Magazine July 18, 2011, Issue

The Week

Blago after Goya (Roman Genn)

‐ Rich Lowry’s wedding to Vanessa Palo went off without a hitch, and the two are now on honeymoon. So the trend of beautiful young brides jilting old magazine editors is officially over.

‐ Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.) regularly gives GOP leaders heartburn, rapping them for cutting spending deals with the White House. Her detractors dismiss her presidential campaign because she is gaffe-prone, lacks executive experience, and has run through staffers like teabags. But at her announcement in Waterloo, Iowa, her childhood home, Bachmann argued that she is more than a cable-news star with a flair for anti-Obama rhetoric. She offered herself as a bridge between Republicans with fiscal, those with social, and those with foreign-policy concerns. The latest poll from the Des Moines Register has her in a dead heat with frontrunner Mitt Romney in Iowa. She shone at the first New Hampshire debate in June. Last cycle, she raised $13.5 million, more than any House Republican, including Speaker John Boehner, who may get to rest easy as she hits the trail. Her 2012 competitors will not have that luxury.

‐ Jon Huntsman, two-term governor of Utah and former ambassador to Singapore and China, announced his presidential candidacy in Jersey City, facing the Statue of Liberty. He focused on Obama’s mismanagement of the economy: “For the first time in history we are passing down to the next generation a country that is less powerful, less compassionate, less competitive, and less confident than the one we got.” He needs to hammer that theme, since he got his China posting from Obama — not a useful credential in a Republican primary, and at best ambiguous in a general election. Huntsman — trim, experienced, capable — is the kind of candidate who looks good on paper, and who was sometimes tapped by party bosses when bosses did the tapping. He will have to persuade conservatives and Republicans that he is bold enough and principled enough to pull the country out of the mud hole into which feckless ideologues have driven it.

‐ The Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, urged presidential candidates to take a pledge to enact various pro-life laws, pick constitutionalist judges, and appoint only pro-lifers to government posts relevant to abortion policy. All the Republican candidates save Herman Cain, Huntsman, and Romney signed the pledge. Romney said that the pledge would force him to support cutting off government funds to all hospitals that perform abortion — something the organization denied — and that he would pick the best appointees for each position in his administration, all of whom would have to implement his pro-life views. The pro-life group then circulated another petition, this one for citizens pledging to support only those presidential candidates who had agreed to its demands. The drawback to the first pledge is that it may make pro-life politicians who sign it look weak, make pro-life politicians who do not sign it look as though they were not pro-life, and make the pro-life cause look like an albatross that has to be forced on unwilling candidates. The drawback to the second pledge is that it is, as written, absurd: It would block pro-lifers from supporting Romney over Obama in November 2012 because he has not made any commitments about the secretary of health and human services. The Susan B. Anthony List should itself take a pledge: to make sure it’s advancing its goals and not setting them back.

‐ Call it “Recovery Summer II: Jobless in July.” Research by economists at the International Monetary Fund and the Fed finds structural unemployment in the United States at a historic high of around 8 percent. The U.S. unemployment rate has jumped nearly 5 percentage points since 2007, a far worse performance than even those of other recession-wracked countries, such as the United Kingdom and Italy. (Germany has reduced its unemployment since 2007.) Structural unemployment — the horse-buggy wheelwright in the age of the automobile — is a particularly nasty form of joblessness, and the study suggests that it now accounts for about 40 percent of long-term unemployment in the U.S. This means that, boom or bust, these Americans are unlikely to find satisfactory work. The usual prescription for such a situation is worker-training programs, but these have shown at best limited effectiveness. Better would be to adopt economic policies that encourage investment in real capital — factories, assembly lines, machinery — the force-multiplier that makes labor competitive in a high-income society such as ours. President Obama has been adopting something very close to the opposite of such policies, and he will have much to answer for if unemployment remains elevated in November 2012.

‐ He himself blames our ever-advancing technology for our widespread unemployment. “There are some structural issues with our economy, where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers,” he told NBC’s Ann Curry. “You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM; you don’t go to a bank teller.” Before the Ned Ludd Appreciation Society could offer the president an honorary membership, however, he reversed himself. In a weekly address, he touted a robotics company that was “working with unions to create new jobs operating the robots” and “saving cities millions of dollars in infrastructure costs.” Clearly, the president doesn’t understand that economic growth occurs when we produce more goods and services with fewer resources. But at least he has stopped blaming Pres. George W. Bush.

‐ The National Labor Relations Board has been radicalized during the Obama administration, and it now proposes to rewrite union-election rules in a way that disadvantages businesses and privileges union organizers. Employers now have about four to six weeks to argue against unionization before a vote, but under the proposal that time would shrink to as little as ten days. Employers already face serious restrictions on what they can and cannot do to resist having their businesses unionized against their will; the NLRB will now also require them to share business records, such as contact databases, to help union organizers in their campaign. (Of course, there exists no reciprocal obligation on the unions’ part.) President Obama’s reelection hopes are threatened by a very high rate of unemployment, but his administration positively bristles with hostility toward the world’s best source of employment: employers.

‐ Eric Cantor and Jon Kyl, the number-two Republicans in the House and Senate respectively, withdrew from budget talks with Vice President Biden and said they would not return until tax increases were taken off the table. The backdrop to the talks is of course the pending exhaustion of the federal government’s authority to borrow money, which is currently expected to occur in late summer. The opposition party always prefers not to raise the debt ceiling, and Republicans, especially these days, are more ideologically averse to doing it than Democrats. A deal that raises the debt ceiling and raises taxes is therefore unattractive to them — even if the tax increases take the form of removing tax breaks, which they would prefer to do as part of a reform that lowers rates. With Democrats reportedly balking at entitlement reform, Cantor and Kyl have the right idea: Walk away from the table in the hope of a better deal.

‐ The government announced its budget: the Libyan government, that is. The green eyeshades around Moammar Qaddafi expect to spend $31.4 billion for the rest of 2011. Reports of Libya’s assets vary — a defecting central banker says Qaddafi has only half a billion in cash in hand plus 155 tons of gold, while the IMF says Libya’s sovereign-wealth fund holds $150 billion — but some confusion is to be expected from a government that is grappling with a rebellion and (sort of) with NATO. When our kinetic military actors will present their own budget is anybody’s guess.

‐ A McKinsey study found that 30 percent of companies might drop their health plans as a result of Obamacare. The White House and its allies trashed the study, demanding that McKinsey explain its methodology — which it then did, disproving all the dark hints of shoddiness. The administration has three reasons for concern. First, most people like their company plans and do not want to be forced out of them. Second, Obama repeatedly promised that they would not be. Third, Obamacare’s budget assumes that they are not. The more people there are who lose their employer coverage, the more there will be on Medicaid and on the subsidized exchanges Obamacare establishes. Many Democrats predicted that the legislation would grow more popular over time; we’re still waiting.

‐ Have you registered yet? We mean, for “Dinner with Barack.” “You could be invited.” There will be “four place settings.” And, yes, “one could be yours.” The president’s 2012 campaign is dangling the opportunity of dinner with him, a dinner to include four supporters. (So, wouldn’t that necessitate five place settings, not forgetting the host’s?) All you have to do is make a donation and register. If you’re chosen — by whom or how is unclear — the campaign will pay for your airfare and the grub. Just recently, Obama made a special announcement, by video: that Joe Biden would be joining the group — making it six place settings. Selling dinner with the president, or vice president, is not the unseemliest thing in the world. But it’s not the seemliest either.

Tax Breaks for the (Democratic) Rich

There has been a lot of publicity about Al Gore’s massive carbon footprint. The former vice president talks a good game on global warming, but because of his many houses and jet-set lifestyle, he emits more greenhouse gases than a plain full of flatulent buffaloes.

Consider, as a comparable hypocrisy, the Democratic enmity toward rich people. Higher taxes on them are always seen as desirable — unless, of course, they might fall on Democratic rich people.

Our tax code is filled with special tax treats for the Democrats’ wealthy constituents. The two biggest-ticket items are the federal deduction for state and local taxes and the mortgage-interest deduction. The former disproportionately benefits higher-income individuals who live in states with bloated governments and higher taxes — California, here I come. The latter disproportionately benefits those who live in well-established metropolitan real-estate markets.

Economist Martin Sullivan recently analyzed the political dimension of the mortgage-interest deduction. In his article published in the journal Tax Notes, a scintillating publication that National Review staffers may be found carrying about in a brown wrapper, Sullivan analyzed 2008 tax data and found that states with the highest level of per capita tax benefit from the deduction tended to vote Democrat.

As can be seen in the accompanying chart, the discrepancy is quite large. The average mortgage-interest tax benefit for a resident of Maryland was $499 in 2008, while the average benefit for a resident of West Virginia was $102.

Notes: Blue indicates a state won by Barack Obama in 2008. Red indicates a state won by John McCain in 2008. Source: Sullivan, Martin A., “Mortgage Deduction Heavily Favors Blue States,” Tax Notes 130: 364-367 (2011)

The 13 states with the greatest per capita benefit were all won by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. By contrast, the six lowest-benefit states were all won by John McCain. Across the country (including the District of Columbia), the average benefit was $310 in blue states and $178 in red states. I suspect that the state- and local-income-tax discrepancy would be even larger.

The problem with these special favors is that they cause real economic harm. The state-and-local deduction transfers monies from efficient states to bloated ones. The mortgage-interest deduction distorts consumption decisions in favor of McMansions and lifts the tax rate on everything else, including job-creating businesses.

A prudent tax reform that eliminated these loopholes could easily revive the American economy, but it will not happen if it requires Democratic votes. Democrats will continue to obstruct tax reform, in order to protect the special treatment for their own wealthy that is already cemented into our tax code.

‐ What the Democrats have done with legislation is alarming, but perhaps more alarming is what they have done without legislation. When pesky public opinion keeps Congress from enacting regulations that the nation desperately needs, some bureaucrat simply issues an order. One of the main users of this method is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which, after Congress failed to pass amnesty legislation for illegal immigrants, circulated a memo ordering a policy of lenient enforcement that (as the Houston Chronicle has shown) led to the dismissal of thousands of strong deportation cases against illegal immigrants with criminal records. The officials responsible for this unilateral policy change then made it worse by telling the public it had never happened. Amnesty is a bad idea by itself, but when it is brought in through the back door, against the will of the people, through internal memos, it is not only poor policy but contrary to the spirit of democracy.

‐ The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, passed a resolution on immigration at its annual meeting in Phoenix. The resolution includes laudable goals (making border security a national priority, penalizing employers who flout the law) and one especially lamentable one: granting a conditional amnesty to the millions of illegals already resident within our borders. The resolution says that it is “not to be construed as support for amnesty for any undocumented immigrant,” but that is precisely what it is. The Baptists are framing the resolution in the language of realpolitik; the Rev. Paul Jimenez, the force behind it, told the Associated Press: “I think Southern Baptists understand it’s just not politically viable to send an estimated 12 to 15 million undocumented immigrants back where they came from. It’s not humane either.” But an amnesty simply creates a magnet for millions more illegal immigrants, whose deportation would present the same problems, creating a vicious circle. “I was a stranger, and ye took me in,” the Lord says. And America has long done so — under law.

‐ In April the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights issued a command to universities across the United States: Henceforth all sexual-harassment cases on campus must be decided on a “more likely than not” basis, rather than by the happy norm of reasonable doubt. This edict effectively hands a license to discipline to anyone who considers that he, or more likely she, has been made to feel uncomfortable. Instead of adopting as a standard the sensible 1999 Supreme Court definition laid out in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education — the victim must have been “denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities” by behavior that is “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” — the department affords each institution the scope to enforce its own definition of harassment, even though many such definitions have been highly subjective, even frivolous. It has often been said that every joke has a butt; this time it is the Department of Education.

‐ Among its many sins, the War on Drugs has trampled on states’ rights: Sixteen states have legalized “medical marijuana,” only to clash with federal laws that ban weed throughout the land. In California and Montana, federal authorities have raided state-sanctioned businesses that sell pot. A bill introduced by Reps. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) and Ron Paul (R., Texas) would put an end to this, constraining the federal government to its proper role. The Constitution allows the federal government to restrict interstate commerce, and the bill would leave in effect the federal laws forbidding the interstate transfer of marijuana. The feds would also still intercept drug shipments from other countries. All that would change is that states — if they so chose — could legalize pot that is grown, sold, and consumed within their borders. While we would prefer to end the drug war, putting part of it on a constitutional footing would at least be a step forward.

‐ “By the middle of the following year he had ousted the original leaders, and by his passion and genius forced upon the hypnotised company the acceptance of his personal control. Already he was ‘the Fuehrer.’” A reasonably well-informed individual might guess that this passage is from Winston Churchill’s character sketch of Adolf Hitler. Chris Shelton, on the other hand, would guess that it was a description of Chris Christie. At a rally in Trenton, N.J., the union activist dubbed the Republican governor “Adolf Christie” for his recently approved plan to make public employees pay larger shares of their health-insurance and pension costs. “The first thing that the Nazis and Adolf Hitler did,” Shelton bellowed to a crowd of protesters, “was go after the unions. And that’s what Christie and his two generals [Democratic legislative leaders] are trying to do in New Jersey.” He concluded, “It’s going to take World War III to get rid of Adolf Christie.” But it took only one union flack to destroy all semblance of civility.

‐ An official of the Teamsters Union, asked during a Senate hearing whether his union was really powerful, responded by saying that being powerful was comparable to being ladylike: “If you have to say you are, you prob’ly ain’t.” At long last this lesson was brought home to Rod Blagojevich, recently convicted in a Chicago courtroom of a slew of corruption charges. The buffoonish former Illinois governor, you will recall, was forced out of office after attempting to sell then-president-elect Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder: “I’ve got this thing and it’s f****** golden,” he boasted. “Blago,” incurably blind to the indications of his own imbecility, remained comically defiant even in the midst of the proceedings against him. The sordid politics of Chicago, in which public figures seem to rise in direct proportion to their delusions of grandeur, presents notoriously few consolations. One of them, however, is the lowering of the proud. This too-seldom sight gives off a distinctly golden glow.

‐ The Supreme Court unanimously swatted down the Ninth Circuit’s attempt to enlist roughly one and a half million female employees of Walmart in a class-action suit against the company for supposed discrimination. Plaintiffs alleged that Walmart gave its store managers too much discretion over personnel, which enabled them to discriminate. The ruling is a win for the economy, since it can hardly be helpful to it for the federal courts to encourage firms to centralize their decisions. It is also a win for female Walmart employees who have actually been treated illegally, assuming any exist, since the defeat of this case will enable them to press forward with suits that might bring them more than the pennies they could expect from a massive class action after legal fees. It is a win, in short, for the rule of law over the rule of trial lawyers.

‐ The House took up Obama’s quasi-war against Libya and made a clumsy turn around the dance floor. It rejected, by a vote of 295–123, a resolution that would have authorized military action for one year, then failed, by a vote of 238–180, to cut off funds for fighter-jet and drone attacks. The House does not think we should be bombing Libya, but it will pay for it. This is a predictable fruit of the War Powers Act, which arguably allows the president to commit troops on his own, while requiring congressional approval 60 days after the fact (but will Congress ever, except in extraordinary circumstances, leave an American action in the lurch?). It is also the fruit of President Obama’s half-hearted anti-Qaddafi policy. When you strike at a queen, you must kill him. Otherwise Congress is legitimately puzzled.

‐ The saga of Geert Wilders has ended after the parliamentarian was acquitted by a Dutch court on charges of hate speech. His offense? A few strident criticisms of Islam. It must be admitted that Wilders is himself hardly a free-speech enthusiast, often expressing a foolish wish to ban the Koran. Still, it will be readily understood in the homeland of the First Amendment that this was little more than a sinister attempt to criminalize opinions that differ with those of the most violent adherents of the world’s most reactionary faith. It might be tempting to regard the verdict as a triumph of free speech over fanatical religiosity. Wilders himself seems to have interpreted it in this light. But it is a temptation best resisted. The scaffolding of the illiberal court remains very much intact, and with it the enshrinement in law of blasphemy codes. Traditionally, blasphemy laws buttressed religious establishments. Islam is not the established church of 21st-century Amsterdam. But multiculturalism is, and often enough it amounts to the same thing.

‐ The Communists who run China have never been shy about grabbing their critics, or perceived critics, and throwing them in jail, or worse. But they became extra-energetic in doing so earlier this year, when democratic unrest was spreading throughout the Arab world. Some Chinese were getting ideas. One of the critics the authorities arrested was Ai Weiwei, one of the most famous artists in the country, and the son of one of China’s most famous poets. Now, after three months, they have released him. The state agency said he was out on parole “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes, as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.” The artist himself is saying nothing in public, one of the terms of his parole. So, at a minimum, the state has succeeded in shutting him up. International pressure had much to do with Ai’s release. Politicians and others, particularly his fellow artists, made him a cause. Pity the less famous and talented.

‐ Jacob Zuma snubbed Michelle Obama during her visit to South Africa: The first lady was not given any face time with President Zuma or, for that matter, with anyone more high-ranking than the minister for prisons. Perhaps Zuma was indicating his displeasure with Mrs. Obama’s husband’s intervention in Libya, which he has outspokenly opposed. Or perhaps Zuma, as a polygamist with three wives, has simply had his fill of first ladies.

‐ Whitey Bulger, legendary Boston mobster, was captured, after 16 years on the run, at his apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., after a tipster led the FBI to the fugitive’s long-time girlfriend. Be careful of legends. Some of them live up to their billing — Washington, Lincoln, Lou Gehrig. Others fall off, all the way to perdition. Bulger had a folk-hero-ish aura: the South Boston local boy who made bad, ratting out the New England Mafia for the FBI while using corrupt agents to protect his own illegal enterprises. But this sly fox is wanted for his role in murdering 19 people: businessmen he was trying to shake down, inconvenient girlfriends of his criminal partners. He led an evil life. How many other Bostonians he will implicate as he is tried will be local drama in the Hub for years to come.

‐ London literati have been ringing one another up to discuss the case of James MacGibbon. Everyone knew this gentlemanly fellow who had started and run a small publishing firm with a leftist flavor. It turns out that that there was more to him than the easygoing manner. A Russian researcher, Svetlana Chervonnaya, has been digging in the relevant archives to add yet another name to the long list of pro-Soviet spies and traitors headed by Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt. MacGibbon was a member of the Communist party, but when he applied for a job in the British government during World War II, the panel that vetted him inexplicably failed to discover this fact. Infiltrating into a special department of the War Office, he passed hundreds of secret documents to his Soviet handler in London. German intelligence had penetrated the Soviet secret service, and MacGibbon’s documents could have given away information that exposed Ultra (the British interception of German radio traffic, of which the Germans were unaware). In that case, MacGibbon’s treachery would have lengthened the war, even prejudicing the outcome. A question for the London literati is how many others in their acquaintance may still be revealed as holders of the Order of Lenin.

‐ We offer belated but heartfelt good wishes to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and consort of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, on his 90th birthday. Philip’s pedigree is complex even by the standards of European aristocracy. One of his grandfathers was a Danish prince who became George I of Greece and married a Russian countess; the other was Louis of Battenberg, a German who married a granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Philip’s father, Andrew, suffered the indignity of being exiled twice from his native Greece, the second time when Philip was less than two years old. Educated in France and Britain, Philip served with distinction in the Royal Navy during World War II. He married then–Princess Elizabeth in 1947, telling a friend at the time that “I suppose I won’t be having any fun anymore.” He seems in fact to have had a great deal of fun: sailing, playing polo, and helping organize carriage driving as a formal equestrian sport. Philip’s sportsmanship and devotion to his family have been a model for men everywhere; his sharp tongue, humor, and impatience with humbug — what we nowadays call “political correctness” — have endeared him to the British, and to many foreigners too. Happy birthday, sir.

‐ Starting a few years ago, we heard rumblings about a phenomenal teenage golfer out of Northern Ireland, Rory McIlroy. The world at large got a good look at him in the Masters this year. Age 21, he was leading the tournament by four shots going into the final round. He collapsed in that round — but he came back in the next “major,” the U.S. Open. Came back in a big way: destroying the field by eight shots. McIlroy is a bundle of charisma, topped by carefree curly hair. In his charisma, daring, and skill, he reminds people of another youngster who shot to the top: Seve Ballesteros, who died this May. Jack Nicklaus has said, “I like his moxie.” Golf in general has not had much to cheer about since Tiger Woods tumbled in late 2009. So far, there has been no Tiger comeback to cheer about, or talk about. But McIlroy is a reminder that, in any field, or most fields, anyway, there is always someone “else,” someone next.

‐ Yelena Bonner was one of the great dissidents in the history of the Soviet Union. This fact is slightly obscured by another fact: that she was the wife, then widow, of the unfathomably great Andrei Sakharov, the top nuclear physicist who gave up everything to campaign for human rights and democracy. Bonner campaigned right along with him. She fought hard, suffered a lot, and was incredibly brave all through. People who knew her can attest that she was cantankerous, impossible, and heroic. Solzhenitsyn introduced us to the image of the oak and the calf. As you remember, the calf butted its head against the oak, trying to knock the tree down. This was an image of futility. Bonner was one of the calves who, butting, knocked the oak down. She has passed away at 88. R.I.P.

‐ Peter Falk was a fine actor in highly serious dramas, notably those directed by his friend, the legendary John Cassavetes. He also starred in one of the most beloved cult-favorite film comedies of the 1970s, 1979’s The In-Laws. But Falk’s greatest impact on the culture came, of course, through his long-running TV series, Columbo. The particular genius of this program was its downplaying of the whodunit aspect: Viewers would watch somebody commit a crime, and then, for the next hour or so, watch the criminal squirm as Lieutenant Columbo got closer and closer to the truth. In the crime-ridden 1970s, it was surely cathartic to see criminals on the hot seat for a change, nervous about whether they would get away with their crime; and it helped that the policeman who brought them to justice was a funny and lovable Everyman. Peter Falk created a character that lives on in the American heart, because he captures some of the qualities we prize most. Dead at 83. R.I.P.

‐ Paddy Leigh Fermor was really Sir Patrick, but the formality of title and name did not suit him. A rolling stone, a marvelous linguist, a wit and a dandy but very tough, a writer who applied the word rocambolesque to the rich style of his travel books about pre-war and picturesque central Europe, he will be remembered as long as anyone is interested in the British contribution to the gaiety of nations. At the age of 29, he also pulled off one of the most daring exploits of World War II, the subject of the film Ill Met by Moonlight. In German-occupied Crete, Paddy stayed undercover with local partisans to organize resistance. Gen. Karl Kreipe, the German commander of Crete, always took the same route to his office. Paddy and another officer, Stanley Moss, put on German uniforms, stopped the general’s staff car, dealt with the driver, held a pistol to the general’s head, and were saluted by sentries as they drove through some twenty checkpoints. Making their getaway across the island, Paddy and the general exchanged Latin quotations, a moment of chivalry that will also be remembered for a long time. Settling in the Mani peninsula of southern Greece, Paddy and his wife Joan proved that it was possible to be aristocratic and bohemian, cosmopolitan and English. He died aged 96. R.I.P.


Obama Flinches

President Obama, in a speech to the nation, announced his decision to begin rapidly unwinding his Afghan surge. Of the 30,000 additional troops committed, Obama wants 10,000 out by the end of this year and the rest out by the end of next summer. This risks giving back to the Taliban all that has been won over the last year with blood, sweat, and tears.

The dominant prism through which the Afghan War is viewed in our political debate is futility. If that were the correct way to look at it, our troops would have arrived in the south of Afghanistan and foundered in the “graveyard of empires.” Instead, they routed the Taliban from its strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where it had come to expect no serious challenge. A front-page New York Times article reported how the Taliban had been reduced to tiny bands and how it had failed so far to regain its footing, despite desperately trying to fight back. The boys in the Quetta Shura must be delighted at the opening President Obama is handing them.

Obama suggested that a drawdown would be safe because of the successes we have had, most spectacularly the killing of Osama bin Laden. But this is almost a non sequitur. The surge forces were not sent into the south to kill or capture bin Laden. As we proved, that could be done with a handful of Navy SEALs making a raid into Pakistan. The surge forces have been seeking to beat back the Taliban to keep it and its al-Qaeda allies from taking over the south, then to hold the territory, and eventually to hand it over to Afghan forces as their proficiency and numbers increase. The goal of the United States and NATO was to complete this mission by the end of 2014.

President Obama’s decision could render these ambitions moot as he opts for a “half-Biden.” The vice president had advocated a counterterrorism mission rather than a war of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. Instead of holding territory with boots on the ground, we would rely on drone strikes and the like. He lost the initial debate, but Obama is now belatedly siding with him. Many of our troops have already died gaining ground in Afghanistan, and 70,000 will remain there even after the withdrawal of the surge forces. So we will still have a counterinsurgency footprint in Afghanistan, just one that may not be large enough to succeed.

Perhaps 10,000 troops does not sound like a lot. But our troops are already stretched thin in the south, and that is before they have even attempted to pacify the east, where the extremely dangerous Haqqani network is dominant. There aren’t troops to spare, unless we abandon areas we have recently captured. And removing all the surge forces by the end of next summer — in other words, before the end of the next fighting season — means that the Taliban may need only to bide its time for about a year, and that the Haqqani network may never get its reckoning.

There’s a reason Gen. David Petraeus opposed this kind of drawdown and that, apparently, no general supported it. When Pres. George W. Bush went over the heads of some of his brass to order the surge in Iraq, at least some other generals thought it made sense. It is Obama’s prerogative as commander-in-chief to make whatever strategic judgment he deems appropriate, but the lack of military support for this decision highlights its essentially political nature. Obama’s party long ago backed off “the good war,” and the public has grown weary of all our wars.

Perhaps we’ll get lucky, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda will prove to have been so hurt that they cannot come back. Or perhaps the Afghan forces — which have made strides over the last year — will be able to hold what we have taken. But we also may be headed toward a downward spiral. If our enemies have a resurgence in Afghanistan, it will embolden those forces in Pakistan that have always argued we have no staying power and that it therefore makes sense to support extremist proxies to influence Afghanistan’s ultimate fate. Our allies on the ground will be discouraged, and fence-sitters will flip to the other side. We may be able to maintain a counterterrorism campaign in the near term, but if the Afghan government senses we are losing and don’t care whether the country sinks back into chaos, it will become even less cooperative.

That government is a mess and — to one extent or another — always will be. Afghanistan is a poor, tribal society. We should have no great expectations for it. The question is whether it is fated to be ruled by (or at least provide safe haven to) the Taliban and other extremists. President Obama just made it more likely that the answer to that question will be “yes.”


Unmade in New York

As they enacted legislation redefining marriage to accommodate same-sex partnerships in late June, New York lawmakers may have been ignoring some basic facts:

Not providing formal governmental recognition of two people’s relationship doesn’t amount to denigrating them. Male-female and same-sex unions may have inherently different structures, norms, and social roles and purposes. Imposing marital norms on same-sex unions, where they make less sense, may well be unfair. There are good reasons to keep marriage separate, in law and culture, from other romantic arrangements.

Yet every one of these points had been made as recently as the day the bill passed. Not in National Review, but in the New York Times. Not by a traditional supporter of marriage, but by a liberal proponent of redefining it. Not by social conservatives — but by Katherine Franke, a lesbian left-winger who is director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School. In other words, these points are agreeable even to some who would trade the 2,300-year-old intellectual tradition originating with Plato and Aristotle for the 60-year-old liberationist ideology descended from Hefner and Kinsey.

Though they supported its passage, you see, Franke and her partner will not seek a marriage license under the new law. They fear that in practice it might force them to be legally married in order to hold on to shared employment benefits and social respectability. They want to keep their domestic partnership, which gives them “greater freedom” than “the one-size-fits-all rules of marriage” — the freedom to form relationships that “far exceed, and often improve on, the narrow, legal definition of marriage.”

Franke leaves out just how these relationships “far exceed” marriage, perhaps not trusting her readers to see them as improvements after all. But then the Times had already divulged the empirically supported “open secret” about how often partners in same-sex civil marriages expressly reject sexual exclusivity.

For years, we were told that same-sex marriage was necessary for meeting couples’ concrete needs. Then, that it could and should be used to make same-sex couples live by marital norms. More recently, that relationship recognition was necessary for equal personal dignity. Now Katherine Franke, on the day that same-sex marriage passes in New York, tells us that that was all wrong.

The latest canard is that the defeat of the conjugal conception of marriage is inevitable because there isn’t even an argument for it. But the core argument is simple, and pieces like Franke’s bolster it: As many liberals now concede and even embrace, redefining marriage leaves no principled reason — none at all — not to recognize relationships of every size and type. As normative features of marriage, permanence, exclusivity, and sexual complementarity are a package deal. The first two norms make sense — are intelligible as norms — only because of the link between marriage and procreation. The only question, increasingly, is whether the loss of these once-defining attributes of marriage is bad. For clearheaded and candid liberationists, it’s only just. (Think: Which argument for same-sex “marriage” wouldn’t easily extend to any relationship that someone, somewhere, finds most fulfilling? Non-discrimination among loving relationships? Non-stigmatization? It won’t hurt anyone else’s marriage?)

And so, when emboldened liberals use this victory to push their quasi-religious myth of Inevitable Historical Progress, we should recall that there was nothing inevitable about it. New York Republican senators could have tabled the bill and sent the issue to the people, without moral or political cost, and it would have been over. Liberals opposed a marriage referendum for exactly one reason: They would have lost, as they have in all 31 states that put the issue to a referendum. But in a year when Democratic minorities have been fleeing statehouses to block unfavorable votes, the New York senate’s Republican majority brought this upon itself, and for no apparent reason.

It certainly wasn’t for conservative reasons. New Yorkers were free to form whatever private relationships they wanted. There is nothing libertarian or neutral about state-imposed moral ratification of revisionist sexual ideology, especially when dissenting citizens and business owners will be forced to comply, token protections notwithstanding. (Not that strong statutory protections would avail in the long run. There are very few limits on how our society and government fight racism — and both the new marriage laws and the movement that favors them take the bigotry of the old laws as their premise.) And as the ideals of opposite-sex parenting and permanent monogamy further erode, leaving more children to grow up without both a mother and a father, social pathologies will only deepen, especially among the poor, creating ever greater need for state intervention.

Conservative New Yorkers should send a clear message to all four of the Republican state senators who caved — especially Mark Grisanti, who reneged on an explicit campaign commitment to support marriage and oppose its redefinition. The law he broke a promise in order to pass is a failure of moral and political sense, and a blow to the bedrock of civil society.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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