to tacitly recognize an Iranian right to enrich uranium, combined with an inability to do much about Arak, force Tehran to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to find out about their military-applications research, or to get the Iranians to negotiate about their ballistic-missile program may lead to one being produced on the watch of his successor.

All of these developments make it obvious that the only thing that can rescue diplomacy with Iran is for the U.S. to increase pressure on Tehran, not to play nice with the regime, as Obama always seems inclined to do. Last year, the administration beat back an effort to pass more sanctions that would have shut down Iran’s oil trade but would not have gone into effect unless diplomacy failed. The result of their conscious decision to play with a weak hand was a predictable failure. Faced with similar results as last year, the Obama foreign-policy team is undaunted and is pulling out the stops again to foil the majority of both Houses of Congress that want more sanctions.

The new Congress should ignore both Biden and Kerry and take it as a given that in the absence of real pressure, Iran will never give in on its nuclear ambition. The news about Iranian cheating as well as Kerry’s failure to get even a weak nuclear deal makes it imperative that both the House and the Senate should pass sanctions that remain the only option short of force that might have a change to derail Iran’s nuclear quest.

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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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Do Early 2016 Polls Matter? For Democrats, Not Republicans

There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

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There’s a strange asymmetry to the 2016 presidential primary polls. For the Democrats, the polls actually matter, or at least tell us something important. Hillary Clinton’s dominance over her rivals has led to some recalling the “inevitability” narrative in 2008 that was, of course, shattered by Barack Obama. But the polls that showed Clinton ahead in those days weren’t as lopsided, and the path wasn’t quite so clear. It’s true that there’s no such thing as a sure thing, but Clinton’s chances of cruising to the nomination are much better this time around.

Additionally, the polls tell us something else: Democratic voters are not interested in nominating Joe Biden. That’s significant this time if only because he’s the sitting vice president, and therefore has some claim to be next in line. It also means he has high name recognition, which is the key to leading such early polls. (Although it’s worth pointing out that if this Jimmy Kimmel man-on-the-street experiment is any indication, Biden has lower name recognition than you might otherwise think.)

Name recognition, in fact, is basically both the question and answer to deciphering such early polls. So while it’s the reason polls showing Clinton in the lead are worth paying attention to, it’s simultaneously the reason polls of the Republican side of the equation are meaningless. The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll makes this point pretty clearly:

Hillary Clinton continues to hold a commanding lead in the potential Democratic field for president in 2016, while the GOP frontrunner in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll is a familiar figure – but one not favored by eight in 10 potential Republican voters.

That would be Mitt Romney, supported for the GOP nomination by 21 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. That’s double the support of his closest potential rival, but it also leaves 79 percent who prefer one of 13 other possible candidates tested, or none of them.

But what happens when you remove Romney’s name from contention and ask his supporters the same question? This:

When Romney is excluded from the race, his supporters scatter, adding no clarity to the GOP free-for-all. In that scenario former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have 12 or 13 percent support from leaned Republicans who are registered to vote. All others have support in the single digits.

As I wrote last month on Republicans and name recognition:

Take this summer poll from Gallup on the public’s familiarity with 2016 candidates. The only two Republicans to crack 60 percent were Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. … If he wins reelection in Wisconsin, Scott Walker would be considered among the GOP’s strongest candidates (on paper at least, which is all we have so far for the newbies). … Yet Gallup found Walker with the lowest familiarity of any of the GOP candidates, at just 34 percent.

Similarly, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal–the human résumé–was at just 38 percent. Huckabee was at 54 percent, higher than previous candidate Rick Santorum (but lower than Rick Perry) as well as all the non-previous candidates except Christie, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul, who was at 55 percent. Huckabee also tied Christie for the highest favorability rating in that poll.

Now look at the new ABC/WaPo poll. There’s Huckabee, along with Jeb Bush and Rand Paul plus Romney at the top. Name recognition still roughly determines the outline of the race.

And that brings up another reason these polls aren’t much help: the actual makeup of the field when the primaries get under way. It’s doubtful Romney will run again. Huckabee is far from a sure thing to run again. Jeb Bush is probably more likely than not to pass as well, considering the fact that Christie still appears to be running and so does Bush’s fellow Floridian Marco Rubio.

Yet according to the ABC/WaPo poll, the top three vote getters on the GOP side are … Romney, Bush, and Huckabee. The pollsters took Romney out of the lineup to get a better sense of where Romney’s support was coming from (leaving Bush and Huckabee still in the top three), but they might have done better taking all three out of an additional question and seeing where the field would be without them. Rand Paul is the top voter-getter among those who either haven’t previously run for president or whose last name isn’t Bush.

After that, it gets more interesting–but not by much. Paul Ryan is a popular choice, but that’s name recognition as well since he ran on the 2012 national ticket. He also doesn’t seem all that enthusiastic about a run for president. If he doesn’t run, that means there’s a good chance three of the top four vote getters in the Romney-free version of the poll aren’t running, leaving Romney’s supporters without any of their favored candidates except Rand Paul.

Here’s another such poll, this one of Iowa voters from last week. The top two choices are Romney and Ben Carson, followed by Paul, Huckabee, and Ryan. Perhaps Romney really is running and Carson is a strong sleeper pick. But I doubt it on both counts. I also doubt Romney would win Iowa even if he ran, no matter what the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg poll says.

This is an indication of how wide-open the race is on the GOP side. But not much else. And the polls should be treated that way.

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Obama’s Strategy to Defeat ISIS Collides with Reality

In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

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In his September 10 prime-time address to the nation, President Obama said, “Our objective is clear: We will degrade, and ultimately destroy,” ISIS. At the same time, the president said something he’s repeated a number of times since: American forces will not have a combat mission. So this conflict will be conducted strictly through the air. Some of us were concerned at the time that this strategy simply could not work.

More than a month after the president’s pronouncement that our strategy is to destroy ISIS, and more than two months after the first American air strikes against ISIS militants in Iraq, it’s worth assessing how the Obama strategy is faring and to review what leading military figures who served under President Obama are saying about it.

ISIS’s Military Gains Since the U.S. Air Campaign Began

“Islamic State militants have gained territory in Iraq and Syria despite weeks of bombing by the U.S. and its allies, raising questions about the coalition’s strategy of trying to blunt the jihadists’ advance while local forces are being trained to meet the threat on the ground. In Syria, fighters from Islamic State, also known as ISIS, have taken large sections of the city of Kobani in recent days… This comes despite a week of heavy airstrikes around the city to help local Syrian Kurdish fighters keep Islamic State forces from the city center. In Iraq, militant forces operating in a swath of territory the size of California have extended their control of the roads and commercial routes in strategically vital Anbar Province, which connects the capital Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.” – “Militants Advance Despite Airstrikes”, Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2014.

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“Islamic State militants are threatening to overrun a key province in western Iraq in what would be a major victory for the jihadists and an embarrassing setback for the U.S.-led coalition targeting the group. A win for the Islamic State in Anbar province would give the militants control of one of the country’s most important dams and several large army installations, potentially adding to their abundant stockpile of weapons. It would also allow them to establish a supply line from Syria almost to Baghdad and give them a valuable position from which to launch attacks on the Iraqi capital.” – “Islamic State fighters are threatening to overrun Iraq’s Anbar province”, Washington Post, October 9, 2014.

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“Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, acknowledged the Syrian border town could fall to the militants despite the bombings. ‘Air power alone is not going to be enough to save Kobani,’ he said Wednesday. The fighting in Kobani comes amid mounting worries about the effectiveness of the U.S.-led air campaign, which has failed to loosen the militants’ hold on territory in Iraq and Syria or prevent the Islamic State from taking new areas.” – “U.S. steps up airstrikes as Kurds cling to Syrian town”, USA Today, October 7, 2014.

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“U.S.-led airstrikes designed to serve notice on Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria have also delivered a sobering message to Washington and its allies: Breaking the militants’ grip will be every bit as difficult as they feared…. Islamic State appears to have largely withstood the airstrikes so far and with scant pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria, the militants have given up little of the territory they captured before the campaign began. ‘The strikes are useless so far,’ said Mohammad Hassan, an activist in eastern Syria battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. ‘Most of the training camps and the bases were empty when the coalition hit them.’” — “U.S.-led Airstrikes Disrupt Islamic State, But Extremists Hold Territory”, Wall Street Journal, October 5, 2014.

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“After six weeks of American airstrikes, the Iraqi government’s forces have scarcely budged the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State from their hold on more than a quarter of the country, in part because many critical Sunni tribes remain on the sidelines.” – “Weeks of U.S. Strikes Fail to Dislodge ISIS in Iraq”, New York Times, September 22, 2014.

What Military Experts Are Saying About the Obama Strategy

“Flashes of disagreement over how to fight the Islamic State are mounting between President Obama and U.S. military leaders, the latest sign of strain in what often has been an awkward and uneasy relationship… a series of military leaders have criticized the president’s approach against the Islamic State militant group.” – “Rift widens between Obama, U.S. military over strategy to fight Islamic State”, Washington Post, September 18, 2014.

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“I don’t think the president’s plan has a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding.” — Retired Marine General James Conway, who served as commandant of the Marine Corps under President Obama, September 19, 2014.

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“You just don’t take anything off the table up front, which it appears the administration has tried to do … Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility. We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.” – Retired Marine General James Mattis, who served as commander of United States Central Command under President Obama, September 18, 2014.

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“Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House.” – “Countering Islamic State will be hard in Iraq and harder in Syria, officials say”Washington Post, September 10, 2014.

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“The reality is, they’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the Peshmerga or the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy. And I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won’t be troops on the ground], the president in effect traps himself.” – Robert Gates, secretary of defense under President Obama, September 17, 2014.

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“No, Chuck. This is very early days of the strategy. The strategy’s very clear. We’ll do what we can from the air…. But we are not going to be in a ground war again in Iraq. It’s not what is required by the circumstances that we face and even if one were to take that step, which the president has made clear we’re not going to do, it wouldn’t be sustainable. We’ve got to do this in a sustainable way.” – Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, responding to a question from NBC’s Chuck Todd on whether the administration is reassessing its strategy against ISIS, October 12, 2014. (On the same program Ms. Rice declared that Turkey had made a commitment to allow the United States to use its bases for operations against ISIS. Turkey immediate contradicted Ms. Rice and denied such a deal had been made. This comes a week after Vice President Biden apologized to the United Arab Emirates and Turkey for comments he made that Middle Eastern allies are partly to blame for the strengthening of ISIS.)

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“We don’t do stupid [stuff]” – President Obama describing his foreign policy doctrine in private conversations to reporters, “Obama Warns U.S. Faces Diffuse Terrorism Threats”, New York Times, May 28, 2014.

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Obama Should Apologize, Not Biden

For most casual observers, it will be filed under the category of “Biden being Biden.” But the story of the apology to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tells us more about the Obama administration’s dysfunctional foreign policy than it does about the vice president’s predilection for saying embarrassing things. But rather than apologizing to Erdoğan for telling the truth about the Turks facilitating the rise of ISIS by letting Islamists enter Syria, it is Biden’s boss, President Obama, who should admit that it was his foolish decisions that did more to create the disaster in Iraq and Syria that allowed the rise of Islamist terrorists.

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For most casual observers, it will be filed under the category of “Biden being Biden.” But the story of the apology to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tells us more about the Obama administration’s dysfunctional foreign policy than it does about the vice president’s predilection for saying embarrassing things. But rather than apologizing to Erdoğan for telling the truth about the Turks facilitating the rise of ISIS by letting Islamists enter Syria, it is Biden’s boss, President Obama, who should admit that it was his foolish decisions that did more to create the disaster in Iraq and Syria that allowed the rise of Islamist terrorists.

Biden’s statement at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government was the textbook definition of a gaffe: telling an embarrassing truth. He was quoted as saying that Erdoğan admitted to him that Turkey had erred by letting Islamists flood over the border when it was aiding Syrian rebels against the Assad regime and that they are now trying to be more selective about the people that are allowed to cross into the war zone. Since Turkey was willing to aid anyone who said they were willing to fight Assad, they deserve some blame for allowing ISIS to be armed and giving them the time and the space needed to begin their offensive that ultimately brought much of Syria and Iraq under the control.

That hit a little too close to the truth for Erdoğan, who demanded an apology and the always biddable Biden complied even though he also wrongly praised the Turks for their belated decision to join the anti-ISIS alliance, something that our Michael Rubin pointed out didn’t mean exactly what Biden thought it did.

Turkey’s status as a NATO ally and their geo-strategic position means that Washington will always need to tread carefully around Ankara’s interests even though it is clear that the goals of Erdoğan’s Islamist government are antithetical to those of the United States.

But if high-ranking Obama administration officials are so eager to apportion blame for ISIS’s ongoing strength they should look at a mirror rather than at Turkey.

Erdoğan’s desire to overthrow the Assad regime was no secret and led Turkey to make common cause with many undesirable elements. Indeed, as Michael Rubin noted, the authorization of the use of force in Syria by Turkey is about their desire to suppress Kurds, not to battle ISIS.

But Turkey’s unchecked mischief making in Syria was only made possible by Erdoğan’s erstwhile best buddy Barack Obama, who stood by and did nothing about Syria when U.S. intervention early on would have toppled Assad more easily while also making it far less likely that ISIS would have arisen in this fashion.

More to the point, while the president blamed U.S. intelligence for failing to anticipate ISIS gaining strength—something that is a blatant lie since it warned Obama of the dangers of the course he was following—it is more than obvious that the administration chose to let the Turks run amok because of its reluctance to face up to the need for America to lead in the region. By ignoring the advice of his more sober senior advisers like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, and pulling out of Iraq and dithering on Syria while he was cozying up to Erdoğan, it was Obama who created the power vacuum that gave ISIS its opportunity.

But as we survey the unfolding tragicomedy of the administration’s relations with Turkey, we’d also do well to ponder what the loose-lipped vice president will be saying about our current problems a year or two from now. If President Obama sticks to his current policy of desultory bombing of ISIS with no effective ground forces opposing the Islamists, the threat from these terrorists will grow rather than recede. Since the president is still more interested in withdrawing from the region and striking deals with its more dangerous actors such as Iran rather than in backing our endangered moderate Arab allies or Israel, before too long it will be necessary to construct another cover story to account for the disasters that will follow.

When Biden is asked in late 2015 or in 2016 who or what created the disaster in Iraq and Syria or the next domino to fall, there’s no telling who the scapegoat will be. But no matter which country receives the veep’s inevitable apology, the real answer will always be Barack Obama.

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Biden’s Apologists Do Him No Favors

Joe Biden got into some trouble over the last few days, as he tends to do, by making inappropriate or offensive comments. Because Biden has a long career of gaffes marked with seemingly racist pronunciations, this can lose some of its news value. So when Biden used an anti-Semitic term to refer to bankers on Tuesday, it was generally passed off as Joe being Joe. Yet while this disturbs the offended parties, the way Biden is treated by the media should really bother the vice president most of all.

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Joe Biden got into some trouble over the last few days, as he tends to do, by making inappropriate or offensive comments. Because Biden has a long career of gaffes marked with seemingly racist pronunciations, this can lose some of its news value. So when Biden used an anti-Semitic term to refer to bankers on Tuesday, it was generally passed off as Joe being Joe. Yet while this disturbs the offended parties, the way Biden is treated by the media should really bother the vice president most of all.

To recap, Biden called predatory bankers “Shylocks” in a speech. He then called former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew “the wisest man in the Orient,” confirming both that Biden rarely has any idea what he’s talking about and that he’s several hundred years old. According to the Washington Post, Biden made a third gaffe yesterday, contradicting President Obama on the possibility of additional ground troops in Iraq. That last gaffe, being interpreted as neither racist nor anti-Semitic, flew under the radar, but to those who care about actual defense policy it should still be worth considering.

The reaction from the groups offended by Biden’s casual use of terms considered both racist and anti-Semitic were, in my opinion, also wide of the mark. The use of “Shylock” does deserve pushback, since Biden was using it in a derogatory way and of course it refers to Jews–though it’s doubtful Biden was truly familiar with the word’s original use since it was in a work of classic literature and not a Bugs Bunny cartoon. He surely didn’t mean to insult Yew, though I suppose he should have known better anyway. Either way, the RNC’s reaction that “His comment is not only disrespectful but also uses unacceptable imperialist undertones” is just bizarre.

But the criticism of Biden played into the same stereotype of Joe being Joe as did those who brushed aside or ignored the controversy. Here’s the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman:

When someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as is Vice President Joe Biden, uses the term “Shylocked” to describe unscrupulous moneylenders dealing with service men and women, we see once again how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is in society.

So it’s society’s fault Biden makes offensive comments? I’m sorry, but he’s the vice president of the United States, and I don’t think “society” needs to take the blame for this one. After Biden called to apologize, Foxman followed it up with this:

There is no truer friend of the Jewish people than Joe Biden. Not only has he been a stalwart against anti-Semitism and bigotry, but he has the courage and forthrightness to admit a mistake and use it as an opportunity to learn and to teach others about the harmful effects of stereotypes. He has turned a rhetorical gaffe into a teachable moment.

“Teach others.” The only lesson Biden taught anybody here is the same one we’ve been learning for years: if you’re a prominent Democrat, you can say basically whatever you want.

That’s a lesson Biden may think works to his advantage. Certainly many conservatives feel that way. But they’re wrong. The media’s decision to treat Biden not as a latent logorrheic bigot but as a dimwitted ward of the state has virtually assured he will never be elected president.

When Biden was running for president earlier in his career, it was revealed he was a plagiarist. That truly was a “teachable moment.” Biden stopped–to my knowledge, at least–plagiarizing. Had Biden’s propensity toward cultural insensitivity been similarly addressed, he certainly would have gotten a second (and third, no doubt) chance to refine his ability to hide his apparent disregard for ethnic minorities.

Now, it’s possible this would have made no difference. Perhaps Biden is unfixable. But Americans consider the thought of Joe Biden being president to be ridiculous. This does not speak well of Barack Obama, who nominated him to be a heartbeat away, or the electorate who put him there. And it does not speak well of the media who constantly gave him a free pass, allowing him to be a jovial sidekick or a mascot when the American government probably needs someone with more gravitas than Mr. Met playing understudy to the president.

But in the end, this works against Biden getting elected president. Having turned Biden into the crazy but loveable uncle, the press forever doomed him to be a walking punch line. What he needed were his own teachable moments. He never learned how to be a serious political figure thanks to the kid-gloves treatment he received. He was able to ride that wave all the way to the vice presidency–and that’s pretty impressive. But as far as the national electorate is concerned, that’s where it ends.

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Whose Victory Is Amerli?

The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.

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The recent success of Iraqi forces in lifting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s siege of the town of Amerli, populated by Shiite Turkmen, has been hailed as a significant defeat for ISIS. And so it is. But who is it a victory for? The U.S. contributed to the outcome by sending our warplanes to drop bombs. The on-the-ground fighting was done by the Iraqi security forces, the Kurdish pesh merga, and, most troubling of all, Shiite militias backed by Iran. In fact there are reports that General Qassem Suleimani, who as head of Iran’s Quds Force is arguably the most dangerous terrorist in the world, was on the ground in Amerli personally directing the offensive.

If you want to know more about Suleimani, who may be the most feared man in the Middle East, read this long profile by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker which notes that in addition to directing Syria’s deadly offensive against rebel forces, “Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone.”

This, in short, is not someone the U.S. should knowingly be cooperating with even if we share an interest in rolling back ISIS advances in Iraq. The problem, even leaving moral qualms aside, is that Suleimani’s way of war is to employ indiscriminate violence to try to cow rebel forces into submission. In Iraq, such a strategy is likely to backfire by driving Sunnis deeper into ISIS’s camp.

The way to win in Iraq–to “degrade and destroy” ISIS as President Obama claims to be doing–is not to drop bombs in support of Suleimani’s thugs. The only way to truly roll back ISIS–to chase them to “the gates of hell,” wherever those may be found, as Joe Biden theatrically vows to do–is to ally with Sunni tribes who are chafing under ISIS’s heavyhanded rule but will stick with the terrorist group as long as it credibly postures as the defender of Sunnis against the “Persians,” as Anbari tribesmen refer to all Shiites. Normally to call Shiites “Persians” is an insult implying they’re not real Iraqis–but in the case of Suleimani the label fits because he really is Iranian, not Iraqi. Thus the more that resistance to ISIS is identified with Iranian interests, the less traction it will gain in Sunni areas.

The U.S. needs to tread carefully, supporting the Kurdish pesh merga, non-sectarian elements of the Iraqi Security Forces (which may mean principally the Iraqi Special Operations Forces), and Sunni tribes–not the murderous Shiite militias armed and directed by Suleimani. But in order to do that the U.S. needs more of an on-the-ground presence than we currently have: it’s impossible to accurately employ U.S. airpower in more than dribs and drabs without having more eyes on the ground than we currently possess.

I have been arguing for sending 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. troops to act as Special Operations Forces and as advisers to the Iraqis and the Free Syrian Army–a view endorsed by no less than retired Marine General Tony Zinni, a widely revered former commandeer of Central Command (and a skeptic of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq).

Zinni is quoted as saying: “My God, we are the most powerful nation in the world. This is a moment we have to act. How many Americans getting their throats cut on TV can we stand?” Good question–and one that President Obama still needs to answer.

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Biden v. Obama on ISIS

Vice President Joe Biden has given a speech in which he bellows about what America will do to ISIS. “We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” according to Mr. Biden.

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Vice President Joe Biden has given a speech in which he bellows about what America will do to ISIS. “We take care of those who are grieving and when that’s finished, they should know, we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice,” according to Mr. Biden.

I wonder, though: Will we follow ISIS to the gates of hell only if we are joined by the “international community”? And is “following them to the gates of hell” the same thing as continuing to “shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem,” as Mr. Biden’s boss, President Obama, said earlier today?

Just wondering.

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Maliki and America’s Bad Bet

The news from Iraq continues to be grim. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has proclaimed a new caliphate, called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed emir, has gotten so confident that he appeared at a mosque in Mosul to spread his message. His men are parading around in captured Iraqi army equipment such as Humvees and tanks amid reports that they have seized enough guns and ammunition to arm several divisions. Meanwhile political gridlock continues to prevail in Baghdad, where Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his determination to hold onto the prime minister’s office at all costs despite his catastrophic tenure in office.

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The news from Iraq continues to be grim. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has proclaimed a new caliphate, called simply the Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed emir, has gotten so confident that he appeared at a mosque in Mosul to spread his message. His men are parading around in captured Iraqi army equipment such as Humvees and tanks amid reports that they have seized enough guns and ammunition to arm several divisions. Meanwhile political gridlock continues to prevail in Baghdad, where Nouri al-Maliki has made clear his determination to hold onto the prime minister’s office at all costs despite his catastrophic tenure in office.

How did we get here? There is no better answer than this lengthy essay in the Washington Post by Ali Khedery. He is not a household name by any stretch of the imagination, but he was an immensely influential behind-the-scenes player in Iraq from 2003 to 2009. A young and personable Iraqi-American who spoke fluent Arabic, Khedery served as aide to a succession of U.S. ambassadors and Central Command chiefs. He worked closely with all of Iraq’s political leaders as well as with America’s representatives in that country.

Indeed he was one of the first Americans to suggest in 2006 that Maliki would make a good leader for Iraq, but by 2010, witnessing Maliki’s dictatorial and sectarian tendencies, Khedery changed his mind. Following the Iraqi election of that year, in which Maliki’s slate finished in second place behind Ayad Allawi’s party, Khedery urged his American superiors to withdraw their support from Maliki in favor of Adel Abdul Mahdi, another Shiite leader who had served as finance minister. But his entreaties fell on deaf ears. As Khedery recounts, Vice President Biden, during a visit to Baghdad, “said Maliki was the only option. Indeed, the following month he would tell top U.S. officials, ‘I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA,’ referring to the status-of-forces agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq past 2011.”

As Khedery recounts it, he was joined in his opposition to Maliki by Generals Jim Mattis and John Allen at Central Command and by Ambassador to Baghdad James Jeffrey. Even senior Shiite clerics in Iraq weighed in against Maliki. “But all the lobbying was for naught,” Khedery notes. “By November, the White House had settled on its disastrous Iraq strategy. The Iraqi constitutional process and election results would be ignored, and America would throw its full support behind Maliki.”

As Khedery notes, “catastrophe followed”: Maliki pursued a sectarian agenda leading to a Sunni backlash which has enabled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to take control of much of the Sunni Triangle from Fallujah to Mosul. Perhaps the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq might have restrained Maliki’s sectarian tendencies but of course, as we know, the Status of Forces Agreement was not renewed in spite of Biden’s unwarranted certainty that Maliki would endorse it.

Khedery doesn’t have much to say about those negotiations because he had already left government at that point, but he is right to highlight the Obama administration’s disastrous decision to back Maliki in 2010 as one of the American moves that set Iraq on the path to disaster (the others being the decision to let the Syrian civil war rage unabated and the decision not to push harder to keep U.S. forces in Iraq).

The implication of Khedery’s article is clear: We must today rectify the mistake of 2010 and push as hard as we can for Iraq’s parliament to select someone other than Maliki as prime minister. Too bad we have so much less leverage than we did in 2010 because today we have fewer than 1,000 troops in Iraq, as opposed to some 50,000 back then.

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Is Biden Vindicated on Iraq? Not Even Close

Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.

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Here is a terrifying, but oddly explanatory, opening sentence from the Sunday edition of the New York Times on Iraq: “From the first summer of the Obama administration, Iraq has been considered Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s account.” While giving such an important strategic portfolio to the man who famously is on the wrong side of nearly every foreign-policy issue may not have been the best idea, the article at first sounds like it’ll at least be a demotion of some kind. After all, a self-declared caliphate is currently burning Iraq to the ground.

But no. Believe it or not, that sentence serves as the introduction to the Times’s attempt to claim that the current mess in Iraq is Biden’s vindication–or at least the vindication of his proposal in 2006 to divide Iraq into three pieces. The country currently looks headed that way, goes the logic, and so perhaps Biden was right after all.

Wrong. Let’s first dispense with the faulty logic employed by the Times. Just because Biden suggested something that is now happening does not mean the United States should have facilitated that outcome. There are various reasons for this, one of which Christian Caryl reported a few days ago:

For the past 2,000 years, Iraq has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture of Eastern Christianity. Now that storied history appears to be coming to an end. Even if the ISIS forces are ultimately driven back, it’s hard to imagine that the Mosul Christians who have fled will see a future for themselves in an Iraq dominated by the current Shiite dictatorship of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys strong support from Iran.

It’s worth adding, perhaps, that Christians aren’t the only ones in this predicament. Iraq is also home to a number of other religious minorities endangered by the country’s polarization into two warring camps of Islam. The Yazidis follow a belief system that has a lot in common with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism; about a half a million of them live in northern Iraq. The Mandaeans, numbering only 30,000 or so, are perhaps the world’s last remaining adherents of Gnosticism, one of the offshoots of early Christianity. By tradition many Mandaeans are goldsmiths — a trade that has made them prominent targets for abduction in the post-invasion anarchy of Iraq. Losing these unique cultures makes the world a poorer place.

Feeding Iraq’s sectarianism meant obliterating in some cases its ethnic minority communities. That’s what is happening now, and I don’t think Biden or his staff wishes they could take credit for it.

Now, there’s an important distinction Biden makes: he insists he didn’t want three separate countries–a true partition–but instead three semi-autonomous territories with a central government. Yet a look at Iraq today tells you all you need to know about how well the center could hold under such a federal system. What that division would do is accelerate the disintegration.

Once you devolve power from the center and encourage sectarian division, that division will only concretize leaving the federal center without enough enforcement power. A federal system can thrive in certain conditions–Biden himself is currently vice president of a federal republic–but one important condition is a commitment to a certain level of nationalism. Iraq’s borders never possessed the legitimacy such a state would need. The legitimacy, instead, was held by sectarian loyalties.

There’s also more than a bit of irony in the supposed “vindication” of Biden’s old idea. The tone of the story is that if only we had listened to Biden, things might have been different. But the story opens up by stating, explicitly, that we have been listening to Biden all along. Iraq has been his portfolio. The truth is that neither of Biden’s ideas about how to solve the Iraq puzzle were good ones, and the current situation there is demonstrating the failure of both–the failure of one leading to the failure of the other.

More than anything else, Iraq’s dissolution is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Obama/Biden team was elected on a platform of ending America’s involvement in the Iraq war as soon as the president could make the retreat happen. When that took place, which was before it was strategically sensible, the fragile calm achieved but still being secured when Obama came into office was lost. The administration’s overall policy has been disastrous, and that did not happen because no one took Joe Biden’s advice.

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Can Being Broke Help Joe Beat Hillary?

He couldn’t resist it. With his putative 2016 rival Hillary Clinton still dealing with the backlash from her bogus claim of being broke after leaving the White House, Vice President Joe Biden laid it on thick today at the White House summit on working families by boasting of his own lean finances.

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He couldn’t resist it. With his putative 2016 rival Hillary Clinton still dealing with the backlash from her bogus claim of being broke after leaving the White House, Vice President Joe Biden laid it on thick today at the White House summit on working families by boasting of his own lean finances.

Biden may well have been “the poorest man in Congress” during his 36 years in the Senate. But his claims that he didn’t “own a single stock or bond” and “no savings accounts” was not factually correct. He does have some savings and there are some investments in his wife’s name. Though his net worth of approximately $800,000 makes him a pauper compared to most Washington politicians, with annual income in the $400,000 range (including $2,200 a month from the Secret Service in rent payments for the use of a building at his Delaware home), no one need worry about him.

There’s little doubt that Biden hopes that highlighting his relatively modest means will remind Democrats that they have an alternative to Clinton as she slogs through a book tour that has brought her as many negative headlines as good ones. However, anyone who thinks that the so-called party of the people would be more inclined to nominate a middle class candidate over one of the now demonstrably wealthy Clintons knows nothing about American politics or Democrats.

Like the English, who have always been known to “love a lord” even as they resented the privileges of the ruling class, Americans generally like rich people. That may even be truer of the party that claims to represent the interests of working people and to be in perpetual war with Wall Street than it is of the Republicans who are generally billed as the party of business. On this point I agree with Vox’s Matthew Yglesias, who also pours cold water on the notion that Biden has any advantage with Democratic voters on the question of income.

While the GOP has had its share of wealthy standard-bearers (Mitt Romney, John McCain, the Bushes, and Theodore Roosevelt being the most prominent examples in the 20th and early 21st centuries), the Democrats have shown even more of a weakness for swells than the Republicans.

If we ignore Barack Obama, who entered the White House a relatively wealthy man due to the sales of his books and his wife’s income but came from a humble background, Bill Clinton was actually the last non-rich Democratic presidential candidate. Al Gore (who has grown far richer due to his exploitation of “green” economics and his sale of a cable channel without an audience to Al Jazeera) and John Kerry were both extremely wealthy. Going back further, you discover not only have the Democrats often nominated wealthy men, the richest tend to be the most popular, i.e. John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Looked at in that context, over the course of the last century, Democrats have always been suckers for the rich guy who claims to defend the interests of the little guy at the expense of his fellow millionaires.

Thus, if Joe Biden thinks he can counter Hillary’s compelling narrative as the first female president with one that touts his middle class background and relatively thin back account, he is probably wasting his time. Democrats get as much, if not more of their money these days from the wealthy, including those on Wall Street.

There are some rich people Democrats don’t like: Republicans. Obama’s campaign relentlessly harped on Romney’s wealth not because their voters aren’t attracted to the lifestyles of the rich and famous but because they were able to claim that the GOP candidate was essentially self-interested as well as out of touch with ordinary Americans. Romney’s inability to connect with most voters, a trait that had to do with his shortcomings as a politician rather than his money, made the charge stick. While income inequality is a meme liberals like to use against their opponents, they’ve never yet applied the same standard to their own candidates. Being a member of the “one percent” is no bar to Democrat applause so long as the member of that club is willing to attack other one-percenters.

It is true that Hillary is hopelessly out of touch with most Americans as her clueless line about being “dead broke” when she left the White House with an $8 million book advance in her pocket indicated. But don’t expect Democratic primary voters to hold it against her. Biden is so far behind Hillary it’s hard to imagine anything she could do or say to be denied the nomination (other, that is, than refusing to run). Indeed, if she were smart, she’d stop trying to pretend to be middle class and embrace her status as one of the nation’s elites with more gusto. Nobody cares if she has money but they don’t like a woman who has largely lived at the expense of the public pretending that she is just an ordinary person. It will work a lot better and save her from further embarrassment about hypocritically fretting over the travails of financing multiple homes even as she receives $200,000 speaking fees.

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What Kind of Iraq Did Obama Inherit?

A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

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A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

And then there’s this:

Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. [emphasis added]

To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.

The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

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Abolish the Vice Presidency

The drama surrounding Hillary Clinton’s prospective candidacy has made writing about the 2016 presidential election nearly unavoidable. But the possibility of a Clinton coronation has led to some expanded predictions: we’re now–in mid-2014–talking about running mates. This was primarily driven by the suggestion that Democrats were positioning San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for a spot on the 2016 ticket.

That led to speculation over who the Republicans would nominate for vice president, and since in this scenario they’d be running against two “historic” nominees, the question simply becomes one of race and gender identity politics. Not content with Castro, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein is now fretting over the Democrats’ veep bench for 2016, though Doug Mataconis has an excellent post offering Bernstein some perspective on the matter.

But there’s a way out of this madness, and this is a good opportunity do something that’s made sense for a very long time: abolish the vice presidency.

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The drama surrounding Hillary Clinton’s prospective candidacy has made writing about the 2016 presidential election nearly unavoidable. But the possibility of a Clinton coronation has led to some expanded predictions: we’re now–in mid-2014–talking about running mates. This was primarily driven by the suggestion that Democrats were positioning San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for a spot on the 2016 ticket.

That led to speculation over who the Republicans would nominate for vice president, and since in this scenario they’d be running against two “historic” nominees, the question simply becomes one of race and gender identity politics. Not content with Castro, Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein is now fretting over the Democrats’ veep bench for 2016, though Doug Mataconis has an excellent post offering Bernstein some perspective on the matter.

But there’s a way out of this madness, and this is a good opportunity do something that’s made sense for a very long time: abolish the vice presidency.

It’s not a new idea, but it’s worth revisiting now that the parties are apparently choosing the next-in-line by playing the matching game. This certainly isn’t an upgrade over the last method, in which presidential nominees placed questionable geographic bets with their veep selections. That at least had the advantage of choosing a recognized and relatively popular–and thus, usually experienced–legislator or governor.

But we don’t need to agonize over how we choose the vice president. We can free ourselves by getting rid of the vice presidency altogether. First and foremost, the vice presidency has strayed–and actually, it did so almost from the very beginning–from the Founders’ idea of the position, which they weren’t exactly wild about to start with. As Arthur Schlesinger wrote in his 1974 Atlantic essay:

The vice presidency was put into the Constitution for one reason, and one reason alone. Hugh Williamson of North Carolina, a member of the committee that originated the idea, conceded at the Convention that “such an office as vice-president was not wanted. It was introduced only for the sake of a valuable mode of election which required two to be chosen at the same time.” This is an essential but neglected point. The theory of presidential elections embodied in the Constitution was that if electors had to vote for two men without designating which was to be President and which Vice President, and if one of these men had, as the Constitution required, to be from another state, then both men who topped the poll would be of the highest quality, and the republic would be safe in the hands of either. …

In 1800 the Republicans gave the same number of electoral votes to Jefferson, their presidential choice, as they gave to Aaron Burr, a man of undoubted talents who, however, was trusted by no one in the long course of American history, except his daughter Theodosia and Gore Vidal. Burr was nearly chosen President, though the voters never intended him for the presidency. The fear of comparable slipups in 1804 led to the adoption of the Twelfth Amendment requiring the electoral college to vote separately for President and Vice President.

The abolition of the “valuable mode of election” canceled the purpose of the Founding Fathers in having a Vice President at all.

Indeed it did. What’s frustrating about the evolution of the vice presidency is that it was not only predictable but predicted. All throughout American history politicians and commentators offered nothing toward the office but acid and pity. (Schlesinger’s own article begins: “We have a Vice President again, and Mr. Ford deserves all our sympathy.”)

The vice presidency gains a fair amount of legitimacy from the fact that, technically, he or she has been elected by national vote. But my goodness that “technically” should not get the office so far. The American people vote for the top of the ticket. The vice presidential nominee is, in the minds of the voters at least, an add-on. When current Vice President Joe Biden ran for the top job, the reaction of his own party’s voters was consistent, overwhelming rejection. He is something like a sixty-point underdog to win his own party’s nomination to succeed the president he now serves.

The electoral legitimacy of the vice president is not only dubious, therefore, but dangerous. What we have is a next-in-line who basically got there by appointment and is often far less prepared to take over than other members of the president’s Cabinet. There are exceptions, of course, but they are just that.

So who would replace the vice president in the line of automatic succession? Anyone else would possess less electoral legitimacy than the current vice president unless it was a leader of one of the houses of Congress, in which case upon presidential vacancy the high office could switch parties without an election, an outcome that should be avoided.

Perhaps someone–the secretary of state, say–could take over on a provisional basis while a national election could be organized. Ideally they would not be considered “president,” but that has its own drawbacks: could they sign bills or treaties? The following election would have to take place relatively soon, which means a brief nominating and general-election period. But that has advantages. After all, we have the opposite now, and we’re left filling time and space by talking, regrettably, about vice-presidential nominees.

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Biden’s Engagement Flip-Flop

I had started writing my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, before Barack Obama won the presidency and chose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. No matter: The book isn’t a partisan polemic. Bungling diplomacy toward international rogues has been a bipartisan problem. Still, as senator, Biden spoke often about diplomacy and rogues and so he provided a rich, documentary record of his views on the topic.

As we near the 25th anniversary if the Tiananmen Square massacre, China is beginning its predictable, preliminary crackdown on dissidents and all who might want to mark that occasion. The events of June 4, 1989 were truly horrific. What is quite interesting, however, is how critical and outspoken Biden was about the George H.W. Bush administration renewing ties with China just a couple years later. Speaking on the Senate floor, Biden declared, “What President Bush and Secretary Baker have been seeking to engage is the world’s last major Communist regime; it is a regime marked by brutality at home and irresponsibility abroad; and it is a regime the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease.” I find little to argue with Biden, at least his 1991 incarnation.

As I documented in my book, Biden also complained that diplomacy involving Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic left too many in the former Yugoslavia off the hook, and that he would have rather have seen a continuation if not a ratcheting up of more coercive pressure on them rather than turning to diplomacy when the Clinton administration did.

How strange it is then, or at least inconsistent, that Biden has been full-throated in his desire to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, participated in the secret talks in Oman that opened that door. Even before the nuclear deal is finalized, Iran has already pocketed several billion dollars in sanctions relief and new economic investment. As the nuclear deal takes shape, it is becoming increasingly apparent that everything it commits Iran to is reversible, and readily so. In the meantime, it legitimizes and, indeed, rewards a regime whose human-rights record is as atrocious as China’s, and whose young students, women, and whose political and religious dissidents suffer the humiliation of Tiananmen Square on an almost daily basis. Indeed, none other than Amnesty International has noted the increase in public executions since the supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, took office.

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I had started writing my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, before Barack Obama won the presidency and chose Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his running mate. No matter: The book isn’t a partisan polemic. Bungling diplomacy toward international rogues has been a bipartisan problem. Still, as senator, Biden spoke often about diplomacy and rogues and so he provided a rich, documentary record of his views on the topic.

As we near the 25th anniversary if the Tiananmen Square massacre, China is beginning its predictable, preliminary crackdown on dissidents and all who might want to mark that occasion. The events of June 4, 1989 were truly horrific. What is quite interesting, however, is how critical and outspoken Biden was about the George H.W. Bush administration renewing ties with China just a couple years later. Speaking on the Senate floor, Biden declared, “What President Bush and Secretary Baker have been seeking to engage is the world’s last major Communist regime; it is a regime marked by brutality at home and irresponsibility abroad; and it is a regime the United States should now cease to court and must no longer appease.” I find little to argue with Biden, at least his 1991 incarnation.

As I documented in my book, Biden also complained that diplomacy involving Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic left too many in the former Yugoslavia off the hook, and that he would have rather have seen a continuation if not a ratcheting up of more coercive pressure on them rather than turning to diplomacy when the Clinton administration did.

How strange it is then, or at least inconsistent, that Biden has been full-throated in his desire to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran. His national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, participated in the secret talks in Oman that opened that door. Even before the nuclear deal is finalized, Iran has already pocketed several billion dollars in sanctions relief and new economic investment. As the nuclear deal takes shape, it is becoming increasingly apparent that everything it commits Iran to is reversible, and readily so. In the meantime, it legitimizes and, indeed, rewards a regime whose human-rights record is as atrocious as China’s, and whose young students, women, and whose political and religious dissidents suffer the humiliation of Tiananmen Square on an almost daily basis. Indeed, none other than Amnesty International has noted the increase in public executions since the supposed moderate, Hassan Rouhani, took office.

That is not to say that there is not a reason for engagement here and now—although let us hope that Obama’s desire to have a foreign-policy breakthrough whatever its cost isn’t what is driving this. But, at the very least, Biden—if he is the statesman the thinks he is and if he aspires to the highest office—should provide an explanation as to his sharp about-face on issues of human rights, dictatorship, and diplomacy. Alas, the lack of consistency Biden displays is not unique. He is in good political company. It’s hard not to conclude that Biden personifies just how arbitrary American strategy about when and how to engage is.

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Finish the Sentence, Mr. Vice President

With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

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With Russian provocations raising the temperature in eastern Ukraine, the Obama administration rightly felt it was time to brush back Moscow with a gesture that would reinforce the American determination not to acquiesce in further attacks on the former Soviet republic. But with Russian officials and their shock troops on the ground in Ukraine increasing pressure on Kiev to surrender and blaming any resistance to this aggression on the United States, it appears that Vice President Biden’s trip to the area and his stern warnings were in vain.

Biden was completely in the right when he declared, “no nation has the right to simply grab land from another” as well as when he denounced Russia’s “illegal occupation” of Crimea and said Moscow should curb the activities of its armed operatives inside Ukraine.

But the administration’s problem—and that of beleaguered Ukraine—is that it’s too late for Washington to talk its way out of this mess. After spending years working hard to appease the Russians and to give them effective vetoes over various U.S. foreign-policy initiatives such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian civil war, the idea that having Biden, of all people, go to Kiev and deliver a few characteristically bombastic statements will do anything to restrain Moscow is absurd. As Senator John McCain has noted, though Biden’s warnings are correct, they lacked an “or else” clause to make them effective. If Russian President Vladimir Putin knows that there is literally nothing that the U.S. will do stop him from seizing eastern Ukraine or any other former Soviet territory, what’s the point of having Biden say anything?

If the substance of Biden’s remarks was to encourage the Ukrainians to defend their territory against Russian aggression, as they have every right to do, the most important question facing the West now is: what exactly is President Obama prepared to do to back them up if, as seems entirely possible, Putin responds by sending in troops to seize whatever parts of Ukraine he covets? The answer from the administration isn’t exactly a secret. Since the U.S. won’t supply Ukraine with weapons or make credible threats to enforce real sanctions on Russia—as opposed to the laughable sanctions on individual Putin cronies that have already been enacted—there is no reason for Moscow to view Biden’s visit as a deterrent to further aggression. Indeed, by making those empty statements, Biden may have actually helped Putin further justify his slanders about the dispute with Ukraine being largely the result of American interference.

American diplomacy on the subject has been equally risible as the agreement worked out by Secretary of State John Kerry with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has proven to be worth as much as the agreements he previously worked out with them on Syria and Iran.

No sane American would choose to ignite a shooting war with Russia over Ukraine. But the U.S. is obligated by treaty to defend those former outposts of the Russian empire that are now NATO members. Yet, like Biden’s bloviating, the decision to send a token number of U.S. troops to Poland for military exercises isn’t likely to impress Putin.

If this dilemma seems familiar, it should. Much like the position that the U.S. finds itself in with regard to Syria, President Obama has few options and none of them are good. Years of sending the wrong messages to Moscow can’t be undone with a few weak gestures at this late date. Just as the situation in Syria might have been improved by decisive U.S. action in the early stages of that civil war, making sure Putin understood that the U.S. would regard any repeat of Russian aggression against Georgia elsewhere as a game changer might have made a difference this year when a pro-Moscow puppet was toppled in Kiev. Instead, the farcical “Russia reset” championed by Hillary Clinton and continued by Kerry only made the current debacle more likely.

It bears repeating that the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine provided Putin with the same opportunity to seize Ukrainian territory he had this year. But he was then uncertain about international reaction to projecting force beyond his borders. Now he has no such doubts. And it is almost certainly too late to create any reason for Putin to hesitate in time to save Ukraine, though clearly the U.S. can and should do what it can to aid Ukrainian self-defense.

The debate about what to do about the crisis in Ukraine is a frustrating one and, because of the lack of decent options for the U.S. at this point, it could be used to bolster support for neo-isolationist positions that would call for Americans to stop caring about the fate of countries that are marked for partition by their more powerful neighbors. But the moral of the story is not that the U.S. shouldn’t seek to restrain Russia. It’s that Obama’s years of weakness have made it impossible for us to defend our interests and our friends. As Biden’s empty rhetoric echoes across Eastern Europe this week, those allies who look to their alliance with the U.S. as a foundation of their defense may be forgiven for worrying about the value of American promises.

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Clinton’s Advantage over Biden: She Got Out in Time

The volume of coverage for the 2016 presidential election has put a premium on any analysis that makes an original (but plausible) point. A touch of contrarianism always helps as well, which makes Joel K. Goldstein’s guest column at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website intriguing. Goldstein argues that the general assumption that the vice presidency is a poor launching pad for the presidency is based on faulty logic and bad numbers.

He references the current corollary, the belief that Joe Biden–already an underdog against Hillary Clinton–simply cannot win in 2016. Goldstein isn’t attempting to boost a Biden candidacy, but he seeks to correct the basis for skepticism toward American veeps. They have a better record, when we account for various important and mitigating variables, than we tend to think. He writes:

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The volume of coverage for the 2016 presidential election has put a premium on any analysis that makes an original (but plausible) point. A touch of contrarianism always helps as well, which makes Joel K. Goldstein’s guest column at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball website intriguing. Goldstein argues that the general assumption that the vice presidency is a poor launching pad for the presidency is based on faulty logic and bad numbers.

He references the current corollary, the belief that Joe Biden–already an underdog against Hillary Clinton–simply cannot win in 2016. Goldstein isn’t attempting to boost a Biden candidacy, but he seeks to correct the basis for skepticism toward American veeps. They have a better record, when we account for various important and mitigating variables, than we tend to think. He writes:

Those who dismiss the vice presidency as a good source of presidential candidates often note that only four of the 47 men who have held the nation’s second office were elected president upon the retirement of the chief executive with whom they served. Yet the 1/12 ratio is a highly misleading measure. Nine of the 47 vice presidents became president through the death or resignation of their predecessor. Accordingly, they could not have been elected directly from the vice presidency. Nor could most of the seven vice presidents who died in office or the two who resigned. (Yes, these numbers include George Clinton and John C. Calhoun, who theoretically could have been elected president before serving a second vice presidential term with a new president. But being passed over for James Madison and Andrew Jackson respectively is hardly a disgrace.) Of the remaining 29 vice presidents, 12 (including Biden) were effectively blocked because a president of their party with whom they served sought another term.

Of the 17 other sitting vice presidents, eight were chosen as a national presidential candidate and four were elected. So once the denominator is reduced by eliminating those sitting VPs who essentially could not have succeeded their predecessor by election, some 47% of America’s sitting vice presidents have been nominated for the presidency (8/17), and 24% of the eligible pool were elected (4/17). Of the nine others, some, like Dick Cheney, credibly disclaimed any presidential ambition.

Though the modern era would seem to be less hospitable to sitting vice presidents than some earlier eras, Goldstein writes that this isn’t so: “since 1953, each of the four sitting vice presidents who sought the presidency following the retirement of the incumbent (Nixon, Hubert H. Humphrey, George H.W. Bush and Al Gore) won the nomination and were either elected (Bush) or ran dead-even races for president against formidable opponents.”

Additionally, he writes, we tend to use arguments against the vice president that we don’t against others. We like to say, for example, that Americans are more likely to elect a governor as president. But we don’t talk about all the governors who don’t become president, or the odds that the successful governor-turned-president had to overcome.

I don’t intend to argue with Goldstein’s numbers. But I would say that one aspect of this that directly affects Biden’s chances has to do with the popularity and perceived success of the administration in which the veep serves. Look at the vice presidents Goldstein mentions. Nixon served Eisenhower, who left office (via Gallup) with a 59 percent approval rating. George H.W. Bush served Reagan, who left office with a 63 percent approval rating. Gore served Bill Clinton, who left office at 66 percent approval. Humphrey served Lyndon Johnson, who left with 49 percent approval.

We don’t know where Barack Obama will fall on that list. But he’s struggling now, and this is of particular concern for Biden because his likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, has already left the administration and can thus, in classic Clinton form, ditch unpopular policies and pretend to have had strong strategic instincts from the beginning. Biden cannot.

For example, Biden announced the administration’s “reset” with Russia, which turned out to be an appalling fiasco. But Clinton, as the nation’s chief diplomat, took high-profile stewardship of the reset. The disastrous policy still follows Biden around, as he must survey the wreckage of his administration’s failures and try to contain the damage. Clinton mocked Mitt Romney’s contention about Russia’s geopolitical threat to America, but now, freed from the administration, she can simply pretend she isn’t totally and catastrophically naïve about Russia:

Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has urged Canada to forge a unified front with its U.S. neighbour to counter what she portrayed as heightened aggression by Russia in the Arctic.

Speaking to a sold-out crowd in Montreal on Tuesday night, the former first lady and possible future presidential candidate used her podium to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions not just in Ukraine, but closer to Canada’s borders.

Putin is coming for you, Canada! This comes on the heels of Clinton’s comparison of Putin to Hitler. Such verbal gymnastics are not so easy for Biden, who is still serving in this administration and therefore can’t rewrite his own history the way Clinton can. Which makes him much more likely to go down with the ship, as Clinton and her life raft float off in the distance.

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