Obama had a hard time of it in Jerusalem, but then so did the last guy claiming to be the messiah.
What went wrong for Republicans in 2012? The RNC task force charged with answering that question wisely did not rest with a single answer. The problem, it explained, included inferior techniques of identifying persuadable voters, the perception that Republicans care only about the rich, and a bruising presidential-primary process — among other things. The report argues, or rather asserts without offering evidence or addressing counterarguments, that “comprehensive immigration reform” would give Republicans a chance to improve their vote totals. It suggests as well that opposition to same-sex marriage is hurting Republicans, ignoring the fact that that cause did better than Romney in recent ballot initiatives. RNC chairman Reince Priebus is following through on the more persuasive sections of the report: beefing up the party’s field operations and technology, for example, and wresting control of the presidential-primary debates from the media. We wish him luck, and urge other Republicans to take up the task of rethinking the party’s m.o. in a more rigorous way than the report does.
Rand Paul lit up the Twitterverse and the grassroots with his 13-hour talking filibuster of CIA nominee John Brennan over the administration’s drone program. The Kentucky senator focused on the hypothetical possibility that a president would order drone attacks on American citizens. In a letter to Paul that became the occasion for the filibuster, Eric Holder reserved the administration’s right to launch such an attack in the circumstance of a Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Of course, President Bush did in fact authorize the downing of hijacked planes by military aircraft on September 11. If we were to again face a similarly imminent threat, even Rand Paul wouldn’t object to responding with all appropriate force at our disposal, presumably even if it included a drone (suddenly the world’s most feared weapon). After persistent questioning, Holder told Senator Ted Cruz at a Judiciary Committee hearing that attacking on our soil an American citizen who is an enemy combatant in the absence of such a threat would be unconstitutional. We are not sure he is right about that (for differing views on this question see Andy McCarthy and Jacob Sullum elsewhere in the issue). It would be possible to imagine extreme scenarios — involving invasions, domestic insurrections, or other improbable circumstances — in which such an attack would pass muster. But we would be testing the boundaries of the plausible, and of the Constitution. As a practical matter, there are plenty of armed domestic forces here – the FBI, heck, even the Social Security Administration — that could detain a terrorist and even use lethal force if necessary without any need for the Air Force’s Hellfire missiles. We suspect the day an administration starts killing Americans with drones at cafés, to borrow one of Rand Paul’s hypotheticals, is the day impeachment proceedings begin. The Rand Paul filibuster was great entertainment and marks a new stage in his emergence as a national figure. We salute his brio, even if we suspect he is ultimately fighting a phantom menace.
In a meeting with Democratic senators upset about the administration’s unwillingness to share its legal justifications for drone strikes, President Obama spoke soothing words. “This is not Dick Cheney we’re talking about here,” he reminded his fellow Democrats, meaning he could share or not share because his heart was pure. This was also not a senator they were talking about, he added, admitting that he would have “probably objected” to his own present conduct when he was a solon, but now that he is president he takes loftier views. In the history of Christianity there have been oddballs who have concluded that, if they are indeed saved, they may do whatever they like. Justifying drones is mere politics, not religion. On the other hand, Barack Obama is not some oddball, but president of the United States. Obama’s America: a government of men, not laws.
Republicans seem, for now, to have won the sequester fight. Spending is not going to be raised above its post-sequestration levels — President Obama has conceded the point with respect to the continuing resolution to fund the government through September — and taxes will go no higher either. The president could regain the initiative during the debate over the resolution, but only if Republicans are foolish enough to give him the opportunity to blame them for a government shutdown. The president previously warned that sequestration would cripple the government and the economy, and did his best to ensure that result: ordering government agencies twice not to prepare for it by gradually lowering their spending beforehand. Another administration gambit was to cancel White House tours in the obvious hope that it would turn the public against the allegedly draconian spending cuts. (When Republicans criticized the White House move, liberals assailed them for pettiness.) Spending levels are being nicked, as is the president’s second-term credibility.
The latest House Republican budget crafted by Representative Paul Ryan looks even better when contrasted with the one that Senate Democrats have finally put together (three years late, and under duress). The Democrats would raise taxes another trillion dollars, cut the military another $420 billion, and still reduce the deficit by less than half the amount Ryan would — in part because the Democrats also want more stimulus spending. The Ryan budget — unwisely, we think — declines to revisit the recent fiscal-cliff tax increase. In part as a result, the budget is projected to balance in ten years, much faster than earlier versions did. In other respects the budget is the same as last year’s: It includes a creative plan to restructure Medicare that makes it both more affordable and more responsive to beneficiaries’ needs, but it unfortunately lacks specific reforms of Social Security, the tax code, and health care. On those issues, it appears that Ryan still has to do more to corral his colleagues.
The president has gotten credit in the press for offering Republicans entitlement reform in return for tax increases. Yet what he has so far offered — mostly vague promises for sundry “health-care savings” and explicit promises to institute greater price controls in Medicare — is no basis for any compromise. We understand that Obama will not embrace the transformation of Medicare that the Ryan budget includes. There is, however, a bundle of more modest entitlement reforms on the table that would help to stabilize the nation’s finances. That bundle includes slowly raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67, simplifying and consolidating Medicare A and B deductibles and copays, reforming “Medigap” plans to give seniors more skin in the game, introducing private-sector competition to fee-for-service plans, and instituting state-level per capita caps on Medicaid spending. These reforms would account for the reality that Americans are living and working longer, while controlling costs by bringing market forces to bear and eliminating incentives to overconsume health care. Most recently proposed by Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) last month, these measures have in the past enjoyed bipartisan support. They’d enjoy more if the president did the right thing.
The president continues to dither on the Keystone XL pipeline, even though it is a fabled “shovel-ready” infrastructure project — perhaps the largest on order — and could create 40,000 jobs or more, while helping equip North America for energy independence (a popular goal) in concert with Canada, our closest ally in the western hemisphere. In 2012, the Obama administration delayed an earlier iteration of the proposal on environmental grounds, prompting well-earned charges that the president was kowtowing to his green base in an election year. But the election is over, and the latest proposal has been given a clean environmental bill of health by the State Department. Changing tack, some opponents have recently seized on the fact that the Gulf Coast, which would refine Keystone crude, currently sends most of its product abroad. But the completion of the pipeline won’t determine how much of the oil that reaches the Gulf will be exported and how much will be consumed domestically. Currently, about 40 percent of Gulf-refined oil stays in the U.S.; adding a similar proportion from Canada’s proven reserves would be nothing to scoff at. Congress has tried more than once either to force President Obama into a timely decision or to reclaim the authority to reach such a decision itself. If the president is uncomfortable leaving his fingerprints on the Keystone pipeline, he should release Senate Democrats to support the latest such effort — co-sponsored by seven Democrats. Either way, the administration’s dilly-dallying has outlasted both its substantive and its political usefulness. It is time for the president to let Keystone XL flow.
Obama’s Justice Department issued a scathing critique of its own civil-rights division, noting its politicization under Thomas Perez, the harassment of non-Democrats on his watch, the inappropriate conduct of the political appointees he supervised, and the misleading testimony he offered to Congress. According to the department’s inspector general, Perez’s division “risked undermining confidence in the non-ideological enforcement of the voting-rights laws.” Rather than fire Perez, President Obama proposes to make him secretary of labor. Senator David Vitter (R., La.) already has announced his intention of blocking the appointment, and he is right to do so. At a minimum, this appointment should be delayed until it can be determined authoritatively whether Perez lied under oath about dismissing a high-profile voting-rights case for political purposes, as the report suggests. Of course, that could be the reason he’s getting a promotion.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid announced that the Democrats’ bill on guns would not include an assault-weapons ban, although backers of the ban will be free to offer an amendment. With the ban probably dead for lack of votes, the main item remaining on the agenda is universal background checks for private gun transfers. The attempt of Senator Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) to implement them, recently passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee, is particularly ham-handed. It could make illegal all sorts of everyday gun transfers — from lending a gun to a friend to handing someone a firearm during an informal shooting lesson. The bill would also leave it to bureaucrats to decide how large a fee gun dealers and law-enforcement agencies may charge for the new checks. Even Schumer himself seems to realize the proposal is not serious; he continues to hope that the bill will be reworked with bipartisan support, though talks have stalled. Liberals in the press are lamenting that the Newtown moment has passed. Their real complaint is that people have started thinking instead of emoting.
Three times in 2011 and 2012, President Obama has nominated liberal lawyer Caitlin Halligan to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, only to see her confirmation blocked. This February, it was once more unto the bench for Halligan — President Obama again sent her name to the Senate, where Republicans again successfully stopped the nomination. As solicitor general of New York State, Halligan filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit trying to pin liability for illegally possessed handguns on their manufacturers, as a “common law public nuisance” (she repeated that argument in a brief she filed as New York City district attorney, too). This type of novel legal theory moved a bipartisan majority of Congress to close down such abusive lawsuits. Halligan also signed a report arguing that the U.S. government may not indefinitely detain members of al-Qaeda and enemy combatants, a position that the Supreme Court rejected firmly (and that she later repudiated). The president should, perhaps, recognize that such a thinker doesn’t deserve nomination at all, let alone an extensive appeals process.
Rob Portman of Ohio became the first Republican senator to declare his support for same-sex marriage, a change of heart that he said was prompted by his college-age son’s announcement of his homosexuality. A few days later, Hillary Clinton said that she too supports same-sex marriage, because gays and lesbians deserve equal rights. There is, however, a consistency behind these flip-flops. When these politicians opposed same-sex marriage, they never offered any reasoned basis for their position. Now that they support it, they therefore do not have to abandon or even address the actual argument against it: that same-sex marriage undermines the basic purpose of marriage law, which is to encourage the rearing of children in the committed bond of the man and woman whose union gave them life. Both now reduce the question to whether we wish all our fellow citizens well, regardless of their sexual preferences, to which the answer must be yes. Senator Portman’s call for the Supreme Court to leave intact the state laws he once supported is to his credit, as is, of course, his love for his son. But the happiness of our adult children is not the primary object of marriage laws.
Gods of the Godless
If the suits will allow it, let me borrow a page from Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street and send some of National Review’s customers over to The Weekly Standard (the Gimbels to our Macy’s, as it were). In “The Heretic,” Andrew Ferguson has written a wonderful account of the secular riot of outrage and hysteria over Thomas Nagel’s new book, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False.
Just to be clear, Nagel’s an atheist who wants God to be dead, but nonetheless he believes humans are more than “moist robots.”
The phrase “moist robots” is one of many popular terms used to describe the status of human beings under the prevailing philosophical dogma in academia today. You see, the big brains have boxed themselves into a corner. By their own design, unless you resort to “supernatural” explanations, you must believe that everything we believe and hold dear — love of family, patriotism, duty, kindness, compassion, charity, beauty, romance, loyalty of any and all kinds; everything good and noble and redeeming about human existence — can be boiled down to a bunch of molecules doing their soulless molecular dance.
To be fair, the philosophers concede that you can still have a personal morality or subscribe to a code of ethics of some kind, but such customs are just that: customs, without any external or objective justification outside the will of humans. Any attempt to justify these “emergent phenomena” as existing independent of the molecular Harlem Shake is, ultimately, oogah-boogah talk.
You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I don’t try to prove the existence of God or the transcendent in the space provided for me here. What fascinates me is the enduring power of theophobia. It’s no secret that the professional atheists go beyond mere nonbelief to an outright intolerance and hatred for all things religious. Less discussed is the role hatred of religion plays in other causes. Marx and Engels came to their Communism via atheism, not the other way around (“Criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticisms,” Marx proclaimed). Nietzsche “philosophized with a hammer” and there was nothing he relished more than the sound of stained glass shattering. The Jacobins were quick to turn the churches into “temples of reason.”
Of course, today’s philosophical materialists think that reason, too, is a mirage, or just another custom. Moist robots don’t think, they just do what they are programmed to do. (“Programmed by whom?” you ask. “Shut up!” they explain).
Perhaps the materialists are right and there’s nothing inside or outside us that rises above the level of mere opinion. Why not be cruel? What’s wrong with the Gestapo? Richard Rorty’s reply to such questions was that any answer invoking more than custom or opinion cast you as a member of the oogah-boogahing throng.
The problem — well, a problem — with this sort of argument is that the very Darwinian evolution the materialists divinize drives man to divinize things. If he doesn’t have a God above to worship, he will make do with a god below. “When God is invisible behind the world,” Eric Voegelin observed, “the contents of the world will become new gods.” This will be true, he added, even when “the new apocalyptics insist that the symbols they create are scientific.”
It’s one of the peculiar ironies of history that the people most eager to hang the priests are those most eager to replace them.
The North Dakota and Arkansas legislatures have voted to outlaw abortion after six and twelve weeks, respectively. Their desire to protect unborn human beings from being deliberately killed is laudable, and they are correct to think that extending this protection is a legitimate power that the Constitution leaves with them — the Supreme Court’s lawless precedents to the contrary notwithstanding. Yet the legislatures cannot wish away the Court, which does, unfortunately, seem likely to have a majority that is committed to those precedents. The chief result of the legislators’ actions could well be to yield another decision reaffirming a supposed constitutional right to abortion. If pro-life legislators find the Court’s abortion regime infuriating, as well they should, it should lead them to fight it not only with zeal but with every bit of strategic wisdom they can muster.
New York City’s increasingly daft mayor, Michael Bloomberg, apparently laboring under the misapprehension that his city has run out of real problems to solve, attempted to ban large sodas. The city’s health department obliged him, but a court threw the regulation out. There are two main channels of annoyance in this affair: the first that the city would infantilize its adults, the second that the mayor, the health department, and now a court have wasted their time on this risible business. Undaunted, the Savonarola of sugar has decided to become the Torquemada of tobacco, and proposes requiring stores to hide tobacco products underneath counters or behind draperies. Our advice: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Philadelphia Magazine committed an act of journalism, and therefore must be punished. The magazine published an article headlined “Being White in Philly,” in which the author elicits the racial opinions of a number of white people, particularly those living near the borders between the city’s black and white enclaves. The results are amusing if unsurprising: White liberals go about studiously not noticing the relationship between race and crime in the city while themselves keeping as far as possible from large numbers of black people. The article concludes that racial taboos render whites “dishonest by default.” Mayor Michael Nutter, a black liberal, promptly lost his mind, denouncing the article and the magazine as “pathetic” and “the reckless equivalent of shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater,” and calling for an official investigation by the city’s Kafkaesque thought police, the Human Relations Commission. Philadelphia’s article can be debated, but the reckless and incendiary action here is the one taken by the mayor.
You may not know that the four Americans who died in the streets were not the only victims of the murderous “protests” in Benghazi last year. And if Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) spoke the truth in a recent interview, you may not know it because the Obama administration has told American survivors of the Benghazi attack to “be quiet.” Graham and other Republicans in the House and Senate say they have called on the State Department to release the names of the 30-plus Americans on the ground that day — including the four who were injured — but the administration has so far refused to do so. This must not stand. Since neither Secretary Clinton nor anyone else in the administration has been willing or able adequately to explain the chain of events surrounding the attack, it is imperative that those who were actually there do so, under oath.
Kim Jong Un and a posse of his North Korean generals arranged to have themselves photographed while leaning on a fence and staring through field-glasses in the direction of South Korea. No expression could be detected on Kim’s pudgy features, and the generals looked as if they well understood that their role is to take orders, not give them. In response to the international effort to control his nuclear program, including sanctions, the Supreme and Hereditary Leader of North Korea declared that the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953 is invalid and suspended the telephone hotline to the South. North Korean television shows endless columns of soldiers marching with perfect goose steps, as though promising to fulfill the threat to destroy Seoul. Some say Kim is testing nuclear weapons and raising the stakes in order to obtain concessions. Others think he’s a silly fellow playing with fire because he knows the Chinese are there to protect him. The Pentagon has responded by raising the number of ground-based interceptors in California and Alaska from 30 to 44 — by 2017. That distant date could bring a smile at last to those pudgy features.
The fact that the euro-zone mineshaft is already filled with little avian corpses might normally make us reluctant to describe the shambles in Cyprus as a sickly canary in a very unhealthy coal mine. But not on this occasion. That is indeed what it is. Matters are in flux as we write, but it does seem that this latest chapter in the single currency’s sad saga may contain an unusually dangerous twist. It’s not the size of the crisis — small olives in an age of bloated bailouts — nor its novelty. These days there is nothing new about the spectacle of a floundering banking sector too big for its host country to save. What is new is the insistence that bank depositors chip in for the cost of their own rescue. That’s not going to help confidence in the currency union’s weaker banks. Depositors elsewhere in the euro zone’s periphery now know that their deposits — even their insured deposits — are not quite as sacrosanct as they had once believed. That’s going to make them nervous, and nervous bank depositors are the last thing that the euro zone now needs.
In the spring of 2011, the Egyptian military arrested women protesters in Tahrir Square and subjected seven of them to “virginity tests”: manual rape disguised as moral surveillance. A year later Samira Ibrahim, one of the victims, filed a suit against the government, which resulted in such tests’ being banned. The White House was slated to give her an award as a Woman of Courage, when The Weekly Standard and Egyptian bloggers found tweets of hers praising 9/11 (“America should burn”) and quoting Hitler. At first she said her Twitter account had been hacked, then she blamed “the Zionist lobby” for hounding her. Byron wrote of “the all-cloudless glory” of freeing one’s country. But many freedom fighters in history have been clouded with crackpot or tyrannical impulses of their own. It is remarkable when anyone in the Arab world, sunk in old religious hatreds, fostered by despots and radicals alike, is free of them. Samira Ibrahim, it turns out, is sadly typical.
Sir Vincent Fean, the British consul general in Jerusalem, was scheduled to give a speech at Birzeit University, the “Harvard of the Palestinians.” Sir Vincent was prevented from speaking. A student mob surrounded him, and they succeeded in kicking him. Security personnel were able to hustle Sir Vincent into his car. The students jumped on the car, threw rocks at it, and so on. It was a “show of rage,” said a news report. The students’ “chief grievance” was the Balfour Declaration: the 1917 document expressing Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in ancient Israel. A “student leader” at Birzeit said, “We asked the university to cancel [the diplomat’s] visit because Britain is the cause of the Palestinian tragedy.” Actually, the Palestinians have been the cause of the Palestinians’ tragedy — and still are, as this story illustrates.
The French municipality of Bezons has a new honorary citizen: Majdi al-Rimawi, a Palestinian terrorist now serving a life sentence in Israel. The most glorious of his terrorist deeds was the murder of Israel’s minister of tourism, Rehavam Ze’evi. Far from denying these deeds, Rimawi and his supporters boast of them. The mayor of Bezons, Dominique Lesparre, said that honoring Rimawi was in keeping with a “tradition of peace, solidarity, and cooperation with the Palestinian people.” Our Mumia Abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia cop-killer, is an honorary citizen of Paris itself. Who will bring civilization to France?
In November 2008, the socialist Hervé Eon was arrested for holding up a placard that read “Casse toi, pauv’con” — or “Get lost, you [untranslatable expletive]” — while then-president Nicolas Sarkozy was visiting the French region of Laval. Eon was quoting the exact words that Sarkozy had thrown at a farmer earlier that year. For Eon’s trouble, he was charged with the crime of “insulting the president” and given a 30-euro fine. In a rare useful decision, the European Court of Human Rights struck down the punishment, contending that the fine contravened the freedom of expression that is (apparently) guaranteed in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Eon’s prosecution, the court wrote, was “likely to have a chilling effect on satirical contributions to discussion of matters of public interest, such discussion being fundamental to a democratic society.” More in keeping with EU form, the courts took five years to come to this conclusion.
If the British really are imperialist pigs, a bullying “colonial power” that stripped the “Malvinas” of their “territorial integrity,” then the denizens of the Falklands appear to like the usurpation. In early March, the British government in Westminster reiterated that those living on the much-fought-over islands had a “right to self-determination, including their right to remain British if that is their wish.” It was, by a vote of 99.8 percent. Commenting on the plebiscite, in which 92 percent of eligible voters cast ballots and only three people voted against British rule, the islanders’ legislative assembly was quick to reject Argentine caricatures of Stockholm syndrome. “We are not a colony,” Assemblyman Barry Elsby told CNN. “Our relationship with the United Kingdom is by choice.” Argentine saber-rattling over the islands tends to be the product of domestic strife, and it is no coincidence that Cristina Kirchner is seeking to deflect attention from her government’s being rebuked for incompetence and corruption by the World Bank and the IMF.
The career of Nazir Ahmed reveals a lot about Britain today. Like many Muslim immigrants, he was born in Mirpur, an especially poor part of Pakistan. Educated in Yorkshire, he joined the Labour party at the age of 18, becoming a local councilor and a justice of the peace, all the while making a fortune as a property developer. Searching for integrated, moderate Muslims, Tony Blair appointed him in 1998 to the House of Lords. That chamber in its day has had its share of odious men, and Lord Ahmed turns out to be one of them. To him, the terrorists of 9/11 just suffered from an “identity crisis.” When Geert Wilders was invited to lecture at the House of Lords, Ahmed threatened to bring 10,000 Muslims there to demonstrate against him. He offered £10 million to whoever could bring George W. Bush and Tony Blair to the International Criminal Court. Texting while driving on the motorway on Christmas Day 2007, he accidently hit a stationary car and killed the man in it. In a television interview in Pakistan, he now explains that the jail sentence he then served was not the result of dangerous driving but was inflicted because he had gone to Gaza to support the Palestinians, and the Jews “who own newspapers and TV channels opposed this.” Mr. Justice Wilkie, the judge in his case, he also believes, was handpicked because he was known to do favors for Jews. In his anxiety to please, Blair made mistakes, and the promotion of this anti-Semitic conspiracy-monger was evidently one of them.
The behavior of those who got themselves involved in Britain’s phone-hacking scandal was reprehensible — and in some cases, it was criminal. But the reaction of that country’s parliament, which is threatening to “break with the past” and to overturn hundreds of years of British liberty, is worse. In mid March, with the support of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, David Cameron’s Conservatives reached a “deal” that would push to one side the principle of self-regulation and establish a Royal Charter to oversee and punish the media. For the first time since 1771, Britain’s press will be subject to state regulation. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe described the legislation as an “excuse” to restrict freedom of speech, and a “threat to press freedom”; the Index on Censorship expressed the “gravest anxiety,” terming this a “sad day for press freedom.” But the public at large seems unmoved, and the government is resolved to act come what may. The wisdom of those five little words, “Congress shall make no law,” has never been as apparent. Britain is the worse for lacking their equivalent.
Are you worried about how you will be remembered? You will undoubtedly do better than Sybil Christopher. The Associated Press began its obit of her, “The woman Richard Burton left to marry Elizabeth Taylor has died.”
Experienced legislators know not to eat or drink heavily before a floor fight so they won’t need to absent themselves at a key moment. But some natural functions cannot be suppressed, which is why Janéa Holmquist Newbry left the floor during a session of Washington’s state senate to nurse her four-month-old baby — whereupon a fellow member responded with an act of spectacular ungallantry. A Republican-led coalition controls the senate by a 25–24 margin, but with Newbry off performing her maternal duties, the remaining members were evenly split. So a Democratic senator called up his favorite bill for an immediate vote, knowing that the Democratic lieutenant governor would break the tie in his favor. Members ran to their seats, the roll was called, and just in time, Holmquist Newbry rushed back to the floor (risking a nasty attack of colic for the infant) and cast her vote against the bill. While this may not amount to a “war on women,” it was at least a sneak attack.
Ieng Sary’s adult life was molded by Communism. A Cambodian sent to Paris on scholarships in the early Fifties, he joined first the French Communist Party, then the Cambodian Communist Party. Finally he joined with Pol Pot in the Khmer Rouge, a guerrilla movement supported by North Vietnam and Communist China. When they took over the country in 1975, Ieng Sary became foreign minister. The Khmer Rouge proposed to remake Cambodian society by slaughtering the educated (who were by definition corrupt) and emptying the cities. In this mad utopian scheme, 1.7 million Cambodians perished. Communist Cambodia and Vietnam fell out and went to war; Ieng Sary resumed his guerrilla life, until he was pardoned in 1996. A belated U.N.-backed tribunal began trying the aged mass murderers in 2007, but the Cambodian government, led by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge junior officer, dragged its feet. Ieng Sary has died, age 87. His life disgraced humanity and his trial shamed justice. His case now moves to a surer tribunal.
Early in 1944, Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist was a 21-year-old lieutenant in the German army when Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg asked him to join the plot against Hitler. Kleist was due to show new uniforms to the Führer; Stauffenberg wanted him to wear explosives and blow himself and Hitler up. Kleist described what happened next in the 1992 documentary The Restless Conscience. He went to see his father, said “I have difficult decisions to make,” and explained the plot. Kleist’s father “got up from his chair, went to the window, looked out of the window for a moment, and then he turned and said: ‘Yes, you have to do that. A man who doesn’t take such a chance will never be happy again in his life.’” Hitler canceled the meeting; the plotters settled on bombing him in his headquarters, a plan that failed in July 1944. Stauffenberg, Kleist’s father, and 5,000 others were executed; Kleist himself was sent to the eastern front. After the war he became a publisher. He has died age 90, the last of the anti-Hitler plotters, we trust happily. R.I.P.
Ten Years Later
On March 19, 2003, the United States launched the Iraq War. Ten years later, thanks to the mismanagement of the Bush administration, the indifference of the Obama administration, and the inherent difficulties of Iraqi society, it is clear that we expended great blood and treasure for an unsatisfactory outcome.
Saddam Hussein and his regime of torture and mass murder are gone. He started a war by invading a neighbor and sought dominion over the global oil supply. He was an ongoing threat to the region and in flagrant violation of his international commitments. If he no longer had weapons of mass destruction, it wasn’t for lack of trying. He was undermining the strictures that kept him from restarting his weapons programs. Even the harshest critics of the war are loath to admit that their alternative would have left Saddam atop Iraq.
The war was popular at the beginning, supported by the public, by Democrats in Congress, and by many of the liberal and conservative commentators who eventually turned against it. The notion that Bush “lied” about Saddam’s weapons is itself a dastardly lie. That Saddam had WMD was a matter of bipartisan and international consensus. His presumed possession of these weapons was widely considered intolerable in the context of the September 11 attacks, which taught a bitter lesson in allowing threats to fester. Bush launched the war for good reason, and in its initial phase, it was a rapid and undeniable triumph.
Then things went wrong. We didn’t know enough about the country we had taken over. We underestimated the devastation that had been wrought in Iraqi institutions and civil society by Saddam’s rule. We couldn’t get our act together as bureaucracies crossed signals and pursued rival agendas. We faced a determined Sunni insurgency. With insufficient troops using ill-advised tactics, we couldn’t impose order. The country spun out of control and into a sectarian war that threatened to rip it apart and to give al-Qaeda in Iraq an operating base in the heart of the Arab world.
With the war slipping away, President Bush ordered the surge, an infusion of additional troops to clear and hold territory in keeping with classic counterinsurgency doctrine. Bush acted against the fierce opposition of Democrats and with only the lukewarm support of his own party (with the honorable exception of John McCain, whose advocacy for the surge was his finest moment). Critics predicted the surge’s inevitable failure and the direst consequences. Instead, we dealt al-Qaeda a significant defeat. We won over the Sunni tribes and suppressed the Iranian-backed Shia militias. Violence dropped dramatically. We afforded the Iraqi government enough stability to establish its authority and legitimacy.
This was the situation that Bush handed over to Obama. Shamefully, his successor had no interest in building on it or even maintaining it. President Obama was desperate to pull out entirely. The administration failed to secure an agreement with the Iraqis to maintain a U.S. troop presence. As soon as we left, Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki let loose his worst instincts. He has ruled as an authoritarian and Shia sectarian and has allied himself with Iran. In our absence, al-Qaeda in Iraq has begun to make a comeback.
The Obama abdication in Iraq has continued. The story in Iraq didn’t end with our departure. We should be using every remaining financial and diplomatic lever we have to try to force Maliki to give up his campaign against the Sunnis and to maintain some distance from Iran. Instead, the administration is content to take Maliki as it finds him, even as he allows Tehran to funnel aid to the Assad regime in Syria, which we want to see fall.
At the end of the day, of course, Maliki is no Saddam Hussein. Iraq won’t be developing weapons of mass destruction anytime soon and it is not a direct threat to its neighbors. But any hope that Iraq would become a shining example to the rest of the Middle East was lost long ago. The Iraqi elections were inspiring exercises. A few years ago they even seemed to promise the advent of a nonsectarian politics. But key political players in Iraq, egged on and supplied by mischievous neighbors who had more staying power than we did, have lacked a commitment to the rule of law and pluralism.
Throughout the near-decade of war in Iraq, there was one constant: the heroism and selflessness of our troops, who paid the highest price for the mistakes of their superiors. They gave their lives and their limbs. They were the tip of the spear of the most proficient and humane fighting force that the world has ever known. We wish the results so far in Iraq were more worthy of their sacrifice.
A Francis for Our Time
In choosing his papal name, Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, invokes the complex example of one of the Church’s most illustrious and beloved saints, Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis, who preferred poverty, or simplicity, to the comfort he was born into in central Italy in the late twelfth century, was an early champion of the Church’s “preferential option for the poor,” an expression with roots in Pope Francis’s native South America in the mid 20th century and now an established term of art in Catholic social teaching.
Pope Francis has long emulated his new eponym by living simply and eschewing many of the trappings of ecclesiastical high office, relying on public transportation, for example, and forgoing the luxury of the official residence of the archbishop of Buenos Aires in favor of a small apartment. His advocacy for the poor is of a piece with his orthodox Christian firmness on social issues relating to marriage and the family, the social institutions that are the primary support for children, the aged, and the vulnerable in general.
Cardinal Bergoglio sparred with Argentina’s left-wing government over same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples. That government’s supporters in the Argentine press greeted his elevation by smearing him as a collaborator with the military junta of the 1970s, a charge echoed by naïve and irresponsible Western media outlets. It soon emerged that Bergoglio had actually helped opponents of that regime escape the country. He saw no contradiction in opposing both the liberation theology of the time and the oppression of a military dictatorship. Observers make a similar mistake if they assume that his concern for the poor means sympathy for statist solutions to it or, indeed, support for any determinate political program.
Saint Francis’s famed humility was his method for acting on his zeal to reform the Church of his day. “Preach the gospel always,” he urged his brothers in religion, according to Franciscan tradition, “and use words if necessary.” That is, his answer to the ecclesiastical corruption around him was first of all to demonstrate the purity that men and women of the Church are called to practice. Then as now, a great stumbling block for those who failed to live up to the Church’s call to moral rectitude was money. In that vein, one of the tasks facing Pope Francis is to bring greater transparency to the Vatican Bank, long shrouded under a cloud of suspicion, and move it toward greater adherence to international banking standards. His unassailable reputation as a man who has tamed the vice of greed should lend credibility to his exercise of a strong hand in this matter.
The need for reform in the Church extends, of course, to the Curia at large, where in too many cases ambition and careerism have tended to drive out the noble desire simply to serve. Here too Francis needs to take bold steps but also to lead by his Franciscan example. Curial reform “will begin with a change of attitude,” as George Weigel noted only a few weeks ago, “not merely a change of structures, important as the latter is.” Such reform is a necessary prerequisite for the Church to be effective in its evangelizing mission, a mission not least of all to Catholics themselves.
In his first address to the city and the world, Pope Francis preceded his blessing of the same with the request that the faithful pray for him. He bowed his head and paused as they did so, silently. It was a remarkable gesture. The challenges facing him are serious and touch not only the world’s largest Christian church but the world itself. The world needs a thriving Catholic Church, and so not only the billion members of his flock but all men and women of goodwill should extend him their moral support.