Category Archives: International

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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Filed under Foreign Policy, International, Terrorism

Greece can’t vote its way out

thelma-louise As Greeks head to the polls tomorrow in a national referendum to ratify (or defy) additional austerity measures demanded by international creditors, I can not escape the feeling that I am rooting for a “No” vote.

While I have argued here for a balanced approach to the Greek debt crisis, leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has been pushing his luck in a game of chicken he just cannot win.  His strategy seems to boil down to this:  back down or we will jump off a cliff… and take a few of our Mediterranean neighbors along with us!

Tsipras is campaigning for Greeks to vote down more budget cuts and other reforms that creditors insist are needed to justify the release of new bailout funds.  Somehow he calculates that the Eurozone will be swayed by the democratic will of his electorate, which he is agitating with provocative accusations of “criminal” behavior by outsiders seeking to “humiliate” the Greek nation.  What he overlooks is the increased capacity of the Eurozone to withstand economic shock waves of a Greek exit from the common currency.  That, as well as the fact that fellow member nations have to be responsive to their own restive populations, who are weary of supporting continued Greek profligacy.

Many analysts have sympathized with Greek concerns, insisting that austerity is a self-defeating policy because it further dampens demand and drives the economy into an ever deeper hole from which it will never escape.  Greeks have suffered enough, they insist.  Forgive debt and let Greece reopen its public sector spigots of spending.

While long-term debt does need to be restructured, more stimulus is unlikely to solve deep-seated issues with deficient Greek productivity.  Greek austerity measures to date have hardly reformed its public sector or labor markets.  The vast majority of job losses have come from the private sector, which has been crippled by ever-increasing tax burdens.  And what does it say to the people of the other struggling European economies, such as Portugal, Ireland, and Bulgaria?  The Portuguese and Irish bore great difficulties to weather the changes imposed as conditions to their own bailouts.  They know what it takes to right the ship, and they are among the least sympathetic to Greek pleas for leniency.

There would be no hope for fiscal discipline of any kind going forward if the Greeks could win concessions by threatening self-destruction.  So if the Greek public votes to support the defiant Greek government, it is signing its own European exit visa.

As George Will has argued, a Greek exit from the Euro might just be the medicine the Eurozone needs to scare its members straight.  Yes, it will establish a previously unthinkable precedent that European economic integration is reversible.  But maybe that is not such a big deal after all.  The economic dislocation of a “Grexit” will be most painful for the Greeks themselves.  Radical politicians elsewhere along the spendthrift Mediterranean coast will have to think twice before campaigning to follow the suicidal road paved by Greek leftists.

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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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No strength no peace

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The world is awash with troublemakers testing our resolve.  Is our president up to the challenge?

When it comes to national security policy, the administration seems adrift on so many levels.  Most alarming is President Obama’s outright disregard for real threats, chief among them the menace of Islamist terror.  He has alternately compared the jihadists to “a jayvee team,” “violent extremists,” and most recently, random urban criminals.  His unwillingness to identify — let alone combat — the scourge of radical Islam as a festering global challenge is bewildering, irresponsible, and insulting (not just to our intelligence).   Congressional leaders on the right and the left are simply exasperated.  Were it only a cynical ploy to avoid responsibility for policy failure, his dismissive attitude would be scandalous.  That he really seems to believe what he is saying is simply terrifying.

Where the White House does acknowledge a challenge, it is notoriously late to the game.  The Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the emergence of ISIS, and the unraveling of the government in Yemen — all seemed to catch the president off guard.  Advisors and spokesmen were then left scrambling to explain the government’s positions and strategy.

One instance where President Obama did try to get ahead of a global security challenge was the escalating brutality of the Assad regime in Syria.  Against the use of chemical weapons, the president famously drew a (red) line in the sand.  As we now know, when Assad called his bluff, Obama was unable or unwilling to follow through.  The rest of the world took notice, allies and foes alike.

Threats of force from this administration simply do not pass muster unless we can “lead from behind.” Or at least from the safety of a remote base piloting a drone.

Obama is so fearful of replicating the perceived overreach of his predecessor that he simply refuses to project strength.  Confession, conciliation, and concession are the standard features of the Obama doctrine (if you can call it that).  In Iraq and Afghanistan, we pre-announced our scheduled withdrawals and did little to protect the military gains for which we had sacrificed so much.  In the face of Russian intransigence — later to become belligerence — we unilaterally disarmed by unwinding commitments to place antimissile batteries in Eastern Europe.  And regarding ISIS, we take options off the table, such as “boots on the ground,” even though we lack the intelligence needed to sustain an effective campaign against the would-be totalitarian caliphate.

You don’t have to subscribe to the foreign policy principles of Senators McCain and Graham to realize how much we are dropping the ball.  Our adversaries can either ignore our demands and threats outright, or they can simply wait for them to pass and wither.  While President Obama slow-walks offers to bolster the army of Ukraine with lethal weaponry, the rest of Eastern Europe is getting anxious.  It’s only a matter of time before Vladimir Putin identifies Russian speakers elsewhere in the region who require protection from some contrived injustice.

So when it comes to negotiations with Iran, is it any wonder that leaders of Congress doubt the White House?  Why should anyone trust that diplomacy engineered by this president can keep the Iranian nuclear program in check?  Iran is at the table of under the strain of a vigorous sanctions regime.  Obama seeks to curtail further moves in this direction, threatening to veto legislation that would tighten economic pressure.

Sadly, it seems this is the only kind of threat from President Obama one can believe in.

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Strategy without deserts

“Would you send your son to go fight ISIS?”

That was the provocative question posed to me over dinner last week.  Of course, I wouldn’t be keen to send my children to fight in any war, but my dining companion wasn’t really arguing that point.  Instead he was charging that we don’t own the problems of the Middle East.  His was another flavor of the cliche that “America isn’t the world’s policeman.”

Pundits and politicians step over one another to assign blame for the world’s problems.  It does not serve our national interest.  As Peggy Noonan wrote last week, “you have to unhitch yourself from your predispositions and resentments and face what is happening now.”  Normative judgments are fine and good as a way to defend policy prescriptions, but they do not address the problems at hand.  People are rightly exasperated with President Obama’s reluctance to admit how Islamic thought is motivating today’s biggest security threats.  That said, we are not in an existential war against political correctness.  Our clear and present danger arises from a growing set of deranged actors.  The president’s primary fault is his failure to articulate a coherent strategy and lead the fight against our enemies.

Obama set off a firestorm in his homily at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, where he ostensibly likened the crimes of the medieval crusaders to those of modern day jihadists.  Without debating the historical merits or otherwise of his comments, it’s unsettling how much this president moralizes about metaphorical stone throwing instead of orchestrating a global campaign against the sadists who are literally throwing stones as he speaks.  Being action-oriented and practical minded doesn’t make you a practitioner of realpolitik.  We should lead where we can — not because we caused a problem, but because we fear the alternatives to our leadership.

When I travel in pro-Israel circles, it’s not uncommon to hear advocates recite a laundry list of transgressions by the Palestinian people and their leadership.  The Arabs have rejected compromise, fomented hatred, celebrated violence, and glorified murderous suicide.  It’s impossible to defend such behavior with a straight face.  It gives context to Israeli policies which vex the liberal conscience.  What your adversaries deserve, however, is not the foundation of a strategy to deal with them.  The most persuasive proponents of a two-state solution in Palestine are those who enumerate the practical risks of denying civil rights to an occupied population.  Palestinians need an independent state as a way to resolve Israel’s continuing security and diplomatic challenges of the conflict.  It’s not that Palestinians “earned” independence by their conduct.  Israel must stay the course of negotiations because it serves its best interests to do so.

Which brings me back to the thorny question of ISIS and its fellow travelers across the globe.  Do Americans want another military incursion in the Middle East?  Not very likely.  Do Americans want battle-hardened jihadis hitting our shores to blow up subways in New York or scatter bullets across newsrooms in Washington, DC?  Also not very likely.  We own the problem of radical Islam whether or not we share some responsibility for its incarnation.  What we need is a clear-headed strategy for countering the threat.  Let’s back up the comparatively civilized front-line fighting forces (e.g., Jordan’s army and the Kurdish Peshmerga) with arms, resources, and unhindered logistical support.  Let’s use our best diplomatic and intelligence capabilities to rally the like-minded against a metastasizing global menace.  I shudder to think of those I know and love suffering at the hands of jihadi terrorists.  Washing our hands of the problem won’t make it go away.

 

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Brother, can you spare a drachma?

A lot of hand-wringing has been going on since the Greeks elected Syriza, the leftist anti-austerity party, to lead its new government.  It seems that the Greek people, while preferring to remain in the “eurozone,” have had their fill of the the harsh medicine that public and private lenders are imposing as conditions to a liquidity lifeline.  To sum things up, Greece, the European poster child for public corruption, fiscal profligacy, and tax evasion, can’t pay its bills as they come due.  European banks and public institutions such as the IMF and ECB have continued to finance debt restructuring (including interest rate reductions and maturity extensions) in exchange for commitments to cut public spending and raise taxes.  Greeks understandably complain that the austerity measures make it even harder to generate the new revenues needed to make good on its piled up debts.  What’s an honest spendthrift nation to do?

Two schools of thought have emerged on the issue.

One side argues that everyone needs to bite the bullet and let Greece default, exit the currency union, re-denominate accounts in drachma, and let the comparatively cheap currency lubricate the economy with tourism and trade.  This point of view suggests that further bailouts simply delay the inevitable.  While a “Grexit” would cause tremendous harm to domestic savings and purchasing power — not to mention bring renewed scrutiny to other weak eurozone economies — continuing to finance Greek debt throws good money after bad.  Politically it’s untenable in Northern Europe.  Let the chips fall and get on with it, these tough-love advocates insist.

The other side cautions that politics and rhetoric need to be kept in check.  Be careful what you ask for, they seem to be saying.  Letting Greece default would reignite eurozone “contagion,” throwing the entire European project into jeopardy.  While Greece represents only a small part of the world economy, default would trigger pressure on Spain, Portugal, and Italy, among others.  Capital would flee, interest rates would soar, and there would not be enough collective resources to bail out everyone.  The export industries that have powered Germany over the past decades would lose their fuel.  Continue to shelter the ne’er-do-well Greeks to prevent a Continental melt-down.

Is it too much to ask that policymakers entertain a third way out of this mess, one that is premised on support for shared economic prosperity?  Why is it that they must choose between the moral hazard of rewarding fiscal irresponsibility and shooting themselves in the foot by bringing the house crashing down?  Yes, the Greek people need to learn to live within their means.  Yes, they need to reduce the public sector and free up labor markets.  And by and large, there has been very little genuine reform to the Greek economy.  But even if the political leadership had pushed such reform through, why should it be pressed to add punitive tax hikes?  Higher taxes simply exacerbate the evasion problem and deter whatever business investment liberal reforms would otherwise inspire.  Why not unshackle the Greek economy with dramatic reductions of tax and regulation?  Give the Greek people a reason to believe in themselves and to hope for a better future.

While we are at it, let’s not condition further liquidity support on static budget arithmetic.  Changes which liberate the private sector and spur sustainable growth will rejigger the budget calculus.  Here in the U.S., Republicans in Congress are finally ensuring that fiscal responsibility be assessed while taking measure of productivity.  It’s time for the powers that be to stop treating Greece as if it operated in an economic vacuum.  Economic growth will be the cure of many ills — let’s use our influence to support it.

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