Magazine | September 30, 2013, Issue

The Week

‐ We have to admit: Russia making U.S. foreign policy does count as a reset.

‐ For the Obama administration, big speeches are like the morning-after pill, an emergency prophylactic. Realizing that he may no longer be his own best advertisement, President Obama deputized former president Clinton to deliver a speech on Obamacare. Why the world needs another speech on the misnamed Affordable Care Act is unclear, but the administration is foundering, its political capital experiencing devaluation from its bumbling on Syria, and there remain serious legal and political challenges to the realization of the Democrats’ thoroughly muddled health-care vision: so, a speech. President Clinton gave an unusually dull performance, which set conspiratorial types atwitter with intimations that this was an attempt to distance the Clinton brand from the struggling administration, but the more direct explanation is that there is very little that may be persuasively said in favor of the ACA. The main claims of its supporters — that those satisfied with their current coverage will be allowed to keep it, that it will achieve near-universal coverage, that it will reduce insurance premiums — are in the aggregate no longer defensible. What President Clinton was really trying to do was to foreclose further debate, as Democrats have attempted to do with everything from abortion to global warming, calling the game while they are ahead. The health-care debate will be over when voters say it is — in 2014, 2016, or beyond.

This Week with George Stephanopoulos did something good. Gregory Hicks did something even better. Stephanopoulos interviewed Hicks, who is known as the “Benghazi whistleblower.” He was the deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of the Benghazi attacks last year. He testified before Congress in May of this year. With Stephanopoulos, he went over what happened in Benghazi, in careful and appalling detail. Since his testimony before Congress, he has been without an assignment from the State Department. He told Stephanopoulos he has been “punished,” “shunted aside,” “put in a closet, if you will.” He was speaking to Stephanopoulos without the knowledge of the State Department. He was doing so, he said, because “the American people need to have the story” of Benghazi, and the four dead should be remembered “for the sacrifice that they made.” The administration has created fog about Benghazi, and this lone Foreign Service officer is doing what he can to disperse it.

‐ This magazine opposes the war on drugs, but it also favors the rule of law. Eric Holder’s Justice Department took a step away from both when it announced that it would put a low priority on investigating and prosecuting violations of federal laws against marijuana in states that have made it legal. States can repeal or relax their own laws, but they do not and should not have the power to change federal law within their borders. If federal law concerning marijuana is too severe, as we believe, the place to remedy it is Congress.

‐ Back-to-school season yielded two op-eds as perverse as they were dumb. In Slate, Allison Benedikt argued that parents of private-school students are “bad people”: They should be sending their kids to public schools, and thus have an incentive to work harder to improve them. She did graciously allow that private schools should remain legal. The bien-pensant readers to whom Slate pitches its articles would presumably reject the exact same argument if deployed against people in badly governed poor countries emigrating to well-governed rich ones. It’s also an argument that parents who move from neighborhoods with high crime and rotten schools to nicer ones are bad people. It would be more sensible to align the private good with the common good by using parental choice and competition to drive improvements in schooling. That would require us to think of public schools as institutions, however, and not as totems of virtue.

‐ Around the same time, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Betsy Karasik seeking to “advance [a] much-needed dialogue” about high-school teachers who have sex with their students. She wrote that “absent extenuating circumstances, consensual sexual activity between teachers and students should not be criminalized.” (She meant “aggravating circumstances.”) To think that punishment will keep such activity from happening “is delusional,” which is obviously true if you ignore the question of frequency and obviously false if you do not. Karasik never explains why high-school teachers, alone among adults, should get an exemption from age-of-consent laws. Perhaps it’s to be one of the perks of the job. Some dialogues we don’t need.

‐ Why hasn’t the Hollywood Left mobilized against the possible bombing of Syria? Veteran leftist Ed Asner gave The Hollywood Reporter a number of reasons — it’s happening so fast, Bush’s Iraq War was after all worse — then added, “A lot of people don’t want to feel anti-black by being opposed to Obama.” Bull’s-eye.

‐ In the 1990s, Congress refused to let U.S. intelligence agencies have a “back door” to break the code for any encrypted electronic communications. The National Security Agency has instead spent the last decade subverting encryption technology. According to the New York Times, it “used its influence as the world’s most experienced code maker to covertly introduce weaknesses into the encryption standards followed by hardware and software developers around the world.” In other words, it waged a covert war on cybersecurity. “This is a bit like publishing faulty medical research just to prevent a particular foreign dictator from being cured,” comments Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute. The NSA needs to be reminded that its mission is to improve Americans’ security.

‐ Political junkies loved the results of the New York mayoral primary: Bill de Blasio crushed the Democratic field but is so narrowly over the 40 percent necessary to avoid a runoff that there will be a recount. Bill Thompson, clinging to second place, has vowed to fight. De Blasio won on a soak-the-rich tax plan and a commercial starring his mixed-race son Dante (de Blasio’s wife is black). Liberals relived the thrill of 2008: De Blasio has a son, and he looks like Barack Obama. They could also rebel at having been bought off by Michael Bloomberg for twelve years: We couldn’t vote him out, but we can tax him once he’s gone. Perhaps the outgoing mayor will put his largesse behind Republican winner Joe Lhota, an old Giuliani hand. But Lhota, cool, almost colorless, is the longest of shots. The 20-year peace that made New York the safest great American city is soon to end. Good news: Sex addicts Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner lost what one hopes are their last races.

#page#‐ Cory Booker is likely to cruise to victory in New Jersey’s special Senate election, set for October 16, despite embarrassing revelations in recent weeks. Booker was raised in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, but when he’s on the stump, he is more likely to tell dramatic and heart-rending stories about the friends he has acquired in his adopted city. One such tale involves the drug dealer T-Bone, who, Booker told several audiences, threatened his life at one turn and cried on his shoulder the next. Rutgers University professor Clement Price, among others, heard the story, and told our Eliana Johnson he found it offensive because it “pandered to a stereotype of inner-city black men.” Price said that, when he confronted Booker in 2008 about his drug-pushing pal, Booker conceded to him that Mr. T-Bone was a “composite” of several people he’d met while living and working in Newark and that inventing the character was a “mistake.” Today, Booker tells the Washington Post the “T-Bone” tale is “a hundred percent true.” In Booker’s telling, his friend from the streets vanished after their final encounter in 1998. If he ever emerges, we need to introduce him to Barack Obama’s composite girlfriend.

‐ Booker’s rise to political celebrity has paid big dividends — $1.3 million on the speaking circuit, to be exact. When that number emerged in March of this year, the mayor told the New York Times, “Even though I am entitled to keep it, after Uncle Sam takes his share and after I’ve given away hundreds of thousands, I’ve kept very little of it, if any.” Booker’s tax returns, which he released under pressure from his opponent’s campaign, tell a different story: Over the past 14 years, he has given just under $150,000 to charity — generous, but not “hundreds of thousands.” The Booker campaign also filed two amendments to his Senate ethics disclosure forms, both acknowledging “inadvertent oversights” in the original filing: the first, a share in the tech start-up he co-founded, worth $1 to $5 million; the second, part of a buyout from his law firm when he became mayor, which we now know totaled $690,000. The city of Newark threw business in the firm’s direction while the payouts were coming. Booker took office vowing to do away with the corruption of the city’s old political bosses. In fairness, he said nothing about the corruption of its new bosses.

‐ A freshman congressman, Tom Cotton, is challenging an incumbent senator, Mark Pryor, next year. Cotton is a young Republican star from Arkansas, and Pryor is a well-entrenched and prominent Democrat. He may be feeling a little nervous about his entrenchment. The Pryor campaign is circulating some writing that Cotton did when an undergrad at Harvard. For Harvard’s conservative journal, the Salient, Cotton reviewed America in Black and White, a superb study by the Thernstroms (1997). He referred to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton as “race-hustling charlatans.” He also said, “If race relations are better now than at any time in our history and would almost certainly improve if we stopped emphasizing race in our public life, what would the self-appointed ‘civil rights leaders’ have to do with themselves?” Pryor and his media allies find those words damning. Others should find them all the more reason to elect Cotton next year, and well beyond.

‐ A year after God was booed at the Democratic National Convention, He was praised by Democrats who gathered in Iowa’s state capitol in late August for a pro-abortion rally. State senator Jack Hatch and state representative Tyler Olson, both Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls, listened with bowed heads and closed eyes as an activist delivered a five-minute prayer giving thanks for “the blessing of choice” and the doctors “who provide quality abortion care.” God’s assistance was asked for increasing taxpayer funding for abortion, making abortion available to women in developing nations, and delivering from fear women who “have been made afraid by their paternalistic religion.” Pro-lifers often lament that Democrats make a religion out of abortion; it turns out some of them do so literally.

‐ In Colorado, two state senators who pushed and voted for stricter gun-control measures were recalled by voters. The recall effort, the first in the state’s 137-year history, was the product of grassroots distaste not only for the new laws, which banned all magazines that carry more than 15 rounds and extended federal background checks to private sales, but for the manner in which they were passed. Both John Morse, a senator from Colorado Springs, and Angela Giron, a senator from Pueblo, shut their constituents out of the legislative process to such an extent — turning a deaf ear to citizens’ protests, and ramming the legislation through with far too little time for hearings or debate — that a recall was deemed the only way of making them listen. The recall gained national attention, with a flurry of money pouring in from outside and both sides making their allies aware that the consequences extend beyond Colorado’s borders. Morse and Giron shut voters out of the legislative process, and now voters have returned the favor.

‐ The Washington Post published an exposé in September of the District of Columbia’s selling of tax liens on homes that often amount to just a few hundred dollars. Private investors traditionally buy such liens, paying the balance to the city and then collecting interest from homeowners as they pay them down. This isn’t a very good investment if the lien, as one did, amounts to $134, but private credit-collection firms have swarmed the program with the goal of repossessing the underlying homes. After claims fees and attorney’s bills, the homeowner’s debt can balloon to thousands of dollars, which especially the poor and elderly often cannot pay. The private investor, then, can seize and auction off the home, as has been done with more than 200 since 2005. A city government unable or unwilling to execute its basic functions enables abuses that would be impossible otherwise.

‐ National unions, with their memberships plunging, have made an unsuccessful push of late to try to bring in fast-food and retail workers. An affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, OUR Walmart, recently staged a national “walk-out” of Walmart employees in 15 cities, intended as a show of force demanding higher wages and better treatment of workers trying to unionize. One of the group’s specific demands — in the wake of reduced hours at many stores — was for all employees to be given the opportunity for full-time positions at a salary of $25,000 a year. (It might have been more appropriate to hand such a petition to the authors of the president’s health-care law than to a Walmart board member in New York, as organizers tried to do.) Not many showed up: Walmart released a statement making light of their efforts, noting that, for all the national media attention it received, “only a smattering of paid protesters” were at the 15 sites, and no more than 50 of the participants across the country actually worked for Walmart.

#page#‐ When Tony Abbott, leader of Australia’s conservative Liberal party, won a convincing victory over Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, he changed the direction of Australian politics in several important ways — and maintained it in one. The exception is Australia’s warm alliance with the U.S. Both major parties in Oz are firmly pro-American. Australian troops fought alongside GIs in every war of the 20th century. The military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries is closer even than American cooperation with Britain before Britain’s parliamentary vote not to join a U.S. attack on Syria. Abbott may be a more robust partner than Labor’s Rudd, but the difference will be of tone rather than substance. In almost everything else, Abbott stands for massive change. He became leader of the Liberal party almost entirely because of his opposition to the previous leader’s support for Labor’s carbon tax and prioritizing of “green” issues over economic development. Having become leader by a single vote in his parliamentary party, he argued straightforwardly for the tax to be repealed. That is now likely to happen. This emphasis on growth and industry, coupled with support for tightening immigration laws (among other issues), was important in helping the Liberals win over traditional blue-collar constituencies who felt betrayed by Labor’s reckless, job-destroying environmentalism and attracted by Abbott’s social programs for what he calls “the forgotten families.” These programs will need money, however, at a time when Australia’s boom is faltering, and Abbott has also pledged to cut taxes. Like Oz itself, however, Abbott is lucky. Labor is in disarray, after almost four years of constant mutual sniping in the civil war between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, who took turns as prime minister and in back-stabbing each other. Both have now retired, but the green issues on which Labor won in 2007 now help Abbott. Occupied with rethinking itself, Labor will probably allow Abbott to get on with realigning Australian politics. He wants to run a government in the John Howard tradition of grown-ups. By running an election campaign that was both positive and preternaturally self-controlled, he showed signs of having the ability to do it.

‐ When David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, was stopped at London’s airport by British security officials and interrogated for nine hours over encrypted documents he had in his possession, Greenwald denounced his detention as an illegal retaliation for his own journalism, intended to punish and intimidate him. His editor, Alan Rusbridger, seized a moment when the British government was looking heavy-handed to reveal that other security officials had overseen the physical destruction of the hard drives of Guardian computers in the paper’s basement as part of its war on journalism. Innumerable Internet nerds praised Greenwald and Rusbridger and denounced the Brits as silly Torquemadas adrift in the information age. Since then David Cameron’s senior security adviser has given Britain’s high court a sworn statement to the effect that Miranda was carrying 58,000 encrypted top-secret British documents that, if revealed, would be highly valuable to foreign intelligence agencies and terrorists, and that contain, inter alia, the names of British agents who would then be at risk. Miranda was also carrying a password, written on old-fashioned paper, that would enable someone to decrypt many of these documents. Silly fellow adrift in the information age. Was Miranda aware of what he was carrying? If so, he is at serious legal risk for being part of a conspiracy to publish official secrets helpful to terrorism: not a trivial offense outside the U.S. Or was he used by Greenwald as an unwitting mule, in which case Greenwald’s early indignation would have been a smokescreen concealing not-very-nice treatment of another person. Whichever it is, Miranda was carrying secrets that any government would want to remain confidential, and many of which were directly related to the protection of the public. If he had gone through Frankfurt rather than Heathrow, they would have been published in due course, and maybe they will be published still. To call this journalism or press freedom is not the whole truth.

‐ The somber G20 meeting in St. Petersburg had its moment of light relief. President Vladimir Putin had just patted Britain and David Cameron on the back for the vote in Parliament to do nothing about the use of sarin gas in Syria. At a press conference, his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, took the different line that Britain is “just a small island” to which “no one pays attention.” He went on to gloat that Russian oligarchs were buying up choice parts of London. Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political editor, duly reported the remarks. He’s not one for making things up. David Cameron conceded in a speech that Britain is a small island but pointed out that its achievements are historic and ongoing in every important field. “I might have to put it to music,” he finished. Peskov naturally responded that he didn’t know where the “small island” snub had come from. Of course not.

‐ “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” and “She Is a Discharged Soldier” are songs that a few years ago made Hyon Song-wol popular in the People’s Inferno of North Korea. At that same time, she is believed to have met Kim Jong Un, and they “struck up a relationship,” as the decadent imperialist saying goes. Now, Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s largest daily, reports that Hyon and eleven others were arrested on charges of making videos of themselves performing sex acts and then selling the recordings. They were executed by machine-gun fire while their families and members of other pop groups were forced to watch, preceding dispatch to concentration camps. Observers are doubtful of the accusation’s truth. A video has turned up in China purporting to show Hyon and two other women dressed in leotards and merely dancing. Speculation has it that Kim and Hyon were furthering their relationship and that Kim’s wife Ri Sol Ju objected to the high profile of her rival. Last year, a young woman photographed next to Kim at a concert was thought to be Hyon. Jealousy may be the same the whole world over, but they do different things with it in the People’s Inferno.

‐ It is apparently not only the Obama administration that has discovered prosecutorial discretion to be a neat way of nullifying inconvenient laws. In Britain, physicians who perform abortions based on the sex of the unborn child were effectively informed in September that, although the practice is illegal, they will not be prosecuted for it. In an undercover investigation, the Daily Telegraph caught two doctors on film agreeing to perform the procedure and handed the evidence over to the police. The Crown Prosecution Service, which handles such matters, admitted that there was sufficient evidence to convict but ruled that it was not in the “public interest” to prosecute. The decision drew criticism, including from the Christian Legal Centre. “This is contrary to the law,” director Andrea Williams said. “Parliament makes the law and the CPS should enforce it.” Traditionally, this is indeed how the law works. But when it comes to abortion, on both sides of the Atlantic it seems that these days anything goes.

#page#‐ When 35-year-old Anna Romano told her boyfriend she was pregnant, he revealed that he was married, and, before abandoning her, suggested she have an abortion. Romano refused, and, out of desperation, wrote to Pope Francis for advice. She was “speechless” a few weeks ago when she answered her cell phone and the bishop of Rome was on the line. Pope Francis commended her for her bravery and reassured her that “the baby was a gift of God, a sign of Providence.” He offered to personally baptize the child if she had any problems finding a priest. It was another touching little act of kindness by the “cold-call pope.”

‐ In 1961, Che Guevara’s plane was grounded at Ireland’s Shannon Airport, so he and his posse spent the night in nearby Kilkee, one of County Clare’s seaside resorts. To commemorate the visit by the great man, someone painted a mural of him. Now local authorities have painted over the mural, because, in the words of news reports, it “upset American tourists.” It’s amazing that any tourists, outside of Cubans and Cuban Americans, knew to be upset.

‐ During the Siege of Syracuse, in the third century b.c., Archimedes supposedly set enemy ships on fire by focusing the sun’s rays with a large group of mirrors. Something similar, albeit less dramatic, has happened by accident in London. A new building said to resemble a walkie-talkie has shiny glass windows arranged in a concave pattern, and when conditions are right, they concentrate the sun’s rays on the street nearby. The results include melted body panels on a Jaguar XJ, a hole burned in a barbershop’s doormat, and sweltering, confused pedestrians. You can fry an egg on the sidewalk, but please do not eat it. Architects are working on a solution, although, this being England, sunlight is not a constant problem. Still, we look forward to seeing the Burning Building’s appearance in the next James Bond film: The villain’s Mercedes halts at a stop light, we see him mop his brow and bald scalp, and then, suddenly, poof!

‐ A migratory kestrel that strayed into Turkish airspace has been cleared of being a spy for Israel. Its ankle band with a Tel Aviv address excited suspicion, but when an X-ray examination showed nothing untoward and the band was identified as a scientific marker, the bird was exonerated. This was just the latest example of purported Israeli animal espionage. A 2010 shark infestation at Gaza beaches was declared to be the work of Mossad, and a vulture in Saudi Arabia in 2011, and another last year in Sudan, were deemed to be Israeli agents because they had GPS trackers and leg tags from Hebrew University (academic positions are a common cover story in spycraft). Last year Turks called the counterterrorism unit over a dead European bee-eater. Israel should take all this as a compliment; an Egyptian professor points out that stories of nefarious Israeli control seem plausible in these countries because “Israel . . . is viewed as a mighty force that rules the world.” Earlier this year, Israel suffered a near-Biblical plague of locusts, reminding the Middle East who really controls the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.

‐ For centuries poets, most of them male, have sung of anonymous young women. The cooling springs in Horace often have a slave girl nearby; Burns dearly loved the lasses, O. In Lolita Vladimir Nabokov pushed this trope to an endpoint: One thing we love about the lasses is the loss of their innocence, and the best guarantee that innocence shall be there to be lost is to take it as close to puberty as possible. In the world of pop culture, Madonna gave it away as part of her shtick (she wasn’t a virgin, of course, but she simulated one with lyrics and Catholic iconography). The latest to stumble in her footsteps was Miley Cyrus at the MTV Music Video Awards (enabled by Robin Thicke, he of the perfect surname). The sophisticated will shrug and say, What’s new? The truthful will say, and will not stop saying, however much the sophisticates laugh or yawn, It’s sad.

‐ In Oregon, a lesbian couple, Rachel Cryer and Laurel Bowman, asked a bakery called Sweet Cakes by Melissa to bake them a wedding cake. The owners, Aaron and Melissa Klein, said no. They said they were happy to sell items to anyone — but would not bake wedding cakes for homosexual couples, because same-sex marriage goes against their religious beliefs. The couple filed a complaint with the state. They bought their cake from another bakery, Pastrygirl. They also accepted a free cake from Duff Goldman, star of the TV show Ace of Cakes. Goldman had heard about the Oregon controversy. Mr. and Mrs. Klein were subject to a vicious campaign from gay-marriage activists. They received death threats against their children. The activists didn’t kill the children, but they killed the business. Oregon launched a formal investigation into the Kleins. The commissioner said his goal was to “rehabilitate” them. Sweet Cakes by Melissa has now shut down. Mrs. Klein will try to do a cake business from her home; Mr. Klein has had to take another job. In Vietnam, the Communists called it “reeducation.” Cryer and Bowman got their wedding cake — two of them, actually — and got the Kleins too. Gay-marriage advocates say all they want is individual freedom. You can tell, can’t you?

‐ San Antonio, the second-largest city in Texas, has adopted a law that forbids city employees and contractors to engage not only in acts of discrimination against homosexuals, the transgendered, and the like, but also to express “a bias, by word or deed,” against members of any group falling under the law’s protection. Opponents have argued, not unreasonably, that this constitutes an egregious violation of the free-speech and religious liberties of those covered by the law. For example, delivering a church sermon affirming the sinfulness of homosexual conduct, or perhaps even merely attending one, could demonstrate a bias, by word or by deed, against homosexuals, as would making a donation to an organization critical of same-sex marriage or tweeting an editorial on the subject. Municipal employees should of course not inflict their views on people over whom they exercise power. City-council members should remember the limits of theirs.

‐ Ronald Coase was one of the great economists and great minds of his time, best known for the Coase Theorem, which deals with the resolution of externalities and intellectually reframed the problem of regulation, and for his essay “The Nature of the Firm,” which explored the question of why individuals form partnerships and corporations rather than trade as sole proprietors. The key to both of these inquiries was the question of transaction costs, or the expenses associated with participation in a market. Far from being obscure scholarly meditations, Coase’s works have become fundamental to the social sciences — his article “The Problem of Social Cost” has the distinction of being the most cited law-review article in history, and he is the intellectual father of law-and-economics studies. His career was in some ways unhappily emblematic of the academic course of the 20th century: Coase and his colleague James Buchanan both were chased out of the University of Virginia for holding then-heretical views about the power of free people to solve problems through negotiation with minimal recourse to political managers — right-wing extremism in the view of the delicate minds at UVA. (The dean compiled a list of scholars, Coase and Buchanan among them, who would be systematically passed over for promotion until they left.) Both men went on to be awarded the Nobel Prize in economics. Coase’s antagonists, he explained, objected to ideas they never understood and never attempted to understand. Dead at 102. R.I.P.

‐ Seamus Heaney was the latest in the long line of great Irish poets. Always accessible, his writing celebrated the ordinary and the simple, with a sense that everything in life has something of a miracle about it. He loved his nation and his Catholic faith and humanity, and more than many recipients he deserved his Nobel Prize for literature. R.I.P.

‐ David Frost, British TV personality, earned a footnote in American political history with his 1977 interviews of former president Richard Nixon. Over hours of air time, Frost prised out two nuggets: a memorable definition of presidential power (“Well, when the president does it that means it is not illegal” — what oft was thought, by presidents at least, but ne’er so bluntly expressed); and a quasi-apology for Watergate (“I let the American people down and I have to carry that burden with me for the rest of my life”). Useful services both. More consequentially, Frost gave us infotainment. His British show, That Was the Week That Was, was the first humorous newscast, forefather of both The Daily Show and McLaughlinesque talk shows in which role-playing trumps content. Not so useful that. His death, at 74, is a lesson in the transience of TV fame. Thirty years ago no one would have needed the ID in the first sentence of this obit. Now the young require it and the old must have their memories jogged. R.I.P.

#page#SYRIA

Amateur Hour

It’s hard to recall a more pathetic spectacle in the annals of American national security than President Obama trying in a speech to the nation to talk his way out of his proposed war in Syria, via a transparently cynical Russian diplomatic initiative. There have been more damaging episodes, but perhaps none quite as cringe-inducing.

The president made a case for action, pounding his chest about the U.S. military not doing pinpricks, then reverted to the unworkable Putin proposal as just the thing to defuse the crisis. He elided the fact that the plan — such as it is — issued from John Kerry’s gaffe in speaking off the cuff about how Syria could avoid a strike by giving up its chemical weapons. Kerry then added the important and sensible caveat that such a scheme wouldn’t work.

Given the extenht of Syria’s chemical weapons (hundreds of tons), the state of the country (ravaged by civil war), and the sincerity of the Assad regime and the Kremlin (nil), Kerry will surely be proved out. But such was the desperation of the administration that it has grasped this tenuous lifeline to keep its head above water a few more days, hoping that attention to the matter will fade and it will never have to hear the phrase “red line” again.

The Russians have acted with a deftness and cold-eyed attention to their interests that are needed in Foggy Bottom. After decades of exclusion from the Middle East, Russia is now back in the game. It will ensure that its Syrian client state pays no real price for its use of chemical weapons. And it is in position to repeat its role as bad-faith interlocutor in nuclear negotiations between a hapless United States and Iran.

President Obama gave up the initiative on Syria as soon as he decided over Labor Day weekend to go to Congress for authorization for a strike, in what was supposedly a fit of democratic scruple. The seat-of-his-pants reversal signaled irresolution, and in the days ahead, his administration’s ambiguous case for war at times verged on the ridiculous. The more he and his team talked, the more altitude they lost. But the public is so exhausted with the Middle East that their arguments could have been airtight and they still would have made little or no headway. Facing near-certain defeat in Congress, he found the Putin escape hatch.

Make no mistake: Everyone around the world — our adversaries and our allies — knows who blinked. In supporting a strike, we warned that a failure to act would lead to a loss of U.S. credibility. This deal is the immediate, concrete expression of that loss, with Putin elevated, Assad more secure, and Obama humiliated.

Some opponents of a strike argued that Assad would suffer nothing important from it, continue to deploy chemical weapons, and gain prestige from withstanding the military might of the United States. Assad evidently disagreed. That the Syrian regime has now admitted that it has chemical weapons (after long denials), and feels compelled to play along with the disarmament plan, shows that the mere presence of U.S. warships off its shores concentrated the mind.

American power is a fearsome thing. But the American presidency at the moment, occupied by a rank amateur, is not.

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

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Sections

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Letters

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Athwart

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Poetry

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We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More