It began with the red line
When you want to understand how we got from “ending” wars to debating whether we can avoid “boots on the ground” in a new one, you will find no more significant event than President Obama’s decision not to bomb Syria after Bashar al-Assad repeatedly used chemical weapons. That decision — and our foot-dragging in sending meaningful lethal aid to the Free Syrian Army — allowed Assad to escape any real consequences for his actions, to solidify his position, to demoralize the FSA and to give the Islamic State another year to grow and take root in Syria. It is not a bad test of foreign policy sanity to ask a candidate or official: Was the about-face on Syria and our delay in aiding the FSA a key factor in the current mess we face?
And as critics of the president’s cave on WMDs anticipated, we didn’t even get all of Assad’s chemical weapons. The Jerusalem Post reports:
Israel believes Syria has retained caches of combat-ready chemical weapons after giving up raw materials used to produce such munitions under pressure from foreign powers, a senior Israeli official said on Thursday.
It would be interesting to ask the White House if our intelligence community agrees. The Israelis say they have a “high degree” of certainty about their conclusion.
The impact of the president’s decision not to enforce the red line was felt in Syria, in Iraq (where the Islamic State ventured and decimated the Iraqi army) and in Tehran. Iran’s supreme leader rightly or wrongly took this as a sign of lack of seriousness and nerve. It is no wonder he is growing more intransigent and more bellicose.
The Los Angeles Times reports that “in recent months, signs suggest the staunchly anti-Western [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei is directly managing the negotiations. He appears determined to sharply increase the country’s uranium enrichment capability in seven years, and not roll it back, as the West demands. [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani, who has lost a series of domestic political battles to conservatives, has taken a harder line on the nuclear talks. In a news conference two weeks ago, he expressed doubt that the U.S. has enough ‘goodwill’ to negotiate an end to the standoff.”
Our “moderate” upstaged and now indistinguishable from the “hardliners” — just like that! Perhaps he was never a moderate to begin with, and perhaps he was never really in charge.
Naturally, the supreme leader is even worse. (“In recent comments, Khamenei portrayed the U.S. as beset by crises, including the standoff with Russia over Ukraine and the conflict with Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. He may view American efforts to solicit Iran’s cooperation, at least on nonmilitary matters, in the fight against the militants as a sign of weakness.”) Just this week he taunted the president, holding up the red line and angst over the Islamic State as evidence Obama is no threat to Iran.
Imagine what a different impression Obama would have left if he had aided the FSA from the beginning, used air power both to protect rebels and to knock out Assad’s air capabilities and meanwhile left a stay-behind force of 5,000 to 10,000 in Iraq and kept tabs on the Iraqi prime minister, pressuring him to act like a head of state and not a sectarian leader. We very well could have brought the Syrian civil war to an end, nipped the Islamic State’s growth (in part by helping to prevent failed states that now harbor the jihadists) and sent a powerful message to Iran.
There is no way of telling how an alternate version of history would have played out, to be sure. The law of unintended consequences guarantees no action will be problem-free. But at least we would not have the current state of affairs: Neither the FSA nor Sunni allies in the region trust us. Iran doesn’t believe we have the determination to stop their ambitions. Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon and has advanced on its delivery system while obtaining some economic relief from sanctions. Iraq is fragmented. About 200,000 people have died in Syria, with millions turned into refugees. Assad remains in power AND the Islamic State is securing a state of its own. Obama’s policies have brought about the worst of all worlds, which is appropriate given that he is the worst commander in chief in our nation’s history. And he could have been oh so much better had he not crumbled at an inflection point in Middle East history.
Disunity among Democrats
Backstabbing. Leaks. Catty e-mails. A GOP House conference? No, the GOP is doing fairly well these days. They passed a bill to fund the government and train Syrian Free Army troops. They are in sync on immigration (border security first, oppose executive unilateralism). The party is returning to its internationalist roots. RealClearPolitics reports: “The Democratic Party is now viewed less favorably than at almost any point in the last 20 years, according to a new Gallup survey. Meanwhile, the GOP’s favorability has fully recovered since plummeting during last year’s government shutdown.” The stats are impressive:
The Republicans are viewed favorably by 40 percent of Americans, and 57 percent view them unfavorably; 42 percent of Americans give the Democratic Party a positive rating, with 54 percent viewing them negatively. Given that Democrats have historically performed better in favorability ratings, the poll should provide some solace for Republicans. Democrats are virtually tied with their lowest favorability rating (41 percent in March 2010), while Republicans show a double-digit improvement over their lowest score.
Maybe keeping the government running and taking a strong stance on national security are popular? Go figure.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has turned into Peyton Place. The party insiders have discovered — or, more accurately, are willing to admit — that DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is a disaster. So they do what political mice do — nibble away at her from the shadows. Actually, she’s been messing up and drawing criticism for a very long time. What is different now is that the party needs a scapegoat for the upcoming midterms.
Then —oh my! — we find out that lefties are whispering behind Hillary Clinton’s
throne back. The Hill reports: “Emails sent by liberal activists and obtained by The Hill reveal significant dissatisfaction with Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. The critical messages about the former first lady show that she has a long way to go to assuage skepticism from influential voices on the left.” The report continues, “Clinton’s too much of a hawk, too cozy with Wall Street, hasn’t spoken out enough on climate change, and will be subject to personal questions and criticisms, members of the group stated in the emails.” (In other “news” Clinton is ambitious, opportunistic and had a rough time at Foggy Bottom.) I mean who would have thought that she is seen as “too much of a hawk, too cozy with Wall Street, hasn’t spoken out enough on climate change, and will be subject to personal questions and criticisms”?
A brief digression: If the targets of back-biting were Republican women I have little doubt that the media would hop on the “war on women” bandwagon. Really, why is poor Wasserman Shultz taking blame when the male president is responsible for the party’s bad fortunes? And how much of these “personal questions” about Clinton have to do with her age — a sign of sexism in a world in which men grow distinguished and women grow old? (If you think this is pure silliness, you know how Republicans feel when accused of misogyny.)
Anyway, the reports are interesting in a few respects. First, neither is a new phenomenon, but now year-in-the-making grievances are being leaked and the press is gobbling up the feuding. Second, feuding is minimized when the team is winning. It’s not and it’s facing some daunting losses (how many we don’t know). It isn’t surprising then that the thin veneer of unity washes away. Third, the party’s travails really are the doing of a failing president (and a Senate majority leader who chose to protect him rather than his own members). How long before the feuding, gossiping, and backbiting about the president and his ham-handed administration see daylight? Fourth, the problem isn’t of course Wasserman Shultz or even widely known flaws in the party’s pre-ordained presidential nominee. The nub of the problem is the party has proved to be incompetent at governance and bereft of new ideas. That’s a really big problem, so better to haggle over personalities.
For Democrats, it is now all about self-preservation and attacking others (usually Republican, sometimes one another.) There is no shortage of small stuff to squabble about, but what the Democratic Party needs to do is have the same soul-searching and serious policy debate that the GOP has gone through and is still doing. The GOP has rediscovered that when they aren’t acting out they can advance serious and fresh ideas. Some smart people in and out of government are coming up with an agenda that is both good policy and, they hope, good politics. Losing does that for you — it forces one to take stock and engage in some overdue repairs and renewal. After November, the Democrats may have just such an opportunity.
Paul Ryan inspires
On Wednesday night, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered a talk at the American Friends of the Hebrew University (AFHU) Torch of Learning Award dinner. AFHU is a charitable, non-political organization, and the remarks were distinctly nonpartisan. Leaving the world of partisan politics, however, allowed Ryan to aim for something higher, and he succeeded, giving by far the most interesting and inspirational speech of his public career. The address is worth reading in full to appreciate the speechcraft and savor some of the poetic language. For example:
In both the Christian and the Jewish traditions, there’s a common thread running through them. And that’s the belief in human dignity. It’s the recognition that people aren’t just another factor of production—they aren’t just another means to an end. They are the end. They and their happiness are the center, the focus, the very purpose of our lives. And everything we do—every law we pass, every transaction we make—should enhance human dignity.
Ryan’s message was simple — but not simplistic: “Far too often we look at public policy as an eternal tug of war between government and the market. But laws and markets are tools. We use them for our own purposes. They don’t have to pull in the opposite direction. In fact, they can pull in the same direction. Our job, then, is to make government and the market work together to enhance human dignity.”
The bulk of Ryan’s speech was geared toward explaining how individual dignity, hope and opportunity are best fostered in the relationships between mentors and troubled youths, reformed gang members and students at risk, and the thousands of other settings in which Americans can help Americans avoid or emerge from a life of crime, poverty and isolation. (“And there’s something more at work here — something less obvious, but no less important. These young men and women aren’t just providing a ‘service.’ They’re setting an example. They’re showing their community — and their country — that anyone can be redeemed.”)
Moreover, Ryan is making a point too often ignored or denigrated by conservatives: There is a role for government. The role, however, needs to be supportive, not disruptive of the programs and relationships that do the best work in helping fellow Americans. At the federal level it needs to be to support, coordinate and hold accountable those who are doing the hard day-to-day work, be it local or state government, faith-based organizations, secular charities or private foundations.
I was reminded of Bill Gates, who in a recent appearance explained:
Charity is small. I mean, the private sector’s like 90 percent, and government’s like 9 percent, and philanthropy is less than 1 percent. There are things in terms of trying out social programs in innovative ways that government is — just because of the way the job incentives work — they’re not going to try out new designs like philanthropy can and they’re not going to have volunteer hours coming in to leverage the resources like philanthropy can. So philanthropy plays a unique role. It is not a substitute for government at all. When you want to give every child in America a good education or make sure they’re not starving, that’s got to be government because philanthropy isn’t there day in and day out serving the entire population. It’s just not of the scale or the design to do that. It’s there to try out things, including funding disease research or, you know, academic studies to see if something is more effective.
In Gates’s view, there is a “market failure” in funding of basic research, a gap government must often fill. Government operates on a scale and has resources that the private sector simply does not have. (In the greatest outpouring of charitable giving, private groups raised about $3.2 billion for Katrina rebuilding. Public assistance as of 2010 was $142 billion.) That said, when it comes to innovation, experimentation and implementation, mammoth government bureaucracy comes up short (“most innovation is driven by private enterprise — the magic of the chip, the optic fiber, software, the magic of new drugs, new vaccines, all of that stuff — how you come up with it, how you make it safe, that’s happening in private enterprise”).
The message from Ryan and Gates is profoundly true and also politically constructive: Conservatives should not obsess over cutting federal monies to the poor. (This is a sliver of our budgetary problems.) Liberals should not defend the status quo and government programs that don’t work. Then we can get down to the business of figuring out what the private sector, the charitable sector and the government each do best. Then each can gravitate to its highest, best use. That was the essence of the Ryan anti-poverty program he rolled out over the summer and the reason it was so widely praised.
A final word about Ryan and his address. His remarks exemplify conservatism at its best — aware of the inherent limits and dangers posed by government overreach, but protective of civil society and committed to furtherance of human dignity. It is entirely at odds with the strain of anti-government libertarianism that views government (not terrorists or poverty or social decay) as the greatest threat to civilization as we know it. Both the implications of their philosophy (you’re on your own!) and the tone of those imbued with a zeal for dismantling government (going back to a 1792-sized model, for example) come off as mean-spirited. Perhaps that is why so few Americans subscribe to it.
Americans are a good and just people — but we sometimes have to be reminded of it and be inspired to rise above the fray to be our own, best selves. If that was the goal of his remarks, Ryan hit the bull’s-eye. And, yes, in doing so he revealed himself to not just be an important thinker but a insightful, kind and faithful person.
‘Standing up and leading’
Mike Huckabee is right: It is better to have an experienced executive than an amateur whose principle contribution is rhetoric. President Obama surely proved the latter is a disaster. It’s not surprising a similarly situated junior senator with less than two years under his belt and minimal executive experience would take offense, but Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) sets out an interesting alternative presidential standard. He wants the GOP to nominate someone “who is standing up and leading, whoever is making the case that the path that we’re on is not working, that the Obama economic agenda is a disaster that is hurting millions of Americans, that the Obama-Clinton foreign policy has produced wreckage on a global scale, and there is a better path.”
That in turn raises an interesting question: What is “standing up and leading”? Many Republicans don’t think it is shutting down the government with no end game. Many don’t think it is taking the politically safe course for an ambitious conservative in voting no on every budget, every continuing resolution and every authorization for use of force. Generally, “standing up and leading” entails some risk or some courage, not taking the stance most popular with the most extreme elements of the base.
The problem many voters have with senators — and not just freshmen and not just Cruz — is that they stand up a lot but they don’t lead. They talk. They protest. They hammer witnesses. But the average American envisions leadership as a productive, goal-oriented endeavor. They want someone to be leading to something better, not simply repeating the most angry criticism of the president, no matter how well deserved.
Leading, for example, would be highlighting a failing national security policy, regardless of the polls, and recommending a concrete alternative. I refer, for example, to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who insisted the war strategy in Iraq was failing, went up against his party, and lost his party’s nomination but helped propel the successful surge.
Leading would also entail recognizing when a war being lost, going around failing commanders, devising an alternative, risking and losing a midterm election and suffering a precipitous dive in the polls to avoid a devastating defeat for America and bloody sectarian warfare. That would be George W. Bush, of course.
Leadership would be not merely critiquing Obamacare for the zillionth time but offering specific alternatives. I refer to Republican Representatives Paul Ryan (Wis.) and Tom Price (Ga.) and GOP Senators Tom Coburn (Okla.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Richard Burr (N.C.) who have all presented detailed alternatives to Obamacare.
Leading would be formulating budgets with specific programs, putting forth reforms and implementing conservative principles. GOP governors like Mike Pence (Ind.), Bobby Jindal (La.), Rick Perry, John Kasich (Ohio), Scott Walker (Wis.) and Chris Christie (N.J.) have done that. Leading in that context requires haggling, horsetrading, talking tough to the other guys and knowing when to tell your own guys to make a deal. In other words, the exact opposite of what Obama did in 2011 when he kicked away a grand bargain on the budget. One sign of leaders is that they tend not to be loners who annoy, aggravate and blame others.
Leading would be setting out a vision of immigration reform that insists on border security but also deals realistically with the broken immigration system and those here illegally. That would be “standing up” to the mob and its flurry of misinformation and distasteful utterances on immigrants. I refer to Jeb Bush, Rick Perry, senators who voted for the immigration bill, and Paul Ryan. (Finding an excuse not to vote for immigration reform would be the opposite of leadership.)
So if “standing up and leading” is understood in this context, I agree with Cruz’s proposed standard. But it is folly to say “a governor or a senator or a candlestick maker” could be president since, again thanks to the president, we understand that leadership is a skill, honed by practice, accompanied by sound judgment and necessitating good people skills. Unless the candlestick maker has led a big organization and made tough, consequential calls you’d be taking a monstrous risk in putting him in the White House.
The difference between leading and, say, grandstanding, is that leading successfully has beneficial consequences, forges agreement, solves problems, and raises the level of discussion. Grandstanding often entails setting up public confrontations, fighting for the sake of fighting, elevating oneself at the expense of others, and being rude and ungracious.
So, yes, let’s find a leader, not a grandstander. We should seek out a person of character, experience and real courage — the kind that involves sometimes disappointing your own side or risking popularity. Best of all, let’s find someone who has accomplished something important that benefits others. That’s why the first question I’d ask a presidential contender is: What have you done that made America better? If it’s impressive, we will know he or she is a leader.
Don’t forget about Iran
Understandably, attention in the national security arena has been focused on the Islamic State. However, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said to me yesterday, “ISIL is important but getting the Iran nuclear deal wrong is a disaster.”
Concern is rampant in Congress, in Sunni states and Israel and throughout the U.S. foreign policy community that when the extended deadline for reaching a final deal rolls around, the president will either extend the deadline again or make a bad deal. Judging from their public declarations of bravado the Iranians may feel there is no reason to strike any deal. Graham notes, “If the Iranians believe there will be no military force [from the US] they will keep going.” Obama’s conduct elsewhere has only increased Iranian “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani’s contempt for the U.S (“Are Americans afraid of getting casualties on the ground in Iraq?” Rouhani said to NBC. “Are they afraid of their soldiers being killed in the fight they claim is against terrorism? . . . . Is it possible to reach a big goal without that? In all regional and international issues, the victorious one is the one who is ready to do sacrifice.” Give the devil his due; he’s right.)
In the case of another extension, Iran would continue its advanced research on centrifuges, low-grade enrichment (which can easily be increased), its ballistic missile program and slides into its status as a nuclear threshold state. The world loses interest.
But Obama is so desperate for a foreign policy “win” that he may be ready to give Iran nearly everything the mullahs want. Given that in the interim deal Obama already provided Iran with sanctions relief for no irreversible change in Iran’s nuclear program, implicitly recognized a right to enrich and held out the prospect for a sunset clause when Iran could one day be free from any limitations or inspections, there is good reason to suspect he’ll try his best to strike another deal. Only this time it will be a permanent one, and undoubtedly advantageous to Iran.
Is it possible to put a halt to this dangerous appeasement? As long as Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is majority leader, no vote will be conducted on sanctions in the Senate or anything else Iran-related. Graham says, “The only check and balance is to [force the White House] come to Congress for an up or down vote on a deal.” No Democrat seems interested in preventing a disastrous bargain — but perhaps after the election results are in they will join in a bipartisan effort to prevent a North Korea-type deal. If they choose instead to give Obama a blank check, they risk being handmaidens to a foreign to a foreign policy debacle, a Middle East nuclear arms race and the repudiation of bipartisan policy determined to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program.
It’s true sanctions are one tool we have to pressure Iran, but the backstop has always been the threat of military action. Nevertheless, the president doesn’t even bothering mentioning it these days. And if he did who would believe him? The Israelis are a different matter. Graham remarks, ““Unlike North Korea Iran has to be concerned about Israel. If not for Israel it would be smooth sailing [to get the bomb] for the Iranians.” It would then behoove Congress to begin authorizing advanced weapons to Israel (e.g. bunker busters) and other material aid that would raise the likelihood of Israeli action. Moreover, the Sunni monarchs are so freaked out by U.S. overtures to Iran and Syria they may show some regional solidarity and commence strategic planning. (The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates did act together against Libyan jihadists, but Iran is a different matter entirely.)
In any event, as Iran talks start up again, it would be wise to watch out for diplomatic blather. Chief negotiator Wendy Sherman (who made the deal that allowed North Korea to go nuclear) recently proclaimed, “We can say on the positive side that our talks have been serious and that we have identified potential answers to some key questions. . . [But] we remain far apart on other core issues, including the size and scope of Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity.” Well, there you have it — now we are just talking about how big an illicit nuke program Iran will have. (“‘On the question of enrichment we have practically made no progress,’ a senior Western diplomat said.”) That’s what you get when the president is frantic to get a deal, shows he has no spine (like the about-face on the red line in Syria) and effectively takes military action off the table.