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God Save the Queen

So, Scotland has gone to the polls, and it has decided to remain part of Great Britain. I had worried that nationalist sentiments and the perception of momentum behind Scottish independence might cause the people of Scotland to make a terrible decision; I am relieved to see that my fears were unfounded.

Having written that, there can be no doubt that a great deal of national healing needs to take place in Scotland. This piece by Michael Ignatieff, which reflects on bad feelings that remain from the Quebec independence fight back in 1995, is a useful guide for Scots who seek to engender a national feeling of unity in the aftermath of the referendum vote. Here is hoping that the people of Scotland–from the politicians to the populace–take heed of Ignatieff’s words, and work to ensure that there will be no lingering sense of resentment now that the outcome has been settled.

Here is hoping as well that politicians in all countries pay attention to Walter Russell Mead’s observations:

The most important lesson of the whole referendum may be this: that large and complicated political unions require decentralization and local control in order to survive. The centralizing, rationalizing impulse which imbues all great federal capitals with the desire to impose uniform laws and regulations across their territory—in Washington, in Brussels and in many other cities besides London—is something that needs to be kept within strict bounds.

The 20th century was an age of centralization. Industrialization made societies much more complex and increased the demand for uniform national legislation and policy, while the limits on communications and technology made the rise of large, centralized bureaucracies the most efficient and often the only feasible way to manage the affairs of large organizations. Moreover, with only a very small percentage of the population (only 1 or 2 percent early in the century, and not rising fast until after World War 2) having college educations, there was a shortage of people with the experience and breadth of knowledge necessary for many of the functions of government administration. Progressive ideology was all about creating effective bureaucracies and taking key issues out of politics and handing them over to (allegedly) meritocratic and apolitical administrators who would serve as the guardians of the public weal.

The 20th century was the golden age of the centralizing state, and the advanced industrial nations, including ones like the US and the UK where historically governments had been smaller and less intrusive, were marked by strong progressive and bureaucratic governments. This form of government had its problems and limitations, but it did many things well: improving public health and education, providing a framework for the development of a much more sophisticated and technologically advanced economy, organizing for victory in World War Two and the Cold War and so on.

However, in the 21st century it appears that the progressive ideal of the state will no longer suffice. A better educated and more sophisticated population is less willing to delegate important decisions to technocrats. Parents who feel they are as well or better educated than their children’s schoolteachers are less willing to defer to educational bureaucracies. Patients who surf the web want to understand their treatment options and look to doctors more as advisers than as authorities.

Additionally, in consumer societies people are used to getting satisfaction from their transactions with large entities. They refuse to stand in line for hours at the department store checkout counter, so why should they stand in line for hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles? As commercial institutions get better at providing services that are individualized and convenient, our expectations for the delivery of government services also rise. That puts great stress on centralized bureaucracies; making ‘customers’ happy is not the way that government offices and bureaucrats traditionally work.

Quite so. The best way for nation-states to engender feelings of national unity and counter secessionist sentiments is for the governments of those nation-states to show that they trust and respect local governments. As Mead notes, a sophisticated populace with access to treasure troves of information via the Internet–along with the attendant capacity to make decisions without bureaucratic interference–will accept nothing less.

As a final matter, let me note that the Putin regime has been paying attention to the vote in Scotland, and decided to remind the rest of the world that it has not lost its capacity to be ridiculous.

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We Finally Have a Strategy to Deal with ISIL

It involves . . . well . . . um . . . let me give the microphone to the secretary of state:

John Kerry suggested today that the task of defeating the Islamic State could fall to Iran and the Syrian government if the US was “failing miserably” in its effort to defeat the jihadists.

The hypothetical scenario raised by the secretary of state is likely to be a new frustration for the White House, which has spent the day quashing speculation by American generals that US ground troops could be sent back to Iraq.

Mr Kerry’s words may also heighten Sunni suspicions that the US secretly intends to ally with the Shia governments in Damascus and Tehran against Isil.

Mr Kerry made the suggestion as he faced hostile questions from Republicans during a hearing of the Senate foreign relations committee.

He was asked by Marco Rubio, a hawkish Republican, whether American combat forces could be deployed to the Middle East if commanders deemed it was necessary for defeating Isil.

Mr Kerry repeated President Barack Obama’s pledge not to deploy ground troops under any circumstances but then raised the prospect of Iranian and Syrian intervention.

“I’m not going to get into hypotheticals but you’re presuming that Iran and Syria don’t have any capacity to take on Isil. I mean, who knows? I don’t know what’s going to happen here,” he said. “If we’re failing and failing miserably who knows what choice they’re might make.”

If you read that excerpt without giggling and slamming your head against your desk, you are made of stronger stuff than I am. The secretary of state of the United States of America is publicly speculating on the possibility that we might be “failing and failing miserably” in the fight against ISIL, and that if we are, the Iranians and the Syrians will come in to save our bacon militarily.

Presumably, this kind of talk is supposed to make me confident that the adults are in charge in the Executive Branch. But somehow, I find myself less than reassured.

Can We Please Have a Reality-Based President?

Barack Obama continues to pretend that there isn’t a sand castle’s chance in an earthquake that we will need ground troops in Iraq:

President Obama doubled down Wednesday on an increasingly questioned pledge: There will be no U.S. ground combat troops back in Iraq.

“I will not commit you, and the rest of our armed forces, to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” Obama told troops at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.

After a briefing with military leaders at CENTCOM, Obama said forces in Iraq and Syria must fight ground battles against the Islamic State, a jihadist group also known as ISIL and ISIS.

Obama also said the United States — which is conducting airstrikes in Iraq and planning them in Syria — will be joined by a coalition of other nations under threat by the Islamic State.

“This is not and will not be America’s fight alone,” Obama said.

The renewed pledge of no U.S. combat troops came amid some skepticism over whether the United States can follow through on a plan that relies on Iraqi and Syrian forces to roll back the Islamic State.

No one should believe these claims, of course, and it is refreshing (and unsurprising) to see that former secretary of defense Robert Gates is calling shenanigans on the president’s comments:

President Obama will have to use ground troops against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in order for his plan to succeed, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.

“The reality is, they’re not gonna be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces, or the Peshmerga, [or] the Sunni tribes acting on their own. So, there will be boots on the ground if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy,” Gates, who served under Obama, said on “CBS This Morning.”

“And I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won’t be boots on the ground], the president, in effect, traps himself,” he said.

Gates’s remarks came a day after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said the president told him he would consider putting U.S. troops in direct combat on a “case-by-case” basis.

When it comes to the issue of ground troops, either the Obama administration will be forced to reverse course–which will reveal that its current rhetoric, ruling out the use of ground troops, is naïve at best, and dishonest at worst–or the administration will prosecute this war ineptly and incompetently, leading to a strategic defeat for the United States and a serious setback for American interests. That I am forced to root for the former scenario to unfold is an indication of just how bad our choices are.

Regarding a Certain Lobby that Represents a Certain Middle Eastern Nation

You’ve heard this story before, I am sure. A small Middle Eastern country is throwing its weight around and using its outsized powers to influence American foreign policy in the region. While some people shy away from discussing this unsettling–and possibly pernicious–phenomenon, more and more observers are taking note and speaking out, asking why American foreign policy and the grandees who help shape it should be in thrall to this tiny nation-state.

Did you think that I was writing about Israel and the Israel lobby? If so, you thought wrong:

The New York Times recently published a long investigative report by Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams, and Nicholas Confessore on how foreign countries buy political influence through Washington think tanks. Judging from Twitter and other leading journalistic indicators, the paper’s original reporting appears to have gone almost entirely unread by human beings anywhere on the planet. In part, that’s because the Times’ editors decided to gift their big investigative scoop with the dry-as-dust title “Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks,” which sounds like the headline for an article in a D.C. version of The Onion. There is also the fact that the first 10 paragraphs of the Times piece are devoted to that highly controversial global actor, Norway, and its attempts to purchase the favors of The Center for Global Development, which I confess I’d never heard of before, although I live in Washington and attend think-tank events once or twice a week.

Except, buried deep in the Times’ epic snoozer was a world-class scoop related to one of the world’s biggest and most controversial stories—something so startling, and frankly so grotesque, that I have to bring it up again here: Martin Indyk, the man who ran John Kerry’s Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, whose failure in turn set off this summer’s bloody Gaza War, cashed a $14.8 million check from Qatar. Yes, you heard that right: In his capacity as vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Program at the prestigious Brookings Institution, Martin Indyk took an enormous sum of money from a foreign government that, in addition to its well-documented role as a funder of Sunni terror outfits throughout the Middle East, is the main patron of Hamas—which happens to be the mortal enemy of both the State of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.

But far from trumpeting its big scoop, the Times seems to have missed it entirely, even allowing Indyk to opine that the best way for foreign governments to shape policy is “scholarly, independent research, based on objective criteria.” Really? It is pretty hard to imagine what the words “independent” and “objective” mean coming from a man who while going from Brookings to public service and back to Brookings again pocketed $14.8 million in Qatari cash. At least the Times might have asked Indyk a few follow-up questions, like: Did he cash the check from Qatar before signing on to lead the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians? Did the check clear while he was in Jerusalem, or Ramallah? Or did the Qatari money land in the Brookings account only after Indyk gave interviews and speeches blaming the Israelis for his failure? We’ll never know now. But whichever way it happened looks pretty awful.

Surely, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt will be writing papers and books soon, denouncing the influence of the Qatar lobby with the same vehemence and insistence with which they denounce the influence of the Israel lobby. Right? Because to do otherwise, would be to act like hypocrites. And I’d hate to think that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt are hypocrites. Why, it would shatter my world if I ever find out that they are.

Another Reason to Root for a “No” Vote in Scotland

A “Yes” vote could wreck the scotch industry:

The liquor and its marketing have resulted in a booming business. When I toured more than a dozen Scotch whisky facilities in June, meeting with distillers and other industry folk, they were effervescent and confident. Scotch whisky sales have been soaring around the world, almost doubling in the past decade to $7 billion — a huge sum for a country of just 5.3 million people. In fact, Scotch is Scotland’s second-biggest export after oil.

Which explains why so many people I spoke to didn’t just think independence, which Scotland will vote on this week, was risky; they thought, in the words of one distiller as we sipped his whiskey drawn straight from the barrel, that it’s “baloney.” (More than two dozen Scotch industry workers — from executives to coopers who make the barrels — didn’t want to weigh in by name because their companies are playing neutral in the political battle.) Everyone I chatted with had a sophisticated sense of currency issues and trade policy, and most thought it crazy to risk killing their profit machine. Rather than join the chaotic Eurozone, independence supporters, despite their break-from-Britain rhetoric, still want a currency union with the mother ship. But it’s not at all clear that Scotland could remain part of the pound sterling.

And then there’s the problem of exporting their Scotch. A new Scotland would probably have to reapply to the European Union to get coveted, duty-free membership access to 27 countries. Scotch whisky’s status under British bilateral trade accords would be uncertain at best. Plus, whisky makers import barrels that have been used by bourbon distillers in the United States and sherry producers in Spain. Would they still get access to those as easily? The cooperages I visited are machine-assisted, but they still forge barrels much as they would have done 200 years ago. Like automotive manufacturing, it’s a delicate symphony of global suppliers and markets

What’s more, distilleries are part of multinational enterprises that crave a free flow of goods and predictable laws. Dewar’s is part of Bacardi. Glenmorangie is part of the Louis Vuitton-Moet-Hennessy empire. Johnny [sic] Walker is part of Diageo.

Earlier coverage of this issue can be found here. Along with others, I worry that even if the “No” side prevails, the damage to the United Kingdom will have been done by a spirited “Yes” campaign that is entirely ignorant of the deleterious economic consequences of secession, but also has been entirely masterful in campaigning for Scottish independence.

Remember How the President Promised that We Won’t Be Involved in a Ground War in Iraq?

If not, let me remind you what he said:

Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground.  In June, I deployed several hundred American servicemembers to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi security forces.  Now that those teams have completed their work –- and Iraq has formed a government –- we will send an additional 475 servicemembers to Iraq.  As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission –- we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.  But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.  We’ll also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control.

(Emphasis mine.) So, we’ll just send 475 servicemembers, and their sole purposes will be “to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.” But no ground war for American forces, and surely, we won’t send any more servicemembers, right?



President Obama’s top military adviser said Tuesday that he would recommend deploying United States forces in ground operations against Islamic extremists in Iraq if airstrikes prove insufficient, opening the door to a riskier, more expansive American combat role than the president has publicly outlined.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that while he was confident that an American-led coalition would defeat the Islamic State, he would not foreclose the possibility of asking Mr. Obama to send American troops to fight the militants on the ground — something Mr. Obama has ruled out.

“My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” General Dempsey said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

General Dempsey acknowledged that this would run counter to the president’s policy, but he said, “He has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis.”

Now, to be sure, regular readers of my blog won’t be surprised to find out that the administration may be considering putting in additional ground troops in Iraq, and getting them involved in combat operations. I wrote in my initial post that “[t]here is no way on this or any other planet that we are going to achieve a decisive victory over ISIL via airpower alone,” and evidently, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff feels the same way. But if all one had to go on was the president’s speech, one would be shocked by this latest revelation. And although the president owed it to the American people to prepare them for the possibility that additional American ground troops would be needed for combat operations in Iraq, not one bit of General Dempsey’s message found its way into the text of the president’s address to the nation.

Imagine that.

Recall that the Bush administration has been accused by many a demagogue of lying the nation into a war in Iraq. The claims were always bogus, but for those who are interested in keeping score, the Obama administration is actually doing just about everything that the Bush administration was charged with doing by its critics.

Stop Me If this Sounds Familiar


This week vandals sprayed the words “Jews” and the Nazi slogan “Sieg Heil” on the office windows of the Lausitzer Rundschau, a newspaper known for its coverage of far-right groups.

The week before four swastikas were daubed on other offices of the paper as well as “Jews, kill them” and “We’ll get you all”. There were similar incidents against the daily in 2012.

“These threats and acts of vandalism must be stopped and I am confident that the authorities will take the necessary precautions to ensure journalists’ safety,” the OSCE’s media representative Dunja Mijatovic said.

“I welcome the condemnation of these attacks from the highest level of the German authorities in Brandenburg state and trust that these incidents will be swiftly and thoroughly investigated,” she said in a statement.

Note this story as well:

Chancellor Angela Merkel led a rally against anti-Semitism in Berlin on Sunday, telling several thousand people that Jewish life is part of Germany’s identity and she wants to ensure that Jews feel safe here.

Germany’s Jewish community organized the rally at the capital’s Brandenburg Gate after tensions over the Gaza conflict spilled over into demonstrations in Europe that saw anti-Jewish slogans and violence.

Germany’s Jewish community organized the rally at the capital’s Brandenburg Gate after tensions over the Gaza conflict spilled over into demonstrations in Europe that saw anti-Jewish slogans and violence.

President Joachim Gauck joined ministers and Germany’s top Protestant and Catholic clerics at the event along with Muslim community leaders.

Jewish leader Dieter Graumann said the summer saw “the worst anti-Semitic slogans on German streets for many, many decades.”

“We won’t let ourselves be intimidated,” he said. “But we would have liked a bit more empathy in the last few weeks. Many of us still come from Holocaust families … how do you think we feel when we hear on German streets today, `Jews to the gas?'”

Merkel said it is “verging on a miracle that well above 100,000 Jews live in Germany today,” seven decades after the Nazi Holocaust. After the end of World War II, only around 15,000 remained in Germany.

“It is a monstrous scandal that people in Germany today are being abused if they are somehow recognizable as Jews or if they stand up for the state of Israel,” she said. “I will not accept that and we will not accept that.”

Of course, I can’t possibly understand why such a fuss is being made over this issue in Germany–or elsewhere, for that matter. After all, I was of the understanding that “anti-Semitism scarcely exists in the West.”

Let’s Please Stop Bragging about Our “Achievements” in Syria

During President Obama’s address to the nation this past Wednesday, he said the following:

Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world.  It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists.  It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny.  It is America –- our scientists, our doctors, our know-how –- that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola.  It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so that they can’t pose a threat to the Syrian people or the world again.  And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, and tolerance, and a more hopeful future.

(Emphasis mine.) Ahem:

A toxic chemical, probably chlorine, was used as a weapon to attack Syrian villages in April, an international watchdog agency confirmed on Wednesday.

The conclusion, based on months of investigation by a fact-finding team, appeared to indicate that the Syrian government was continuing to use chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, despite having agreed to forswear the weapons, surrender its arsenal and tear down its manufacturing plants.

The agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, said in a statement from its headquarters in The Hague that the information its team had collected provided “compelling evidence” that the toxic chemical was used “systematically and repeatedly” in Talmanes, Al Tamanah and Kafr Zet, three villages in northern Syria.

It said it had “a high degree of confidence that chlorine, pure or in mixture, is the toxic chemical in question,” based on the descriptions, physical properties, behavior of the gas, and signs and symptoms resulting from exposure, as well as the way victims responded to treatment.

The fact finders did not specify who had conducted the chlorine attacks. But its full report, which has been shown so far only to governments, is understood to leave little doubt that the Syrian government was responsible.

Michael Luhan, a spokesman for the organization, said in a telephone interview that witnesses cited in the report saw bombs dropped from high-flying helicopters that released the gas on impact. Of all the combatants in the civil war, only the Syrian government is known to have the ability to conduct such an aerial attack.

The fact-finding team said it was continuing to investigate reports of subsequent chlorine attacks, including a spate of new allegations in August.

(Emphasis mine.) I suppose this is why the president was careful to say that the United States helped get rid of Syria’s declared chemical weapons. The undeclared ones are continuing to be quite the irritant, aren’t they? And their continued presence makes it abundantly clear that this administration has not come close to achieving its objectives in Syria.

Barack Obama Is Not George W. Bush

As Bruce Ackerman–who is no one’s idea of a right-wing legal theorist–points out, George W. Bush never came close to running the type of imperial presidency that his successor is running:

PRESIDENT OBAMA’s declaration of war against the terrorist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria marks a decisive break in the American constitutional tradition. Nothing attempted by his predecessor, George W. Bush, remotely compares in imperial hubris.

Mr. Bush gained explicit congressional consent for his invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In contrast, the Obama administration has not even published a legal opinion attempting to justify the president’s assertion of unilateral war-making authority. This is because no serious opinion can be written.

This became clear when White House officials briefed reporters before Mr. Obama’s speech to the nation on Wednesday evening. They said a war against ISIS was justified by Congress’s authorization of force against Al Qaeda after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that no new approval was needed.

But the 2001 authorization for the use of military force does not apply here. That resolution — scaled back from what Mr. Bush initially wanted — extended only to nations and organizations that “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. Obama is rightly proud of his success in killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 and dismantling the Qaeda network he built up. But it’s preposterous to suggest that a congressional vote 13 years ago can be used to legalize new bombings in Syria and additional (noncombat) forces in Iraq. In justifying earlier bombing campaigns in Yemen and Somalia, the administration’s lawyers claimed that the 2001 authorization covered terrorist groups that did not even exist back then. They said it sufficed to show that these groups were “affiliated” with Al Qaeda.

Even this was a big stretch, and it is not big enough to encompass the war on ISIS. Not only was ISIS created long after 2001, but Al Qaeda publicly disavowed it earlier this year. It is Al Qaeda’s competitor, not its affiliate.

Mr. Obama may rightly be frustrated by gridlock in Washington, but his assault on the rule of law is a devastating setback for our constitutional order. His refusal even to ask the Justice Department to provide a formal legal pretext for the war on ISIS is astonishing.

I cannot agree more, and of course, it should come as no surprise that the anti-war crowd–which protested George W. Bush’s policies at the drop of a hat and which made him out to be some kind of dictator–has been largely silent in the face of the Obama administration’s consistent efforts to undermine constitutional principles.

Quote of the Day

In January, 2012, Michael McFaul, a tenured political scientist from Stanford and President Obama’s chief adviser on Russia through the first term, arrived in Moscow with his wife and two sons to begin work as the United States Ambassador. In Palo Alto and Washington, D.C., the McFauls had lived in modest houses. In Moscow they took up residence at Spaso House, a vast neoclassical mansion that was built by one of the wealthiest industrialists in imperial Russia. Spaso features a vaulted formal dining room and a chandeliered ballroom, where William C. Bullitt, the U.S. Ambassador in the thirties, used to throw parties complete with trained seals serving trays of champagne and, on one memorable occasion, a menagerie of white roosters, free-flying finches, grumpy mountain goats, and a rambunctious bear. One guest, Mikhail Bulgakov, wrote about the bash in his novel “The Master and Margarita.” Another, Karl Radek, a co-author of the 1936 Soviet constitution, got the bear drunk. The bear might have survived the decade. Radek, who fell out with Stalin, did not.

David Remnick, who paints a fascinating picture of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and the failure of former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul to fit in there, and represent American interests properly and effectively. No offense to McFaul, who was–and I am sure continues to be–filled in with the best of intentions, and whose tenure was filled with attempts by the Putin regime to undermine him as a way of getting at the United States, but can future American ambassadors to Russia be professional diplomats/politicians who are realists and are fluent in Russian? It would help in the effort to push back against Putin’s anti-Americanism, and his attempts to advance the Novorossiya myth.

In Which I Have a Very Bad Feeling about Our Newest Intervention in Iraq

Back when George W. Bush was president and launched the war against Iraq, he got accused by everyone under the sun of having failed to listen to the advice of his generals. Implicit in the criticisms, of course, was the suggestion that after the Bushian Era of Darkness, no Democratic president–and especially no president who was a prominent critic of George W. Bush and his administration–would make the same mistake.

With that basic history in mind, read this:

. . Responding to a White House request for options to confront the Islamic State, Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said that his best military advice was to send a modest contingent of American troops, principally Special Operations forces, to advise and assist Iraqi army units in fighting the militants, according to two U.S. military officials. The recommendation, conveyed to the White House by Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cast aside in favor of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role, a step adamantly opposed by the White House. Instead, Obama had decided to send an additional 475 U.S. troops to assist Iraqi and ethnic Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment.Recommitting ground combat forces to Iraq would have been highly controversial, and most likely would have been opposed by a substantial majority of Americans. But Austin’s predecessor, retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, said the decision not to send ground troops poses serious risks to the mission.

Of course, it ought to go without saying that the people who would have excoriated George W. Bush for failing to listen to his generals will say nothing whatsoever about this little episode. And of course, we ought to be more than a little concerned about the White House’s belief that air power, and 475 troops will constitute a sufficient counterinsurgency force capable of defeating ISIL. We are entering a war while pretending that it isn’t a war, and we are claiming to focus on achieving victory while taking actions that will only serve to tie our hands militarily and undermine us. The Obama administration had better thank its lucky stars that this is not a parliamentary democracy; if it were, a vote of no confidence would surely be in the offing.

The New, New Iraq War

Yesterday was September 10, 2014, and to mark the occasion, the president of the United States decided to give a speech that had a September 10, 2001 mindset about it. I suppose that I could take the time to fisk it (hey, remember fisking?), but I’m rather lazy this evening, and frankly, what is the point? If you want to see my realtime reaction, check my Twitter feed (start with this tweet, and end with this one). Basically, my concerns boil down to the following:

  • There is no definition of “victory.”
  • There is no way on this or any other planet that we are going to achieve a decisive victory over ISIL via airpower alone.
  • It is utterly foolish to announce to the enemy that he doesn’t have to worry about us putting boots on the ground.
  • We are in this war because we pulled out of Iraq too soon, a pullout we pretended constituted a victory.

Oh, and by the way, I guess this means that Barack Obama is officially a neoconservative now. There is nothing about his speech that would sound strange coming out of the mouths of people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Paul Wolfowitz or anyone else commonly known as a neoconservative.1 Is this what Obama voters expected when they cast their ballots in 2008 and 2012? I suspect not, so if Obama voters aren’t outraged by recent developments, they aren’t paying attention. Their man wasn’t supposed to turn into George W. Bush, after all. Please, oh please, oh please let us never again claim that this administration is filled with realists, or that this president has a healthy appreciation for the virtues of realpolitik.

David Frum:

Qua speech, Barack Obama’s address Wednesday on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was surprisingly terrible: a disorganized mess, insincere and unconvincing. To appreciate just how bad and bizarre it was, compare the president’s speech announcing a new air campaign in Iraq and Syria to Dwight Eisenhower’s 1958 statement on his decision to intervene in Lebanon with 14,000—14,000!—troops. The statement contains no chest-thumping about America’s leadership in science and medicine. No pivot to the auto industry and medical research. Eisenhower simply explained what had been done, and why.

There was no such declarative clarity in Obama’s speech last night. Has any past president announced military action with such ambivalence and unease? “Mr. President,” one imagines a reporter shouting, “how sure are you that you’re doing the right thing?” “On a scale of 1 to 10?” Obama replies. “About a 6.”

The real fault in the address, however, was not its delivery or its writing, but rather its content. The president spoke to the nation without answering the most important questions that such a speech raises.

[. . .]

In plain English: We don’t really have a plan. We don’t have a definition of success. We see some evildoers and we’re going to whack them. They deserve it, don’t they?

And sure, ISIS does deserve it. The group is a nasty collection of slavers, rapists, thieves, throat-slitters, and all-around psychopaths. The trouble is: so are the people fighting ISIS, the regimes in Tehran and Damascus that will reap the benefits of the war the president just announced. They may be less irrational and unpredictable than ISIS. But if anything, America’s new unspoken allies in the anti-ISIS war actually represent a greater “challenge to international order” and a more significant “threat to America’s core interests” than the vicious characters the United States will soon drop bombs on.

The question before the nation is, “What is the benefit of this war to America and to Americans?”

That was the question the speech left unanswered. And the ominous suspicion left behind is that the question was unanswered because it is unanswerable—at least, not answerable in any terms likely to be acceptable to the people watching the speech and paying the taxes to finance the fight ahead.

Oh, and according to the secretary of state, despite the fact that we are out “to degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group known as ISIL” (the president’s words from last night’s speech), we aren’t actually in a war with ISIL. Rather,

“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Kerry told CNN’s Elise Labott in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”

Words matter. Of course we are in a war with ISIL, the cluelessness with which we are fighting this war notwithstanding. Pretending otherwise (a) fools no one who is actually paying attention to what is going on; and (b) only serves to foster a policy of delusion amongst policymakers responsible for the prosecution of this war. And yes, that last should scare you.

1. Ignore for the moment the fact that there are a lot of people out there who are unfairly tagged with the label “neoconservative,” including Cheney and Rumsfeld.

How Did Steven Salaita Ever Get an Offer from the University of Illinois in the First Place?

As I have written before, Steven Salaita likely has both a breach of contract claim and a First Amendment claim against the University of Illinois for revoking his job offer. But that doesn’t mean that he should have been offered a job in the first place, and one would hope that the University of Illinois–and other universities–will vet candidates more thoroughly in the future, before offering them tenured or tenure-track positions teaching students and conducting research. (And yes, this includes checking to see what candidates have written on social media.)

I mean, how does someone with Salaita’s poor scholarship record actually convince any university that s/he would make a fine addition to that university’s faculty?

The first thing one learns about Salaita is that very little of what he has written seems to have anything to do with the field of study in which he claims expertise and in which he was offered a job, American Indian Studies. Look at the shelf of works authored by Salaita and you’ll see Arab American Literary Fictions, Cultures and Politics; Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from and What it Means for Politics Today; Modern Arab American Fiction: A Reader’s Guide; a review of a book about Hamas, in which Salaita refers to the terrorist group as “an often contradictory and always compelling social movement”; and other titles that have absolutely nothing to do with the Sioux or the Seminoles. Salaita’s most notable work about Native Americans, The Holy Land in Transit, compares them to the Palestinians. One could argue that such a dearth of publications in a scholar’s stated area of scholarship is telling; but for the sake of grace, let us ignore Salaita’s singular dedication to Palestinian and Arab political causes—an approach more befitting of an activist’s dogmatic and narrow focus than of a scholar’s commitment to curiosity and open-mindedness—and assume that his work transcends the boundaries of discipline and is somehow instructive even if not on topic.

Sadly, reading Salaita’s work does not reward such generosity of spirit. Take, for example, the title of his latest book: Israel’s Dead Soul. Given that the book was published by a serious university press and is therefore bound by more stringent expectations than the ones that govern Twitter, why the inflammatory title?

Salaita’s attempts at an explanation are telling. He begins the book by citing a slew of articles concerned, however tangentially, with Israel’s soul, whatever that might be, everything from Daniel Gordis extolling the Jewish state’s decision to trade Palestinian prisoners for the bodies of two abducted Israelis to a harangue by Richard Silverstein about the violence the IDF commits against animals (in a display of dispassionate adherence to the facts, Salaita refers to the Israeli army not by its proper name but as the IOF, or the Israeli Occupation Forces). Such diversity of opinion would suggest that Israel’s soul is subject of a lively and robust discussion; Salaita, however, has other conclusions in mind.

First of all, he informs his readers that an obsession with a national soul is a quality unique to Israel. A brief Google search would have informed Salaita that Americans seem just as concerned with the national soul as their Israeli counterparts: The History Channel, for example, posted an online curriculum concerning the Scopes Trial titled “The Battle Over America’s Soul,” and the formulation made its way into the subtitle of a 2008 book about the battle between evolution and intelligent design. Reclaiming America’s soul was the subject of a widely circulated column by Paul Krugman, and no less Olympian a chronicler of America than Ken Burns declared that  “our national parks feed America’s soul.” This, naturally, is a careless selection of random examples that tells us nothing about America or its soul. Salaita, sadly, never offers anything more profound to support his substantial claims about Israel.

What he does offer are more wild generalities. “Those who chatter about Israel’s declining soul long ago killed it by agonizing it to death,” he writes. The notion that soul-searching leads to soullessness is preposterous, of course—a soul, like good soil, is more fertile the more it is tilled—so Salaita proceeds immediately into a strange disclaimer, arguing that he does not even believe states have souls, “metaphysically or metaphorically.” Again, it’s a statement that raises more questions than it answers—if states haven’t souls, how might Israel’s be dead? And again, Salaita is quick with another rhetorical and baseless escalation: “Israel,” he writes directly after having rejected the possibility of the concept of a national soul, “is the least likely of nations to have a soul, given its creation through ethnic cleansing.” It doesn’t take a scholar of Native American studies to think of another nation that rose into being by means of a bloody conflict with an indigenous population; Salaita mentions none of it. To him, Israel stands alone, an unparalleled and monstrous offender like no other, logical and historical demands be damned.

Such monomaniacal focus is hard to explain away, and Salaita, to his credit, knows that he ought to at least try. “I am not singling out Israel in this book,” he writes, “I am focusing on it with ardent determination and have no interest in absolving Israel or any other state either voluntarily or involuntarily. My analysis arises from a careful exploration of multitudinous sources.” This defense is laughable. First, Salaita never explains why, if he is not singling out Israel, did he choose not only to devote an entire book to its failings, some real and most imagined, but also to forgo any attempt at placing its struggles in context. If you believe, as Salaita does, that Israel is an ethnonationalist monolith engaged in systemic oppression of its neighbors in order to sustain its mythological view of itself and feed its territorial hunger, you might be interested in Russia, say, which is doing precisely the same thing in its corner of the world, with far more devastating results than anything even Israel’s harshest critics could reasonably claim. Salaita’s “careful exploration of multitudinous sources” is just as bogus: Israel, he tells us in one representative paragraph, can accurately be described an apartheid state responsible for ethnic cleansing because Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have so decreed.

More evidence that Salaita is not a serious thinker is offered by David Bernstein. Consider Salaita’s reviews of books on Goodreads–note that at the top, Professor Bernstein informs us that Salaita’s Goodreads page was wiped clean “within and hour and half of [the Bernstein post] going up”:

Two things become pretty obvious if you start reading some reviews (there are over 1,000 of them, so I admittedly only looked at a fraction.) The first is that you can predict how much he will like any book relating to Israel and the Middle East based on whether the book comports with his political views.  He apparently rarely if ever learns anything useful from books that don’t–including books by far leftists like Michael Lerner, if they purport to be Zionists.  The second is that he can be just as intemperate in other contexts as in his controversial tweets.

Here are a few examples.

A review of What Israel Means to Me: “I don’t need to hear from the sanctimonious pricks in this book.” If you read the whole brief review, it certainly calls into question the degree to which Salaita can be tolerant of students or colleagues who express pro-Israel views, as he seems to think that anyone who has warm feelings for Israel is inherently a “sanctimonious prick”–surely all eighty essayists in the book don’t have anything else in common. (Here’s a wayback machine link.)

A review of  Israeli leftist Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel: “Amos Oz is to incisive political writing what Leni Riefenstahl was to socially conscious filmmaking.”   That’s the entire review. (Here’s a Google cache link).

A review of Narnie Darwish’s They Call Me Infidel, which he acknowledges he never read: “Given Darwish’s annoying propensity to confuse reality with her well-timed con artistry, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s disingenuously substituting ‘infidel’ for ‘idiot,’ ‘imbecile,’ ‘ignoramus,’ or ‘impostor.’” (Here’s a Google cache link.)

[. . .]

And while Salaita’s advocates have ably (and reasonably persuasively, I think, though I haven’t followed the controversy extremely closely) defended him from the charge that his controversial  tweets endorsed anti-Semitism (I’d say some of them were more anti-anti-anti-Semitism), I’m not sure it would be as easy to defend this review of Abe Foxman’s The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control from the charge of anti-Semitism:This is sheer accidental brilliance. It has to be one of the few books ever published in which the author’s body of work so adeptly undermines his thesis.” It’s hard to understand this as something other than Salaita endorsing the “myth” that Jews do control things. (Here’s how Publisher’s Weekly sums up the book’s thesis: “a rebuttal of a pernicious theory about a mythically powerful Jewish lobby.” So there is a mythically powerful Jewish lobby, and Foxman’s career proves it?) (Here’s a Google cache link.)

So, Salaita is a bad writer and a bad thinker who criticizes books that he hasn’t even read, and who reflexively allows an anti-Israel–and yes, an anti-Semitic–bias to color his writings. And when he is taken apart by the likes of Professor Bernstein, Salaita doesn’t even possess the intellectual courage to leave his reviews up and let others read them in order to make up their own minds as to whether or not Salaita’s reviews have any merit. No, instead, Salaita scrubs his site clean, hoping that this will make it impossible for others to see what he has written. I don’t know what is more ridiculous; the lousy reviews, the intellectual cowardice that causes Salaita to take the reviews down instead of owning them and standing by them, or the utterly naïve belief that a cached website can be erased and that others won’t be able to find archived versions of the website on the Internet.

More from Professor Bernstein, who read the Tablet piece quoted above, and who starts off the following excerpt by quoting from it:

“Hillel and other Jewish civic organizations render themselves distinctly responsible for Israel’s violence by proclaiming themselves guardians of the state’s consciousness,” he writes. “Moreover, they perform a nonconsensual appropriation of all Jewish people into the service of state policies that render the culture indefensible along with the state policies that are said to arise from the culture. It is never a good idea, even through the trope of strategic essentialism, to link an ethnic group to a military apparatus. Such a move automatically justifies discourses—in this case anti-Semitic ones—that should never be justifiable.”

But don’t worry, I’ve discovered that earlier in the same book,  he tell us that “I want to be clear that I am not blaming anti-Semitism on Jews.”  That’s a relief, because I thought if Jewish culture had rendered itself indefensible because of Jewish organizations’ ties to Israel, and that justifies anti-Semitic discourse, he might actually be blaming Jews for he anti-Semitism. So I’m glad he cleared that up in advance.

Despite the academic gobbleygook, Salaita has nevertheless persuaded me of the underlying logic of his position. As a result, because he is a Palestinian-American who has defended Hamas, I hereby, among other things, hold Salaita distinctly responsible for Hamas’s terrorist violence, violence against gays, suppression of women, execution of suspects without due process, corruption, use of human shields, and so on and so forth by proclaiming himself guardian of Hamas’s consciousness. Or  at least I would if I had any idea of what being guardian of a non-sentinent organization’s consciousness could possibly mean. Moreover, Salaita’s identification with Palestinian nationalism justifies discourses that should never be justified. Not that I’m blaming Salaita for those discourses, of course.

As the kids say, “ooh, burn!” Be sure to read all the way to the end of Professor Bernstein’s post, where he notes that Salaita identifies the “oppressors” of Palestinians as “the Jews.”

Not “the Israelis.” Not “the Zionists.” Not “the Netanyahu government.” “[T]he Jews.” And they say that Steven Salaita isn’t an anti-Semite.

Bruce Shipman Has Resigned

I know that I am late in reporting it, but here is the story; my original post on the matter can be found here, with a follow-up here. Amazingly enough, there are people who bemoan the fact that Shipman has been criticized for claiming that anti-Semitism is on the rise because of Israel’s actions in defending itself against Hamas’s aggression, and for stating that the only way for anti-Semitism to recede would be for Jewish people “Israel’s patrons” to pressure the Netanyahu government to act in a way that Bruce Shipman would find pleasing. Intellectually, I understand that there are any number of people out there who will come up with whatever excuse they need to in order to justify, excuse, explain away or sweep under the rug blatant displays of prejudice and bigotry against Jews. But running across new examples of anti-Semitism–not to mention enablers of anti-Semitic sentiments–never fails to appall and disgust.

Fortunately, sanity is not out of style. The Tablet story reporting the Shipman resignation links to Walter Russell Mead, who eviscerates Shipman:

No, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be a realization among cretins that “the Jews” are a group of people with very different opinions and desires, that they do not act in concert, and that individual Yale students, for example, of Jewish descent who are American citizens have zero responsibility for any policies of the government of Israel. Anti-Semitism is like racism: most racists don’t think of themselves as racists and most anti-Semites similarly don’t recognize their own twisted prejudice. Perhaps the chaplain at Yale should reflect on the passage in which a well known first century Jewish rabbi urged his followers to take the log out of their own eye before trying to take the splinter out of someone else’s.

We hope the chaplain is as eager to explain to BDS activists and other misguided young people that it is anti-Semitic to claim that the Jewish people, alone among the peoples of the world, have no right to self-determination and that Israel is therefore illegitimate—and that it is anti-Semitic for non-Jews to hold Israel to a higher standard of morality than they hold other countries around the world. It is also a symptom of anti-Semitic hatred to wax disproportionately wroth about Israeli violations of Palestinian rights. We hope the chaplain has written many letters to the New York Times denouncing the much graver abuses of human rights that are so frequently committed in our sad and fallen world. We hope his emotions run just as hot and heavy when he reflects on the treatment of Christians in the Arab world and the wretchedly misnamed “Islamic Republic” of Pakistan, of Rohingyas in Burma, of Tamils in Sri Lanka and on and on and on.

Mead shouldn’t hold his breath, but his pushback against Shipman’s “thoughts” is as refreshing as it is bracing.

Scottish Independence is a Terrible Idea

As this editorial makes clear. No excerpts; read the whole thing. It is astonishing to see that people like Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (which is the chief force behind Scottish independence), are willing to tear apart a perfectly good and successful union in Great Britain in order to make Scotland independent and cause it to be impoverished in the process. But this is the absurd situation in which Scotland and Britain find themselves. One can only hope that reason and sanity prevail in Scotland, but given the sudden momentum behind independence, if I had to bet, I would wager that Scotland will in fact break apart from Britain, thus rendering both Scotland and Britain less consequential, prosperous and powerful in the process.

Funny ‘Cause It’s True

Via John Podhoretz, via social media, comes the following humorous and accurate appraisal of media coverage of the Middle East:

A CNN Reporter, BBC Reporter, and an Israeli commando were captured by terrorists in Iraq. The leader of the terrorists told them that he would grant them each one last request before they were beheaded.

The CNN Reporter said, “Well, I’m an American, so I’d like one last hamburger with French fries.” The leader nodded to an underling who left and returned with the burger & fries. The reporter ate it and said “Now, I can die.”

The BBC Reporter said, “I’m a reporter to the end. I want to take out my tape recorder and describe the scene here and what’s about to happen. Maybe someday someone will hear it and know that I was on the job till the end.” The terror leader directed an aide to hand over the tape recorder and dictated some comments. The reporter then said, “Now I can die knowing I stayed true until the end.”

The leader turned and said, “And now, Mr. Israeli tough guy, what is your final wish?”

“Kick me in the ass,” said the soldier.

“What?” asked the leader, “Will you mock us in your last hour?”

“No, I’m not kidding. I want you to kick me in the ass,” insisted the Israeli. So the leader shoved him into the open and kicked him in the ass.

The soldier went sprawling, but rolled to his knees, pulled a 9 mm pistol from under his flak jacket, and shot the leader dead. In the resulting confusion, he jumped to his knapsack, pulled out his carbine and sprayed the terrorists with gunfire. In a flash, all terrorists were either dead or fleeing for their lives.

As the soldier was untying the reporters, they asked him, “Why didn’t you just shoot them in the beginning? Why did you ask them to kick you in the ass first?”

“What?” replied the Israeli, “and have you report that I was the aggressor?”


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