‐ The Secret Service let a crazy man be alone with President Obama for an hour. Luckily Tom Friedman isn’t due for another interview for a while.
‐ Leon Panetta’s memoir, Worthy Fights, has set Beltway tongues a-wagging, for two reasons: Should it have been published so soon after Panetta stepped down as secretary of defense (February 2013)? Does it show that Obama’s policymaking is prey to all-too-human ills (political calculation, Obama’s big ego)? The question of the propriety of publishing is, these days, academic. We are deluged with tell-all memoirs; Panetta’s predecessor at the Pentagon, Bob Gates, committed one of his own. And why not? Better to write a book and sign your name than dish to Bob Woodward. The fact that Obama has flaws and tics will shock only those who took him to be a light-bearer. Panetta believes that in Obama’s case, these flaws and tics have led to calamitous foreign-policy mistakes. That too is clear for all to see.
‐ Speaking at the Centers for Disease Control, President Obama said, “In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here at home.” Days later, Thomas Eric Duncan reached Dallas from Liberia (via Brussels), infected with Ebola, and we were quite unprepared for him. When he came to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, he was initially sent home even though he had a fever of 103. Two days later, he came back to the hospital, where he died. All travel to or from afflicted African nations, except by monitored medical or military personnel, should be banned, and hospitals here must be on the alert. So much is common sense. Fear of an Ebola outbreak is probably overblown: There are diseases that are more contagious. But the expectation that we can live in a risk-free world is also overblown. Risk multiplies, of course, if doctors do not follow even routine protocols, and politicians ignore elementary measures. Be smart, and be stoical.
‐ Heartthrob Ben Affleck got into a tussle with political comic Bill Maher, who was backed by the neuroscientist Sam Harris. The topic: Islam. Maher, hosting a discussion on his TV show, and Harris hammered Islam as a source — Harris called it a “mother lode” — of bad ideas and practices: oppression of women, death for apostates. Affleck raised the cry of bigotry, as if he were reading passages from Daniel Deronda. Affleck was seriously outgunned; he did not seem to know who Harris was. Maher and Harris, evangelical atheists both, painted with broad strokes. Is Islam itself ailing, or is it that it prevails in so many sick countries? This is a free country, and anyone from scholars to rabble-rousers should be free to criticize any religion, regardless of the shut-up-he-explained arguments of liberals and offended interest groups. But change in Islam will come, if it ever comes, only from believers themselves.
‐ The actress Gwyneth Paltrow hosted President Obama in her California home for a $15,000-a-plate fundraiser benefiting the Democratic National Committee. She was starstruck. “You’re so handsome that I can’t speak properly,” she told the president, calling his support for the Paycheck Fairness Act “very important to me as a working mother.” (Paltrow earned an estimated $19 million last year for her work.) “It would be wonderful if we were able to give this man all of the power that he needs to pass the things that he needs to pass,” she continued. Luckily the voters seem inclined to disagree this time around.
‐ Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, became a national laughingstock when she refused to answer a simple question: Did you vote for Obama in 2008 and 2012? She refused to answer that question once, twice — five times (as we went to press). She said, “I respect the sanctity of the ballot box.” So do we, but we’re comfortable saying whom we voted for. So is she: She has said that she voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. The lady’s unartful dodging is a gift to the Republican nominee in Kentucky, Senator Mitch McConnell.
‐ Democrat Wendy Davis was lifted to national prominence and a Texas Senate race because she wore pink sneakers during a pro-abortion filibuster. Convinced, evidently, that locomotion is a winner for her, she attacked her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, with an ad showing an empty wheelchair (Abbott has used a wheelchair since being hit by a falling tree 30 years ago). When her ad was greeted with appalled gasps, Davis said she was not attacking Abbott’s disability, but his hypocrisy: He won a settlement from the owners of the tree, yet as Texas attorney general he has argued against excessive disability claims. Formally Davis is correct: Her ad was about hypocrisy, though her charge was incoherent (the beneficiary of one lawsuit is not obliged to support all others). Davis is in hot water, however, because her liberal supporters profess a touch-them-not awe of minorities and victims. “Wasn’t there another way to make the point?” asked the Washington Post. That Davis is a desperate loser? No.
‐ Larry Pressler was a Republican senator from South Dakota, generally conservative but deeply undistinguished. More recently he has become a liberal. He backed Obama twice, wants tax increases, supports abortion and gun control, and has urged the Supreme Court to force states to recognize same-sex marriage. He is running as an “independent” for his old Senate seat, which could result in a win for the Democratic candidate. It is hard to see a majority of South Dakotans choosing liberalism this year. As in Kansas, Democratic hopes in South Dakota rest on public confusion about the stakes of the election.
#page#‐ Joe Biden keeps having to apologize for saying things that are true. At an event hosted by Harvard’s Institute of Politics, when the vice president of the college’s student body introduced himself, Biden quipped, “Isn’t it a b**** . . . that vice-president thing?” “I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” he scrambled. But he was right. No less an authority than our first vice president, John Adams, referred to his position as “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” Alas, Biden doesn’t seem to share Adams’s diplomatic graces: In the same speech, he suggested that the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and Qatar have aided jihadist rebels in Syria, or are at least insufficiently committed to stopping them. He may have slightly overstated the case, but our allies aren’t doing much to stop the financing of terrorist groups, and it’s a real problem. It’s also not one that’s going to be solved with venting to undergraduates.
‐ The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a Wisconsin voter-ID law from taking effect before the November election. The Court decided to stay an appellate court’s decision, and thus prevent implementation of the law, without much explanation. Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito dissented, saying the Court’s suspension of the law should not have been granted unless the lower court was proved to have made an error. Opponents of the law had concerns that some mail-in votes would not get counted unless and until the voter showed up to verify his or her identity, but having proper identification is a necessary component of a free and fair election. Republican governor Scott Walker defended the law’s merits in a debate with Democrat Mary Burke. “It doesn’t matter if there’s one, one hundred, or one thousand,” Walker said. “Amongst us, who would be that one person who would like to have our vote canceled out by a vote that was cast illegally?”
‐ After a crazy man hopped the White House fence and got as far as the Green Room, and President Obama rode in an elevator with another man who, while he was not crazy, was not authorized to be there and happened to be armed, congressmen of both parties naturally wondered, What’s up with the Secret Service? Then journalists — Peter Baker of the New York Times, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post — wondered if Republicans weren’t protesting too much (Baker wrote of their “professed sympathy,” Milbank on TV pointed out that they “would like to remove [Obama] from office”). The Times also reported that black Americans wondered whether the Secret Service was deliberately exposing a black president to harm. Enough. The president of the United States is chosen by his fellow citizens and vested with the executive power. All Americans want him to be safe, Republicans (whose party has supplied three of the four murdered presidents) as much as anyone.
‐ President Obama is threatening to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and transfer the remaining 149 terrorists held there to prisons inside the United States, in violation of congressional prohibitions. Obama has long chafed at these bans, which frustrate his vow, made at the very start of his presidency, to shutter Gitmo. Though he has repeatedly signed legislation that includes the bans, Obama has issued signing statements (another Bush practice he once condemned) claiming they unconstitutionally curb his commander-in-chief power over the disposition of enemy combatants (a power he contended the courts should wield back when Bush had it). The claim is meritless: The president retains the power to repatriate detainees to foreign countries, but Congress determines whether to fund prisoner transfers and who qualifies for entry into the U.S. Still, watch for another Obama edict — after the election.
‐ In October, the Department of Defense announced that it hoped to prohibit the sale of tobacco products on military bases and ships, provoking an immediate backlash in Congress and beyond. Lung cancer is a menace, and smoking is a dangerous and ultimately self-destructive game. But militaries, our civil powers might remember, are fighting forces, not social clubs, and their purpose is not to reflect the prevailing moral habits of the elite class but to protect the national interests of the United States. Light ’em up.
‐ A new California law establishes a new standard for campus disciplinary proceedings: Consent to “sexual activity” is deemed not to have been given unless it was expressed in an “affirmative” and “ongoing” way. These key terms are not defined in the law, or elsewhere in state law. Debate over the law has fallen mostly on left–right lines, with liberals arguing that the law should aggressively reshape campus culture while conservatives worry about fairness to the accused. Some liberals have voiced the same worry, though, and some conservatives have suggested that the new rules might reduce promiscuity on campus. Less promiscuity — and less alcohol-induced promiscuity — would certainly diminish the problem that the law seeks to address, and be desirable on other grounds too. The track record of past attempts to impose campus sex codes suggests, however, that the main actual result of this legal change will be that a few men are labeled as sexual predators and expelled because their partners had post-relationship regrets. That, and a lot of lawsuits.
#page#The Trouble with Maher
There’s a strange-new-respect movement building for HBO’s Bill Maher because of his recent comments about Islam. In case you missed it, Maher and professional atheist Sam Harris said some un-PC things about Islam — specifically, that liberal values were more obviously betrayed in Muslim countries than in the West, and that liberals should be consistent and condemn this fact. Ben Affleck found the comments “gross” and “racist,” and so did the usual chorus. Nicholas Kristof pronounced that there was a “tinge,” in the conversation, of how “white racists” talk.
Since no one has pointed it out, as far as I can tell, let me quickly note that Islam isn’t a race. Pretty much every race on the planet is represented in the ranks of Islam, and some of the most barbaric Islamists are white, including those starring in recent Islamic State snuff films. I realize that “racist” has come to mean “anything liberals dislike,” but I could do without the condescending lectures from liberals who use the word “racism” incorrectly.
Which brings me to Chris Hayes. He issued the MSNBC equivalent of a fatwa against Maher. “Put me down in the Ben Affleck camp on this, strongly,” he declared. And while he kept the words “it’s gross, it’s racist” on the screen for his whole diatribe, Hayes articulated a single complaint: It was wrong and unproductive to have “five non-Muslim guys sitting around talking about what ‘the Muslims’ think.”
Well, yes, okay. Liberal pieties about diversity are not wrong simply because they are liberal pieties. It would be better to have a thoughtful Muslim in the conversation to defend Islam (it would also be better to have some thoughtful conservatives on MSNBC to defend conservatism). Of course, this assumes that Maher’s show is in any way a forum for serious conversation, an assumption I am not willing to make (and one I wish others would stop making; I’ve vowed never to return to the show). It’s almost as if liberals are angry that Real Time briefly broke from its treasured role as a televangelist infomercial for liberal asininity.
And that’s why you can count me out of the early stages of canonization for Maher. It is wrong to call the man a racist, at least in this context. (He’s said some things about blacks that would rightly be denounced as racist if they had come from any conservative, as when he wished Obama had acted like a “real black president” by pulling a gun from his pants and saying to BP executives, “We’ve got a motherf***ing problem here?”)
But Maher is surely a bigot. He’s been mocking Christianity and Judaism for years. His film Religulous, for example, is little more than anti-religious agitprop, and none of the liberals condemning his “Islamophobia” offered a peep in protest about that.
That he’s finally bringing his schtick to Islam is a small triumph for consistency, I suppose. And his heresy is useful for illuminating his liberal critics’ hypocrisy. But he still operates from a bigoted worldview that says liberalism — not classical liberalism, but his brand of progressive, smirking, atheistic libertinism — is the sole wellspring of moral authority. And that, in itself, is a kind of illiberal bigotry. Indeed, when Salon asked him to defend his attacks on Islam, Maher responded, “We’re liberals! We’re not crazy tea-baggers.” I’ll consider membership in the Maher Fan Club when he stops saying things like that. Of course, if he did, he wouldn’t have a show on HBO.
#page#‐ Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy’s commission on the Sandy Hook massacre is the predictable rogues’ gallery of public-sector unionists, left-wing academics, and minions of the education bureaucracies, and they think that they have put their finger on what went wrong in the life of mass murderer Adam Lanza: homeschooling. They are using the Sandy Hook massacre as a pretext for demanding a practically proctologic level of state oversight of Connecticut homeschoolers. Lanza was briefly homeschooled at the end of his high-school career, when his mother was overwhelmed by the challenges of dealing with her mentally ill son and had been utterly failed by the same public institutions that Malloy wants to cast as homeschoolers’ overseers. (He was still very much a part of the government’s education system, though, attending student-group meetings at the nearby public high school.) Homeschooling had not one thing to do with Lanza’s rampage, and neither public oversight nor officially credentialed expertise did a thing to stop it. Lanza had been seeing public-school therapists since kindergarten and had received treatment at no less an institution than Yale. The government-school unions and their political affiliates hate homeschooling for the same reason they hate school choice: They are monopolists, and they will not endure competition. And if they have to politicize the murder of 20 children to have their way, they will.
‐ President Obama praised Hong Kong’s “open system” during a recent private meeting with China’s foreign minister. Unfortunately, Hong Kong doesn’t yet have an open system, and President Obama has remained silent about the fact that the Chinese government is currently shutting the doors. Protesters flooded the streets of Hong Kong around the beginning of September when the Chinese government indicated that it will renege on a promise to Britain and the Hong Kongers that the former colony can soon freely elect its chief executive. The massive peaceful demonstrations have now been interrupted by violent counter-protesters, apparently encouraged by the largely pro-Beijing business community, and the movement seems to have diminished in size. Obama may have already missed his opportunity, but he should say, publicly, that China should abide by its commitment to the people of Hong Kong.
‐ In special elections in October, Douglas Carswell, a Tory defector and now the U.K. Independence party’s first member of Parliament, won 60 percent of the vote. UKIP had been expected to win Clacton easily and to lose the “safe” Labour seat in Heywood and Middleton by a substantial margin, but it lost the latter by only a whisker — 617 votes — and reduced the Labour majority there by about 90 percent. Labour finds itself suddenly stricken in its northern stronghold, threatened by the insurgent party that until now it has dismissed as a bunch of Tory refugees from Cameronism. The result is terrible for Labour leader Ed Miliband, a caricature, almost, of the metropolitan liberal Left, which has lost touch with Labour’s traditional working-class constituency. But the Heywood and Middleton result was almost as bad for Tory leader David Cameron. Though the Tories still hold many northern constituencies, the boast of UKIP’s deputy leader Paul Nuttall that UKIP is now “the official opposition to Labour in the North” rings true. What’s happening is a Revolt of the Neglected. The London establishment has no idea of how to deal with it, and it’s gathering steam.
‐ Some Nobel Peace Prizes simply make you feel good. There was such an award in 1979, when Mother Teresa won the prize. Her Nobel lecture rubbed many the wrong way, however. She used her platform to say, “I feel the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a direct war, a direct killing — direct murder by the mother herself.” The award for 2014 is very much a feel-good award. It has gone jointly to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who defied the Taliban, and Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian campaigner for children’s rights — especially their right not to be trafficked. Malala, at 17, is the youngest person ever to win the prize, by many years. When she was eleven, she started to write a blog about life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley — especially for a girl trying to get an education. Eventually, the Taliban caught up with her, shooting her in the head. They did not succeed in killing her, however. And she vowed to keep telling the truth about them. She now does this from England, where she was taken to recover. She learned about her Nobel Peace Prize when she was pulled from her chemistry class. Consider that a double insult to her attempted killers.
‐ Patrick Modiano, the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, is a white, European male — or, as many would have it, another white, European male, and evidence of the Nobel Academy’s obvious racial prejudice. This despite the fact that last year’s winner was a Canadian woman, and the preceding winner a native of China. Still, a Telegraph headline declared, “How the Nobel Prize Has Favoured White Western Men for More Than 100 Years.” But Peter Englund, Nobel Academy permanent secretary, is not interested in an affirmative-action program for laureates: “We don’t work according to quotas,” he told the Guardian, responding to questions about Modiano’s win. “We are just trying to give the prize to excellence, and we don’t concern ourselves too much with ‘Well, now we should have someone from this continent or that gender.’ It would make our work impossible.” An award for great literature that goes to great literature? These days that almost counts as a plot twist.
#page#‐ The West Australian Opera company dropped Carmen from its schedule — because the opera depicts smoking. (The title character works in a cigarette factory, after all, and there is a smokers’ chorus.) The Aussie prime minister, Tony Abbott, described the company’s move as “political correctness gone crazy.” That’s putting it mildly. Listen to this: The company’s general manager said, “We are about the health and well-being of our staff, stage performers, and all the opera lovers throughout [western Australia], which means promoting health messages and not portraying any activities that could be seen to promote unhealthy behavior.” As a rule, operas are full of betrayal, rape, insanity, and murder. (Don José stabs Carmen to death, for example.) This poor company in Perth might as well shut down.
‐ California’s Scripps College is so ideologically uniform that it has a program designed explicitly to bring conservatives onto campus, the stated purpose of which is to offer students “a range of opinions about the world — especially opinions with which we may not agree, or think we do not agree” and to provide “a better educational experience” in consequence. Based on recent events, however, authorities might consider adding a disclaimer: “within reason.” In October, it came to light that Washington Post columnist George F. Will had been disinvited after he pushed back against the fashionable concept of “rape culture” and proposed that progressivism’s fetishization of victims was creating perverse incentives within universities. Explaining its decision to rescind Will’s invitation, the college’s president suggested that this matter was simply “too important to be trivialized in a political debate.” Scripps is a private institution, and it may do as it sees fit. But there is little virtue in having a program that aims to expand the horizons of one’s students if that program hews to the same political and social presumptions that made it necessary in the first place.
‐ Some of the American doctors repatriated for treatment after contracting Ebola in Liberia were serving with Christian aid organizations. Slate science writer Brian Palmer reacted to this “mingling of religion and health care” with a “visceral discomfort.” He appreciates, sort of, that Christian health workers risk their lives to serve people in desperate need, but it would make him less queasy if they could shut up about Jesus while doing so: “It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?” Confessing that he was not “altogether proud of this bias,” Palmer wrote that though he “can’t fully articulate why,” he doesn’t “feel good about missionary medicine,” a feeling he believes is shared by “secular Americans — or religious Americans who prefer their medicine to be focused more on science than faith.” Mr. Palmer might be interested to learn that that feeling he can’t quite articulate has a name: bigotry.
‐ Having been caught fabricating a George W. Bush quotation for the amusement of his audience, all Neil deGrasse Tyson needed to do to restore his reputation was apologize and concede the error. This, however, seems to have been too uncomfortable a course for the great man. In October, having consistently denied any wrongdoing, Tyson penned a bizarre open letter, burying a churlish half-apology within a rambling disquisition on, among other things, the contents of his wardrobe, how he likes to spend his private time, why he removes his shoes when speaking, and for what reason he deigns to give public addresses: Given his brilliance, he says, he would be “socially irresponsible” not to. May we suggest that he has earned the right to be socially irresponsible for some little while?
‐ The public schools of Lincoln, Neb., are cracking down on abusive language: “boys and girls.” Concerned that even hearing the offensive phrase could seriously harm students who are transgender, the district handed its middle-school teachers a training document telling them to use such “gender inclusive” classroom names as “purple penguins” instead. The document also warns teachers not to ask students to “line up as boys or girls,” and suggests asking them to line up by whether they prefer “skateboards or bikes / milk or juice / dogs or cats / summer or winter / talking or listening.” Furthermore, it tells teachers that they had better interfere and interrupt if they ever hear students dare to talk about gender in terms of “boys and girls” and let them know how wrong they are. It is hard to think of a better way to reinforce kids’ sense that adults have the strangest ideas.
‐ Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old with terminal cancer, announced that she plans to commit suicide in November. She has moved to Oregon, where prescribing and taking drugs for this purpose is legal. She knows that palliative care is possible, but says she does not want to take the risk that her personality will change, that her pain will prove resistant to medication, or that she will lose her cognitive or motor faculties. Her plight is moving, and even those who consider her deeply misguided can admire her forthrightness. Ultimately, though, the law offers three basic choices: the longstanding Western tradition of respecting the sanctity of life; a libertarian regime in which anyone can choose death, whether for terminal illness or emotional distress, and buy it in the supermarket; or a legal system that treats suicide as reasonable for some people and not for others, and thus tells those people that the world may be better off with them dead. Her illness is a great sadness, and her example will add to it.
#page#‐ The image has gone from inspiring to iconic to clichéd to omnipresent: Times Square, V-J Day, wild celebration, sailor kisses nurse. To mark the 70th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, French authorities unveiled a 25-foot borrowed sculpture that recreates the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph (in color this time). The monument met with general acclaim — except from a French feminist group, Osez Le Féminisme (OLF), which complained that it portrays a “sexual assault” and demanded its removal. In fact, there is no evidence that the kiss in the photo was unwelcome; servicemen were kissing random women all over Times Square that afternoon. More important, perhaps, when it was taken, the Allies had just spent six years rescuing France and the rest of Europe from a very unwelcome assault — yet OLF is most worried about a harmless kiss. OLF’s website proclaims that the group’s main weapons are “l’humour et la patience.” Could’ve fooled us.
‐ The ritual was unvarying: You woke up around 7:00 — earlier than on school days, a paradox parents never understood — poured out a bowl of Cap’n Crunch, and parked yourself in front of the TV to watch Saturday-morning cartoons. The day didn’t officially begin until you took off your pajamas, which didn’t happen until you ran out of cartoons, which, by switching channels, you could usually put off until noon or even 1:00, what with the de rigueur Beatles cartoon, dopey Quick-Draw McGraw, proto-feminist Josie and the Pussycats, Looney Tunes with its diversity-providing Speedy Gonzales and existentialist Road Runner, plus deservedly forgotten obscurities like Wacky Races. Now all that is gone; the CW network, last to maintain a Saturday-morning cartoon block, has replaced it with live programming. Today’s kids can watch cartoons anytime they want (not that they particularly want to), and in any case they spend Saturday mornings on soccer or Chinese lessons or prep classes for the middle-school entrance exam. Moreover, since the early 1990s, regulations have required children’s programming to be educational, which makes kids as eager to watch it as they are to give up Cap’n Crunch for corn flakes. So bid a wistful farewell to those benighted days when nine-year-olds had unscheduled time to waste. That’s all, folks.
‐ A professor and professional raconteur, Benedict Groeschel was touching 50 when he accepted a TV gig on the startup EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network) in the 1980s. On his Sunday Night Prime, which quickly caught on, he joined spiritual insight with his Jersey-boy gift for wisecracking to become that rarest of media creatures, a talking head who is endlessly engrossing. He entered the Capuchin order at age 18 and left it in his mid 50s, to co-found the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, dedicated to serving “the materially poor” and to preaching. On his love of collecting food for the hungry in blighted urban neighborhoods, he once remarked, “As a psychologist, I have to say I have a Santa Claus complex.” In New York City, he founded a home for young men in crisis and co-founded Good Counsel, a home for pregnant women in crisis. The author of more than 40 books, he leaves behind uncounted hours of charm and wisdom on video, and uncounted beneficiaries of his charity and prayer. The title “Father” suited him well and was always more than a formality. Father Groeschel, dead at 81. Requiescat in pace.
‐ Jean-Claude Duvalier has died at 63. Called “Baby Doc,” he succeeded his father, “Papa Doc,” as dictator of Haiti. Together, they ruled — and terrorized and robbed and starved — Haiti for almost 30 years: from 1957 to 1986. Père ruled for the first 14 years; fils ruled for the rest. Torture, rape, and murder were the keys to their control of the population. These crimes were carried out by their personal Brownshirts, the Tonton Macoutes. When Papa Doc decided that Baby Doc would succeed him, he thoughtfully put his decision to a referendum. His decision was ratified by a vote of 2,391,916 to zero. Baby Doc was 19 when he took over. In his late 20s, he married his femme fatale, Michèle Bennett. Along with their persecuting, they stole as much as they could. They were forced from power in 1986, taking their millions to France. There, they lived high on the hog. Eventually the couple divorced, and Jean-Claude ran out of money. He returned to Haiti in 2011, facing trial for human-rights abuses and corruption. The trial was not energetic. Baby Doc lived under a gilded house arrest. Today, his son Nicolas (Grandbaby Doc?) is an adviser to Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly. Haiti suffers regardless of who is in power, but another Duvalier would probably be a bad idea.
The War We Need to Fight
The Islamic State has been on the offensive almost since President Obama announced his campaign to degrade and destroy it. As we went to press, it was threatening to take over the Kurdish town of Kobani, on Syria’s border with Turkey, and it has been on the march in Anbar Province in Iraq. At one point, it had surged within miles of the Baghdad airport, and only American Apache helicopters beat it back.
President Obama’s theory of the war seemed to be that we could hold the Islamic State in check from the air, suffer no further embarrassing setbacks, and wait for something to materialize on the ground that would shift the balance of forces. Failing that, the president would at least appear to be doing something and then hand the problem off to his successor.
The Islamic State’s continued advance puts all of that in doubt. After initial successes bombing the Islamic State off the Mosul dam and stopping its march on Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, we have achieved almost nothing militarily. The air campaign has been a strategic nullity.
For one thing, it has been minuscule. In the first 50 days or so of the war, we have conducted 300 airstrikes. In contrast, during the 76-day campaign to oust the Taliban, we conducted 17,000. As the siege of Kobani began, we were dropping one or two bombs a day. Since then, we have upped the pace there. But overall, our desultory air campaign has failed even to achieve the maximum effect of an air-only campaign. President Obama is being urged by some advisers to increase the strikes by an order of magnitude, and he should.
As nearly everyone realizes — even Jimmy Carter in his extraordinary critique of the president as too soft and slow on the Islamic State — we need forces on the ground. At the moment, we are completely dependent on proxies, and should be doing all that we can to make them more robust.
In Syria, the most coherent, moderate anti–Islamic State force is the Kurds, but we have hesitated to arm them. That is, in part, because we don’t want to offend the Turks, who hate the Kurds so much they have been content literally to watch the Islamic State attack them. We should realize that the Turks have interests different from ours — Bashar Assad and the Kurds top their list of enemies, not the Islamic State — and act in accordance with our own.
We should do everything we can to accelerate the program of training and equipping other relatively moderate rebels in Syria — the current timeframe is three to five months before we produce one fighter — along with the Iraqi army and Sunni tribesmen.
The administration says the war will take years. We certainly shouldn’t expect it to keep up with, say, the cable-news cycle, but there are costs to a leisurely pace. On the ground in these sorts of wars, with tribal forces deciding which side they will take, success tends to breed success. As long as the Islamic State has the momentum, it will be easier for it to keep the momentum. Domestically, the American public supports wars that are demonstrably succeeding, so minimizing our commitment, if it comes at the cost of progress on the ground, may well make the politics more difficult over the long run.
So far, events vindicate critics of the president’s approach, who from the beginning have said that it will take American operators on the ground to buttress local forces and help target Islamic State fighters. This is the nettle that the president doesn’t want to grasp, and as long as he won’t, the best we can probably hope for is a campaign to temporize against the Islamic State.
Judicial Activism, Judicial Abdication
Are the people of the United States owed at least the opportunity to make an argument, before philosopher-kings in robes change the meaning of their Constitution? We would have thought so. Are they owed an opinion that at least takes a stab at rational justification for the most consequential change in law, politics, and culture inflicted on them by the federal courts in a generation? We would have thought that too.
But the justices of the Supreme Court ducked these responsibilities in October, denying appellate review of decisions by three federal circuit courts to impose same-sex marriage on five states. This choice nearly immediately brought the number of states with same-sex marriage to 24 — only a few of them having chosen it democratically — and that number will rapidly climb to 30 when these three circuits impose their redefinition of marriage on the remaining states in their jurisdictions. At that point, with a new meaning of marriage reigning in the majority of the country, it will be very hard to turn back.
The Supreme Court set this train in motion in 2013. Justice Kennedy and the Court’s liberals struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, finding its attempt to protect the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman unconstitutional because — well, he never quite got around to explaining what part of the Constitution it violated. Federal courts took the ruling as an invitation to find all the old marriage laws unconstitutional on various theories. The Court now refuses to say whether the laws do or do not violate its understanding of the Constitution.
Under the Supreme Court’s rules, four of the nine justices can accept a case for review. Why weren’t there four justices willing to review these cases? The simplest explanation is that so far there has been no “circuit split,” with contrary rulings from different federal appeals courts. But that’s more an excuse than an explanation here: The justices take plenty of cases in the absence of such division, if they think they’re important. And what could be more consequential than whether the people get to decide the legal meaning of our society’s most fundamental institution?
The four conservative justices, fearful of what Justice Kennedy will do if he has the chance, seem to prefer kicking this particular can down the road for now. That strategy probably can’t be sustained until the next Court vacancy during a Republican administration, but what else — they might think — can be done right now? The four liberal justices, on the other hand, may not be ready to foist same-sex marriage on the whole country, fearing the backlash that would be caused by a transparently political ruling that could not be connected to the text, history, or principles of our Constitution. Their choice to shrink from taking this step may be the best thing about this bad news.
And we do think the American people will have cause to regret same-sex marriage. To disconnect marriage from sexual complementarity is to redefine it so completely that other principles are lost. The divorce revolution has damaged both permanence and fidelity as basic features of marriage — but with marriage redefined so that child-rearing is no longer central to its reason for being, they begin not to make sense. Neither does limiting marriage to couples, or even forbidding marriage between the closest blood relations. Polygamy and “polyamory” are therefore the next obvious developments.
Indeed, the redefinition of marriage undermines its fundamental purpose: to steer people toward patterns of sexual behavior that facilitate the flourishing of the children that sex sometimes produces. If its purpose is instead to facilitate the emotional happiness of adults, it is hard to see why the government should be involved or why a formal institution is necessary.
We have never really had a debate over these ideas about marriage, for various reasons. Conservatives too often rested their case on tradition and majority sentiment, which proved worthless when majority sentiment turned against tradition. The media have covered the issue thoughtlessly: Many outlets have adopted the phrase “marriage equality” as though it were a neutral description of what is at issue. And the courts, above all, short-circuited the debate by pretending that the country had already adopted same-sex marriage in principle when it ratified the Fourteenth Amendment.
The redefinition of marriage is often said to have served the cause of liberty. Yet defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman restricted nobody’s freedom. Same-sex couples were free to live as they chose; they lacked only official recognition of their unions. The new dispensation, on the other hand, comes with actual threats to the freedom of association and religion.
In that new dispensation, constitutional legitimacy comes from a confluence of the polls and the dominant opinion of judges rather than from following the established process of lawmaking. The courts — first state courts, then lower federal courts, and finally the Supreme Court — have not made us a freer or more equal country, just a less self-governing one.