Whatever happened to the wholesome, respectable MTV we grew up with?
In a recent interview, Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) said of defunding Obamacare that “if it doesn’t happen now, it’s likely never to happen.” That’s why he thinks Republicans have to use the threat of a partial government shutdown to achieve it. Other defunders have argued that to wait until Republicans have the Senate, House, and White House to repeal Obamacare is tantamount to abandoning the goal because winning so many elections is too improbable. All of this is much too defeatist. It is true that liberal programs rarely get repealed once implemented. Obamacare is, however, much more perverse than most, and in ways that have made it unpopular and may continue to do so. Republicans should seek to build an electoral majority to replace it, not wallow in despair. A Cruz aide has said that conservatives who doubt the wisdom of his strategy are in a “surrender caucus.” The senator disavows this remark, but he should take care, while making the case for his preferred course, not to announce his own surrender date.
As more deadlines in the implementation of Obamacare approach, the stories of its costs keep piling up: UPS will drop health-insurance coverage for 15,000 spouses because of its increased expense; Delta Airlines says its health-care costs will increase by nearly $100 million next year, in large part because of the new law; and cash-strapped municipal governments, which will be subject to the employer mandate to provide health insurance, are cutting their workers’ hours so they will be classified as part-time employees. The law’s supporters contend that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” and that any national evidence of the rise in part-time employment or the dropping of health coverage is due to lingering economic weakness. So we guess the new strategy is to use one Obama failure to excuse another.
President Obama is boasting that his administration has achieved some of the fastest and steepest deficit reduction since the end of World War II. It has, and it did so right after achieving some of the fastest and steepest deficit increases in American history. When a 250-pound man loses 50 pounds, that’s something significant; when a 700-pound man loses 50 pounds, that’s a start. Given that Obama’s spending plans would return the deficit to the trans-trillion-dollar level in a few years, this is at best a respite.
The State Department took its time in releasing its review of what went wrong the night that four Americans were killed in Benghazi, Libya, almost a year ago. When the report finally was released in May, it concluded that the events, and the mistakes made in the facility’s security plans, shouldn’t end the careers of any State Department officials, but should result only in their transfer to other parts of Foggy Bottom. Four officials, three in the Diplomatic Security Department and one in Near Eastern Affairs, were placed on paid leave. Secretary of State John Kerry says he has now personally reviewed the findings and restored these officials to duty elsewhere. In due time, no doubt, they’ll be promoted.
Army private Bradley Manning was an unstable malcontent who had to be restrained during a violent fit while serving in Iraq. Yet superiors looked the other way, continuing to permit him broad security access, which he used to transfer hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the rabidly anti-American WikiLeaks operation, knowing that America’s enemies would profit from their publication. The leaked documents revealed intelligence assets, disclosed military operations, exposed intelligence assessments about foreign governments, and compromised diplomatic negotiations. A military court sentenced him to 35 years in prison — knowing that he could be released in less than a third of that time, owing to parole rules and time served. If the Defense Department does not take preservation of the nation’s defense secrets seriously, who will?
After his sentencing, Manning announced that he henceforth wishes to be known as “Chelsea Manning” and desires to have sex-reassignment surgery. What followed was an amusing modern take on the Maoist self-criticism session: Lefty writers apologized for having been insufficiently quick to switch from “Bradley” to “Chelsea,” NPR and other liberal organizations were blasted for their “refusal to respect Chelsea Manning’s name and pronouns,” the Wikipedia article on Bradley Manning was retitled “Chelsea Manning,” and using Private Manning’s legal name or referring to his biological sex quickly came to be regarded as a hate crime. This is something between silliness and madness. Even if one is inclined to play along with the fiction that sex-change operations change a man’s sex, Mr. Manning has not undergone such a procedure, and is unlikely to do so while a guest at Club Fed. Bradley or Chelsea, he is a criminal. Such damage as Private Manning intends to do to his body is a personal matter; the damage he has done to U.S. national security is a public one.
As we go to press, a court-martial is hearing testimony in the death-penalty phase of Nidal Hasan’s murder trial. The Army major has been convicted on all charges arising out of the Fort Hood massacre: 13 counts of murder and 32 of attempted murder. The 2009 rampage against U.S. soldiers about to deploy to Afghanistan was the worst jihadist attack on American soil since the 9/11 atrocities — in the eyes of everyone except the Obama administration, which continues to regard it as a case of workplace violence, the motive for which must not be uttered. Hasan declined to play along with the charade. Acting as his own lawyer, he proudly maintained that he was and is an Islamic supremacist and that he deliberately mowed down American troops in order to protect the Taliban. Nonetheless, prosecutors charged it as a straight murder case, not a terrorism one. It is a sad comment that Hasan seemed to see the issues more clearly than they.
Governor Chris Christie has signed a bill making it illegal for licensed psychotherapists in New Jersey to honor a minor’s request for help in becoming heterosexual. Citing mainstream medical opinion, Christie argued that such therapy can lead to depression, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. But presumably young people seeking to find or reinforce their heterosexuality already suffer, and now therapists willing to work with them to reach their goals are forbidden by the state to do so. No one believes, of course, that this legislation is part of a general campaign for higher standards in psychology: It is, instead, part of an effort to make a particular, contestable view of sexual psychology and morality the official policy of the state. It is to Christie’s discredit that he has gone along.
Banish any lingering doubts: Christie is preparing himself for a presidential run in 2016. In August, he vetoed a gun-control bill that he himself had proposed, and watered down a gun-permitting proposal that had passed the state legislature by a significant margin. Killing the measure, Christie argued bluntly that the affected weapons had “never been used in a crime in New Jersey.” This invited the inevitable question as to why he’d proposed doing something about the weapons in the first place. The answer is obvious. Christie is trying to move from the governorship of an anti-gun state to the leadership of a pro–Second Amendment party. Have veto, will travel.
Al Gore is still calling people who disagree with him about global warming “deniers” — in a clear and vicious parallel to “Holocaust deniers.” In a recent interview, he said that “the ability of the raging deniers to stop progress is waning every single day.” His side, he said, is “winning the conversation.” “The same thing happened on apartheid. The same thing happened on the nuclear-arms race with the freeze movement. The same thing happened in an earlier era with abolition.” Gore’s self-congratulation is unlimited. Let’s hope his current crusade is just as successful as the nuclear freeze was.
House Democrats are still trying to claim that the Internal Revenue Service was politically evenhanded in reviewing groups applying for tax-exempt status. Representatives Elijah Cummings (Md.) and Sander Levin (Mich.) now point to a tranche of documents showing that the IRS directed agents to probe the applications of “ACORN successor groups.” What they ignore is that ACORN had been embroiled in scandal, which had led Congress to pull its federal funding. Tea-party groups had done nothing similar. Their offense was running afoul of a liberal bureaucracy.
The fact that our open-ended subsidization of higher education is raising tuitions without improving student outcomes may be slowly dawning even on President Obama. In a speech, he proposed to link student aid to measures of college performance, including the employment record of graduates: The better a college’s performance, the more aid its students would get. There can be no objection in principle to setting conditions for the receipt of federal money. The obstacles to the plan do not, however, seem to have been thought through. How, for example, can the federal government reward employment performance without in practice just rewarding collegiate selectivity in admissions? A wrongheaded but bipartisan coalition has limited our ability to track these outcomes in the first place, even for the purpose of informing families about how well colleges prepare students for work before they take out loans. The president said nothing about this issue. Partial credit.
The Department of Justice is suing to restrict Louisiana’s school-choice program, the theory being that choice might, as the New Orleans Times-Picayune puts it, “disrupt the racial balance.” Most studies have found that school-choice programs promote racial integration, and the numbers involved here are trivial: The Justice Department cites a school system that has gone from being 29.6 percent white to 28.9. More to the point, the racial balance of a school should matter less than its educational effectiveness. That’s something neither the segregationists of old nor contemporary liberals seem able to accept.
Al Jazeera, the news network owned by the Qatari royal family, launched its U.S. network in August, opening in parodic fashion. To discuss unrest in Egypt, they brought in a Harvard academic — but not one with expertise in civil conflict, Egypt, or the Arab uprisings. Rather, their first guest was international-affairs theorist Stephen Walt, co-author of The Israel Lobby, a tract that attributes much of American foreign policy to the work of a small group of influential individuals devoted to increasing U.S. support for the Jewish state. In his appearance, Walt suggested that the U.S. would be uninterested in Egypt, the capital of the Arab world and home of the Suez Canal, were it not for our loyalty to Israel. They don’t call Al Jazeera the voice of the Arab street for nothing.
Rob Long has one of the hardest jobs in journalism: satirizing the shenanigans of the politico-media complex. Not more than a few weeks after he published a comedic fantasy about NSA snoops using the national-security apparatus to stalk prospective love interests, it was revealed that members of the agency were doing precisely that. They called it love-int. About that, two things: First, come on, NSA, that’s what Facebook is for. Second, these NSA operatives should be writing their next love letters from prison cells.
Don’t Blame China
The decline of employment in the manufacturing sector has been one of the most reliable trends in the U.S. labor market for decades. From a high of over 19 million employees in 1979, manufacturing employment slid slowly to just over 17 million in 2000 and then fell to a low of 11.4 million in the first quarter of 2010, climbing back a bit to 11.98 million at the beginning of this year.
This decline has, of course, been driven by many factors. Automation has made it possible for U.S. manufacturers to massively increase the productivity of the workers they do employ. From 1979 to today, manufacturing output in the U.S. has increased from $1.25 trillion to $1.64 trillion in inflation-adjusted dollars, despite the decline in employment. In addition, workers have sensibly been drawn into employment in other sectors, such as software, where the U.S. has a significant comparative advantage.
Politicians of both parties have tended to bemoan the decline in manufacturing employment, treating it as a sign of failure. This observation itself is questionable, as a dollar earned designing software is just as valuable as a dollar earned in manufacturing, but the worst part of the conversation has been the blame game and the trade war it threatens. Listen to either party, and the entire swing is attributable to the evil actions of the currency-manipulating Chinese, who have apparently been running an organized-crime syndicate specializing in job theft.
To be sure, low-wage and labor-intensive manufacturing activities such as product assembly have shifted to China over the past few decades. Chinese workers were so numerous and so cheap that it was impossible for labor-intensive U.S. firms to compete. The latest research, however, suggests that the shift toward China is likely to be a much smaller story in the future.
While it is true that wages in China are still lower than those in the U.S., they are rising quickly. The nearby chart shows the average urban wage in China, as calculated in a recent article by Hongbin Li, Lei Li, Binzhen Wu, and Yanyan Xiong in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. In 1978, a typical Chinese manufacturing worker made $1,004 in inflation-adjusted dollars — a number that barely budged for almost 20 years. In 2010, he made $5,287. Although Chinese compensation would still look paltry to most American workers, it is much more costly to employ a Chinese worker today than it was in 1998 — about five times as expensive.
This shift will affect the flow of manufacturing jobs for two main reasons. First, while Chinese labor is still cheaper than U.S. labor, the gap is closing rapidly and will continue to close. A manufacturer planning a new plant will have to factor future wages over the life of the plant into his calculus, and the U.S. will look increasingly attractive by that measure. Second, because of the recent sharp increase, Chinese wages are much higher than wages in countries such as Indonesia and Thailand. To the extent that labor-intensive U.S. activity is displaced by foreign production, it is much less likely that China will be seen as the culprit.
The rise of Chinese wages will, however, create one employment crisis in the U.S.: Politicians’ highly developed China-bashing skills may soon be obsolete.
Ever since Ted Cruz arrived in the Senate in January, the New York Times has been teasing him about his Canadian birth. The senator was born in Calgary, but got to Texas as quick as he could, to use an old saying. He was four years old. His mother was always an American anyway (a native of Delaware). Recently, the Times observed that “Canada is not particularly beloved by American conservatives.” National Review, you see, “memorably ran a cover in 2007 [actually 2002] depicting a group of Mounties with the headline ‘Wimps!’ The article inside complained about the country’s ‘whiny and weak anti-Americanism.’” True. But just last March, we ran a cover that trumpeted “The True North!” We hailed “the best-governed country in North America and its exceptional leader” (Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper). Don’t tell us that the Times has let its subscription lapse . . .
North Carolina passed a voter-ID law that, the critics say, will all but reinstitute Jim Crow. The central provision is a photo-ID requirement that has passed, in one form or another, in about 30 other states and is broadly popular with the public, including blacks and Latinos. There is no evidence that such a requirement suppresses turnout. North Carolina is also cutting back on early voting, reducing the period from two weeks to one, although the state will maintain more early-voting sites that will be open for longer hours. It is ending same-day registration, but it had been an outlier among states in allowing same-day registration in the first place. (New York, home to the New York Times, which is predictably outraged by all this, has neither early voting nor same-day registration.) The NAACP is suing on behalf of Rosanell Eaton, a 92-year-old black woman who first registered to vote decades ago by completing a literacy test and claims the new law would disenfranchise her because her birth certificate, driver’s license, and voter record all have different spellings of her name. But her mismatched names could be easily remedied by a trip to the local board of elections, an errand she surely can take care of prior to 2016, when the law goes into effect. North Carolina’s changes are reasonable; the state’s critics are not.
The New Mexico supreme court ruled that state anti-discrimination laws obligate a photographer who objects to same-sex marriage to take pictures of a same-sex wedding ceremony. That might be the right reading of the legal provisions involved, which means that the legislature ought to change its statutes. One of the justices, Richard Bosson, used the occasion to lecture the photographer that her loss of freedom is “the price of citizenship” in our “multicultural, pluralistic society.” All of us must “leave space for other Americans who believe something different. That compromise is part of the glue that holds us together as a nation,” etc. It does not appear to have occurred to Justice Bosson that space for her beliefs is precisely what the photographer was after.
The Texas legislature has taken the unprecedented step of beginning impeachment proceedings against University of Texas regent Wallace Hall, an appointee of Governor Rick Perry who has brought unwelcome attention to such university practices as political favoritism in admissions to the UT law school, dishonest accounting, and the use of a slush fund to quietly supplement the salaries of favored professors. Representative Jim Pitts, the powerful chairman of the Texas house appropriations committee, has been leading the vendetta. After National Review began inquiring as to whether Representative Pitts was one of the Texas pols who had leaned on the law school to admit his son, he declined to deny the accusations and announced that he would not be seeking reelection. Mr. Hall, for his part, seems to be guilty of the high crime and misdemeanor of being an acute pain in the backside of the University of Texas, and has made a series of open-records requests with which the university administration resents complying. Keeping an eye on managerial practices is precisely what boards of trustees are there to do. It is not Mr. Hall but his tormentors who have been promiscuous with the public trust.
Three years ago, Israel and Egypt had a joint blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and the world shook with anger. Turkey launched an international flotilla to condemn and provoke the Israelis. The eyes of the media were riveted. Since Egypt’s military coup in July, Cairo has had a staunch blockade on Gaza. A Hamas official complained that Egypt had turned Gaza into a “big prison.” But as Khaled Abu Toameh, the invaluable Palestinian-Israeli journalist, says, there are no flotillas. The world averts its gaze: “The activists do not care about the Palestinians’ suffering as much as they are interested in advancing their anti-Israel agenda.”
Very large rock that it is at the entrance to the Mediterranean, Gibraltar is something like a small pebble in Spanish shoes. Exactly 300 years ago, Spain ceded it by treaty to Britain, and ever since it has looked for one pretext or another to get it back. This time, the pretext is a reef of cement blocks placed underwater. The purpose, the British say, is to preserve fish stocks, and they add that Spain has similar reefs. No longer fishing at all, the British have long since abandoned their waters to Spanish fishermen, who now claim that the reef is a deliberate attempt to keep them out. Several fathoms down, Spanish divers have been filmed fixing the Spanish flag to the reef. On land, the Spanish authorities hold up the border crossing for hours, inconveniencing, for the most part, the 7,000 daily Spanish commuters to Gibraltar. It’s an unusual way of winning hearts and minds on the Rock. A recent poll showed that 98 percent of the 30,000 residents of Gibraltar see themselves as British and want nothing to do with Spain. Every British prime minister, including David Cameron, has defended the right of these people to self-determination on sovereign territory. The current spat at least allowed Boris Johnson, mayor of London and a columnist for the Daily Telegraph, to remind us how the King of Spain had complained to the Queen of England when Prince Charles put into Gibraltar on the royal yacht during his honeymoon. She replied, “It’s my yacht, my son, and my Rock.”
Although correctly regarded as the historical home of free speech, Britain has no equivalent of the First Amendment. In August, a 49-year-old American police officer–turned–preacher discovered this to his surprise when he was arrested for delivering a sermon about “sexual immorality” on a London street corner. Discussing his ordeal, he complained that British authorities were “intolerant to the Christian point of view.” This isn’t quite accurate. In truth, the British are equal-opportunity censors, allowing the “victim” to determine the severity of the “crime” and thus potentially punishing anyone who offends the sensibilities of anyone else. Soon, that authority will be stripped: Section 5, the part of the Public Order Act that gives British police the capacity to punish speakers, will be formally repealed next month. All friends of liberty should hope that this will put an end to a disgraceful chapter.
Human-rights fashion is a curious thing. You never know what will arouse the conscience of people. Thousands of people have petitioned the Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening night to gay rights. The Met’s 2013–14 season will open with Eugene Onegin, conducted by Valery Gergiev, with Anna Netrebko singing Tatiana. Both of those artists are friendly with Vladimir Putin. And the petitioners want the Met to take a stand for gay rights, given that the Putin government is hostile to gay rights. The company’s general manager, Peter Gelb, said, “As an institution, the Met deplores the suppression of equal rights here or abroad. But since our mission is artistic, it is not appropriate for our performances to be used by us for political purposes, no matter how noble or right the cause.” The Russian authorities have done any number of vile, even monstrous, things. For example, they tortured the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky to death. They have also killed journalist after journalist. Has anyone ever bothered a musician or an opera company about that? Yes, human-rights fashion is a curious thing.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler stars Forest Whitaker as a black White House butler who witnesses civil-rights history from his post in the corridors of presidential power. Notwithstanding its fertile historical source material — the real-life career of Eugene Allen, who served every president from Truman to Reagan — this “docudrama” from the director of Precious is more of a paean to the current generation than a tribute to the past. In hurried, choppy fashion, the film portrays the events of the civil-rights movement — the sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and so on — as way stations on the road to its triumphant finale: the election of Barack Obama. Along the way, Daniels presents a familiar line-up of soft-Left presidential stereotypes: JFK is a saintly family man, Nixon an evil paranoiac, Reagan a bumbling oldster, and so on. It’s a fairly wearying tale; but it would have been more understandable in 2008, when a combination of justifiable pride and gauzy invention made Obama a racial hero. Five years of high unemployment and one nasty reelection campaign later, The Butler feels like a film whose time has come and gone.
In early August, Oprah Winfrey — who stars in The Butler — lucked out. Just days before the press interviews for the new movie, she found herself embroiled in a headline-grabbing international “racism” incident in which a shop assistant in Zurich, Switzerland, allegedly told the star that she couldn’t afford a $38,000 handbag. The store’s owner, Trudie Goetz, protested to Reuters that her assistant, who doesn’t speak English, was trying to give Winfrey multiple options; Winfrey told cameras that she had been racially profiled. Many would consider it a remarkable jump from “I was treated badly in a store” to “I was subject to racist stereotyping.” But Winfrey has proven herself wholly capable of such movement before. Eight years ago, when turned away from an Hermès store in Paris after hours, Winfrey complained that the store’s refusal to let her in after it had locked up for the day was the product of the color of her skin. When the only tool you have is a hammer . . .
Oberlin College’s long nightmare of “campus racism” — involving attacks on Black History Month and even a sighting of the KKK — ended with the predictable confession that the affair had been a hoax perpetrated by two progressive students. Less predictable was the revelation that faculty and police knew early on that the saga was a hoax but indulged it as if it were real anyway. In the meantime, the story went national, inviting much wailing and gnashing of teeth. One would expect that, once caught, authorities would apologize and heads would roll. But this is a university: “These actions were real,” the administration said in a statement. “The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real.” Well, as real as anything at Oberlin.
At long last, the government has admitted the existence of top-secret Area 51, a heavily guarded preserve down in the pointy end of Nevada, and revealed some details about what the area is used for (though it still has not explained where the other 50 areas are). Area 51’s existence has long been rumored; it has been alleged to be a landing site for UFOs, and tales have circulated of an eerie, secluded reservation bustling with investigative journalists, flying saucers grounded for lack of spare parts, and little green men who look like Harry Reid. Why did the government break the secrecy? Is it all part of an amnesty plot for a new type of illegal alien, leading soon enough to the inevitable affirmative action for Martian Americans? Has DARPA been developing futuristic technologies like death rays, flying cars, or even solar panels that generate electricity at a reasonable cost? Nothing so implausible. Instead, the military set aside Area 51 for testing and development of the U-2 and other spy planes, and there is nothing otherworldly going on there except the scenery. At least, that’s what they want you to think . . .
Fifteen years ago, the University of Denver changed its athletic mascot from Denver Boone, a coonskin-capped cartoon boy, to a half-hearted attempt at a hawk. No one liked the new mascot who wasn’t paid to, so it was dropped, and DU’s Pioneers went mascotless. Recently, though, students and alumni have unofficially but enthusiastically revived Denver Boone — to the administration’s chagrin, since the lad has several flaws that are fatal in today’s academia: He’s white, he’s male, and he’s presumably discourteous towards Indians. So, in typical academic fashion, the university appointed a committee. As Patricia Calhoun reports in Westword: “The 76-member Mascot Steering Committee sent a survey to more than 78,000 members of the greater DU community, asking their opinion on three potential mascots — the Elk, the Jackalope, and the Mountain Explorer — each of which had two potential looks.” None of these options was anywhere near as popular as the durable Denver Boone. If the DU administration wants a symbol of what the school is really about, why not call the mascot the Denver Bureaucrat?
There are few things as dispiriting as an NFL exhibition game; even if your team is victorious, it’s like beating your wife at strip poker. So perhaps it was no great loss to John Coulter of Arizona and his 15-year-old son when they were ejected last month from the Cardinals’ preseason contest against the Cowboys’ third string. Still, it was an indignity; in fact, plainclothes agents actually threatened Coulter with arrest — all for violating state liquor laws by letting his son hold his beer while he took a picture. Coulter understandably deemed the suds patrol’s actions excessive, and he told them so loudly and profanely, at which point an ejection became inevitable. While cursing out police officers is both unwise and uncivil, we do sympathize with the Coulters over the officers’ overzealous response to something that deserved, at most, a friendly caution. If only Arizona police could be this effective at enforcing immigration laws . . .
Marching in Time
The civil-rights revolution, like the American Revolution, was in a crucial sense conservative: It did not seek to invent rights, but to secure ones that the government already respected in principle. “In a sense we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check,” said Martin Luther King Jr., a “promissory note” signed in “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” The speech he gave 50 years ago this August is a thorough, if implicit, repudiation of all anti-Americanism.
The revolution was also a religious movement, overwhelmingly made up of Christians and Jews, unashamed to be led by a minister, willing to make an explicitly theological argument for itself: “Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.”
Too many conservatives and libertarians, including the editors of this magazine, missed all of this at the time. They worried about the effects of the civil-rights movement on federalism and limited government. Those principles weren’t wrong, exactly; they were tragically misapplied, given the moral and historical context. It is a mark of the success of King’s movement that almost all Americans can now see its necessity.
Another mark is the decrepitude of today’s civil-rights movement. The evils the movement fought — state-sponsored segregation, pervasive racial discrimination — have been vanquished. In their place are evils that are, alas, less amenable to marches. And so King’s heirs flail about. Where he spoke of a “bank of justice,” they just trade in grievances. Today Al Sharpton, whose chief political success has been to foment enough racial hatred to yield arson and murder, can present himself as a civil-rights leader without much fear of contradiction. We will have to look elsewhere for answers to the evils that now afflict Americans, and especially blacks: lousy schools, a thriving drug trade and a misguided governmental response, the collapse of marriage.
On anniversaries like this one, left-wingers sometimes lament that King is not remembered in full. They say that he was hostile to capitalism and to the Vietnam War. It is a historically accurate point, and it is a historically irrelevant point. King is a national hero because of the American ideals he championed and brought much closer to realization. It is the march of those ideals that we commemorate this week.
Crossing the Line
As we go to press, President Obama is about to launch one of the most reluctant military strikes in U.S. history.
He has been cornered into acting in Syria by his own rhetoric and the criminality of the Assad regime, which in deploying chemical weapons joins a select, fiendish club of governments willing to flout one of the most firmly entrenched international norms. When it became clear earlier in the year that Bashar al-Assad’s forces were preparing to use chemical weapons, President Obama issued a number of warnings about red lines, which he did all he could to dance around and evade once Assad indeed launched a chemical attack in April. Emboldened, Assad has perpetrated a more brazen assault that killed hundreds in the Damascus suburbs.
The outrage of our allies and the logic of the president’s own statements make it nearly impossible for him to escape acting this time. If he did somehow find a way out, it would dangerously erode the credibility of the United States. The president can’t repeatedly make threats that prove utterly empty without inviting every bad actor in the world to laugh off whatever we say in the future, in potentially much more dire and important circumstances.
The administration seems inclined to a minimal, Bill Clinton–style attack from the air. This would be better than nothing, although not without its own risks. If it is too obviously symbolic, it invites the regime to conclude that there is no real price to pay for using WMD, and continue to do so in defiance of us. On the other hand, every military intervention — no matter how limited — is unpredictable, and Damascus or its allies may lash out in ways that demand our retaliation in an unexpected escalation.
Some of our friends urge going all the way and hitting Assad so as to shake the very foundations of his regime, tilt the balance of the civil war decisively toward the rebels, and hasten his fall from power. In isolation, this is a manifestly desirable goal. Assad is not just a monster but a cat’s-paw of our enemy in Iran. If he were to lose, it would be a strategic setback to Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah, which have done so much to support him as he wages a scorched-earth campaign against his countrymen, and potentially change the balance in the region. Iran would no longer have a strategic bridge connecting it with its terrorist proxies on Israel’s borders.
The reason to stop short of working to topple Assad is the nature of his opposition, dominated by Sunni extremists who are also hostile to our interests, if in different ways. This is why the crucial question in Syria is not what we’ll do from the air, but what we can do on the ground to shape an opposition in which we can have some confidence. After Assad’s last chemical attack, President Obama said he would arm more moderate elements among the rebels, but by all accounts he didn’t follow through. We should have covert forces on the ground arming, training, and advising the rebels with whom we can work, so we aren’t leaving the field to Arab governments with their own interests in influencing the nature of the rebellion.
Both justice and cold-blooded calculation say that Assad should fall, provided he’s not replaced by something equally bad. To that end, we should be creating proxy forces on the ground. Syria is a hellish problem, to be sure, but its difficulties needn’t freeze us in perpetual indecision. President Obama’s foreign policy of impotence is a choice, not an inevitability.