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So, What Are We Doing About Syria’s Other WMD Program?

October 27th, 2013 - 12:14 am

Just when you though there wasn’t enough bad news to fill the day, Syria amid its civil war now has a suspected polio outbreak. On Oct. 19, the World Health Organization reported that it had received information about a cluster of “hot” cases of accute flaccid paralysis, some of which could be positive for polio, in Syria’s Deir Al Zour province. Now UNICEF and the World Health Organization are taking this seriously enough to announce that they plan to vaccinate millions of Syrians against polio (good luck with that…). In neighboring Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of Syrian’s have sought refuge, authorities are planning a similar campaign for children under five.

The source of the outbreak is not yet clear. CNN reports that outside of Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan, polio has been largely eradicated, with fewer than 300 cases reported worldwide last year. CNN further reports on speculation by public health experts that this disease might have been brought to Syria by Islamic militants from Pakistan, who came to join the opposition to Syria’s Assad regime: “There are signs that the polio strain is from Pakistan.” This Syrian outbreak could easily be an awful but unintended result of the civil war that began in 2011.

But even if this outbreak is entirely a matter of unintended, horrific collateral damage, it does bring to mind the dangers posed by Syria’s biological weapons program. So, for that matter, does the locale, if only by association with another form of WMD — Deir Al Zour being the Syrian province where President Bashar Assad with North Korean help was building a clandestine nuclear reactor, until the Israelis destroyed it in 2007 with an air strike.

While world attention has been focused these past two months on the Russia-brokered deal to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons (and even that is highly problematic), there have been no visible provisions to deal with Assad’s biological weapons projects. In the Sept. 27 United Nation Security Council Resolution 2118, proposing to deal with the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons, there are just two brief and toothless mentions of biological weapons, along with chemical and nuclear — calling on UN member states to refrain from providing any support to “non-State actors” that try to make or acquire such weapons, and demanding that non-State actors refrain from such ventures. But there are no measures included for relieving Assad (or any non-State actors) of whatever biological weapons or related programs that might be part of Syria’s arsenal.

Should we be worried? You bet. Just this past July, the U.S. State Department reported that the U.S. government “is concerned, based on information available during the reporting period” (which was not ancient history, but 2012), that Syria, which has signed but not ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, “may be engaged in activities that would violate its obligations under the BWC if it were a State Party to the Convention.” The unclassified report (see page 16) noted that the U.S. “had designated four Syrian government entities as WMD proliferators”  due to concerns involving the development not only of chemical but also biological weapons. State also cited a 2004 report from Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center that said Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (one of the Syrian government entities designated by the U.S.) “had been developing ricin-based biological weapons.”

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Having won a seat for the first time on the United Nations Security Council, Saudi Arabia turned around a day later and rejected it, citing the Council’s double standards and failure to uphold international peace, justice and security.

As UN moments go, this is a classic — if only for its sheer absurdity. It is precisely because of the UN’s double standards that a country such as Saudi Arabia can win a seat on the Security Council in the first place — with 176 of the 193 members of the UN General Assembly voting yes. As as friend of mine puts it, the Saudi move smacks of Groucho Marx’s joke that he would never join any club that would accept him as a member.

Obviously, the real problem is not a sudden Saudi aversion to UN double standards per se. If it were, Saudi Arabia would not still be running for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, in General Assembly elections to be held Nov. 12. As far as I’m aware, the Saudis — who with no evident concern about hypocrisy have served previously on the Human Rights Council  – have not dropped their bid to reclaim a seat.

There’s a lot of speculation right now on why the Saudis did their about face on a Security Council seat, especially after their ambassador to the UN in New York, Abdallah  Al-Mouallimi, initially told the press that “our election is much to rejoice over.” In a statement released Friday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry cited a hodge-podge of reasons for the boycott, ranging from the failure to apply “deterrent sanctions” to the Syrian regime, to such stock stuff as the failure to “make the Middle East a free zone of all weapons of mass destruction,” and the continuing failure to resolve “the Palestinian cause” to Saudi Arabia’s liking.” What makes the most sense to me — though it’s just a guess — is that the Saudis suddenly realized that in dealing with hot issues such as Syria and Iran, they might be better off dealing in the backrooms, rather than having to put their diplomatic cards on the table in Security Council votes.

But whatever the reasons, if the Saudis want to denounce double standards and demand better behavior from the UN Security Council, why not hold them to it?

Right now it’s unclear how the UN might fill that suddenly vacant two-year nonpermanent seat, for 2014-2015. Candidates for the Council’s 10 rotating seats are usually nominated by regional blocs in the General Assembly. From these slates, the GA then elects the winners, with a required minimum of two-thirds of the GA’s 193 votes. But what Saudi Arabia has just done, in walking away from a win, is highly unusual.

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Assad’s Nobel Peace Prize?

October 16th, 2013 - 3:08 am

Reportedly, Syria’s President Bashar Assad made a joke the other day that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize “should have been mine.” Whether he really said that is unclear. The report came from a pro-Damascus newspaper in Lebanon, Al Akhbar. Agence France-Presse picked up the story, but noted that Al Akhbar did not actually say when Assad produced this quip. Nor, if Assad actually did say it, would I rush to assume that he meant it as a joke. Dictators — particularly those who kill people in large numbers — have a way of persuading themselves that what they are doing is noble and necessary work. It would be no surprise to discover that Assad really does believe he deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.

But whether or not Assad actually said it, either as a joke or some sort of entitlement manifesto from an alternate universe, the truth is that in some ways the Norwegian Nobel Committee did indeed award its prize to Assad. Not by name, and surely not by intention. This year’s official winner is the outfit whose inspectors, along with United Nations personnel, are now tasked to unburden Assad of his poison gas arsenal: the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

But what is the OPCW, really? Based in The Hague, and created to implement the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) that entered into force in 1997, the OPCW has been depicted in most media coverage as a champion of good works; the world’s leading chemical weapons watchdog. It has an annual budget of about $100 million (22% of that supplied by the U.S.) and a staff of 450, working out of a distinctive semi-circular building in the Dutch capital of The Hague. In most media coverage since Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the OPCW has been summed up simply as a body diligently ridding the world of chemical weapons, with various factoids thrown in about the how many inspections it has done, in how many countries, and who belongs to this organization. With Syria’s accession this week, the CWC has 190 State Parties, including 187 UN member states, plus the Holy See, plus two Pacific island territories off New Zealand  with a total combined population of 14,000 (who, you may be relieved to know, have agreed not to acquire chemical weapons, or to give them up if they discover they have any). There has also been the list of the six holdouts, in which the democratic state of Israel (which has signed but not ratified the CWC) stands out as an anomaly against the other five: Egypt, Angola, South Sudan, Burma and one of the motherlodes of Syria’s chemical weapons program, North Korea.

A closer look at the OPCW provides at least one broad hint as to why Israel would not be eager to join this gang. The OPCW is a diplomatic romper room for Syria’s intimate ally and fellow terrorist-sponsoring state, Iran. Iran spends a significant portion of its time at the OPCW denouncing Israel (which Tehran’s envoys call “the Zionist entity”) and demanding that the “international community” pressure Israel to join the CWC and place itself under the OPCW regime. Iran has enjoyed a seat on the OPCW’s executive council every year since 1998; sits on all three of its main subsidiary bodies, including its budget advisory committee (you pay, Iran plays); and serves as a vice-chair of the OPCW’s General Conference. Iran has hosted OPCW training sessions, and the OPCW sees no problem with employing Iranian nationals  as weapons inspectors, which it has in fact done.

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Even in today’s interconnected world, a lot of news is bundled by region — and so it often works with rogue states and their neighborhoods. The past few months have been an especially lively period for wayward states in the Middle East, where by diplomatic sleight-of-hand the regimes of Damascus and Tehran have been transformed from terrorist-sponsoring WMD proliferators into erstwhile or potential partners of the U.S. in nonproliferation. In August the big focus was on Syria, the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and the ensuing deal — in which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin translated Assad’s nerve gas into a bargaining chip for re-expanding Russian influence and a dwindling role for the U.S. in the Middle East (in which Secretary of State John Kerry is now praising Syria’s President Bashar Assad).

September brought the Iranian regime’s “charm” offensive, in which President Hassan Rouhani traveled to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, snubbed President Obama’s offer to meet in person, and lectured the world on Iran’s right to enrich uranium. He was rewarded with a presidential phone call, the return to Iran of a million dollar griffin-shaped silver drinking cup  and plans for nuclear talks next week in Geneva.

While that’s been going on, Americans have had plenty of distractions on their home turf, between news of the federal shutdown, debates over what’s actually been shut and footage of news anchors trying unsuccessfully to log onto the new government healthcare web sites.

Amid all this, there hasn’t been a lot of focus on North Korea. It’s been eight long months since Pyongyang’s third nuclear test — way back in February. It’s been three years since North Korea advertised to the world that along with its plutonium path to the bomb, it had installed at its Yongbyon complex a uranium enrichment facility  (which on satellite imagery appears to have since doubled in size). Given the tempo of the modern news cycle, that’s prehistoric.

But that steam rising from North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear complex is not for making tea. South Korea’s main intelligence agency has confirmed the reports of a number of U.S. analysts  that North Korea has restarted the Soviet-built reactor that was shut down in 2007, as part of a failed nuclear freeze deal that was bracketed by North Korea’s first and second nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009. There is some debate over whether this reactor is more dangerous as a source of plutonium for North Korea’s nuclear bomb program, or as a facility so decrepit that it might go haywire and produce what Russia has warned could be a “man-made catastrophe.”

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A lot of the more workaday outrages at the UN were eclipsed last week by the performance of Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, new celebrity of the General Assembly stage. But as the (radioactive?) dust settles, let us turn to largely unnoticed but imminent “election” of Iran as rapporteur for — of course — the General Assembly’s main committee on Disarmament and International Security, best known at the UN as the First Committee.

This Committee should not be confused with the UN’s Disarmament Conference in Geneva, the gridlocked body on which Iran held the rotating chair for four weeks this spring. As did North Korea in 2011 (that chair rotates alphabetically through the membership, the alphabet being apparently of greater weight to the Conference than the actual business of disarmament).

The First Committee, by contrast, is located at UN headquarters in New York, and is a relatively busy shop, populated by all 193 members of the UN General Assembly. This is where the members gin up scores of draft resolutions every year for consideration by the General Assembly, on subjects such as weapons of mass destruction, nonproliferation and disarmament. These are toothless in their direct import, but can swing considerable weight in shaping debates, and spawning conferences and conventions that lead to drumbeats for more of the same.

Every October, to coincide with the newly opened year-long session of the General Assembly, the First Committee elects a bureau, consisting of a chairperson, three vice chairs and a rapporteur. For the previous session, the chair was Indonesia, with vice chairs Lithuania, Peru and Kenya, and the rapporteur was Norway.

This year will be different.

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Moment of Truth at the UN General Assembly

September 28th, 2013 - 9:13 pm

You might suppose that the United Nations General Assembly in New York is done with its opening exertions for 2013, now that the new UN celebrity, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, has flown home to help his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, tend to such projects as — how has Rouhani described it? —  ”our peaceful nuclear energy program” and “my government’s readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.” (Quoting here from the Sept. 19 Washing Post op-ed with which Rouhani’s public relations team prepared the ground for his arrival on the UN main stage.)

For sure, it was an action-packed week at UN headquarters. Even beyond the round-the-clock news of Rouhani — speaking, snubbing, giving interviews, taking phone calls — there were such episodes as the UN General Assembly inviting the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas to take a seat, for the first time, in the onstage beige chair reserved for heads of state (part of the GA’s continuing effort to help the PA do an end-run around the Palestinian promises in the Oslo Accords). There was the usual appearance by Zimbabwe’s longtime despot, Robert Mugabe, who at age 89 did a remarkably spry job of praising the UN and denouncing the U.S., Britain and their allies (“Shame, shame, shame“). There was the not entirely surprising non-appearance of Sudan’s President Omar al Bashir, who had planned to attend (this plan was surprising, given that Bashir is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for his role in Sudan’s genocide). Instead, Bashir sent Sudan’s minister of foreign affairs, Ali Ahmed Karti, who spent the first part of his speech to the GA denouncing the U.S., which he said had denied Bashir a visa to attend the General Assembly (let us note, whatever one’s criticisms of the State Department, at least they got that much right). On the heels of all this, the UN Security Council finally eked out a “Toothless and Unfocused” resolution on Syria, or at least on Syria’s chemical weapons.

But for all that, the action is not quite over. Now comes that rarest of things at the UN General Assembly — a moment of truth. The GA General Debate — the parade of speakers across the main stage — takes a break on Sunday, then resumes on Monday and finishes up with a final morning session on Tuesday. That last round is when Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to speak. Israel was represented at UN meetings last week by its strategic affairs minister, Yuval Steinitz. But for the finale, Netanyahu is flying in, going first to a meeting in Washington with President Obama, then addressing the UN General Assembly on Tuesday.

He’ll have some highly varied company in the final lineup, which — in a brilliant illustration of the UN’s moral equivalence (or moral vertigo) — will also include both the Holy See and North Korea. But (and this is in no way to fault the Holy See), the big event on Tuesday is Netanyahu. For too many of the speakers who climb the UN stage to address the General Assembly, and the world, the main effort is to weave a web of diplomatic fictions. By lonely contrast, Netanyahu’s urgent effort, year after year, has been to sound the alarm about the realities of Iran’s advancing nuclear program, and the dangers it poses not only to Israel, or the Middle East, but to the world. With the clock ticking and the duplicitous deals cooking, never has this message been more urgent. Advance reports, as well as basic sanity, suggest he will make the case again. At the UN, that will go over far less well, to say the least, than the razzle-dazzle of last week’s Iranian “charm” offensive — a buffet of falsehoods more palatable to politicians than the crude realities of the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism buying more time for making nuclear weapons. But for a moment of vital and urgent truth, delivered from the main stage of the UN, tune in Tuesday to the  finale.

Heads of State jet in, motorcades and police blockades jam the streets of Manhattan, and amid the gridlock the five-star hotels, restaurants and jewelry stores do a booming business — it’s late September, time for the United Nations General Assembly’s annual opening. This event has by now so far outstripped a three-ring circus that there is no keeping track of the full scene. Dissertations could be done (to deadly effect) on the side panels alone. But here’s a quick and dirty guide to some of the highlights, and lowlifes.

The current hoopla marks the opening of the General Assembly’s 68th annual session since the founding of the UN, in 1945. Officially, this session actually began last week, on Sept. 17. But that was just the windup. The real action comes this week, as the big shots arrive for what is called the General Debate.

Though what they do in public is less a debate than a parade of theatrical statements. The UN today has 193 member states. All of them get a turn on the GA main stage. So does the Holy See, and so does the Palestinian Authority. To get through the entire lineup by next Tuesday, Oct. 1 (with a break on Sunday), the UN urges the speakers to observe a “voluntary 15-minute time limit” (and suggests that “Delegations may wish to inform their capital of this procedure”). But these are all speakers who are used to being important, if not on the world stage, then at least in their home countries; most of them are heads of state, or ministers (with the occasional vice minister or deputy thrown in). In some cases they command a world spotlight; in others they are mainly grandstanding for the folks back home. Either way, the speakers typically run over  the time limit — one memorable example being Muammar Qaddafi’s speech in 2009, which went on for more than an hour-and-a half.

So the schedule, which you can find here (the speaker lists will be added daily), is an approximate guide, with speeches starting at 9 AM, and officially divided into a morning and an afternoon session, though in practice they often run over into the lunch break and sometimes well into the evening. The best way to keep track is to follow the speaker lineup — which has its peculiarities. Were the UN an outfit with a moral compass, there might be some chance of the most repressive governments speaking last, or perhaps not speaking at all. But at the UN, protocol trumps such matters as morality, and a democracy such as New Zealand can end up waiting its turn after Iran and Sudan. The rule of thumb is that heads of state and heads of government take precedence over those of lesser title. But that doesn’t always apply. UN officials say that states sometime swap slots, or make special requests, and the basic show is a product of the inner workings of the General Assembly.

Brazil goes first, on day one. Then the U.S., the host country (Note to U.S. taxpayers, your money bankrolls 22% of the UN costs for this extravaganza, plus — especially if you are from New York — virtually all of the added security costs).

Most GA openings have their stars, or their starring events. In 2009, that was Qaddafi, who was riding so high at the UN that the tyrant himself, after years of sending his minions, decided to appear in person. The UN doesn’t do much to advertise it these days, but at the time — just four years ago — Qaddafi’s Libya had been elected to a seat on the 15-member Security Council, Qaddafi’s former foreign minister had been elevated to president of the General Assembly, and Libya was on its way to winning a seat on the “reformed” UN Human Rights Council. Last year, the signature GA event was the Assembly trying to do an end-run around the Oslo Accords, by voting to “upgrade” the PA’s status from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state.”

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Axis of the Chemical Weapons Convention

September 13th, 2013 - 9:39 pm

With the backing of his Russian patron and arms supplier, New York Times columnist Vladimir Putin, Syria’s President Assad has agreed to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the treaty that President Obama has described as representing the will of 98% of the people on the planet to rid us all of the scourge of chemical weapons. Could this resolve the dangers of chemical weapons in Syria?

It seemed worth taking a closer look at the chemical weapons treaty, as well at the Hague-based outfit that implements it, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Having done some spelunking, I can report that whatever the views of 98% of humanity, there are some highly significant holdouts, including the governments of Iran and Russia — both of which acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention from the beginning, back in 1997. They offer a template that Syria’s Assad probably finds interesting: Sign, and cheat.

But surely the convention and its implementing body, the OPCW, would stop its States Parties from violating the treaty they agreed to? Think again. The OPCW is not part of the UN, but it is closely linked to the UN, and replicates many of the UN’s failings, including the tendency to promise grand things it is simply not configured to deliver. Back in 1997, when the U.S. Senate was debating whether to ratify the chemical weapons treaty, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who served as President Reagan’s ambassador to the UN, testified that it was “neither verifiable nor enforceable.” Looks like she had it right.

More on this in my article on “Syria’s Pals at the Chemical Weapons Convention.” And some highlights, summarized below:

– The U.S. State Department, as recently as this year, reported to Congress that Russia itself — now the proposed guarantor for Syria — is cheating on the Chemical Weapons Convention, with undeclared stockpiles.

– The OPCW has become a playground for Iran. Iran holds a seat on its executive council, and on all three main subsidiary bodies, including its budget advisory committee (which advises on a $99 million annual budget, to which the U.S. contributes 22%, or more than $20 million per year), as well as its scientific advisory group and confidentiality commission.

– It has been OPCW policy to hire Iranians onto its staff from the beginning, and in 2009 (according to a wikileaked secret U.S. cable), the French alerted the U.S. to an OPCW chemical weapons inspector — an Iranian who had previously worked for Melli Agrochemical, “a known proliferator,” with a record of buying nerve agents precursors for Iran’s defense ministry. The OPCW will not disclose whether this person is still on staff, or how many Iranians are currently working there, or in what jobs — merely that they are there, and under OPCW policy have every right to be there. As a member, Syria, like all other members, would enjoy the same privileges.

Tucked between Russia and Iran on this treaty, Assad should feel right at home.

The news of U.S. policy on Syria is, at this stage, moving in such loops and spirals that Russia — major arms supplier and supporter of the Assad regime — seems to be calling the shots. Suddenly the neutered United Nations is back in the ring, and for the average guy in Topeka, the whole thing by now probably makes about as much sense as the federal budget.

But if we might focus for a moment on the underlying issue: President Obama has been arguing that Syria’s use of chemical weapons is “a serious threat to our national security.”

There’s a good case for that, but the president and his top officials have yet to make it in a way that fits into any coherent global strategy — and yes, we live in a world of interconnected threats. Syria’s closest ally is Iran; both are clients of North Korea’s emporium of both conventional weapons and more exotic approaches to mass murder. Much entwined with their alarming ventures — doing business with them, and running diplomatic interference for them — are Russia and China. Add to that such matters as al-Qaeda and other jihadi groups, state-sponsored or otherwise, organizing the next plot to kill Americans.

Amid the president’s talk of red lines, credibility, international norms, and changing calculus, Americans have been left wondering what the commander-in-Chief actually means when he says those words.

What equations does his math include? What variables will he factor in? How does this calculus apply to other threats, red lines, rogue regimes, and violations of norms?

The White House has accused Syria’s Assad regime of a chemical weapons attack on August 21 that killed at least 1,429 people, including at least 426 children. Citing that, the president told the nation he wanted to take action against Syrian military targets: “We cannot and must not turn a blind eye to what happened in Damascus.”

Okay — but how do we then explain turning a blind eye for years to atrocities on far larger scales, inflicted not in war but as a routine matter of state policy, because that’s how the ruler stays on top?

What about a regime that, according to multiple accounts from defectors, has tested chemical weapons on its own women and children? What about a regime responsible for the deaths by politically targeted famine of an estimated million or more? What about a regime operating a gulag to which three generations of a family can be exiled for the suspected political disloyalty of a single member? What about a regime that routinely tortures, starves, and works to death those in its prison camps?

And what if that regime, while starving, torturing, and killing its own people, happens to sustain itself by selling chemical weapons, missiles, and nuclear technology (including an entire clandestine nuclear reactor, a.k.a. a plutonium factory) to the Middle East, including Syria’s regime in Damascus?

What if that regime were testing long-range missiles, and had already conducted three nuclear tests — the most recent just this past February?

Would we target them with … Dennis Rodman?

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War Weary — Really?

September 8th, 2013 - 2:40 am

“You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terrors — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

                          — Winston Churchill, House of Commons, May 13, 1940

With the Syria debate spiraling into confusion over what the president really wants to do, and whether he really wants to do it, we are hearing a lot right now about how war weary Americans are. Leading from in front in this talk is President Obama himself. On August 31, in the same statement in which he announced his decision that the U.S. “should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” he went on to say, “I know well that we are weary of war. We’ve ended one war in Iraq. We’re ending another in Afghanistan.”

He then handed the issue to Congress, left for Sweden and Russia, and upon return, in his weekly address, sounded the same note of fatigue: “I know that the American people are weary after a decade of war, even as the war in Iraq has ended, and the war in Afghanistan is winding down.”

But is war weariness really the problem? America these days has a volunteer military. They and their families have borne the real burdens of war, with almost 7,000 killed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many more injured. But, as Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson points out, the heroes who have been fighting for us are a small sliver of the American population — which now numbers more than 313 million. Samuelson gets it right on this: “For most Americans the constant combat has imposed no burdens, required no sacrifices and involved no disruptions.” He further notes that the financial cost of the two wars, while substantial, has been dwarfed over the same period by the American economy’s output of goods and services — by his calculation, based on figures of the Congressional Budget Office, war spending equaled nine-tenths of one percent of American production. There was no war tax. There has been no rationing.

Samuelson then draws inferences with which I disagree, saying that “these foreign military forays were a waste and in many respects have done more harm than good.”  But he’s quite right that if most Americans are tired and frustrated, it is for reasons other than war.

What’s wearying is the constant message from on-high that America no longer seeks to win its wars; merely to end them. What’s exhausting is the bath of euphemisms, from “overseas contingency operations” to “violent extremists” to “workplace violence.” To this we can add the grinding daily worries that come with a troubled economy, weak job market, and a growing thicket of regulations that no one seems able to contain or even keep track of. But that is not war weariness. That’s a problem of government intruding into every aspect of life, curtailing freedom at home while deflating the vision of America as a proud bulwark of freedom abroad.

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