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Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Obama An Enabler of Tyranny in Egypt?

When President Obama visited Cairo on June 4, 2009, he made a special point of declaring that he had come to establish a new beginning between the United States and the Arab world. This beginning, he said, would be based "upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive...they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings." Now, in Egypt, an authoritarian government, headed by the military, is slaughtering followers of Islam, and what does Obama have to say?

Not much, it appears. What is emerging from the president and his advisers is a few worried murmurs of protest, coupled with studied indecision. Where are the human-rights activists such as UN ambassador Samantha Power? Where is national-security adviser Susan Rice who vowed to stick up for the oppressed after she remained silent during the genocide in Rwanda? Do they agree with Secretary of State John Kerry's earlier assessment that the military is "restoring democracy" in Egypt?

Instead of protesting the Egyptian military's actions, or even threatening to cut off military aid, the administration is refusing to deem the events in Egypt a coup. The Washington Post editorial page says that the administration is "complicit" with the military's actions. It adds,

It is difficult to imagine how the assault on the Brotherhood, which won multiple elections and is still supported by millions of Egyptians, can be followed by a credible transition to democracy. More likely, it will lead Egypt toward still greater violence. It may be that outside powers cannot now change this tragic course of events. But if the United States wishes to have some chance to influence a country that has been its close ally for four decades, it must immediately change its policy toward the armed forces.

If a serious case could be made that Egpyt is headed towards stable, authoritarian rule, it would be one thing. In that instance, it might be plausible to invoke Henry Kissinger's famous comment about Chile and add that a country shouldn't be allowed to go hardline Islamist. But the problem is this: Is Obama being a realist when it comes to Egypt? Or is he being utterly unrealistic about what the future holds for Washington's ties with Cairo? America's track record, when it comes to supporting corrupt and authoritarian regimes, particularly in the Middle East, is a mixed one. Obama, you could even say, is inadvertently doing what he said he wanted to end in his Cairo speech: "empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and...promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity."

For Egypt appears to be headed toward, at best, an armed truce, and, at worst, a civil war. The Islamists are being further radicalized. America will be blamed. How does this end the "cycle of suspicion and discord" that Obama identified and lamented in June 2009?

Indeed, it may well be that the conflagration that the neoconservatives hoped would erupt in the Middle East is indeed erupting. Syria is already in flames. Now Egypt may be engulfed. How long can it be before Jordan is afflicted by the tumult?

Obama, aloof as ever, wants nothing to do with foreign policy. But a renewed debate is going to erupt in America over continuing aid to what amounts to an armed junta in Egypt. Senator Rand Paul was widely ridiculed when he proposed an amendment ending aid to Egypt, but perhaps he no longer looks so ridiculous at a moment when the Washington Post is calling for suspending it until the generals move to restore democracy. At a minimum, Obama should threaten suspension. Surely he does not want to go down in history as the enabler of tyranny?

There may not be much that America can do to calm Egypt, but Obama doesn't even seem to be trying. Leon Trotsky once remarked, "You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you." Obama could be about to learn that he may not be interested in foreign affairs, but foreign affairs is interested in him.

The Presidency
United States

A Defiant Obama Press Conference

Russian president Vladimir Putin slouches like a "bored schoolboy in the back of the schoolroom"? That was just one of the feisty and rather undiplomatic statements that President Obama made during his press conference made today. It must have made Putin sit bolt upright. Obama did everything but call Putin a lout. As the Washington Post notes, it isn't even true. Putin is about as buff as it gets. With all the crunches and judo he practices, his posture is great. Engaging in a smackdown of Putin's figure is about as low a blow as Obama could deliver. So who was being childish?

Maybe Obama was channeling the spirit of George W. Bush. Obama wasn't willing to concede much ground to any of his questioners. He did come close to admitting that he made a mistake when it came to talking about surveillance programs, then drew back and simply said that the virulence of the public debate showed that his take had been "undermined." Yes, it has. Obama's response to the uproar over surveillance was to offer a few token concessions. When it comes to surveillance, he announced that he would back tweaking the way the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court operates, create a few safeguards. But that was about it. And when the matter of Edward Snowden was raised, Obama bristled. He didn't say Snowden slouches but he did declare that the former National Security employee was no "patriot." OK. But it remains the fact that he triggered a debate about something that Obama doesn't want to be debating. Obama announced,

Unfortunately, rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate but not always fully informed way.

But, Mr. President, how could it be otherwise? Obama himself either fibbed or misspoke on the Jay Leno show on Tuesday night when he once more claimed that massive surveillance is not taking place of e-mails and phone calls. It is. The kind of "lawful process" that Obama is outlining would never have occured. Had the administration fessed up from the outset, or sought to have a discussion about surveillance, then maybe something on the lines of what Obama proposed in his press conference might have occurred. But the blunt fact is that neither the intelligence services nor the White House has a smidgen of interest in discussing its proclivity for scooping up as much information as possible about average Americans.

In discussing these matters Obama was stony, obdurate, refractory. It was only when healthcare came up that he became impassioned. He regards questions about national security as a pesky intrusion. Not so when it comes to healthcare. He defined his battle with the congressional Republicans as a choice between cavalierly destroying the economy or providing thirty million Americans with health benefits. Republicans, by contrast, will contend that the health of the economy can only be restored by focusing on government spending and shutting down Obama's ambitious new program.

This, not questions about Benghazi or Russia or Syria, is what will determine the course of his presidency. The next few months will form a crucible for both Obama and the GOP. If the president's defiant mood is anything to go by, the fall will feature a battle royale that will make the frictions with Russia look mild by comparison. The 2014 midterm elections will ride on the outcome. Who will blink first?

The Presidency
United States

Obama's Petulant Snub of Putin

President Obama prides himself on being cool, calm, and collected. But his latest move—cancelling a summit meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin—suggests that he is having a hissy fit, succumbing to peevishness. It's wholly counterproductive. In attempting to cow Russia into releasing Edward Snowden, he isn't showcasing American power but its limitations. The more Obama seeks to challenge Putin, the stiffer Russian resistance will become. Obama's persecution of Snowden is singlehandedly transforming him into a Russian hero.

From the outset, Obama has bungled the Snowden affair. He elevated a minor National Security Agency employee into a worldwide hero by pulling out all the stops to capture him even as he proclaimed that he would not. This turned out to be malarkey. The president who said he wouldn't scramble jets after Snowden then scrambled them in Europe to ground the Bolivian president. In his contempt for Bolivian sovereignty, Obama's actions were more reminiscent of the old Soviet Union than American democracy. But it is Obama, more than any president since George W. Bush, who has displayed palpable contempt for American freedoms. Perhaps the former constitutional-law professor is afraid of being deemed weak by the military and intelligence establishments. Or maybe he truly believes that it's necessary to curb freedoms in order to protect them. Either way, he himself appears to have become a hostage of the intelligence agencies, which will relentlessly attempt to expand their reach as they seek what Admiral John Poindexter once termed total information awareness.

Obama seems barely aware of his transformation. His administration has relentlessly tried to track down leakers, imposing draconian penalities on govenrment employees who are either whistleblowers or have committed minor infractions. And in the more serious case of Bradley Manning, as John Judis of the New Republic has observed, Obama presided over what amounted to a "show trial."

Even as America retreats back into the Bush-Cheney era under Obama, the president is blaming Russia for reverting to cold war tactics. He said on Tuesday on the "Tonight Show" that

There have been times where they slip back into cold war thinking and a cold war mentality. And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is that’s the past and we’ve got to think about the future, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to cooperate more effectively than we do.

But who is really stuck in a time warp? How does snubbing Putin enhance cooperation?

When it comes to Snowden, it is America, not Russia, that is behaving as though the frostiest days of the cold war continued to prevail. It seems clear that Snowden has become an obsession with Obama. WIth no one listening to Obama at home, perhaps he felt that this was the one arena where he could flex his muscles. If so, he had it wrong. Obama initially declared that the presidency was bigger than Snowden. If only he had believed what he said. Instead, he has transformed Snowden into a dissident who has found refuge in, of all places, Russia.

The Presidency
United States

Newt Gingrich (Sort Of) Abandons Neoconservatism

It may not amount to a political earthquake, but it is a sign of the tremors shaking up the GOP. Newt Gingrich is having a change of heart. The longtime champion of American intervention abroad says he's rethinking matters. His foreign policy views are continuing to evolve away from neoconservatism and towards the more libertarian wing of the party—to the point that he opposes American intervention in Syria.

Gingrich told the Washington Times, "I am a neoconservative. But at some point, even if you are a neoconservative, you need to take a deep breath to ask if our strategies in the Middle East have succeeded." He went on to utter an even more heretical thought, at least in neocon circles. "It may be that our capacity to export democracy," Gingrich said, "is a lot more limited than we thought."

At this late date, these statements are unexceptional, even banal. The public long ago wrote off these wars. It is a small coterie of defense intellectuals, pundits, and politicians in the GOP who have clung to the notion that if there was a flaw in the Bush administration's approach to the Middle East, it was only in the execution, not the theory. One reason Gingrich's musings are exciting interest is, of course, because of the GOP's longstanding refusal to confront the woeful outcomes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The party line has been to blame President Obama for not prosecuting those conflicts more aggressively, for squandering the victories that were within sight, for ignoring the triumphant legacy that George W. Bush had left behind for his successor.

Another reason is that Gingrich has explicitly indicated that the ideas of Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul deserve a hearing. "I think it would be healthy to go back and wargame what alternative strategies would have been better, and I like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul because they are talking about this," said Gingrich.

What lies behind Gingrich's change of heart? For one thing, he's making it clear that he remains a foe of the GOP establishment, and that he sees New Jersey governor Chris Christie's assault on Rand Paul as a sign of how "hysterical" it is becoming. Gingrich has always been someone who stands on the ramparts, a counterrevolutionary. In the context of today's GOP, in which neocon orthodoxy has long held sway, the only way to distinguish yourself is by challenging the idea that America must intervene abroad, wherever and whenever it can.

But there may be more to it than that. It is also the case that Gingrich has long had an astute sense for the pulse of the GOP. He may well believe—and his belief may be justified—that the party is at a turning point when it comes to examining its stands on foreign policy. The GOP has yet to undertake a real reckoning with the policies of the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. It's reflexive stance has been to assail Obama for not adhering to them even more closely. But as Obama's second term continues, Republican legislators may feel increasingly liberated from the albatross of the Bush-Cheney years to reassess their legacy. Is it really the case that Obama has been soft on terror? Or has he, in fact, clung too closely to the doctrines of Bush and Cheney when it comes to civil liberties and monitoring Americans for terrorist activity? Are the very antiterror measures touted by Bush and Cheney, and continued by Obama, undermining the liberties and freedoms they purport to protect?

Gingrich's remarks are a further sign that the old consensus in the GOP is fraying. Whether a sustained reassessment of foreign policy will occur or whether the GOP will simply devolve into recriminations is an open question. But it is clear that none of the fulgurations of Christie and others will be able to avert a clash over foreign affairs. Quite the contrary. Their chest-thumping will only accelerate it.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

United States

From Russia With Love: Snowden Gets Asylum

With its decision to grant Edward Snowden temporary asylum, Russia is once again demonstrating its independence from America and handing a big victory to WikiLeaks. The Obama administration has gone into overdrive to attempt to capture Snowden, promising Moscow that Snowden would neither be tortured nor subjected to the death penalty if he is returned. But in the wake of the treatment of Bradley Manning, who was apparently subjected to prolonged isolation and other maltreatment, those promises are necessary but hardly sufficient. America's track record when it comes to dealing with dissent—for that is what Snowden represents—is a parlous one, from the incarceration of Eugene Debs during World War I to the latest batch of whistleblowers. So Moscow has blown a giant raspberry at President Obama.

The problem is really of his own making. The appropriate response to Snowden would have been to promise him immunity from prosecution and allow him to return to America, where he could have testified to Congress. From a practical standpoint, the administration would have been better off with Snowden in America rather than back in Russia, where he can dribble out embarrassing information. Everything that Snowden has said appears to be accurate. The latest revelation concerns a computer program called XKeyscore that is one more step towards the omnicompetent state. It permits government officials to snoop wherever and whenever they please, to trawl through your internet activities, chats, emails, and so on. The indispensable James Bamford, writing in the New York Review of Books, reports that "with the arrival of the Obama administration, the NSA's powers continued to expand at the same time that administration officials and the NSA continued to deceive the American public on the extent of the spying."

So far, Snowden is on a roll. The Washington Post notes today that "Obama administration officials faced deepening political skepticism Wednesday about a far-reaching counterterrorism program that collects millions of Americans' phone records, even as they released newly declassified documents in an attempt to spotlight privacy safeguards." Indeed they do. Apart from the privacy questions, there is also the one of practicality, as Senate Judiciary Committee head Patrick Leahy made abundatly clear in questioning NSA officials yesterday. How effective are these programs? Do they testify more to bureaucratic aggrandizement than common sense? What confidence does anyone have that the NSA is able to use this massive amount of information in a clear and coherent fashion that promotes American national security? Little of this would be occurring absent Snowden's release of documents about the NSA's activities. Instead, the Obama administration would continue stealthily to assemble information about the activities of American citizens.

What will become of Snowden? He can go live in a dacha outside Moscow and surf the internet to his heart's content. He could even live the life of an Oblomov, putting off everything until another day. But his father says he is an avid reader and he could employ himself learning Russian and steeping himself in the classics, as the New York Times suggests—"His Russian lawyer earlier this week left him a shopping bag with books by Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Nikolai Karamzin to help him learn about Russian reality." In the meantime, his father's lawyer Bruce Fein might be able to reach an accommodation with the Obama administration that would allow Snowden to return to America without facing draconian punishment for his actions. The frenzied hunt for Snowden is itself further evidence of the misplaced priorities of the American intelligence services.

Image: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.

Civil Society

GOP Fight Club: Christie vs. Paul

Welcome to the GOP fight club. It's becoming increasingly apparent that a debate is brewing in the Republican party over foreign policy, one that will not be conducted politely over brandy and cigars in an oak-lined room but, rather, with knuckledusters. The latest sign was the dustup between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Senator Rand Paul. Christie, in an effort to burnish his conservative credentials, which came into some contention when he became palsy-walsy with President Obama at the finish line of the 2012 presidential race, to the consternation of many on the right, has voiced his own disquiet at what he sees as backpedaling by the GOP about the battle against terrorism.

At an Aspen Institute forum, Christie said that libertarians such as Rand Paul are endangering American national security: “This strain of libertarianism that’s going through parties right now and making big headlines I think is a very dangerous thought."

Now Paul is striking back.

On Monday Paul said to Sean Hannity on Fox News,

It’s really, I think, kind of sad and cheap that he would use the cloak of 9/11 victims and say, I’m the only one who cares about these victims. Hogwash. If he cared about protecting this country, maybe he wouldn’t be in this "give me, give me, give me all of the money" that you have in Washington or don’t have and he would be more fiscally responsive and know the way we defend our country.

This debate is overdue. It gets to the core of what amounts to an identity crisis for the GOP. This past Sunday the New York Times featured a piece of mine that reviewed two excellent books—Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson and 1940 by Susan Dunn—on the debate over isolationism in the 1930s over entry into World War II. The historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., said that the debabte over intervention was the "most savage political debate in my lifetime," even more impassioned than ones over McCarthyism and the Vietnam War. Many on the left were opposed to intervention because they felt burned by the outcome of World War I when Woodrow Wilson promised the war to end all wars. Instead, the punitive Treaty of Versailles, which laid the groundwork for a new one, was the result. On the right a number of figures such as Charles Lindbergh became admirers of the Nazi movement. The Wall Street Journal stated in June 1940 that Hitler had "already determined the broad lines of our national life for at least another generation" and that there was no point in trying to challenge him. Fortunately, Franklin Roosevelt saw it differently.

Yet the debate over intervention was not entirely stilled within the GOP. After World War II the Robert Taft wing of the party was opposed to entangling alliances abroad such as NATO. Schlesinger, in an illuminating essay in the Atlantic in 1952, distinguished between left and right isolationism. Schlesinger argued that left isolationism was rooted in idealism about America, that it should serve as a model for the world. On the right he diagnosed a fear of the old world—the belief that America would become corrupted by its dark mores: "An image of Europe began to haunt the isolationist consciousness—an image of a dark and corrupt continent, teeming with insoluble feuds, interminable antagonisms; senseless and malevolent wars. Europe was morally and politically diseased and scabrous; and contact with it would bring the risk of fatal infection." What Schlesinger deemed the old "affirmative isolationism" gave way to "negative isolationism." Schlesinger also concluded that figures such as Senators Robert Taft and Joseph McCarthy were attempting to disguise their opposition to intervention abroad by backing anti-Communist witch hunts at home. (Still, as the case of Alger Hiss showed, there was some subversion in America itself, though Hiss never had any position of real consequence. And it was none other than Richard Nixon who believed Whittaker Chambers' accusations and exposed Hiss.)

In the end, the Taft wing lost out. It was the moment of the moderate, internationalist Republican such as Nixon. By 1952 had allied himself with Eisenhower. For decades the internationalists were at the helm of the GOP. Then came the rise of the neocons who supplied a more militant edge. The libertarian wing of the party had lapsed into desuetude. But over a decade after September 11, the debate is starting all over again over about the extent to which America should intervene abroad.

It is a debate, however, that the GOP is likely to find very unsettling, at least if it is conducted by Rand Paul and Chris Christie. Neither appeals fully to the party. The neocon wing is virulently opposed to the doctrines that Paul endorses, which is why Sen. John McCain spoke of "wacko birds." But at the same time, conservatives will also have a difficult time cottoning to Christie, who is in many ways the classic Northeast moderate Republican. Unlike many of his political ancestors, however, Christie is not a patrician figure who shrinks from a fight. He is a brawler. A divisive battle over foreign affairs does not loom before the GOP. It has already begun.

Image: Left: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0. Right: Flickr/Bob Jagendorf. CC BY 2.0.

United States

Congress Challenges the NSA

Edward Snowden is winning. He may be holed up in a transit lounge in Russia, but Snowden, view him as a traitor or hero, is having a profound effect on the debate in America over the extent of spying conducted by the National Security Agency. The most telling sign is the House’s rejection Wednesday of a bill impeding the agency’s collection of phone records by a vote of 205-217. The interesting thing is not that the bill, which was drafted by Rep. Justin Amash and Rep. John Conyers, Jr., failed. It is how close it came to passing.

Only a furious effort by the Obama administration and the Republican leadership, including John Boehner, ensured that it did not. Here was true bipartisanship but perhaps not in the service of a greater goal, or at least one that mounting numbers of Americans, worried about the intrusiveness of federal government spying efforts, are likely to applaud. Lawmakers such as Jerrold Nadler who have long been critical of the NSA and the expansive counter-terrorist measures instituted after September 11 are seizing the opportunity to press their case with renewed vigor; others like James Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the Patriot Act, say that it is being contorted to justify policies they never envisioned. Revulsion over elastic interpretations of surveillance by the government is prompting Democratic and Republican lawmakers to revolt.

President Obama is clearly hopeless when it comes to this issue. He doesn’t seem to challenge the panjandrums of the intelligence services, but reflexively accedes to their demands. For whatever reason—passivity, cravenness, fear?—the man who once voiced anger and skepticism about the excesses of the Bush administration’s approach to civil liberties has become complicit with the vast bureaucracy that purports to defend American liberties even as it undermines them. Yes, the balance between liberty and surveillance will always be a treacherous one. But we know that when the government is scooping up every telephone record that there cannot even be a pretense of balance but, rather, the attempt to construct an omnicompetent state that vigilantly scrutinizes the behavior of the most innocuous citizen. Professor David Bromwich of Yale University, one of our most trenchant critics of the sprawling apparatus that has arisen since September 11, notes that the Obama administration is endorsing a policy of snatching up private information that can be likened to stocking a vast fishpond:


The new protocol allows the government to vacuum up the entire pond, while preserving a posture quite innocent of trespass, since it means to do nothing with the contents just then. The test comes when a discovery elsewhere calls up an answering glimmer of terror or a terror-link from somewhere in your pond; at which point the already indexed contents may be legally poured out, dissected and analysed, with effects on the owner to be determined.

As James Bamford shows in the August 15 issue of the New York Review of Books, the government has, more or less, been lying about its efforts to fill that pond. After September 11, the Bush administration decided to flout the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. According to Bamford, it “decided to illegally bypass the court and began its program of warrantless wiretapping.” At the same time, George W. Bush announced in 2004, “Anytime you hear the United States government talking about a wiretap, it requires—a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.” Since then, misleading statements from key figures have proliferated. General Keith Alexander of the NSA declared at an Aspen Institute conference, “To think we’re collecting on every US person…that would be against the law.” Snowden's documents remind us that this is not true. Yes, there are genuine threats against America. But it is statements such as Alexander's that induce a sense of vertigo—the sense that America's leaders are misleading the public rather than telling the truth about the scope and nature of their own work, not to mention the number and gravity of the plots that they boast about having uncovered.

There is not necessarily anything consciously nefarious about the efforts of the intelligence agencies to expand their reach and influence. If you want to get a glimpse of what the government is up to then you apparently need to travel to a nine-story building at 611 Folsom Street in San Francisco. There AT&T has its regional switching center and there in 2003 the NSA, Bamford writes, “established a “secret room…and filled it with computers and software from a company called Narus,” which specializes in “equipment that examines both the metadata—the names and addresses of people communicating on the Internet—and the content of digital traffic such as e-mail as it zooms past at the speed of light.” The sense one derives from the Bamford article is that one computer program—PRISM, UPSTREAM, and so on—is leading to the next, that the desire to obtain information, in whatever form, has become an end in itself, which is what is leading to the construction of a massive electronic records holding facility in the desert in Utah, one that will likely become a monument to future generations of the folly of the current one.

The stirrings of rebellion in the House are a welcome sign. Obama has not simply abdicated leadership on civil liberties, but is actively endorsing policies that undermine them. It is up to Congress to stop him.

The Presidency
United States

When A Former Shin Bet Chief Denounces Netanyahu

Bret Stephens is bored. Bored, that is, by the Palestinians. They're tedious, hapless, pathetic. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Stephens colorfully announces:

for all its presumed importance, the Palestinian saga has gotten awfully boring, hasn't it? The grievances that remain unchanged, a cast of characters that never alters, the same schematics, the clichés that were shopworn decades ago. If it were a TV drama, it would be "The X-Files"—in its 46th season. The truth is out there. Still. We get it. We just don't give a damn anymore.

Well, not everyone shares Stephen's ho-hum attitude. Not everyone, in other words, is tuning out from a saga that continues to hold great peril for Israel's future even if a veneer of placidity exists currently between the Palestinians and Israelis. Europe, for one, is worried about what is, or is not, taking place. So even as the idea of peace talks goes nowhere, Israel is coming under increasing pressure over the West Bank. The European Union has just promulgated new guidelines that interdict any cooperation with Israeli institutions in territory in the West Bank and that will be enacted next year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is livid. He's responded by saying Israel will "not accept external dictates." But this move is consistent with the increasing and inexorably antipathy toward Israeli intransigence on the West Bank among Europeans and a new willingness to act to pressure the Jewish state to alter it. To dismiss such actions as an instance of inveterate European hostility towards Jews may be emotionally satisfying but does not account for the very real fear among European foreign policymakers that Israel has embarked upon a course that is inimical to its own security, with dangerous consequences for Europe as well.

Someone else who isn't lulled into a state of torpor by the relations between Palestinians and Israelis is former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin. In a column in the Jerusalem Post, he says don't be fooled. Israeli is reaching a point of no return that could have catastrophic effects upon its security: "Anyone who wants can see the data of the Research and Information Center Division (based on a study by Prof. Arnon Sofer and Prof. Sergio DellaPergola), suggesting that at the end of the year 2010, the share of Jews – if you add up the total population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River – was only 53%."

Diskin notes that complacency is unwarranted because these demographic trends mean that Israel may well be headed toward a binational state. The current complacency is deceptive:

this subject has a place in our essence, in our identity, in our souls, in our security, and in our perception of morality – as a society or nation that has come to rule another nation. The relative security calm that we have recently enjoyed creates a dangerous illusion that our problems have been solved, and maybe worse – that we have “frozen the situation”: a kind of de facto strategy in the face of the “Arab Spring” that is raging all around us. But it is clear that it is impossible to truly freeze the situation as social, economic, political and other processes are never frozen in time. Unfortunately, we have yet to find a strategy or the technology that can freeze frustration.

What is needed, he says, is long-term straetegic thinking. In a democracy this is always difficult because the incentive is to placate various constituencies to retain power, which is what Netanyahu has been doing. Nor are Diskin's observations new. They have been propounded ad nauseam by a variety of commentators. But coming from the ex-chief of Shin Bet they, of course, carry a certain weight. They also indicate that it is not anti-Israeli to make such observations. On the contrary, they are pro-Israeli. They seek to help prevent the country from jeopardizing its future in a futile quest to satisfy the rapacious demands of settlers on the West Bank who are indifferent to anything but their own comforts or ideological aspirations.

Diskin expresses the hope that Netanyahu will have the fortitude to break with the current impasse. He could do it. But as my colleague Paul Pillar has observed, the dispatching of Ron Dermer, an ardent neocon, as ambassador to America is eyebrow-raising. J Street, the counterpart of AIPAC, expresses its own hope in Haaretz that Dermer will reach out to all sections of the American Jewish community:

In recent years, a pernicious idea has gained currency among some pro-Israel groups, especially on the far right. They seem to believe that anyone who does not agree 100 percent of the time with every action the Israeli government takes is no friend of Israel. Some go further and claim that anyone expressing even mild criticism should be treated as an adversary. This intolerance is divisive, self-defeating and foreign to our Jewish and American traditions. It needs to be squashed and Ambassador Dermer would be doing Israel and American Jews alike a big favor by disassociating himself from such views.

Will he?


A New Assessment of Rand Paul

Is Rand Paul the avatar of a new Republican foreign policy that will return the GOP to its traditional and more moderate roots? Or is he too eccentric and erratic to command real respect inside his party, which is currently dominated by neoconservatives? In the new issue of the Washington Monthly, Stuart A. Reid, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, astutely analyses the Paul phenomenon.

Paul first captured national attention with his filibuster on March 6 in which he opposed John Brennan's nomination for the CIA. He said, "I will speak as long as it takes, until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court." With such statements Paul laid bare the rift that exists in the GOP between neocons and himself over the best way to conduct American foreign policy. One of his first moves was to introduce legislation slashing both domestic and defense spending. Paul opposed American intervention in Egypt, noting to Reid, "I'm a little skeptical, because the neoconservatives in my party the year before wanted to fund Qaddafi and sell arms to Qaddafi." Here Paul was alluding to a 2009 meeting, divulged in WikiLeaks cables, where Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, among others, talked about approving the sale of military equipment to Libya. Soon enough, though, they were champing at the bit to depose the Libyan dictator. As Reid sees it, "Paul is forcing a conversation that the Republican party doesn't want to have—and with an interlocutor much of it considers to be a foreign policy lightweight."

But Paul tries to make it clear that he isn't an isolationist or an extremist. He's distanced himself from his father: "In April," Reid writes, "the elder Paul founded the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity and named Slobodan Milosevic apologists and 9/11 truthers to its board. Rand did not attend the think tank's opening." There's more. "If Germany wants to have their joint base with us and we want to have it, we could do it. Maybe we do it with, instead of fifty thousand troops, five thousand troops," he told Reid. Some of Reid's most interesting material concerns Israel. Unlike his father, Rand is going out of his way to speak to neocons and to suggest that he is not anti-Israel. In January Paul, who is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Israel, where he met with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. According to Reid,

the trip was designed not only to reassure the pro-Israel crowd but also to win over Christian supporters. For seven days, Paul and his wife, Kelley, rolled around the Holy Land on a bus full of American evangelical leaders. The fifty-three person tour was organized by David Lane, a born-again political activist from California.

Paul may be seeking some cover on Israel, but it won't be an easy issue to finesse. Already Netanyahu, clearly apprehensive that the issue of Iranian nuclear ambitions has been put on the backburner because of upheaval in Syria and Egypt—"there is no sense of urgency," he said Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation"—is dismissing Iran's president Hassan Rowhani as a wolf in sheep's clothing and pressuring President Obama to demonstrate that he is serious about military action against Iran. Meanwhile, the administration is trying to buy more time.

Still, Paul has the luxury of playing the role of critic on the sidelines rather than making policy. He will be seeking to influence debate inside the GOP as much as attempting to take on Obama. Once the primary season heats up, Obama will most likely be a sideshow. The skill that Paul demonstrates in the next few years in attempting to set new terms of debate inside the GOP may have a pivotal impact not just on his own fortunes, but also the party's. Already, as Reid observes, Paul leads Florida Senator Marco Rubio by nineteen points in opinion polls in Iowa. He is a force that is not going away.

Image: Flickr/Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Presidency

Liz Cheney, Neocon Senator and President?

So Liz Cheney is thinking about running for the Senate. Anyone who thinks that her ambitions will stop there if she is elected doesn't understand the real Cheney game plan. Daughter Cheney is the Cerberus guarding her father's reputation—she apparently wrote much of his memoir—and has tried, as best she can, to protect his reputation, which, it seems safe to say, suffered a few dings over the past decade, not least because of his huffing and puffing about the terrorist threat emanating from Iraq, which proved not just to be wrong but actively destructive. No matter. Cheney has dismissed it as the niggling complaints of liberal squishes who fail to recongize the advances for justice and democracy that occurred on his watch.

This Sunday's New York Times report that Liz Cheney is mulling over whether she should challenge Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi is already causing palpitations among liberals and conservatives alike. Liberals love to loathe her. And conservatives, at least traditional ones, are worried that she would divide but not conquer the Republican party in Wyoming, thereby setting the stage for a Democrat to nab the seat. Is this a new version of Back to the Future or is it Groundhog Day? What cooler heads in the GOP worry about is that this is the Tea Party all over again, at least the more extreme candidates who went down in flames in various states, costing the party control of the Senate. Meanwhile, Cheney is touting her Wyoming bona fides, posting pictures of her children riding horses and engaging in the other strange things they practice way out West.

What this is really about, however, is back East, where political power has always tempted the Cheney clan, from Dick to Lynne. Another grouping has a profoundly deep interest in Cheney's success as well. That would be the neocons, the ones clustered around William Kristol. For the neocons, a Cheney candidacy would be a great cause, a way to revivify the movement politically. Currently, the neocons enjoy respectability, at least in Washington. But they are not enjoying the kind of political power that they commanded under George W. Bush. Perhaps Cheney could be the horse that they could ride back to the White House. She has served in the Bush administration as principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs. She is a chairman of Keep America Safe—William Kristol is its director and Michael Goldfarb, another leading neocon, helped establish the organization in 2009. She routinely accuses President Obama of trying to "appease"—a favorite neocon term—Iran and Russia. Not the greatest or most careful rhetorician—she claimed Obama had betrayed "Czechoslovakia" which hasn't existed as a country for several decades—she prefers to paint with a broad brush. Writing in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, for example, she offered standard boilerplate:

The president has so effectively diminished American strength abroad that there is no longer a question of whether this was his intent. He is working to pre-emptively disarm the United States. He advocates slashing our nuclear arsenal even as the North Koreans threaten us and the Iranians close in on their own nuclear weapon. He has turned his back on America's allies around the world and ignored growing threats.

To have Liz Cheney in the Senate, in other words, would be like having Dick Cheney back in the spotlight. The Cheneys, a threatening family, live themselves in a permanent state of fear and threats. They see foes and problems where there are none and none where they do exist. Liz is doing her best to keep up that family tradition. For his eldest daughter to claim a Senate seat would, moreover, be a way for Cheney to assert himself against the Bushs, who have shunned him, particularly George W.

Cheney could point to himself as the founder of a promising new dynasty. To be sure, Cheney was never officially president. But no one doubts that the man who proclaimed recently that "I had a job to do" was president all but in name. Liz could take it a step further if she ran for the Oval Office, championing democracy abroad even as she breathes contempt for it at home, just as her father did. It may be a bit early for her to challenge Hillary in 2016. But then again, Obama didn't wait long, either. The Republican presidential primary could get a lot more interesting before long.

The tenacity of the Cheneys mirrors that of the neocons more generally. Iraq? WMD? Say what? In Washington accountability is so yesterday. The Cheneys, you could even say, aren't making a comeback. They never went away.

The Presidency
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April 16, 2014