Saturday, February 28, 2015

'Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square' is a rewarding biography of an influential thinker

Special to The Globe and Mail

On March 23, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, a country on the precipice of a ferocious civil war, preached a sermon calling on soldiers to remember their duty to God and not violate the human rights of civilians, even if ordered to by the authorities. The next day, while celebrating mass at a small hospital chapel, the gentle, bespectacled 62-year-old cleric was shot dead by an assassin hired by a right-wing death squad. By some accounts, Romero’s blood splattered on the consecrated host.
Romero, who championed the poor and spoke out against torture, is one model of a politically committed Christian. Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, whose dramatic life is amply chronicled in a spirited and rewarding new biography by Canadian novelist Randy Boyagoda, cries out for comparisons with his Salvadoran counterpart. When he was young, as a vocal advocate for civil rights and anti-war politics, Neuhaus was on the path to becoming an American Romero. But Neuhaus’s pilgrim’s progress was rich in political and religious conversions and his ultimate fate was to be the anti-Romero.
Neuhaus was born in Pembroke, Ont., in 1936, the seventh of eight children in a devoutly Lutheran household. Clemens Neuhaus, the patriarch of this rambunctious clan, was a Lutheran pastor and young Richard found a way to both follow his father’s footsteps and rebel at the same time. Historically, Lutherans, such as Clemens Neuhaus, were apolitical verging on conservative, giving their wholehearted obedience to the state unless ordered to go against God’s law.
Studying for the ministry in the 1950s, Richard John Neuhaus embraced more modern ideas: In a democracy, he believed, Christians should not just obey Caesar but bring their beliefs to bear on policy. He was also eager to move outside the Lutheran cultural ghetto and ecumenically work with Jews and Catholics (his particular brand of Lutheranism was very high-church in any case, as close as possible to Catholicism). As a Lutheran cleric he could marry but he took a voluntary vow of chastity so he could devote his life to the people of God.
In 1961, Neuhaus became the pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church, a poverty-stricken church in prehipster Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Most of his congregation were black or Hispanic. Charismatic, handsome, eloquent, full of zeal to preach but also able to listen, Neuhaus revitalized the church, which served as his home base as he emerged as an outspoken voice for civil rights and opposition to the Vietnam War.
From the start, Neuhaus was a politically ambitious padre, a holy hustler, a man of God who always had a keen eye for self-promotion. He was a shameless name-dropper, who made it sound like he and Martin Luther King Jr. were bosom buddies (as Boyagoda makes clear, the two men were more acquaintances than friends). He went on chaste but dreamy coffee dates with protest singer Joan Baez and shared a jail cell with novelist Norman Mailer.
Amid the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s, Neuhaus flirted with the rhetoric of revolution. But after the end of the Vietnam War, he started to move sharply to the right, developing a special hatred for the “liberation theology” preached by Romero and other Latin American Catholics. After Romero’s assassination, both the government of El Salvador and its allies in Washington had a huge public-relations problem; murdering an archbishop does raise eyebrows.
In 1981, Neuhaus offered his aid to the powers-that-be by helping found the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which organized a rally to support the Reagan administration’s policy of arming the Salvadoran military. In trying to crush liberation theology, Neuhaus worked hand in hand with some of the most sinister figures in American public life at the time, notably UN ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and State Department bureaucrat Elliott Abrams.
In 1980, three Maryknoll nuns and a lay missionary were raped and shot by members of the National Guard of El Salvador. Kirkpatrick chose that moment to blame the victims, saying that the raped and murdered women “were not just nuns, they were political activists.” Testifying before Congress in 1982, Abrams declared that Roberto D’Aubuisson, the death-squad leader who almost certainly ordered Romero’s assassination, was not an extremist and deserved to participate in Salvadoran politics. Abrams also worked overtime to help cover up the 1981 El Mozote Massacre, when U.S.-armed and trained Salvadoran soldiers killed more than 800 civilians. Neuhaus would later praise Abrams for his “deep, almost quasi-religious devotion to democracy.”
In 1989, Neuhaus condemned a church-sponsored movie honouring Romero, saying “I think it is a grievous error to identify the Christian message, the gospel, with any ideological, political or economic program.” This complaint is especially hypocritical because, as Boyagoda shows, from 1984 onward Neuhaus pushed a highly partisan version of Christianity, one that lined up with the right-wing of the Republican Party.
Neuhaus formally converted to Catholicism in 1990 and soon thereafter was ordained a priest. But when religion and politics clashed, Neuhaus chose politics. His true devotion was to the U.S. right, not to the Vatican. As Boyagoda reveals, Neuhaus had grave private misgivings about the prudence of the U.S. war in Iraq launched in 2003. But publicly, he was a cheerleader for President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. Toeing the Republican party line seems to have mattered more to Neuhaus than bearing witness to the life and words of Christ.
In the pages of the journal First Things, which he founded in 1990, Neuhaus tailored his Christianity to match GOP dogma, often wilfully ignoring mainstream Christian theology and even the plain meaning of the gospels. His was a faith focused on criticizing reproductive freedom, environmentalism, feminism and gay rights while also arguing for the merits of two-fisted capitalism and U.S. global hegemony. “Capitalism is the economic corollary of the Christian understanding of man’s nature and destiny,” he grandly declared.
Neuhaus’s embrace of big business was perhaps connected to the fact that he gave up doing pastoral work among the poor in the early 1970s, and in the last decades of his life received the vast majority of his financial support from right-wing billionaires, who lavishly endowed Neuhaus’s career as a public intellectual. Neuhaus was personally ascetic – needing only $300 a month to keep stocked in bourbon and cigars – but his various think tanks and journals required plutocratic patronage.
Boyagoda is perhaps the ideal biographer for Neuhaus. Boyagoda shares many, although not all, of Neuhaus’s conservative Catholic ideas, but is honest enough to give space to critics. Neuhaus was a hugely influential figure, and Boyagoda tells his story with novelistic empathy and narrative panache. To be sure, Boyagoda occasionally flinches from retelling some of the more unsavoury aspects of Neuhaus’s career. A full understanding of Neuhaus’s alignment with Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy in Central America requires supplemental texts.
Strangely, some of the book’s most fascinating details are relegated to the endnotes. It’s only there, for instance, that readers are told that Neuhaus offered a “robust defense” of the pedeophile Rev. Marcial Maciel. Neuhaus stated that “for a moral certainty” he knew the charges against Maciel were false. (Maciel was later removed from public ministry by the Vatican, which resulted in Neuhaus writing a retraction that Boyagoda describes as containing “far too much convoluted self-justification for his earlier claim and rhetorical qualifications about the [Holy Office’s] decision.” There’s also a fairly horrifying story about Neuhaus’s parents. “When a black pastor from Chicago came through Pembroke earlier in the 1950s, Clem and Ella had no choice but to put him up but took certain measures: Ella chose to eat in the kitchen the night he came to dinner, and after the pastor left the next morning, Clem ordered the bedsheets washed – immediately.” Finally, most of the substantial discussion about Neuhaus’s private doubts about the war in Iraq are found only in the endnotes. This is all material Boyagoda should have included in the proper text.
As a Catholic neo-conservative, Neuhaus found powerful friends in the Vatican and the White House, with both popes and presidents attending to his word. Given his lust for power, Neuhaus revelled in his ability to sway the powerful. “The United States is the dominant power – economic, cultural, and perhaps military – in the world today,” Neuhaus chortled in 1987. “Rome and the United States are the central influences in the global church today.” If Rome and Washington embodied power in this world, Neuhaus was uniquely positioned to serve as an unofficial liaison agent between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Caesar.
Even though both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI were interested in Neuhaus’s ideas, they blanched at his crass celebrations of unbridled capitalism and raw military force. With the election of Pope Francis in 2013, just four years after Neuhaus’s death in 2009, the dream of a neo-conservative Church has suffered a mortal wound. Francis has worked hard to restore those aspects of the Catholic message that are impossible to square with complacent celebrations of capitalism, notably a concern for the environment and global poverty.
Earlier this month, Francis declared Oscar Romero to be “a martyr,” thus setting the path for the murdered archbishop’s beatification. Sooner or later, Romero will be recognized as an official Catholic saint. The inevitable question arises: If Romero deserves canonization, then doesn’t Richard John Neuhaus deserve condemnation?

Jeet Heer’s most recent book is Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles.

‘An Incorrigibly and Confusedly Religious Nation’

Richard John Neuhaus’s thinking on religion in public life is especially valuable today.

By Randy Boyagoda
February 26, 2015
The raging debate about the religious underpinning of Islamic State, and the president’s divisive habit of invoking Christianity in other misdeeds along the way, reminds us that Catholic thinker Richard John Neuhaus was basically right when he said in 2000 that the U.S. is “an incorrigibly and confusedly religious nation.” Through decades of preaching, writing and marching, he had explored religion’s permanently controversial place in American life.
Neuhaus is best remembered as a prominent Catholic priest, neoconservative intellectual, personal counselor to George W. Bush and influential ally of Pope John Paul II. In 1990 he converted from Lutheranism to Catholicism amid Cold War-era changes in American Christianity, U.S. party politics and society, including differing stances on the value of religious liberty and the role of churches in domestic and international affairs. He took up these matters in the pages of First Things, the magazine he founded the year he converted, for which he wrote a 10,000-word monthly column until his death in 2009.
Rev. Richard John NeuhausENLARGE
His life and work are relevant today because he offered a series of arguments for supporting the role of religion in public life. He drew on “the operative values of the American people, values that are overwhelmingly grounded in religious belief.”
Neuhaus never shied from advancing sectarian arguments, often in a swaggering style that suggested an overweening confidence in the higher rightness of his positions. His opposition thought him a Republican apologist in a Roman collar, as when he robustly articulated Just War criteria in support of the Bush administration’s War on Terror, or provided the administration with the phrasing for its pro-life position—that “every unborn child is protected by law and welcomed in life.” In First Things, Neuhaus attacked antiwar critics of the administration and pro-choice Catholic politicians.
Yet he was more than a brainy hero for the Red State rosary crowd. This is evident in the book that first made Neuhaus famous, “The Naked Public Square,” published during the 1984 presidential campaign. The effort was inspired by what he regarded as the dangerous and unwelcome efforts of fundamentalist Christians to impose their terms on American public life by exercising political influence through organizations like the Moral Majority.
Their rise, Neuhaus wrote, “kicked a tripwire alerting us to a pervasive contradiction in our culture and our politics. We insist that we are a democratic society, yet we have in recent decades systematically excluded from policy consideration” positions and proposals informed by closely held Christian beliefs.
Neuhaus sympathized with their grievances—over abortion and gay rights, challenges to school prayer and to Christian displays in public, and the coarsening of American culture. But he rejected their solution because the groups, he wrote, saw no reason “to engage the Christian message in conversation with public and universal discourse outside the circle of true believers.” Neuhaus instead affirmed the core premise of Enlightenment political thought: the differentiation of public authority into separate, autonomous spheres that valued individual rights.
He argued that the strongest support for these rights came from the Judeo-Christian tradition’s foundational conviction: We are made in the image of God. Demanding absolute obedience to political dictates, whether in the name of God or something else, would undo centuries of political progress, and goes against God’s own gift of free will to every human person.
And so he rejected the Christian right’s political project of establishing an explicitly Christian America. He further reasoned that if the right’s only argument for how Christians could contribute to American public life was through exclusively religious dictates, then it made sense that secular elites were pushing back so strongly.
He proposed another possibility, one that drew on the Judeo-Christian tradition about the Divine sources and safeguards of human dignity and flourishing. He invoked St. Augustine’s “City of God” and Psalm 146, warning his Republican audiences to “put not your trust in princes.” In his final book, “American Babylon,” Neuhaus cited the Prophet Jeremiah to argue that every Christian has a public responsibility to “seek its peace, in which, as Jeremiah said, we find our peace, as we yearn for and anticipate by faith and sacramental grace the New Jerusalem that is our pilgrim goal.”
With religion figuring in fresh controversies in global affairs, Neuhaus’s writing offers a timely example. Religious belief and democracy, he wrote, could best offer mutual benefits, provided “Christians believably propose that there is greater safety [for democracy] under a sacred canopy that brings all institutions and belief systems, and most particularly religion, under judgment. The canopy is that to which Judeo-Christian religion points.”
Mr. Boyagoda, a professor of American Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, is the author of “Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square” (Image Books, 2015).

In Israel’s hour of need

Netanyahu is coming to Washington next week because Obama has left him no choice.

White House
US President Barack Obama meets with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the White House, October 1, 2014. (photo credit:REUTERS)

It is hard to get your arms around the stubborn determination of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today. For most of the nine years he has served as Israel’s leader, first from 1996 to 1999 and now since 2009, Netanyahu shied away from confrontations or buckled under pressure. He signed deals with the Palestinians he knew the Palestinians would never uphold in the hopes of winning the support of hostile US administrations and a fair shake from the pathologically hateful Israeli media.

In recent years he released terrorist murderers from prison. He abrogated Jewish property rights in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. He agreed to support the establishment of a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. He agreed to keep giving the Palestinians of Gaza free electricity while they waged war against Israel. He did all of these things in a bid to accommodate US President Barack Obama and win over the media, while keeping the leftist parties in his coalitions happy.

For his part, for the past six years Obama has undermined Israel’s national security. He has publicly humiliated Netanyahu repeatedly.

He has delegitimized Israel’s very existence, embracing the jihadist lie that Israel’s existence is the product of post-Holocaust European guilt rather than 4,000 years of Jewish history.

He and his representatives have given a backwind to the forces that seek to wage economic warfare against Israel, repeatedly indicating that the application of economic sanctions against Israel – illegal under the World Trade Organization treaties – are a natural response to Israel’s unwillingness to bow to every Palestinian demand. The same goes for the movement to deny the legitimacy of Israel’s very existence. Senior administration officials have threatened that Israel will become illegitimate if it refuses to surrender to Palestinian demands.

Last summer, Obama openly colluded with Hamas’s terrorist war against Israel. He tried to coerce Israel into accepting ceasefire terms that would have amounted to an unconditional surrender to Hamas’s demands for open borders and the free flow of funds to the terrorist group. He enacted a partial arms embargo on Israel in the midst of war. He cut off air traffic to Ben-Gurion International Airport under specious and grossly prejudicial terms in an open act of economic warfare against Israel.

And yet, despite Obama’s scandalous treatment of Israel, Netanyahu has continued to paper over differences in public and thank Obama for the little his has done on Israel’s behalf. He always makes a point of thanking Obama for agreeing to Congress’s demand to continue funding the Iron Dome missile defense system (although Obama has sought repeatedly to slash funding for the project).

Obama’s policies that are hostile to Israel are not limited to his unconditional support for the Palestinians in their campaign against Israel. Obama shocked the entire Israeli defense community when he supported the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, despite Mubarak’s dependability as a US ally in the war on Islamist terrorism, and as the guardian of both Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel and the safety and freedom of maritime traffic in the Suez Canal.

Obama supported Mubarak’s overthrow despite the fact that the only political force in Egypt capable of replacing him was the Muslim Brotherhood, which seeks the destruction of Israel and is the ideological home and spawning ground of jihadist terrorist groups, including al-Qaida and Hamas. Obama then supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime even as then-president Mohamed Morsi took concrete steps to transform Egypt into an Islamist, jihadist state and end Egypt’s peace with Israel.

Israelis were united in our opposition to Obama’s behavior. But Netanyahu said nothing publicly in criticism of Obama’s destructive, dangerous policy.

He held his tongue in the hopes of winning Obama over through quiet diplomacy.

He held his tongue, because he believed that the damage Obama was causing Israel was not irreversible in most cases. And it was better to maintain the guise of good relations, in the hopes of actually achieving them, than to expose the fractures in US-Israel ties caused by Obama’s enormous hostility toward Israel and by his strategic myopia that endangered both Israel and the US’s other regional allies.

And yet, today Netanyahu, the serial accommodator, is putting everything on the line. He will not accommodate. He will not be bullied. He will not be threatened, even as all the powers that have grown used to bringing him to his knees – the Obama administration, the American Jewish Left, the Israeli media, and the Labor party grow ever more shrill and threatening in their attacks against him.

As he has made clear in daily statements, Netanyahu is convinced that we have reached a juncture in our relations with the Obama administration where accommodation is no longer possible.

Obama’s one policy that Netanyahu has never acquiesced to either publicly or privately is his policy of accommodating Iran.

Since Obama’s earliest days in office, Netanyahu has warned openly and behind closed doors that Obama’s plan to forge a nuclear deal with Iran is dangerous. And as the years have passed, and the lengths Obama is willing to go to appease Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been left their marks on the region, Netanyahu’s warnings have grown stronger and more urgent.

Netanyahu has been clear since his first tenure in office in the 1990s, that Iran’s nuclear program – as well as its ballistic missile program – constitutes a threat to Israel’s very existence. He has never wavered from his position that Israel cannot accept an Iran armed with nuclear weapons.

Until Obama entered office, and to an ever escalating degree until his reelection in 2012, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons has been such an obvious imperative among both Israelis and Americans that Netanyahu’s forthright rejection of any nuclear deal in which Iran would be permitted to maintain the components of its nuclear program was uncontroversial. In some Israeli circles, his trenchant opposition to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capabilities was the object of derision, with critics insisting that he was standing strong on something uncontroversial while buckling on issues like negotiations with the Palestinians, where he should have stood strong.

But now we are seeing that far from being an opportunist, Netanyahu is a leader of historical dimensions. For the past two years, in the interest of reaching a deal, Obama has enabled Iran to take over Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. For the first time since 1974, due to Obama’s policies, the Golan Heights is an active front in the war against Israel, with Iranian military personnel commanding Syrian and Hezbollah forces along the border.

Iran’s single-minded dedication to its goal of becoming a regional hegemon and its commitment to its ultimate goal of destroying the US is being enabled by Obama’s policies of accommodation. An Iran in possession of a nuclear arsenal is an Iran that can not only destroy Israel with just one or two warheads. It can make it impossible for Israel to respond to conventional aggression carried out by terrorist forces and others operating under an Iranian nuclear umbrella.

Whereas Israel can survive Obama on the Palestinian front by stalling, waiting him out and placating him where possible, and can even survive his support for Hamas by making common cause with the Egyptian military and the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, the damage Obama’s intended deal with Iran will cause Israel will be irreversible. The moment that Obama grants Iran a path to a nuclear arsenal – and the terms of the agreement that Obama has offered Iran grant Iran an unimpeded path to nuclear power – a future US administration will be hard-pressed to put the genie back in the bottle.

For his efforts to prevent irreparable harm to Israel Netanyahu is being subjected to the most brutal and vicious attacks any Israeli leader has ever been subjected to by an American administration and its political allies. They are being assisted in their efforts by a shameless Israeli opposition that is willing to endanger the future of the country in order to seize political power.

Every day brings another serving of abuse. Wednesday National Security Adviser Susan Rice accused Netanyahu of destroying US relations with Israel. Secretary of State John Kerry effectively called him a serial alarmist, liar, and warmonger.

For its part, the Congressional Black Caucus reportedly intends to sabotage Netanyahu’s address before the joint houses of Congress by walking out in the middle, thus symbolically accusing of racism the leader of the Middle East’s only liberal democracy, and the leader of the most persecuted people in human history.

Radical leftist representatives who happen to be Jewish, like Jan Schakowsky of suburban Chicago and Steve Cohen of Memphis, are joining Netanyahu’s boycotters in order to give the patina of Jewish legitimacy to an administration whose central foreign policy threatens the viability of the Jewish state.

As for Netanyahu’s domestic opponents, their behavior is simply inexcusable. In Israel’s hour of peril, just weeks before Obama intends to conclude his nuclear deal with the mullahs that will endanger Israel’s existence, Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog insists that his primary duty is to defeat Netanyahu.

And as far as Iran is concerned, he acts as a free loader ad a spoiler. Either he believes that Netanyahu will succeed in his mission to derail the deal with or without his support, or he doesn’t care. But Herzog’s rejection of Netanyahu’s entreaties that he join him in Washington next week, and his persistent attacks on Netanyahu for refusing accommodate that which cannot be accommodated shows that he is both an opportunist and utterly unworthy of a leadership role in this country.

Netanyahu is not coming to Washington next Tuesday to warn Congress against Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, because he seeks a fight with Obama. Netanyahu has devoted the last six years to avoiding a fight with Obama, often at great cost to Israel’s national security and to his own political position.

Netanyahu is coming to Washington next week because Obama has left him no choice. And all decent people of good will should support him, and those who do not, and those who are silent, should be called out for their treachery and cowardice.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Obama's Failure

MAR 9, 2015, VOL. 20, NO. 25
Barack Obama wants us all to simmer down about Iran. He wants Senator Bob Menendez, a fellow Democrat, and the donors he represents to butt out of the sanctions debate. He wants Republicans to quit crying wolf about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. He wants the media to stop hyping terror threats. He wants the American people in the dark about the secret correspondence he’s had for years with Iran’s supreme leader. He wants John Boehner to be mindful of protocol. And most of all, he wants Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop questioning his accommodationist approach to Tehran.
Military parade in Tehran
With the breezy confidence that is his trademark, the president has repeatedly delivered a reassuring message on Iran to the country and the world: Trust me.
With respect, Mr. President: No.
From the earliest moments of his first term, Obama sought to convince the country that threats from our erstwhile enemies were overblown. He forged an approach to jihadist attacks and rogue regimes meant to be a stark contrast from that of his predecessor. He ended the war on terror, quietly sought rapprochement with radical Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban, and ostentatiously undertook a more conciliatory approach to terror-sponsoring regimes like Syria and Iran.
Notwithstanding periodic drone strikes on bad guys, Obama has demonstrated repeatedly that his instinct is to ignore, dismiss, or downplay threats to the United States and its interests and allies. The record over six years is a long list of mistaken judgments, awkward euphemisms, and false assurances.
So when Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood it wasn’t a terrorist attack but “workplace violence.” And when Omar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit, he was an “isolated extremist.” And when Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate an SUV in Times Square five months later, it was a “one-off” attack. And when jihadists attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, it was a simple protest gone awry.
The problem in each of these instances wasn’t just that the descriptions were incorrect. It’s that the administration knew they were wrong and made the false claims anyway.
Numerous eyewitnesses reported that Hasan shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he shot. According to court documents in the case of the Christmas Day bomber, Abdulmutallab confessed that he’d been trained and dispatched by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula a full three days before Obama publicly labeled him an isolated extremist. The administration was aware that the Pakistani Taliban had claimed responsibility for Shahzad even before he attempted his bombing. And top intelligence officials on the ground in Libya repeatedly reported that al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists participated in the attacks and that there was no demonstration.
In the year before the 2012 presidential election, the Obama administration and campaign officials routinely claimed that al Qaeda was “on the run” or “on the path to defeat” or “decimated.” But top analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency were regularly providing Obama detailed assessments showing that the opposite was true. “When asked if the terrorists were on the run, we couldn’t respond with any answer but ‘no,’ ’’ said Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, former director of the DIA, after he was forced out of his job a year early. “When asked if the terrorists were defeated, we had to say ‘no.’ Anyone who answers ‘yes’ to either of those questions either doesn’t know what they are talking about, they are misinformed, or they are flat-out lying.”
Or all three. There’s little question that the administration misrepresented what it knew about our jihadist enemies. It’s equally clear that the administration chose to set aside information that contradicted its campaign narrative.
The U.S. government captured more than one million documents during the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Top administration officials initially described it as “a treasure trove” of intelligence on al Qaeda and its affiliates. But more than three years later, the senior DIA official who ran the project, Colonel Derek Harvey, says the intelligence community has fully analyzed less than 10 percent of the collection. Top DIA officials were told directly to stop providing analyses based on the bin Laden documents. The administration had decided to end the war on terror, and no amount of new intelligence about threats from al Qaeda was going to change their minds. So they chose ignorance.
A central element of the efforts to “end the wars” was peace talks with the Taliban. Initially, top officials said the Taliban must satisfy certain preconditions—disavow al Qaeda, recognize the Afghan constitution—before talks could proceed. The Taliban never agreed to the preconditions, so the administration dropped them. Mullah Omar’s men simply demanded that the United States free their top five commanders held at Guantánamo. In May 2014, the administration did just that, releasing the Taliban Five in exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. Top intelligence officials testified that the five Taliban commanders were almost certain to return to the fight against the United States. President Obama portrayed the exchange as potentially opening the door to “reconciliation” talks. Indeed, this was the first reason the Obama administration wanted to release the Taliban Five—as a confidence-building measure to jumpstart negotiations with one of al Qaeda’s strongest allies. This desperate attempt at diplomacy—preemptive capitulation—has failed. On February 24, the Taliban rejected press reports saying they were willing to negotiate with the Afghan government and decried the “occupation” of Afghanistan, a reference to the U.S.-led international presence in the country. They had simply wanted their leaders freed—and they have been.
In early 2011, the Obama administration formalized its hopes for improved relations with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad by restoring a diplomatic presence in Damascus. Ambassador Robert Stephen Ford presented his papers to Assad on January 25, 2011. Four months later, even as the Syrian regime was engaged in the slaughter of its own people, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested that Assad was a “reformer.” As the U.S. government accumulated evidence of Assad’s role in the widespread killing, Obama called for him to go and warned that the movement or use of chemical weapons would be a “red line.” But when the United Nations and the U.S. government confirmed reports that the Syrian regime had repeatedly used chemical weapons, the administration balked. Top Obama officials acknowledge that Assad was a puppet of the Iranian regime. In spite of that fact—or more likely because of it—Assad was allowed to cross the red line and continue the carnage. Although Assad agreed to ship some of his chemical munitions out of Syria, his regime has continued to slaughter Syrians with conventional weapons and barrel bombs. In the four years since the United States sent its ambassador, more than 200,000 people have died in the civil war.
In a January 2014 interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, Obama famously suggested that the radical Islamist group amassing territory in Syria and Iraq and brutally killing those trying to stop it was nothing to worry about. Remnick asked Obama about the implications of the Iraqis’ losing Falluja to the Islamic State. Said the president, “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”
But ISIL was not jayvee. And by early summer, the Iraqis were urgently asking Washington for help. The State Department casually responded by noting that the United States would be training some Iraqi soldiers later in the summer. Even as vast swaths of Iraq were falling to ISIL— including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city—Obama continued to boast that he had “ended the war in Iraq.”
By September 2014, it was no longer plausible for the administration to downplay ISIL. The group had become such an urgent threat that Obama delivered a prime-time address to the nation to describe his efforts to address this “cancer.” After months of dithering, Obama said: “I know many Americans are concerned about these threats. Tonight, I want you to know that the United States of America is meeting them with strength and resolve. .  .  . We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are.” But even as Obama finally acknowledged the threat from the Islamic State, he sought to portray it as just another violent group: “ISIL is not Islamic.”
In his speech that night, Obama pointed to Somalia and Yemen as models of successful U.S. counterterrorism efforts. Five months later, Iran-backed Houthi separatists had overthrown the Yemeni government and the United States shuttered its embassy in Sanaa. And just last weekend, homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson warned Americans against visiting the Mall of America, just outside Minneapolis, in response to a video threatening attacks by al Shabaab, the al Qaeda franchise in Somalia. Models no more.
Today, senior administration officials speak of a campaign against the Islamic State that will take decades, and top intelligence officials testify that attacks from members of the Islamic State potentially represent an immediate and grave threat to the homeland. FBI director James Comey said last week that the “siren song” of ISIL’s call for jihadist warriors has led to FBI investigations in each of the 50 states. The president is now calling for a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force for a group he dismissed just a year ago as terrorist poseurs.
The administration’s efforts have reached new levels of absurdity in recent weeks. When the president of Uruguay agreed to accept high-risk Guantánamo detainees on humanitarian grounds because they’d been the victims of “a heinous kidnapping” by the United States, not only did the Obama administration fail to rebuke him for the slander, it expressed gratitude. White House spokesman Josh Earnest argued strenuously that the Taliban, which provided safe haven for al Qaeda before 9/11 and has fought alongside it against the United States ever since, isn’t a terrorist group but merely “an armed insurgency.” The president claimed that the victims of the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris were “randomly” shot, despite the fact that the attacker himself said he’d chosen the target in order to kill Jews.
Obama claimed in an interview with Vox in late January that the world was transitioning to a new, more peaceful era. “The trajectory of this planet overall is one toward less violence, more tolerance, less strife, less poverty.” But in recent months, his top defense and intelligence officials said the opposite. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said: “The world is exploding all over.” The assessment from Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was even more alarming. “Looking back over my more than half a century in intelligence, I have not experienced a time when we have been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.”
To call Obama delusional at this point seems generous because it implies that the president is unaware of the reality he is so determined to ignore. But as these many examples make clear, he is not.
Perhaps nowhere is this willful self-deception more obvious than Iran. The very framework of the administration’s approach to Iran—“decoupling” diplomacy over its nuclear program from the many other troublesome aspects of the mullahs’ regime—exemplifies this approach. And once again, the problem isn’t just that the administration is ignoring reality. It’s that it is creating and selling an alternative, fantastical world that bears little relation to the real one.
For much of the decade before Obama took office, Iran was at war with the United States. The targeting of American military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan was approved at the highest levels of the Iranian government. Iran is responsible for more than one-third of all U.S. troop deaths in the region, according to a retired general with vast experience there.
But two months into the Obama administration, top officials made clear their willingness to set aside that history. The Iranians were invited to a conference on Afghanistan, and State Department officials repeatedly claimed that the Iranians could play a “constructive” and “positive” role in Afghanistan and the region. Six years later, administration officials still say the same thing despite a steady stream of evidence that the opposite is true.
“Iran is mounting an aggressive campaign to fuel anti-American sentiment here and convince Afghan leaders that a robust, long-term security partnership with Washington would be counterproductive,” the Washington Post reported in 2012, noting “the Iranian initiative involves cultivating closer relations with the Taliban” and buying off politicians and media outlets.
More striking is Iran’s support for al Qaeda. Last week, for the first time in nearly three years, the public saw new information from the bin Laden raid. Documents released as part of a terror trial in New York City show, in the words of the al Qaeda leaders themselves, Iran’s availability for training and safe haven. One letter from a senior al Qaeda operative to bin Laden in June 2010 lays out the plans of a core al Qaeda leader to travel to Iran. The letter notes that “Sheikh Yunis” is ready to travel and “the destination, in principle, is Iran. And he has with him six to eight brothers that he chose. I told him we are waiting for final complete confirmation from you to move and agree on this destination (Iran). His plan is: stay around for three months in Iran to train the brothers there then start moving them and distributing them in the world for their missions and specialties.”  
This comes on top of what we already know about Iran and al Qaeda. As Thomas Joscelyn reported here last week, at least three al Qaeda plots targeting Western interests were hatched in Iran since Obama took office. As the administration pined for Iran to rejoin the community of civilized nations, the Treasury was churning out reports showing Tehran had no such interest. In its designation of Yasin al-Suri, “a prominent Iran-based al Qaeda facilitator,” Treasury wrote in December 2011: “Operating under an agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian Government, al-Suri moves money and al Qaeda recruits from the Middle East through Iran and on to Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
In February 2012, Treasury designated Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security a terror-sponsoring organization. “MOIS has facilitated the movement of al Qaeda operatives in Iran and provided them with documents, identification cards, and passports,” not to mention “money and weapons,” Treasury explained, “and negotiated prisoner releases of AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq] operatives.” AQI, of course, would later become the Islamic State or ISIL.
The MOIS doesn’t just sponsor terrorism, it also protects Iran’s nuclear program. According to a profile of the ministry published by the Library of Congress Research Division in December 2012, it focuses on Iran’s internal affairs but plays an “integral” role in operations abroad as well. The MOIS identifies “external threats, specifically those aimed at Iran’s nuclear activity,” and specializes in “countering foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA and [Israel’s] Mossad,” both of which have worked to undermine Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran even established an elite counterintelligence agency that “likely operates” as part of the MOIS and is “exclusively responsible for protecting all relevant information about Iran’s nuclear program, nuclear facilities, and the scientists working in nuclear facilities against threats, including threats from domestic opposition groups and foreign intelligence agencies.”
So the same agency responsible for Iran’s robust terror activities has crucial responsibilities in protecting and hiding its nuclear program. Obama may insist on “decoupling” Iran’s nuclear program from its terrorism. Iran doesn’t.
Iran’s centrifuges have been spinning throughout the lengthy negotiations over its nuclear program, and it has continued to make progress on its plutonium program. The administration has backed away from previous U.N. Security Council resolutions requiring Iran to suspend its nuclear activities. In the fall of 2014, the IAEA discovered that Iran was feeding hexafluoride gas into the IR-5 centrifuge at Natanz. When the State Department inquired about this prohibited activity, Iran stopped—a tacit acknowledgment that it had been caught red-handed.
And yet in his State of the Union, Obama claimed that the Iranian program had been “halted” and that the Iranians hadn’t violated the interim deal. What incentive do the Iranians have to abide by the terms of the deal if the American president will make excuses for them when they don’t?
The day after that speech, House speaker John Boehner invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. White House officials howled in protest, calling the invitation a breach of protocol. It was a rich argument from a White House that had enlisted British prime minister David Cameron to lobby members of Congress against additional sanctions on Iran and a president who had invited the president of South Korea to address a joint session of Congress before asking congressional leaders for their blessing.
White House officials aren’t concerned about protocol. They understand that Netanyahu will give Congress and the American people exactly what the Obama administration has worked hard to avoid for six years: a detailed assessment of the threat from Iran.
Consider this question: When was the last time a senior Obama administration official gave a speech devoted to laying out the threat from Iran? It simply hasn’t happened. Perhaps the most extensive comment on the subject from the president himself came in October 2009, after Iran’s secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom was exposed. Obama appeared at a press briefing with French president Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister Gordon Brown, both of whom condemned the Iranian violations in the strongest terms. “The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the whole international community, and it will harden our resolve,” said Brown.
Even Obama sounded resolute, saying, “It is time for Iran to act immediately to restore the confidence of the international community by fulfilling its international obligations,” and, “To put it simply: Iran must comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions and make clear it is willing to meet its responsibilities as a member of the community of nations.”
But these flashes of rhetorical toughness were invariably paired with comedowns—Obama offering Iran a “clear path toward greater international integration if it lives up to its obligations.” Administration officials in briefings with reporters emphasized the “opportunity” the breach had given Iran.
An opportunity despite the fact that for the third time in a decade Iran had been caught lying about its nuclear program. An opportunity despite the regime’s crushing of the peaceful revolution four months earlier after the mullahs fixed the elections. And an opportunity despite our knowledge of Iran’s support for al Qaeda and its policy of targeting and killing Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was clear before he’d been in office a year that Obama would not seriously address the threat presented by Iran.
Netanyahu will. For that reason, and because of this context and the enormous stakes, John Boehner’s invitation was less a breach of protocol or partisan ploy than it was an act of statesmanship.
Long before he was elected president, Obama and his supporters complained bitterly about the lack of public debate before the Iraq war. It was a bogus claim on the particulars—that debate lasted well over a year, and the congressional authorization for war came nearly six months before the invasion. The principle they invoked, however, is a valid one and it ought to apply to Iran. If it’s important to have an extended debate about the threat from an aggressive rogue state before going to war, it’s equally important to have such a debate before deciding to capitulate.
Let it begin.

The fatal flaw in the Iran deal

By Charles Krauthammer
February 26, 2015

A poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is seen next to bank of centrifuges in what is described by Iranian state television as a facility in Natanz. (Reuters)
A poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is seen next to bank of centrifuges in what is described by Iranian state television as a facility in Natanz. (Reuters)

A sunset clause?
The news from the nuclear talks with Iran was already troubling. Iran was being granted the “right to enrich.” It would be allowed to retain and spin thousands of centrifuges. It could continue construction of the Arak plutonium reactor. Yet so thoroughly was Iran stonewalling International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors that just last Thursday the IAEA reported its concern “about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed . . .development of a nuclear payload for a missile.”
Bad enough. Then it got worse: News leaked Monday of the elements of a “sunset clause.” President Obama had accepted the Iranian demand that any restrictions on its program be time-limited. After which, the mullahs can crank up their nuclear program at will and produce as much enriched uranium as they want.
Sanctions lifted. Restrictions gone. Nuclear development legitimized. Iran would reenter the international community, as Obama suggested in an interview in December, as “a very successful regional power.” A few years — probably around 10 — of good behavior and Iran would be home free.
The agreement thus would provide a predictable path to an Iranian bomb. Indeed, a flourishing path, with trade resumed, oil pumping and foreign investment pouring into a restored economy.
Meanwhile, Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program is subject to no restrictions at all. It’s not even part of these negotiations.
Why is Iran building them? You don’t build ICBMs in order to deliver sticks of dynamite. Their only purpose is to carry nuclear warheads. Nor does Iran need an ICBM to hit Riyadh or Tel Aviv. Intercontinental missiles are for reaching, well, other continents. North America, for example.
Such an agreement also means the end of nonproliferation. When a rogue state defies the world, continues illegal enrichment and then gets the world to bless an eventual unrestricted industrial-level enrichment program, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is dead. And regional hyperproliferation becomes inevitable as Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others seek shelter in going nuclear themselves.
Wasn’t Obama’s great international cause a nuclear-free world? Within months of his swearing-in, he went to Prague to so declare. He then led a 50-party Nuclear Security Summit, one of whose proclaimed achievements was having Canada give up some enriched uranium.
Having disarmed the Canadian threat, Obama turned to Iran. The deal now on offer to the ayatollah would confer legitimacy on the nuclearization of the most rogue of rogue regimes: radically anti-American, deeply jihadist, purveyor of terrorism from Argentina to Bulgaria, puppeteer of a Syrian regime that specializes in dropping barrel bombs on civilians. In fact, the Iranian regime just this week, at the apex of these nuclear talks, staged a spectacular attack on a replica U.S. carrier near the Strait of Hormuz.
Well, say the administration apologists, what’s your alternative? Do you want war?
It’s Obama’s usual, subtle false-choice maneuver: It’s either appeasement or war.
It’s not. True, there are no good choices, but Obama’s prospective deal is the worst possible. Not only does Iran get a clear path to the bomb but it gets sanctions lifted, all pressure removed and international legitimacy.
There is a third choice. If you are not stopping Iran’s program, don’t give away the store. Keep the pressure, keep the sanctions. Indeed, increase them. After all, previous sanctions brought Iran to its knees and to the negotiating table in the first place. And that was before the collapse of oil prices, which would now vastly magnify the economic effect of heightened sanctions.
Congress is proposing precisely that. Combined with cheap oil, it could so destabilize the Iranian economy as to threaten the clerical regime. That’s the opening. Then offer to renew negotiations for sanctions relief but from a very different starting point — no enrichment. Or, if you like, with a few token centrifuges for face-saving purposes.
And no sunset.
That’s the carrot. As for the stick, make it quietly known that the United States will not stand in the way of any threatened nation that takes things into its own hands. We leave the regional threat to the regional powers, say, Israeli bombers overflying Saudi Arabia.
Consider where we began: six U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding an end to Iranian enrichment. Consider what we are now offering: an interim arrangement ending with a sunset clause that allows the mullahs a robust, industrial-strength, internationally sanctioned nuclear program.
Such a deal makes the Cuba normalization look good and the Ukrainian cease-fires positively brilliant. We are on the cusp of an epic capitulation. History will not be kind.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Comrades for Net Neutrality

The powers behind the FCC’s muscling of the Internet

by JOHN FUND February 26, 2015 1:00 PM

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Today’s vote by a bitterly divided Federal Communications Commission that the Internet should be regulated as a public utility is the culmination of a decade-long battle by the Left. Using money from George Soros and liberal foundations that totaled at least $196 million, radical activists finally succeeded in ramming through “net neutrality,” or the idea that all data should be transmitted equally over the Internet. The final push involved unprecedented political pressure exerted by the Obama White House on FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, head of an ostensibly independent regulatory body. 

“Net neutrality’s goal is to empower the federal government to ration and apportion Internet bandwidth as it sees fit, and to thereby control the Internet’s content,” says Phil Kerpen, an anti-net-neutrality activist from the group American Commitment. 

The courts have previously ruled the FCC’s efforts to impose “net neutrality” out of bounds, so the battle isn’t over. But for now, the FCC has granted itself enormous power to micromanage the largely unrestrained Internet. 

Back in the 1990s, the Clinton administration teamed up with Internet pioneers to promote a hands-off approach to the new industry and keep it free from discriminatory taxation. Many still prefer that policy. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab and the charity One Laptop Per Child, says that net neutrality “doesn’t make sense” because “the truth is, not all bits [of data] are created equal.” 

Will Marshall, head of the Progressive Policy Institute (which was once a favorite think tank of Clinton Democrats), issued a statement that net neutrality “endorses a backward-looking policy that would apply the brakes to the most dynamic sector of America’s economy.” 

But such voices have been drowned out by left-wing activists who want to manage the Internet to achieve their political objectives. The most influential of these congregate around the deceptively named Free Press, a liberal lobby co-founded in 2002 by Robert McChesney, a University of Illinois communications professor. 

His goals have always been clear. “At the moment, the battle over network neutrality is not to completely eliminate the telephone and cable companies,” he told the website SocialistProject in 2009. “But the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.” Earlier in 2000, he told the Marxist magazine Monthly Review: “Our job is to make media reform part of our broader struggle for democracy, social justice, and, dare we say it, socialism.” When I interviewed him in 2010, he admitted he is a socialist and said he was “hesitant to say I’m not a Marxist.” 

In essence, what McChesney and his followers want is an Unfree Press — a media world that promotes their values. “To cast things in neo-Marxist terms that they could appreciate, they want to take control of the information means of production,” says Adam Therier of the blog TechLiberation. 

Certainly McChesney seems blind to the dangers of media control on the left. In 2007, he co-authored a remarkable survey of the media under Hugo Chávez’s already clearly thuggish regime in Venezuela: “Aggressive, unqualified political dissent is alive and well in the Venezuelan mainstream media, in a manner few other democratic nations have ever known, including our own.” 

Despite his astonishingly radical goals, McChesney’s Free Press group was able to leverage foundation cash and academic “research” into an influential force behind net neutrality. Julius Genachowski, President Obama’s first FCC chairman, hired Free Press’s Jen Howard as his press secretary. The FCC’s chief diversity officer, Mark Lloyd, has co-authored a Free Press report demanding regulation of political talk radio. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan cited research from Free Press and other left-wing groups backing net neutrality more than 50 times. 

The battle for control of the Internet isn’t over. Over two-thirds of the House and Senate are on record as opposing FCC regulation of the Internet, and a new president could change the policy overnight in 2017 even if the courts don’t block it. 

But for now, the “media reform” movement led by McChesney and his allies can claim bragging rights for their Saul Alinsky–style outflanking maneuver on Internet regulation. They financed the research behind the idea, installed their political allies in power, got the government to consider them experts on the issues they cared deeply about, and finally ran roughshod over both Congress and an initially reluctant FCC chairman. Conservatives should study how the Left won on this issue even as they acknowledge and fight the illegitimacy of many of the results. 

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for NRO.

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