Sunday, August 31, 2014

Foreign Policy: Obama Readies a “September Surprise”

“I don't want to put the cart before the horse. We don't have a strategy yet.”

--Barack Obama, 8.28.14
Iran Foreign Minsiter Mohammad Javad Zarif with Sec. John Kerry
People are unfairly jumping on the president for his “no strategy” comment. Obama does have a strategy. He’s just not ready to spring it on us. When he does, he hopes it will have the impact that John Kennedy’s “October surprise”--the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis--had on that year’s mid-term congressional elections. Hapless Republicans arguing at the time that Kennedy was soft on Cuba ended up embarrassed and their party defeated. Obama is about not only to be tough on ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), but also dramatic: Obama is readying an anti-ISIS coalition he hopes will include current enemy Iran.

We have argued that President Obama is moving toward a rapprochement with Iran that will be a lesser version of President Nixon’s dramatic 1971-72 opening to China. Evidence this move is on the way continues to mount. FOX News correspondent James Rosen recently reported that
Iran – one of four countries the United States accuses of supporting terrorism – has begun arming the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, as the Kurds scramble to combat the threat posed by ISIS. . . Dr. Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, a former Kurdish Cabinet officer [said] in an interview. “If you are in the place of the Kurds, what would you do when you’re facing that? You would ask for help from any neighbor.”
The link-up of Iran with Iraq’s Kurds is a surprise, because, as Rosen says, Iran
has used brutal means to suppress Iran’s own population of 8 million Kurds, whose yearning for independence matches that of their Iraqi brethren. By steering arms to the Iraqi Kurds, . . . the Iranians may be trying simultaneously to weaken the military position of ISIS and use influence with the Kurds to slow their bid for complete autonomy.
The Iran-Kurd link makes more sense if we notice that Iran’s backing a U.S. ally in the fight against the terrorist ISIS moves Iran and the U.S. itself closer together against the common enemy, along the path foreign policy guru Les Gelb earlier recommended.

 Peter Beinart, like Gelb a liberal New York City-based Jewish critic of Israel associated with New York’s Council on Foreign Relations, has in the Atlantic similarly hinted at an Iran-U.S. link. Beinart has done so by separating Iran from terrorist entities such as ISIS that plan for direct attacks on the U.S.

According to Beinart, Obama has a coherent strategy: it’s “don’t take on any foreign entity except al Qaeda-related forces.” That means leaving Iran alone:
Obama’s strategy—whether you like it or not—is [h]undreds of thousands can die in Syria; the Taliban can menace and destabilize Afghanistan; Iran can move closer to getting a bomb. No matter. With rare exceptions, Obama only unsheathes his sword against people he thinks might kill American civilians.  . . Electoral politics has driven him in the same direction. There’s a reason Obama spent his reelection campaign declaring that it’s time to “focus on nation-building here at home.” Those declarations won him votes.
Already, we can see the outlines of the coming Iran-U.S. anti-ISIS coalition in Secretary of State John Kerry’s Friday New York Times “we DO have a strategy” op ed. Kerry wrote that ISIS:
if left unchecked, will not be satisfied at stopping with Syria and Iraq. . . Even as they butcher Shiite Muslims and Christians in their effort to touch off a broader ethnic and sectarian conflict, they pursue a calculated strategy of killing fellow Sunni Muslims. . . With . . . the broadest possible coalition of nations, the cancer of ISIS will not be allowed to spread to other countries. . . The United States will hold the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in September, and . . . President Obama will lead a summit meeting . . . to put forward a plan to deal with this collective threat. . . no decent country can support the horrors perpetrated by ISIS, and no civilized country should shirk its responsibility to help stamp out this disease.
Drawing Iran into an anti-ISIS coalition works for Syria, Turkey, Qatar, Hezbollah, Shia Iraq, and Hamas, all already on Iran’s side. But it is most certainly a problem for Israel and Iran’s Sunni Muslim enemies worried about a nuclear, terrorist-helping Iran. Iran’s growing power has brought together Israel with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. Re-read Kerry’s words above. He’s not addressing Shia Iran when he talks of ISIS pursuing “a calculated strategy of killing fellow Sunni Muslims.”

Discussion about Obama’s lack of strategy, along with growing signs some sort of major foreign policy re-alignment is afoot--one that possibly includes a surprise patterned after Nixon’s trip to China--has prompted the 91-year-old Henry Kissinger to educate us once again. Kissinger still believes in the relevancy of the nation-state, balance-of-power strategy he feels kept the peace in his time. Kissinger writes in the Wall Street Journal:
The clash between the international economy and the political institutions that ostensibly govern it . . . weakens the sense of common purpose necessary for world order. The economic system has become global, while the political structure of the world remains based on the nation-state. Economic globalization, in its essence, ignores national frontiers. Foreign policy affirms them.
Yet although Kissinger honors nation states, they are growing ever more irrelevant in the Middle East. Aren’t we able to see that though Kissinger is right about the power of the global economy to disrupt the traditional order worldwide, the chief counterforce isn’t the nation state?  Rather, it’s religion in the form of anti-modern Islam, whether Sunni extremism or Shia extremism, and whether Mecca- or Tehran- or ISIS-based.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Coming U.S.-Iran(-Russia) Axis

Valerie Jarrett with Iran Flag
Former Council of Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb continues to press for Obama to partner with Iran.  Gelb is apparently seeking a U.S. foreign policy surprise that parallels what Henry Kissinger achieved with his secret 1971 trip to China on the eve of U.S. defeat in Vietnam. When Kissinger sold rapprochement with China to President Nixon, the two turned disaster into triumph.

Iran is no China, and America’s Middle East problems, serious as they are, don’t compare to the dangers we faced in the Nixon-Kissinger Cold War era. Partnering with Iran would be a pale imitation of Nixon’s opening to China. Nevertheless, here’s evidence, in his latest writings, of Gelb’s effort to replicate the Kissinger strategy:  
  •  Gelb kisses up to his “boss” in Kissinger-like fashion, writing,
Mr. Obama always says a lot of smart things—and mostly without Hillary-like hedges. Much more than most foreign policy blabbermouths, he is attuned to the underlying centrality of politics in most world problems, and to the need to seek diplomatic solutions.
  • As did Kissinger, Gelb shifts focus to a new enemy to justify a new partner:
If the jihadis are allowed to . . . gain a strong foothold in the Middle East, all other neighboring nations will be seriously jeopardized. But these are not stakes for America alone. The costs are great for dozens of nations. . . the United States . . . must have partners and allies. The jihadis are a direct threat to Assad’s Syria, Russia, Iran. . . Yes, Moscow and Tehran are troublesome[, but] they feel as or more threatened by the jihadis, and would be as or more willing than Washington to contribute to the jihadi defeat. . . which is the bigger threat, Assad or the jihadis, the jihadis or Iran?
We fought in Vietnam to contain China. Kissinger told Nixon the real enemy wasn’t China, it was the Soviet Union. Nixon agreed; paving the way for America's opening to China.

Now Gelb is pushing Obama toward declaring the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)” the principal enemy (even as he calls them, "only about 327.   .   . riding in circles around the mountains to make it look like they have 2 million"), instead of the Iran-Russia-Syria-Turkey-Qatar-Hezbollah-Hamas grouping that threatens Israel; potentially including a nuclear-armed Iran able to threaten us.

I think Gelb is dangerous, even more so because the Iran-born Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s closest confidante, presumably agrees with Gelb.  Lest you think me an alarmist, read this latest from sober conservative sage Walter Russell Mead:
If there is one fixed star in the administration’s Middle East policy it has been the belief that a ‘grand bargain’ with Iran offers the best hope for regional stabilization. From the campaign trail back in the Democratic primary season in 2008 right up through the current round of negotiations with Iran, President Obama has done his best to steer American policy toward some kind of arrangement with the government in Tehran.
many of the President’s advisers share a belief that the rise of ISIS is as frightening to the mullahs as it is to the West, and that the new jihadi peril will therefore strengthen the factions in Iran who believe in compromise with the West. They will. . . urge President Obama to . . . seize the opportunity for a breakthrough with Iran. U.S. negotiators will sweat blood to meet the new November deadline in talks with Tehran. . . and militarily we may even look for ways to cooperate with Iran against ISIS.
Comment: You can bet “many advisers” means Jarrett. And you can bet this line of thinking freaks out Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf states, and most especially Israel. Still, the pleading tone of Gelb’s article suggests Obama may not yet have signed on to a dramatic “opening to Iran.”

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Don't "Party Like It’s 1669"

Charles II (r. 1660-1685)
“What you’ve seen with our politics. . . partly because of the Balkanization of media so people just watch what reinforces their deepest biases, partly because of big money in politics, is increasingly politicians are rewarded for taking the most extreme, maximalist positions.”

--Barack Obama, to New York Timesman Tom Friedman

We have offered three lessons for those who would “tip” America away from its current progressive rule:
  • expose the corruption of Democratic crony capitalism at the top; 
  • fight for control of American popular culture without losing one’s values, and;
  • run female and minority candidates for higher office, including president. 
We’ll take up crony capitalism later. That conservatives must seek out female and minority candidates is obvious on its face. That leaves culture, and the need to contest liberal domination of it.

What our progressive president means when he describes (see above) our politics as 1) Balkanized, 2) dominated by money, and 3) catering to extremism, is that our system 1) is insufficiently progressive, 2) lacks a liberal campaign financing monopoly (in spite of Obama’s 400+ fundraisers), and 3) has yet to crush its “most extreme, maximalist” opposition.

In short, Obama wants the England of Charles II, culturally libertine with a king powerful enough to keep Parliament dissolved. He wants England before the Glorious Revolution (1688) yielded parliamentary rule, before John Locke promulgated an individual right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

A ratings system known as the Bechdel test suggests why the left may not deserve its current cultural monopoly. The Bechdel test looks at how women are portrayed in film. In order to pass the test, a film must accomplish three things:
  1. It has to have at least two named women in it; 
  2. Those two named women must talk to each other and; 
  3. Those two named women must talk to each other about something other than a man. 
According to Katie Pavlich, conservative author of Assault and Flattery:
A majority of major Hollywood films fail the Bechdel test. . . The entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, all “Star Wars” movies, “The Social Network,” “Pulp Fiction,” and all but one of the “Harry Potter” movies fail this test. . . When the Bechdel test was applied to major 2013 films in the United States, the majority of them failed.
So Hollywood--misogynistic?

Conservative Andrew Breitbart (1969-2012) used to say that politics is downstream of culture, meaning “any truly successful political turnaround needs to start by changing popular attitudes.” Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg agrees that Hollywood is liberal, but argues America isn’t. Hollywood liberals support abortion rights, but since “Maude,” sitcoms don’t talk about abortion, and nearly every pregnant TV character treats her unborn child as if it’s already a human being.

Goldberg reminds us that:
The Left may be anti-military, but such movies tend to do poorly, which is why we see more pro-military films. Similarly, it’s a safe bet that Hollywood liberals loathe guns. But you wouldn’t know that by what they produce. Not many action stars save the day by quoting a poem. Most Hollywood liberals probably oppose the death penalty, yet they make lots of movies where the bad guy meets a grisly death to the cheers of the audience. The Left rolls its eyes at “family values,” but family values are at the heart of most successful sitcoms and dramas.
One explanation is that while it is true that culture is upstream from politics, reality and, I would argue, morality are upstream from culture. Good stories must align with reality and a sense of justice. They can be set in space or Middle Earth, but if they don’t tap into something real about the human condition, they will fail. As Margaret Thatcher used to say, “The facts of life are conservative.”
It’s true that conservative cultural successes don’t necessarily last--“Duck Dynasty” being a recent example. Still, we are once again witnessing the odd phenomena of conservative box office successes. From an article by the AP’s Lucas Johnson II:
It's the Hollywood ending every studio wants: Low-cost production and high returns at the box office. Filmmakers Alex and Stephen Kendrick seem to have the formula down — grossing nearly $80 million on four films made for less than $4 million combined. Only thing is the Kendrick brothers work far from Hollywood and, outside the world of Christian-themed cinema, many have never heard of their films.
At one point in April, there were four faith-based movies in the Top 20 at the box office, including "Heaven Is for Real," about a 4-year-old boy's account of his trip to heaven. It has grossed more than $99 million on a production budget of $12 million by Sony Pictures.
"Hollywood has taken note," said DeVon Franklin, former Sony senior vice president of production, who oversaw "Heaven Is for Real." The Kendrick brothers . . . are making movies that could see wider release as distributors pay attention to the box office trends in the traditional Bible Belt and beyond. . .While the Kendricks have found success, they're still in the shadows of faith-centric blockbusters like "Noah," which was released in March and has made more than $359 million at the global box office on a production budget of $125 million.
Two possible lessons for dispirited conservatives: 1) Hollywood may not be so liberal after all, and 2) the over-riding urge to make money may explain lesson #1.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The “Tipping Point” Years: 1863, 1914, 1964, 20??

1968: "The Year That.   .   . "
Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.

--Douglas Adams (1952-2001), author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

1863 is an obvious--and well-marked--”tipping point” year. Slavery ended with 1863‘s Emancipation Proclamation, with the new America defined in Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, but most importantly with Gettysburg itself, the battle from which the forces defending slavery never recovered. 1863.

As for the latest “tipping point,” Peggy Noonan talks about a country heading for a crack-up, the very morning after I watched the CNN “Sixties” show on 1968. Now 1968 was America going through a crack-up.  So far, 2014 is no 1968.

Nor does it seem to be even a 1964.

1968 ended post-war America’s muscular Democratic administrations, but 1964 was the New Deal/Fair Deal/New Frontier/Great Society’s “tipping point” year. 1964 was the year of civil rights triumph: Lyndon Johnson orchestrating passage of the law that at last, a century after the Civil War ended, gave blacks their hard-earned place in the sun. It was also a year of Johnson personal triumph; he slaughtered Barry Goldwater in the Fall presidential election, carrying two-thirds of Congress with him.

But 1964 actually turned on what didn’t happen: Kennedy’s “best and brightest” team failed to steer Johnson away from Vietnam, the war that ruined his presidency, transformed his party, and divided the nation. 1964 unfolded in the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, which devastated American optimism, of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s assassination that guaranteed deepening involvement in Vietnam, and of publication of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, the book that launched women’s liberation.

Every year after 1964 was worse than the year before: 1965, sustained bombing campaign of North Vietnam, U.S. combat troops to South Vietnam; 1966, as escalation continued and combat deaths rose--in color on the evening news--Defense Secretary McNamara privately soured on the war (he would secretly launch the “Pentagon Papers” project a year later); 1967, anti-war protests reached a boil with an October march on the Pentagon as Martin Luther King, Johnson’s close civil rights ally, came out publicly against Johnson's war. Then 1968, the year the country gave up on Vietnam--the year of the Vietcong Tet offensive, of the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, of the Chicago Democratic Convention and police riot, and of the election of “I’m not a crook” Richard Nixon--the year our cultural revolution overturned the old order.

Now fifty years on, we are asking, “When will the forces that triumphed in the 1960s ‘triple revolution’ of civil rights, sexual freedom, and women’s rights finally exit the stage?” They won, they rule, things are going badly, but they go on, even if they don’t seem happy.

As conservative writer Heather Wilhelm notes, the
depressing logical endpoint of the “free-spirited” ’60s counterculture [is] government-guaranteed “fairness” paired with forced, humorless conformity[. While] it is important to “know thyself[,” m]any modern progressives. . . lack a basic understanding of what they’ve become.  “Man, when you lose your laugh,” as ’60s icon and Merry Prankster Ken Kesey once noted, “you lose your footing.” Despite their enthusiasm for a growing, invasive state and a community-based thought police, many leftists seem to believe they’re . . . hippies of yore, or community activists fighting the power.
Lawlessness is on the rise, as the “new” establishment, the children of the 1960s, fight to hang on to the top-down, inefficient, big government state they control through Democrats’ money and power. Progressives tell themselves they are the future, ruling growing numbers of minorities and unmarried women (not to mention poor), representing an increasingly dominant popular culture freed from conventional moral constraints. So it seems.

Peggy Noonan, who as we saw watches today’s “crack up,” is intrigued (as are we) by how people missed the biggest “tipping point” of all one hundred years ago, 1914:
As you read of the [Great War] and its aftermath, you are always stopped by this fact: There is no recorded instance of masses of people gathering together to weep the day it was declared. They should have. The beautiful world they were day by day constructing was in jeopardy and ultimately would be consumed. Yet when people heard the news they threw their hats in the air, parading and waving flags in every capital. In Berlin "crowds thronged the streets shouting, cheering, singing patriotic songs." In London the same. In St. Petersburg thousands waved banners and icons. In Paris, as the city's regiments pushed off, "an immense clamour arose as the Marseillaise burst from a thousand throats."
Once again, it's about avoiding a disinclination to, as Douglas Adams suggests, “learn from the experience of others.” Let me suggest three lessons for those who would “tip” America away from its current progressive rule:
  • expose the corruption of Democratic crony capitalism at the top;
  • fight for control of American popular culture while retaining one’s values, and; 
  • run female and minority candidates for higher office, including president.

Friday, August 08, 2014

You Saw It Here First: Obamacare Deliberately Subsidized Only State Exchanges

MIT's Jonathan Gruber and Friend
We earlier argued that the reason Obamacare by law provided subsidies only to people signing up on state exchanges--and not to those signing up on federal exchanges--was to encourage the states to operate the exchanges, in conjunction with the Medicaid bonuses the feds were at the same time providing the states to expand Medicaid coverage. For people lacking employer-based health insurance, Obamacare means either joining an exchange or signing up under expanded Medicaid coverage. So it made sense for states to handle both.

We suggested that after the Supreme Court in 2012 ruled the feds no longer could threaten states with cutting off all Medicaid coverage unless states expanded Medicaid as the feds wanted, states then lost interest both in expanding their Medicaid programs and in running the exchanges, leaving Obamacare’s operation entirely in the feds' hands--an unanticipated event when Democrats first created Obamacare.

We made our argument based upon logic, but without supporting evidence.

Now evidence is in that supports our position. Political guru Michael Barone has found that in 2012, Obamacare proponent and MIT health care expert Jonathan Gruber stated that “all or most states would create their own exchanges because they wouldn't get subsidies if they let the federal government run their exchanges.” As Barone added, “Gruber in 2012 evidently really believed that almost all states would set up their own exchanges because their residents would get more money than if the feds ran the exchange.”

Barone explained, as we had tried to explain,
That's how federal powers have increased over the years. Congress can't order states to adopt policies, but it can dangle money in front of them if they meet certain conditions. That's how we got the 21-year-old drinking age even though the 22nd Amendment recognizes states' powers to regulate alcohol. [It’s] how Medicaid, passed in 1965, worked, too. Forty-nine states signed on by 1972. Only Arizona held out until 1982.
Barone continued, along the lines we earlier argued,
Obamacare required states to expand Medicaid or lose all Medicaid funds. In June 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that that violates the Constitution. Once they had a choice. . . 21 states . . . said no thanks to the extra funds, and three are debating the issue. Only 54% of Americans are receiving Medicaid programs Obamacare promised to give -- or impose on -- everyone. This is not what Obamacare boosters like Gruber . . . expected. They thought Obamacare money would be too tantalizing to resist. But for many or most states it wasn't.
States opted out of the Medicaid expansion. And they also let the feds set up their own Obamacare exchanges. That posed a problem for the feds they rectified--in my view--by illegally allowing the fed-run exchanges to pay out subsidies originally intended only for state exchange use.

We’ll see, someday, whether or not the Supreme Court agrees with Barone (and me).

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Worst Hell: The Great War 100 Years On

Why did a prosperous continent, at the height of its success as a source and agent of global wealth and power and at one of the peaks of its intellectual and cultural achievement, choose to risk all it had won for itself and all it offered to the world in the lottery of a vicious and local internecine conflict?

--Sir John Keegan, British military historian

For nearly a century after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo (1815), Europe reaped the benefits of peace. Until the first weekend of August 100 years ago, that is, when it all exploded away, forever.

We know how the horrors of the Great War led directly to World War II. The two are of a piece; Germany punished by the Versailles Treaty but left still whole, rose again to tear Europe apart in 1939, just 21 years after the World War I armistice. When I first saw German cities in 1955, another 16 years on, great blocks of buildings remained in ruin, while war-ravaged Naples was still a poverty-ridden mess. Yet Western European recovery by 1955 had crossed over to early prosperity, the year of the Brussels Treaty which gave birth to the Common Market.

That was Western Europe. The Cold War, a legacy of World War II and World War I’s grandson, did not end for Eastern Europe until 1991. Europe wreaked for nearly a century, by its own hand.

Better leaders could have avoided the Great War and its subsequent European and worldwide disasters. Empires by 1914 had become too unwieldy to hold together, but fearful aristocrats residing in Berlin, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Paris, Rome, London, and Constantinople were far too unsure of their own rising middle and working classes (as well as their women) to relinquish the power of nationalism, the power that united all classes against a common enemy. Europe needed internal democracy, and Europe needed to accept the break-up of empires that would have accompanied democracy. Instead, Europe got war, along with internal democracy and empire disintegration anyway.

We have already noted Harvard political science professor Graham Allison’s insightful examination of why leaders are so unable to correct a wrong course of action until well after the “turning point,” why they persist even as the damage of their misguided actions rolls through their nations. Of such a nightmare, World War I is Example #1.

World Wars I and II formed a single, unrepaired disaster. That means no group of leaders ever did more damage to the world’s people than the small men who took us into the Great War. . . exactly 100 years ago.

We must learn from history.