Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Time to step it up

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I would like to be debating policy issues that are close to my heart, like reforming the tax system, increasing competition in education, and yes, addressing claims of human-induced climate change.  Unfortunately, the recent events in Paris have reshuffled my sense of priorities.  When someone is trying to kill you, it gets your attention.

That is, of course, unless you are President Obama.  Like the hysterical protesters on college campuses from coast to coast, our professor-in-chief senses danger in the principles and practices of our free society, but he remains nonchalant about the clear and present threats of Islamic terror.  Because the president is afraid of offending Muslims who disavow violence, he continues to drone on about Islam-inspired violence being unrelated to Islam.  Democratic officials and candidates likewise go to great politically correct pains to avoid using the words “Islam” and “terror” in the same sentence.

It is awkward enough to hear an American political leader offering opinions about the meaning of a religion to which he claims no personal connection.  But even if President Obama were an authority on Islamic teachings, the alleged distortion of Islam by terrorists is besides the point.  Of course there are millions of Muslims who reject terrorism and despise ISIS and who can justify their opposition with bona fide Islamic principles.  Many are oriented to Western liberties and are counted among our most loyal citizens.

But millions more are absolutely, positively not aligned with the American way of thinking.  They reject our liberal society as a wellspring of corruption.  And they base their attitudes, like it or not, on the religion and culture of Islamic societies.  For this reason, Obama warned us of exercising our constitutional (dare I say, God-given?) rights to freely criticize Islam and its sacred prohibitions.  Why else but for fear that practitioners of Islam would not tolerate our free speech and would be provoked into acts of violence?

Witness Secretary of State Kerry’s recent gaffe acknowledging justification — er, rationale — for the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  The left will bend over backwards to accommodate the illiberal mentality of our Islamist enemies, but it will take Americans to task for defending our fundamental liberties.  All one has to do is look at the rising tide of commentators linking last week’s attack at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs to opponents of abortion.  No, it was not an unrelated “violent extremist” at fault for the senseless murders.  It was the “inflammatory rhetoric” of the pro-life Republicans that set events in motion.

Why does it matter that we define our enemies by the Islamist ideology which motivates them?  It is not to appeal to base prejudices among our citizenry.  It is not to create a clash between Muslims and the West.   To the contrary, as Gov. Chris Christie explained last week to the Council on Foreign Relations, “if you say that you’re going to war with radical Islamic terrorism, then by definition you’re not going to war with the rest of Islam… Confusion is only created by the use of euphemisms.”

We must define the enemy correctly to enable a debate about the strategy most likely to succeed in bringing this global menace to its knees.

Like Churchill who foresaw the perils of appeasing Hitler, we must be willing to take our enemies at their word.  When they say they want to kill us, they mean it.  And like Hollywood’s nefarious Terminator, ISIS can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with.  It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

Faced with such an enemy in Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the Allies of World War II waged an unrelenting battle on multiple fronts.  We must do the same, using strategies and technologies which are suited for our generation.

While that does not mean we can defeat the enemy with military might alone, air strikes and infantry are essential for success.  We must unhinge rules of engagement that limit the force and breadth of our firepower.  Likewise, we must crush the spirit of ISIS with propaganda that humiliates them.  For every tweet glorifying terror, we need to respond 100-fold with words and images that expose the emptiness of jihadist rhetoric, shining a light on the daily misery and deprivation experienced by the foot soldiers of ISIS.

There are complexities to the multi-pronged conflict in Syria.  The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend.  But we must not let the complications of future governance prevent us from acting decisively today.  Anything else is better than ISIS.

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Obama negotiates against himself

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Recent developments in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have shined bright light on the weakness of President Obama’s strategy.

Genuinely or not, Iran has disavowed the most critical provision cited by the president and his minions in their defense of the framework agreement. In an official statement, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei insisted that Iran would honor no agreement which failed to remove economic sanctions immediately. Then on Twitter he underscored the issue, declaring “all sanctions should be removed just when the deal is reached.”

Gradual relief upon proof of compliance had been a primary selling point to Western audiences. Critics had worried that Iran would feign compliance to earn sanctions relief, not that it could obtain relief with mere promises. Now it seems the bad deal is even worse than advertised.

On April 7 in The Wall Street Journal, former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz took the administration to task for its shortsightedness. Pushing back on their thoughtful analysis, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf complained she “didn’t hear a lot of alternatives of what they would do differently.”

This retort was non-substantive and essentially false. The statesmen had meticulously advocated for a more coherent regional strategy, including a firmer line against the Iranian regime.

Beyond Harf’s petulance, though, it is worth noting that you don’t hear anyone on the Iranian side talking about the lack of alternatives. Unlike our hapless American president, the Iranians drive a hard bargain because they choose not to negotiate against themselves.

Call it “good cop/bad cop” or “Negotiation 101,” but it is just common sense to posit an alternative which your adversary fears, not one that you and your allies wish to avoid.

President Obama is so fearful of losing a deal that he is fighting to disarm the very people who could give him the most leverage: his skeptics in the U.S. Congress. If he were to embrace Congressional oversight, he could actually use it as a battering ram to gain concessions at the bargaining table.

Imagine a counterfactual, but plausible scenario:

– [Iranian negotiator Mohammad Javad] Zarif: We cannot allow inspections of our military sites.

– Kerry: I understand the sensitivity, but I won’t be able to sell a deal back home without it.

– Zarif: We have our own political constraints.

– Kerry: With all due respect, my boss is no “supreme leader.” He cannot impose an agreement against the wishes of our people’s representatives. You’ve got more flexibility. Now do you want this deal or don’t you?

Instead of this exchange, we have the charade of President Obama trying to explain to us that Khamenei does not mean what he says. “Even a guy with the title ‘Supreme Leader’ has to be concerned about his own constituencies,” Obama told reporters on April 11 at the Americas summit in Panama.

If anyone has his own constituents to placate, it is the popularly elected leader of a democratic republic, and yet Obama seems to think the principle does not apply to himself.  Until lawmakers substantially watered it down, he threatened to veto pending bipartisan legislation which imposes Congressional review on the prospective deal.

When one side argues that a better deal is not possible, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Negotiation of a better deal in fact becomes impossible because the other side feels no incentive to compromise.

We have heard this record played before, also when Israel’s vital interests hung in the balance. In his first term, Obama broke with his predecessors by publicly demanding a total freeze of Jewish construction beyond pre-1967 borders — and then declaring those borders the starting point for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. While a final peace deal would certainly use these borders as a guidepost, the president undermined any leverage Israel had to preserve its claims beyond the Green Line.

Of course, Abu Mazen was not going to take a less aggressive position than his American interlocutor. And when Prime Minister Netanyahu predictably objected, talks with the Palestinians hit a stalemate from which there has been no meaningful reprieve — even with the concentrated attention of Secretary of State Kerry over the past two years.

Why would the Iranians behave any different from the Palestinians? Obama has given Iran the opening it needs to preserve its nuclear weapons program or, short of that, to undermine the coordinated effort which has until now hemmed it in.

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Why Obama won’t (or can’t) protect us

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What is President Obama thinking?

Both supporters and detractors of the president struggle to rationalize his approach to the threat of global jihad. Why can’t he call it what it is? Why does he discount the religious underpinnings of Islamist terror? Why does he lecture the American people about the “root causes” of “violent extremism?”

The answers matter because the West is losing ground in this battle. While the U.S. government fails to orchestrate — or even articulate — a coherent strategy to combat the followers of radical Islam, their population, political power, and capacity to harm us surge.

The simplistic explanation is that President Obama, like President Bush before him, fears alienating the millions of Muslims who forswear violence. He uses politically correct language to avoid adding fuel to the fire. Were this the only rationale, we might take comfort that he understands the crux of the problem. We might assume he is choosing his language as a calculated tactic.

Obama’s choice of language is more than rhetoric, however. He really seems to believe what he is saying. And initially, at least, we might have attributed such naiveté to his personal history. After all, the president can claim little “real-world” experience outside of politics. A community organizer and college professor before entering public life, he never had to manage a large organization or meet a payroll, let alone address matters of national security.

The record reflects as much. Since he came into office, Obama has presided over geopolitical disasters across the Middle East and elsewhere around the globe. Yet none of these failures appears to have chastened him. Surrounding himself with loyalists, the president presses on with a doctrine of vague declarations and non-intervention, unbothered by the diminished credibility of America among both allies and adversaries. So something deeper must be at play in the president’s political philosophy.

It comes down to ideology. Barack Obama is a product of the progressive movement and its champions in liberal academia. This community embraces a rigid view of the human condition, where race, wealth, and power engender social divisions and perpetuate oppression of the weak. In its paradigm, most conflict, poverty, and social dislocation result from avaricious capitalist and corporate interests. Only enlightened governments and intergovernmental institutions can restrain these interests and rectify the imbalance.

There’s no room in the progressive model for baser pathologies such as tribal enmity or the medieval barbarism of the Islamic State. Progressive thinkers simply deny or overlook historic events and present-day behaviors which fail to align with the patterns of race and class warfare they deem universal. For this reason, activists in the 1980’s raged over the racial injustice of Apartheid South Africa while completely ignoring the vicious brutality of the African National Congress and of black-ruled regimes in neighboring Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Angola. It’s why the supposedly liberal advocates for Palestinian independence today pay no mind to the illiberal treatment of journalists, Christians, women, and gays in the Palestinian territories.

Viewed in this light, it’s not surprising to hear President Obama and his team focus on the economic deprivation across Muslim societies, as if a jobs program would stem the tide of radical Islam. President Obama may not “blame America first” as his most ardent critics assert, but he eschews the notion of American exceptionalism. At the National Prayer Breakfast last month, he admonished Americans and Christians, “lest we get on our high horse… remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” As far as he is concerned, the moral deficiencies of Muslim and Arab societies are not materially different from the imperfections of Western societies.

If we are all one imperfect world laboring under universal burdens of sin, then of course there is no point in singling out radical Islam. To combat our enemies, we must combat ourselves and do penance for our own failures. In Obama’s warped alternative reality, NATO defense of Eastern Europe is the source of resurgent Russian aggression, global warming is the most urgent threat to humanity, high unemployment in French suburbs is the “root cause” of anti-Semitic rampages, and Jewish settlements in the West Bank are the obstacle to Middle East peace.

President Obama never truly concealed this radical mindset during his pursuit of the White House. He was mentored by the likes of Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright. Their ideas were on clear display for anyone who chose to look closely. With two years left on the president’s term and critical military and security policies still in flux, the public should wisen up to a fearful reality. The man charged with leadership of the free world is not equipped to address the clear and present dangers to our civilization.

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Obama can’t be trusted on Iran

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Leaders in Washington are grappling with what is arguably the most important foreign policy challenge of our time — how to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Why are the stakes so high?  For one, Iran is a troublemaker.  As a geopolitical strategy to spread its brand of theocratic domination, it is actively destabilizing countries and sponsoring terror.  Its forces and proxies have caused havoc across the Middle East and murdered civilians on every continent.  Its weapons have killed our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In 2011 Iranian agents even tried to commit violence in our nation’s capital.  Lacking a nuclear capacity today, the Islamic Republic largely goes unchecked.  With a bomb to back it up, the rogue behavior would only get worse.

To be sure, Israel has got a problem with this picture.  Not only does Iran funnel arms and resources to Hezbollah and Hamas, but its leadership threatens the Jewish state directly with annihilation (on Twitter no less).  What’s even scarier is the likely reaction of the Arab world to Iranian nuclearization.  To counter Iran, Sunni rivals from North Africa to the Persian Gulf would quickly embark on weapons programs of their own.  Proliferation would explode in the world’s most volatile region, raising the likelihood of nuclear warfare.

Negotiations are underway to reverse course.  Every sensible American hopes that diplomacy can succeed and obviate the need for military action to combat the threat.  Critics may be skeptical of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s motivations, but few could argue he prefers a military solution.  Israel is on the front lines. Whether or not it were to lead a military strike, Israel would surely bear the brunt of an Iranian response.  For the same reasons, Israel has more skin in the game.  It has the most to lose in this poker match.  It can only support a negotiated agreement that genuinely reduces the risk of a nuclear Iran.

Herein lies the source of the political drama playing out in Washington this week.  Because Israel does not have a seat at the table, it is relying on the so-called “P5+1” to negotiate a “good deal.”   Netanyahu ruffled White House feathers by accepting the Republican-led invitation to speak to a joint session of Congress.  He spoke passionately to a receptive audience because neither he nor the majority of our lawmakers trust the administration to get it right.  Pundits have mistakenly focused on the personal tensions between Obama and Netanyahu, with many blaming the prime minister for inserting partisanship into the alliance.  In reality, relations would not be so strained had this administration not lost the confidence of our allies around the globe.  Israel is struggling to work with this president because this president’s word does not count when it matters most.

Obama and his defenders protest that it is Netanyahu who has lost credibility.  They cite the prime minister’s resistance to the interim “Joint Plan of Action,” without which there would be no brakes on Iranian enrichment activities.  They bristle at Netanyahu’s criticisms because they think he has offered no viable alternative to military action.  They hasten to remind everyone how much the administration has provided security assistance and defense of Israel against biased U.N. resolutions.

These objections might hold some water if we could believe the administration knew what it was doing, would stand firm when the going got tough, and would not substitute wishful thinking for sound strategic assessment.

But on all these counts Obama fails to deliver.  I’ve written before how the White House is flailing in matters of national security.  Obama sees the world as he wishes it would be rather than how it is.  His commitments he subordinates to his political calculations and his aspirations for a legacy as the president who ended wars and avoided new conflicts.

On Monday night, National Security Advisor Susan Rice addressed 16,000 delegates at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington.  “We have Israel’s back,” she declared, “come hell or high water.”  About Iran she added, “a bad deal is worse than no deal.  And if that is the choice then there will be no deal.”  These are comforting sentiments, but it’s far from clear that anyone with a sober understanding of Iranian aggression and deception would share the administration’s view of a good deal.  And, while Ambassador Rice speaks with sincerity, it’s hard to trust that her boss won’t yet again hang her out to dry.  You only have to consider her comments about the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi and the “honor and distinction” of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to realize how little we can trust her representations.

On Friday Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN), together with eleven bipartisan co-sponsors, introduced the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015, which asserts Congressional prerogatives to review any prospective agreement with Iran over its nuclear program.  President Obama objects.  Apparently, even he doesn’t trust his capacity to deliver.  His threat to veto the bill tells you everything you need to know about the value of this deal.

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Dealing with el Diablo

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President Obama’s decision in December to restore diplomatic and eventually trade relations with Cuba has generated some unlikely alliances.

A few pragmatic-minded Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), agree that the 50-year-old trade embargo has accomplished very little.  Certainly, it hasn’t led to a meaningful change for the better, let alone the ouster of the Castro regime.

At the same time, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has joined the majority of the Republican caucus in opposition to the president’s policy change, calling it a capitulation.  Even the Washington Post editorial board, hardly a regular critic of this administration, expressed its misgivings yesterday.  The island nation only 90 miles from our shores is no doubt a repressive state.  The Cuban government denies its people virtually every liberty we hold dear, arresting political dissidents and housing them in ghastly prisons, crushing independent media, and restricting movement and assembly of journalists and activists (among other egregious offenses).

But are human rights violations cause for economic retribution?  If so, it seems that not all violators are created equal.  What about the abuses in China?  In Vietnam?  In Saudi Arabia?  In Turkey?  According to Freedom House‘s accounting of political and civil liberties, some of our closer commercial and strategic partners rank near the bottom of the list.

Let’s face it.  If repressive governance disqualified a country from doing business with the U.S., we would be doing a lot less business in foreign markets.  Certainly there has to be something more than concern for human rights behind our persistent impasse with Cuba.

What about the country’s bad behavior beyond its borders?  For decades the Castro brothers have been notorious troublemakers from South America to Africa.  Then again, they don’t stand alone on this count either.  Despite a decade of destabilizing foreign intrigue by Hugo Chavez and his successor in Caracas, we continue to maintain full diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and U.S. trade with the nation totaled $64 billion in 2012.

In practice, every conflict is different.  Effective policy requires a lens of realism.  Sanctions against Apartheid South Africa were justified in retrospect because the leadership of the country wanted to reverse its international isolation.  And for better or for worse, our current sanctions regime against Iran does seem to have brought the ayatollahs to the nuclear arms bargaining table.  In contrast, Kim Jong-un cares little about North Korea’s seclusion and the economic deprivations of his people.  We should not be surprised when our threats and bribes do little to bring Pyongyang into compliance with the most rudimentary norms of international behavior.

So while it may not comport very well with lofty political rhetoric, it appears that U.S. economic pressure is really just a tactical instrument, to be deployed when it helps, and discarded when it doesn’t.

What’s needed today is a bit more candor and clarity about our positions and policies.  We should not mince words when it comes to critiquing behavior which undermines liberty or America’s vital strategic interests.  It does not follow, however, that we need a uniform strategy to contain it.

The question we should be asking about Cuba is not whether the regime is bad — it is.  And it’s not whether 50 years of embargo has worked — it hasn’t.  Instead we should be looking forward with an honest analysis of our options.  Will continued isolation of Cuba perpetuate the problems or will it finally precipitate a tipping point for change?

There are well-reasoned arguments on both sides, but neither seems to acknowledge the other.  It would be refreshing to hear President Obama disparage the Castro mystique that persists among his base of support.  It would also be more convincing to hear Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) critique the shortcomings of the Cuba embargo, even as he advocates keeping it in place.  On balance, we should take steps to normalize, but at a measured pace and with a close eye for proof that it’s making things better.

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