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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Paul Singer, Influential Billionaire, Throws Support to Marco Rubio for President

From The New York Times:

One of the wealthiest and most influential Republican donors in the country is throwing his support to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a decision that could swing millions of dollars in contributions behind Mr. Rubio at a critical point in the Republican nominating battle.

The decision by the donor, Paul Singer, a billionaire New York investor, is a signal victory for Mr. Rubio in his battle with his rival Jeb Bush for the affections of major Republican patrons and the party’s business wing.
It comes as a major blow to Mr. Bush, who is seeing his once vigorous campaign imperiled by doubts among supporters, and whose early dominance of the race was driven by his financial muscle. Mr. Bush and several other candidates, including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, had competed fiercely for Mr. Singer’s blessing.


As challengers close in, a different Donald Trump is revealed

From The Washington Post:

A new Donald Trump showed up here this week.
Gone were the withering attacks on his Republican rivals, the obsessive discussion of his poll numbers and another spate of bombshell remarks.

Trump instead focused on more fully introducing himself to voters at an hour-long rally here, underscoring a subtle maturation for a presidential candidate trying to move the spotlight away from his booming reality-TV personality.

Absent from Trump’s speech was the usual blizzard of barbs about his opponents, such as questioning Carson’s religion, mocking Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) for profusely sweating or accusing former Florida governor Jeb Bush of being “low energy.” Trump instead praised Rubio and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) for their strong debate performances the previous night. The only time he mentioned Carson was to describe how they partnered up to pressure CNBC to limit the debate length.

And Trump thanked former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who barely made it onto the debate stage, for defending him the night before when debate moderators asked the governor to comment on Trump’s morals.

[Worth the read, I promise.] Spy vs. Spy: Inside the Fraying U.S.-Israel Ties - Distrust set allies to snoop on each other after split over Iran nuclear deal; each kept secrets

From The Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. closely monitored Israel’s military bases and eavesdropped on secret communications in 2012, fearing its longtime ally might try to carry out a strike on Fordow, Iran’s most heavily fortified nuclear facility.

Nerves frayed at the White House after senior officials learned Israeli aircraft had flown in and out of Iran in what some believed was a dry run for a commando raid on the site. Worried that Israel might ignite a regional war, the White House sent a second aircraft carrier to the region and readied attack aircraft, a senior U.S. official said, “in case all hell broke loose.”

The two countries, nursing a mutual distrust, each had something to hide. U.S. officials hoped to restrain Israel long enough to advance negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran that the U.S. had launched in secret. U.S. officials saw Israel’s strike preparations as an attempt to usurp American foreign policy.

Instead of talking to each other, the allies kept their intentions secret. To figure out what they weren’t being told, they turned to their spy agencies to fill gaps. They employed deception, not only against Iran, but against each other. After working in concert for nearly a decade to keep Iran from an atomic bomb, the U.S. and Israel split over the best means: diplomacy, covert action or military strikes.

Personal strains between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu erupted at their first Oval Office meeting in 2009, and an accumulation of grievances in the years since plunged relations between the two countries into crisis.

This Wall Street Journal account of the souring of U.S.-Israel relations over Iran is based on interviews with nearly two dozen current and former senior U.S. and Israeli officials.

U.S. and Israeli officials say they want to rebuild trust but acknowledge it won’t be easy. Mr. Netanyahu reserves the right to continue covert action against Iran’s nuclear program, said current and former Israeli officials, which could put the spy services of the U.S. and Israel on a collision course.

A shaky start

Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu shared common ground on Iran when they first met in 2007. Mr. Netanyahu, then the leader of Israel’s opposition party, the right-wing Likud, discussed with Mr. Obama, a Democratic senator, how to discourage international investment in Iran’s energy sector. Afterward, Mr. Obama introduced legislation to that end.

Suspicions grew during the 2008 presidential race after Mr. Netanyahu spoke with some congressional Republicans who described Mr. Obama as pro-Arab, Israeli officials said. The content of the conversations later found its way back to the White House, senior Obama administration officials said.

Soon after taking office in January 2009, Mr. Obama took steps to allay Israeli concerns, including instructing the Pentagon to develop military options against Iran’s Fordow facility, which was built into a mountain. The president also embraced an existing campaign of covert action against Iran, expanding cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency and Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.

Mossad leaders compared the covert campaign to a 10-floor building: The higher the floor, they said, the more invasive the operation. CIA and Mossad worked together on operations on the lower floors. But the Americans made clear they had no interest in moving higher—Israeli proposals to bring down Iran’s financial system, for example, or even its regime.

Some covert operations were run unilaterally by Mossad, such as the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, according to U.S. officials.

The first Oval Office meeting between Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu, in May 2009—weeks after Mr. Netanyahu became prime minister—was difficult for both sides. After the meeting, Mr. Obama’s aides called Ron Dermer, Mr. Netanyahu’s adviser, to coordinate their statements. Mr. Dermer told them it was too late; Mr. Netanyahu was already briefing reporters. “We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘I guess we’re not coordinating our messages,’ ” said Tommy Vietor, a former administration official who was there.

In 2010, the risk of covert action became clear. A computer virus dubbed Stuxnet, deployed jointly by the U.S. and Israel to destroy Iranian centrifuges used to process uranium, had inadvertently spread across the Internet. The Israelis wanted to launch cyberattacks against a range of Iranian institutions, according to U.S. officials. But the breach made Mr. Obama more cautious, officials said, for fear of triggering Iranian retaliation, or damaging the global economy if a virus spread uncontrollably.

Israel questioned whether its covert operations were enough, said aides to Mr. Netanyahu. Stuxnet had only temporarily slowed Tehran’s progress. “Cyber and other covert operations had their inherent limitations,” a senior Israeli official said, “and we reached those limitations.”

Mr. Netanyahu pivoted toward a military strike, raising anxiety levels in the White House.

The U.S. Air Force analyzed the arms and aircraft needed to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and concluded Israel didn’t have the right equipment. The U.S. shared the findings, in part, to steer the Israelis from a military strike.

The Israelis weren’t persuaded and briefed the U.S. on an attack plan: Cargo planes would land in Iran with Israeli commandos on board who would “blow the doors, and go in through the porch entrance” of Fordow, a senior U.S. official said. The Israelis planned to sabotage the nuclear facility from inside.

Pentagon officials thought it was a suicide mission. They pressed the Israelis to give the U.S. advance warning. The Israelis were noncommittal.

“Whether this was all an effort to try to pressure Obama, or whether Israel was really getting close to a decision, I don’t know,” said Michéle Flournoy, who at the time was undersecretary of defense for policy.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, was moving toward diplomacy. In December 2011, the White House secretly used then-Sen. John Kerry to sound out Omani leaders about opening a back channel to the Iranians.

At the same time, the White House pressed the Israelis to scale back their assassination campaign and turned down their requests for more aggressive covert measures, U.S. officials said.

The president spoke publicly about his willingness to use force as a last resort to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon—“I don’t bluff,” Mr. Obama said in March 2012—but some of Mr. Netanyahu’s advisers weren’t convinced.

In early 2012, U.S. spy agencies told the White House about a flurry of meetings that Mr. Netanyahu convened with top security advisers. The meetings covered everything from mission logistics to the political implications of a military strike, Israeli officials said.

Warning signs

U.S. spy agencies stepped up satellite surveillance of Israeli aircraft movements. They detected when Israeli pilots were put on alert and identified moonless nights, which would give the Israelis better cover for an attack. They watched the Israelis practice strike missions and learned they were probing Iran’s air defenses, looking for ways to fly in undetected, U.S. officials said.

New intelligence poured in every day, much of it fragmentary or so highly classified that few U.S. officials had a complete picture. Officials now say many jumped to the mistaken conclusion that the Israelis had made a dry run.

At the time, concern and confusion over Israel’s intentions added to the sense of urgency inside the White House for a diplomatic solution.

The White House decided to keep Mr. Netanyahu in the dark about the secret Iran talks, believing he would leak word to sabotage them. There was little goodwill for Mr. Netanyahu among Mr. Obama’s aides who perceived the prime minister as supportive of Republican challenger Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign.

Mr. Netanyahu would get briefed on the talks, White House officials concluded, only if it looked like a deal could be reached.

The first secret meeting between U.S. and Iranian negotiators, held in July 2012, was a bust. But “nobody was willing to throw it overboard by greenlighting Israeli strikes just when the process was getting started,” a former senior Obama administration official said.

Israeli officials approached their U.S. counterparts over the summer about obtaining military hardware useful for a strike, U.S. officials said.

At the top of the list were V-22 Ospreys, aircraft that take off and land like helicopters but fly like fixed-wing planes. Ospreys don’t need runways, making them ideal for dropping commandos behind enemy lines.

The Israelis also sounded out officials about obtaining the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, the U.S. military’s 30,000-pound bunker-busting bomb, which was designed to destroy Fordow.

Mr. Netanyahu wanted “somebody in the administration to show acquiescence, if not approval” for a military strike, said Gary Samore, who served for four years as Mr. Obama’s White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction. “The message from the Obama administration was: ‘We think this is a big mistake.’ ”

White House officials decided not to provide the equipment.

Messrs. Obama and Netanyahu spoke in September 2012, and Mr. Obama emerged convinced Israel wouldn’t strike on the eve of the U.S. presidential election.

By the following spring, senior U.S. officials concluded the Israelis weren’t serious about a commando raid on Fordow and may have been bluffing. When the U.S. offered to sell the Ospreys, Israel said it didn’t have the money.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who championed a strike, said Mr. Netanyahu had come close to approving a military operation against Iran. But Israel’s military chiefs and cabinet members were reluctant, according to Israeli officials.

While keeping the Omani talks secret, U.S. officials briefed the Israelis on the parallel international negotiations between Iran and major world powers under way in early 2013. Those talks, which made little headway, were led on the U.S. side by State Department diplomat Wendy Sherman.

Robert Einhorn, at the time an arms control adviser at the State Department, said that during the briefings, Mr. Netanyahu’s advisers wouldn’t say what concessions they could live with. “It made us feel like nothing was going to be good enough for them,” Mr. Einhorn said.

U.S. spy agencies were monitoring Israeli communications to see if the Israelis had caught wind of the secret talks. In September 2013, the U.S. learned the answer.

Yaakov Amidror, Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser at the time, had come to Washington in advance of a Sept. 30 meeting between Messrs. Netanyahu and Obama.

On Sept. 27, Mr. Amidror huddled with White House national security adviser Susan Rice in her office when she told him that Mr. Obama was on the phone in a groundbreaking call with Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani.

Mr. Amidror had his own surprise. During a separate meeting in the Roosevelt Room, he told several of Mr. Obama’s top advisers that Israel had identified the tail numbers of the unmarked U.S. government planes that ferried negotiators to Muscat, Oman, the site of the secret talks, U.S. officials said.

Mr. Amidror, who declined to comment on the White House discussions, said that it was insulting for Obama administration officials to think “they could go to Oman without taking our intelligence capabilities into account.” He called the decision to hide the Iran talks from Israel a big mistake.

U.S. officials said they were getting ready to tell the Israelis about the talks, which advanced only after Mr. Rouhani came to office. During the Sept. 30 meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, the president acknowledged the secret negotiations. The secrecy cemented Israel’s distrust of Mr. Obama’s intentions, Israeli officials said.

Mr. Samore, the former White House official, said he believed it was a mistake to keep Israel in the dark for so long. Mr. Einhorn said: “The lack of early transparency reinforced Israel’s suspicions and had an outsize negative impact on Israeli thinking about the talks.”

Israel pushed for the U.S. to be more open about the Iran negotiations. Ms. Rice, however, pulled back on consultations with her new Israeli counterpart, Yossi Cohen, who took over as Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.

In exchanges with the White House, U.S. officials said, Mr. Cohen wouldn’t budge from demanding Iran give up its centrifuges and uranium-enrichment program. Israeli officials said they feared any deviation would be taken by the U.S. as a green light for more concessions.

In one meeting, Mr. Cohen indicated Mr. Netanyahu could accept a deal allowing Iran to keep thousands of centrifuges, U.S. officials said. Soon after, Mr. Cohen called to say he had misspoken. Neither side was prepared to divulge their bottom line.

In November 2013, when the interim agreement was announced, Mr. Samore was in Israel, where, he said, the Israelis “felt blindsided” by the terms. U.S. officials said the details came together so quickly that Ms. Sherman and her team didn’t have enough time to convey them all. Israeli officials said the Americans intentionally withheld information to prevent them from influencing the outcome.

Listening in

As talks began in 2014 on a final accord, U.S. intelligence agencies alerted White House officials that Israelis were spying on the negotiations. Israel denied any espionage against the U.S. Israeli officials said they could learn details, in part, by spying on Iran, an explanation U.S. officials didn’t believe.

Earlier this year, U.S. officials clamped down on what they shared with Israel about the talks after, they allege, Mr. Netanyahu’s aides leaked confidential information about the emerging deal.

When U.S. officials confronted the Israelis over the matter in a meeting, Israel’s then-minister of intelligence said he didn’t disclose anything from Washington’s briefings. The information, the minister said, came from “other means,” according to meeting participants.

Ms. Sherman told Mr. Cohen, Israel’s national security adviser: “You’re putting us in a very difficult position. We understand that you will find out what you can find out by your own means. But how can we tell you every single last thing when we know you’re going to use it against us?” according to U.S. officials who were there.

Mr. Netanyahu turned to congressional Republicans, one of his remaining allies with the power to affect the deal, Israeli officials said, but he couldn’t muster enough votes to block it.

U.S. officials now pledge to work closely with their Israeli counterparts to monitor Iran’s compliance with the international agreement.

But it is unclear how the White House will respond to any covert Israeli actions against Iran’s nuclear program, which current and former Israeli officials said were imperative to safeguard their country.

One clause in the agreement says the major powers will help the Iranians secure their facilities against sabotage. State Department officials said the clause wouldn’t protect Iranian nuclear sites from Israel.

Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA, said the U.S. and Israel could nonetheless end up at odds.

“If we become aware of any Israeli efforts, do we have a duty to warn Iran?” Mr. Hayden said. “Given the intimacy of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, it’s going to be more complicated than ever.”

RNC suspends partnership with NBC in fallout over chaotic CNBC debate

Below is from a letter to NBC from RNC Chairman Reince Priebus suspending its partnership with NBC News for an upcoming presidential debate in February over CNBC's handling of Wednesday night's Republican forum boiled over.  The letter is from The Washington Post, which noted in part:

Wednesday's aftermath turned CNBC's hosts, including John Harwood and Becky Quick, into figures of conservative infamy. Some progressives were stunned by the backlash's speed. "CNBC is a business network, where the monologue that launched the Tea Party happened," . . .

Part of the letter to NBC noted:

CNBC billed the debate as one that would focus on “the key issues that matter to all voters—job growth, taxes, technology, retirement and the health of our national economy.” That was not the case. Before the debate, the candidates were promised an opening question on economic or financial matters. That was not the case. Candidates were promised that speaking time would be carefully monitored to ensure fairness. That was not the case. Questions were inaccurate or downright offensive. The first question directed to one of our candidates asked if he was running a comic book version of a presidential campaign, hardly in the spirit of how the debate was billed.
While debates are meant to include tough questions and contrast candidates’ visions and policies for the future of America, CNBC’s moderators engaged in a series of “gotcha” questions, petty and mean-spirited in tone, and designed to embarrass our candidates. What took place Wednesday night was not an attempt to give the American people a greater understanding of our candidates’ policies and ideas.
I have tremendous respect for the First Amendment and freedom of the press. However, I also expect the media to host a substantive debate on consequential issues important to Americans. CNBC did not.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

How CNBC actually messed up Wednesday’s GOP debate

From The Washington Post:

Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate became as much about the journalists who moderated it as it was about the candidates who answered — or batted away — their questions.

The moderators, their questions and their lack of control over a fractious field of candidates jostling for airtime became a central part of the debate’s narrative. And the shower of criticism that followed illustrated how powerfully anti-media rhetoric can resonate with the Republican base.

The debate’s host, cable network CNBC, gave them plenty of material. Moderators John Harwood, Becky Quick and Carl Quintanilla were under fire starting Wednesday night and stretching well into Thursday for their stewardship of the two-hour debate.

They repeatedly clashed with the candidates while asking questions. On several occasions, they seemed to lack the confidence to challenge false assertions. They asked some small-bore questions.

And they regularly interrupted the candidates or talked over them in a way that seemed to rob them of control and contributed to a free-for-all atmosphere.

The audience was more akin to that of a daytime talk show, booing moderator questions and cheering when candidates criticized CNBC.

The debate was supposed to be focused on economic issues, and there was plenty of talk about tax plans, entitlement programs and other issues of substance. But some of the questions veered toward the small-bore, with queries about the candidates’ biggest perceived weaknesses, whether Trump is running the “comic book version of a presidential campaign” and even the discount retailer Costco.

Trump accused the moderators of asking “nasty” questions. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said they had missed a chance to ask questions of substance. Carson on Thursday called on his GOP rivals to help him end “gotcha” debate questions.

“You look at the questions — ‘Donald Trump, are you a comic-book villain? ‘Ben Carson, can you do math?’ ‘John Kasich, will you insult two people over here?’ ‘Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign?’ ‘Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen?’ ” Cruz said during the debate. “How about talking about the substantive questions people care about?”

Even on news shows Thursday morning, the candidates talked as much about the questions of the moderators as they did about their own performances.

Rubio groused Thursday that the questions weren’t substantive enough. In a debate that was supposed to be framed around economic issues, he said he thought the candidates would talk about issues that included taxes and plans to reduce the debt.

“I thought it was a wasted opportunity, and, quite frankly, that’s what made it unfair, not just to the candidates but to the American people,” he said.

Ben Carson Wants Debate Changes, Citing ‘Gotcha’ Debate

From The Wall Street Journal:

LAKEWOOD, Colo. – Ben Carson, angered by the tone of Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate in Boulder, said Thursday he is reaching out to other candidates to seek a change of format in future debates. 

Mr. Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has risen to the top of many GOP polls in recent weeks, objected to what he called “gotcha” questions from moderators, echoing complaints made in the course of the debate by Sen. Ted Cruz and other candidates. 

“Debates are supposed to be established to help the people know the candidates… what their philosophy is,” Mr. Carson told reporters before a morning appearance at Colorado Christian University. “What it’s turned into is a ‘gotcha’ opportunity to cast candidates in a negative light. 

“That’s silly. That’s not really helpful.” 

The debate at the University of Colorado, sponsored by CNBC, at times lapsed into a shouting match among candidates and between the candidates and the moderators. Responding to questions pressing candidates to respond to criticisms of them or inviting them to comment on their competitors, the candidates frequently bridled and sidestepped questions to deliver their stump speeches. 

The GOP audience often reacted in support of candidates’ complaints, booing questions they considered unfairly laden with negative presuppositions.  Mr. Cruz lashed out against the tone by saying, “The questions asked so far in this debate illustrate why Americans don’t trust the media… this is not a cage match.” 

Responding to complaints about the debate, a CNBC spokesman responded Wednesday night, “People who want to be president of the United States should be able to answer tough questions.” 

Candidates had already begun bridling at debate format after the second event last month. In advance of the CNBC debate Mr. Carson, Donald Trump and other candidates demanded that they be allowed to make opening statements and that the debate not run three hours, as the second debate in Simi Valley, Calif., had. 

Mr. Carson said, in a press conference before addressing an audience of more than 1,500 on campus here, said he had asked his staff to contact all other candidates, saying he would rather have a format that gave candidates more of an “opportunity to be able to lay our your plan for something, then be questioned about it.” 

He said he hoped the debate would turn into “a very important moment in American politics. It so clearly demonstrates the need for a change in format.” 

He stopped short of threatening to boycott future debates if they are not changed to his liking. 

“We will always have the conversation first,” he said. “I don’t see any reason whatever right now to be posturing.

I love it


GOP Debate Impressions - The candidates shine on entitlements despite the moderators.

From The Wall Street Journal:

• Wasn’t the Republican Party supposed to pick moderators who had some acquaintance with Republicans? We have many friends at CNBC, but the three debate moderators lost control of the proceedings from the start and never regained it. There is no surer applause line at a GOP debate than to attack the media, and the moderators walked into the trap with tendentious questions based on liberal talking points.

Jeb Bush should fire whoever advised him to go after Marco Rubio on the trivia of his Senate absenteeism. The attack was clearly planned because Mr. Bush did it even after Mr. Rubio had received applause for rebutting a hostile question on the subject from a moderator. Mr. Rubio counterpunched and easily won the round. Mr. Bush’s proposals for economic growth are the most thorough and thoughtful in the field, but he is oddly inept at debating. He should have spent his precious time making the case against Hillary Clinton and for his agenda.

Chris Christie had a good night, especially with his forthrightness on reforming entitlements. He put it in populist terms by explaining there is nothing in the trust funds but IOUs and that “the government has lied to you and stolen from you.”

 The general level of candor on entitlements from nearly all of the candidates was also a welcome sign for reform. Rand Paul said the age for receiving benefits had to be changed, and Messrs. Christie and Bush were honest in saying that benefits will have to be means-tested. This issue will be a sharp contrast with Hillary Clinton no matter who is the nominee, and GOP voters should look closely at who is most effective at making the reform case.


And from this article:

Both Messrs. Rubio and Cruz made the media and the debate moderators a punching bag, drawing some of the biggest applause of the night. “The questions that have been asked so far in this debate illustrate why the American people don’t trust the media,” Mr. Cruz said. “This is not a cage match.” He then went on the attack against the moderators. Among the questions that drew Mr. Cruz’s ire were one asking Donald Trump whether he was running “a comic book version” of a campaign, and one to Mr. Rubio asking why he shouldn’t resign from the Senate, given his absence from votes.

It wasn’t just Mr. Cruz. Mr. Rubio brushed off questions about his missing votes in the Senate as a story driven by the mainstream media. “It’s actually evidence of the bias that exists today in the America media today,” he said. Chris Christie got his own dig in at the media when moderator John Harwood interrupted him in the midst of an answer. “Even in New Jersey, what you’re doing is called rude,” the governor said.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Ex-Im Bank, GOP leadership allies launch rebellion of their own

From The Washington Post:

A small but powerful band of House Republicans rebelled against party leadership Monday night, a near-constant theme of Speaker John A. Boehner’s tenure the past five years.

Except these rebels didn’t comprise the usual 30 to 40 staunch conservatives who have agitated Boehner (R-Ohio) and helped prompt his decision a month ago to resign at the end of this week. This time an even larger bloc of Republicans who are reliable votes for the leadership team linked arms with Democrats for a highly unusual bid to revive an export subsidy agency that the conservatives had shut down over the summer.

Seething at the Export-Import Bank’s expiration, 62 Republicans voted with 184 Democrats Monday on a rarely used procedure to force a vote to reopen the bank with some modest reforms. Once the mainstream conservatives got the legislation to a final vote, the far-right flank was routed as a majority of Republicans supported renewal of the bank, which passed on a vote of 313 to 118.

Final passage will be Tuesday, sending the legislation to the Senate, where its outcome is unclear but where it counts the support of almost 70 of 100 senators.

It was a remarkable turnabout for the several dozen establishment Republicans, who have seen their agenda largely stymied by the House’s right flank. Yet the renewal of Ex-Im’s charter largely became possible because the right wing had so much success in helping oust Boehner and blocking the ascension of his top deputy, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

Counting the expected support of all 188 Democrats, Fincher’s group of Republicans needed 40 GOP signatures to reach the magic number of 218 to force a vote on Ex-Im.

These petition efforts almost never succeed because in normal times it’s considered an act of extreme disloyalty for members of the majority to sign on with the other party over the leadership. They moved quickly enough to put the legislation on the floor before the new speaker, expected to be Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), could take the gavel later this week.

Ryan is a strong opponent of the Ex-Im Bank.

[W]ith Boehner a lame duck, Ryan not yet in charge and McCarthy losing some clout, there was no leader that could stop the establishment Republicans from a rebellion of their own.

Boehner has stayed quiet on his way out the door, but his position supporting the bank — thousands of jobs in his southwestern Ohio district are tied to its loans — has been clear all along.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Paul Ryan Confronts Dissident GOP Conservatives in Offer to Be House Speaker - Asks for party unity as the House’s Freedom Caucus has its own demands for speaker

From The Wall Street Journal:

With less than a sixth of the House’s GOP membership, the Freedom Caucus has clout because it has just enough members to effectively hold veto power in House floor votes, if most Democrats vote in opposition.
In the speaker’s election, for example, where the whole House of Representatives participates in the vote, the Republican nominee would have a hard time winning over a majority of the chamber’s 435 members without the support of a majority of Freedom Caucus members. That is because Democrats typically back their own candidate, meaning the Republican would need to win a majority of the full House—218 votes if all members vote for a specific person—from within the 247-member GOP conference. Losing 40 Republican votes would make it impossible to reach a majority.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

David Brooks - Enter the Age of the Outsiders

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

As every schoolchild knows, the gravitational pull of the sun helps hold the planets in their orbits. Gravity from the center lends coherence to the whole solar system.
I mention this because that’s how our political and social systems used to work, but no longer do. In each sphere of life there used to be a few big suns radiating conviction and meaning. The other bodies in orbit were defined by their resistance or attraction to that pull.
But now many of the big suns in our world today lack conviction, while the distant factions at the margins of society are full of passionate intensity. Now the gravitational pull is coming from the edges, in sphere after sphere. Each central establishment, weakened by its own hollowness of meaning, is being ripped apart by the gravitational pull from the fringes.
The same phenomenon can be seen in many areas, but it’s easiest to illustrate in the sphere of politics, both global and domestic.
In the 1990s, the central political institutions radiated confidence, derived from an assumed vision of the post-Cold War world. History would be a slow march toward democratic capitalism. Nations would be bound in peaceful associations like the European Union. The United States would oversee a basic international order.
This vision was materialistic and individualistic. Nations should pursue economic growth and a decent distribution of wealth. If you give individuals access to education and opportunity, they will pursue affluence and personal happiness. They will grow more temperate and “reasonable.”
Since 2000, this vision of the post-Cold War world has received blow after blow. Some of these blows were self-inflicted. Democracy, especially in the United States, has grown dysfunctional. Mass stupidity and greed led to a financial collapse and deprived capitalism of its moral swagger.
But the deeper problem was spiritual. Many people around the world rejected democratic capitalism’s vision of a secular life built around materialism and individual happiness. They sought more intense forms of meaning. Some of them sought meaning in the fanaticisms of sect, tribe, nation, or some stronger and more brutal ideology. In case after case, “reasonableness” has been trampled by behavior and creed that is stronger, darker and less temperate.
A group of well-educated men blew up the World Trade Center. Fanatics flock to the Middle East to behead strangers and apostates. China’s growing affluence hasn’t led to sweetening, but in many areas to nationalistic belligerence. Iran is still committed to its radical eschatology. Russia is led by a cold-eyed thug with a semi-theological vision of his nation’s destiny. He seeks every chance to undermine the world order.
The establishments of the West have not responded to these challenges by doubling down on their vision, by countering fanaticism with gusto. On the contrary, they’ve lost faith in their own capacities of understanding and action. Sensing a loss of confidence in the center, strong-willed people on the edges step forward to take control.
This happens in loud ways in the domestic sphere. The uncertain Republican establishment cannot govern its own marginal members, while those on the edge burn with conviction. Jeb Bush looks wan but Donald Trump radiates confidence.
The Democratic establishment no longer determines party positions; it is pulled along by formerly marginal players like Bernie Sanders.
But the big loss of central confidence is in global governance. The United States is no longer willing to occupy the commanding heights and oversee global order. In region after region, those who are weak in strength but strong in conviction are able to have their way. Vladimir Putin in Crimea, Ukraine and the Middle East. Bashar al-Assad crosses red lines in Syria. The Islamic State spreads in Syria and Iraq. Iranian proxy armies roam the region.
Republicans blame Obama for hesitant and halting policies, but it’s not clear the foreign policy and defense apparatus believes anymore in its own abilities to establish order, or that the American public has any confidence in U.S. effectiveness as a global actor.
Where is this all heading? Maybe those on the fringes of politics really will take over. Say hello to President Ted Cruz. Writing in The American Interest, Joshua Mitchell of Georgetown argues that we are heading toward an “Age of Exhaustion.” Losing confidence in the post-Cold War vision, people will be content to play with their private gadgets and will lose interest in greater striving.
I only have space to add here that the primary problem is mental and spiritual. Some leader has to be able to digest the lessons of the last 15 years and offer a revised charismatic and persuasive sense of America’s historic mission. This mission, both nationalist and universal, would be less individualistic than the gospel of the 1990s, and more realistic about depravity and the way barbarism can spread. It would offer a goal more profound than material comfort.

In Defense of Christendom - Having ignored its inheritance, Europe wonders why its house is falling apart.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meet in Istanbul, Oct. 18.

Bret Stephens writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The death of Europe is in sight. Still hazy and not yet inevitable, but nevertheless visible and drawing nearer—like a distant planet in the lens of an approaching satellite. Europe is reaching its end not because of its sclerotic economy, or stagnant demography, or the dysfunctions of the superstate. Nor is the real cause the massive influx of Middle Eastern and African migrants. Those desperate people are just the latest stiff breeze against the timber of a desiccated civilization.

Europe is dying because it has become morally incompetent. It isn’t that Europe stands for nothing. It’s that it stands for shallow things, shallowly. Europeans believe in human rights, tolerance, openness, peace, progress, the environment, pleasure. These beliefs are all very nice, but they are also secondary.

What Europeans no longer believe in are the things from which their beliefs spring: Judaism and Christianity; liberalism and the Enlightenment; martial pride and capability; capitalism and wealth. Still less do they believe in fighting or sacrificing or paying or even arguing for these things. Having ignored and undermined their own foundations, they wonder why their house is coming apart.

What is Europe? It is Greece not Persia; Rome not Carthage; Christendom not the caliphate. These distinctions are fundamental. To say that Europe is a civilization apart is not to say it is better or worse. It is merely to say: This is us and that is you. Nor is it to say that Europe ought to be a closed civilization. It merely needs to be one that doesn’t dissolve on contact with the strangers it takes into its midst.

That’s what makes the diplomacy of Angela Merkel, undisputed regent of European foreign policy, so odd and disconcerting. The German chancellor leads a party called the Christian Democratic Union, one of the chief purposes of which is to rally the German right to a reasonable conservatism.

Yet there she was in Istanbul on Sunday, offering a deal in which Europe would agree to visa-free travel for Turks in Europe starting next year, along with quicker movement on Turkish membership in the European Union, if only Ankara will do more to resettle Syrian and other refugees in their own country. Europe would also foot the bill.

This is machtpolitik in reverse, in which the chancellor is begging small favors from weaker powers on temporary matters in exchange for broad concessions with far-reaching ramifications. There are 75 million Turks, whose per capita income doesn’t match that of Panamanians. The country is led by an elected Islamist with an autocratic streak, prone to anti-Semitic outbursts, who openly supports Hamas, denies the Armenian genocide, jails journalists in record numbers, and orchestrates Soviet-style show trials against his political opponents. Turkey also has borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran. These would become Europe’s borders in the event of Turkish membership.

This is the country Ms. Merkel proposes to bring into the bosom of Europe. Her apologists will say she’s being disingenuous, but that only compounds the disgrace of her overture.

It also compounds the danger. Could Europe’s liberal political traditions, its religious and cultural heritage, long survive a massive influx of Muslim immigrants, in the order of tens of millions of people? No. Not given Europe’s frequently unhappy experience with much of its Muslim population. Not when you have immigrant groups that resist assimilation and host countries that make only tentative civic demands.

And not when a heedless immigration policy, conducted in fits of moral self-congratulation, leads to the inevitable reaction. In Switzerland on Sunday, a plurality of voters cast ballots for the Swiss People’s Party, known mainly for its anti-immigrant stance. Its sister parties throughout Europe are also the political beneficiaries of the migrant influx, trafficking on legitimate grievances against the postmodern state to peddle illiberal cures. Few things are as dangerous to democracy as a populist with half a case.

It says something about the politics of our day that this column will be condemned as beyond the moral pale. Such is the tenor of the times that it is no longer possible to assert without angry contradiction that Europe cannot be Europe if it is not true to its core inheritance. This is the marriage of reason and revelation that produced a civilization of technological mastery tempered by human decency.

“It is commendable that the West is trying to be more open, to be more understanding of the values of outsiders, but it has lost the capacity for self-love,” a prominent German theologian noted about a decade ago. “All that it sees in its own history is the despicable and the destructive; it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure. What Europe needs is a new self-acceptance, a self acceptance that is critical and humble, if it truly wishes to survive.”

That’s Joseph Ratzinger, better known as Benedict XVI. He’s out of fashion, which makes him that much more worth hearing.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Party Bridles at Her Open-Door Migrant Policy - Decision to let migrants in puts German leader on collision course with party

From The Wall Street Journal:

Ms. Merkel’s decision last month to open the borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa has put her on a collision course with many in her party, facing the seemingly invulnerable German leader with one of her toughest political challenges since she rose to power a decade ago. With as many as 10,000 migrants still pouring in everyday, mostly into the conservative stronghold of Bavaria in Germany’s south, even some of the chancellor’s allies are growing strident in their criticism.

They say Ms. Merkel is out of touch and without a plan, warning that what could be more than a million migrants this year will overwhelm Germany’s public services, security, and culture. And they are puzzled and rankled by a leader who built up her power with a calm and crowd-pleasing pragmatism, but now appears guided as never before by personal conviction.

Yet she has stuck to her core message that Germany is financially, economically and morally strong enough to weather the challenge. In her television interview, she said it was an illusion to think the country could close itself to the migrants.

“How is this supposed to work? You cannot close the borders,” she said. “We can’t put an end to the arrivals.”

“That’s obviously wrong,” said Hans-Peter Uhl, a conservative Bavarian lawmaker. “If Obama were to open the border with Mexico, he’d be impeached on ground of mental illness.”

“The disagreement is fundamental,” said Michael Stübgen, a CDU lawmaker who has sat in parliament since 1990. “Our capacities are exhausted and there is concern that the system will implode if we do not regain control of our borders. But the chancellor disagrees and so the conflict is unsolved.”

For now, Ms. Merkel retains the grudging support of most of her lawmakers. She is still among Germany’s most popular politicians and one with unique cross-party appeal. But for the man with the poster—and many CDU members across the country—she has become a liability.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fareed Zararia: Stop swooning over Putin

Fareed Zararia writes in The Washington Post:

Vladimir Putin has the United States’ foreign policy establishment swooning. One columnist admires the “decisiveness” that has put him “in the driver’s seat” in the Middle East. A veteran diplomat notes gravely, “It’s the lowest ebb since World War II for U.S. influence and engagement in the region.” A sober-minded pundit declares, “Not since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago has Russia been as assertive or Washington as acquiescent.”

It’s true that it has been a quarter-century since Moscow has been so interventionist outside its borders. The last time it made these kinds of moves, in the late 1970s and 1980s, it invaded Afghanistan and interfered in several other countries as well. Back then, commentators similarly hailed those actions as signs that Moscow was winning the Cold War. How did that work out for the Soviet Union?

Washington’s foreign policy elites have developed a mind-set that mistakes activity for achievement. They assume that every crisis in the world can and should be solved by a vigorous assertion of U.S. power, preferably military power. Failure to do so is passivity and produces weakness. By this logic, Russia and Iran are the new masters of the Middle East. Never mind that those countries are desperately trying to shore up a sinking ally. Their clients, the Alawites of Syria, are a minority regime — representing less than 15 percent of the country’s people — and face deadly insurgencies supported by vast portions of the population. Iran is bleeding resources in Syria. And if Russia and Iran win, somehow, against the odds, they get Syria — which is a cauldron, not a prize. The United States has been “in the driver’s seat” in Afghanistan for 14 years. Has that strengthened America?

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe’s major powers were scrambling to gain influence in Africa, the last unclaimed land on the globe. All but one nation: Germany. Its steely-eyed chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, believed that such interventions would drain Germany’s power and divert its focus away from its central strategic challenges. When shown a map of the continent to entice him, he responded, “Your map of Africa is all very fine, but my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia and here is France, and we are in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Imagine if today’s interventionists had their way and President Obama escalated force and the Assad regime fell. What would be the outcome? Here are some clues. Washington deposed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq (Syria’s next-door neighbor, with many of the same tribes and sectarian divides). It did far more in Iraq than anyone is asking for in Syria, putting 170,000 soldiers on the ground at the peak and spending nearly $2 trillion. And yet, a humanitarian catastrophe has ensued — with roughly 4 million civilians displaced and at least 150,000 killed. Washington deposed Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya but chose to leave nation-building to the locals. The result has been what the New Yorker calls “a battle-worn wasteland.” In Yemen, the United States supported regime change and new elections. The result: a civil war that is tearing the country apart. Those who are so righteous and certain that this next intervention would save lives should at least pause and ponder the humanitarian consequences of the last three.

In Niall Ferguson’s intelligent and sympathetic biography of Henry Kissinger’s early life, I was struck by how today’s mood resembles that of the 1950s. We now think of that decade as the United States’ high-water mark, but at the time, the country’s foreign policy elites were despairing that Washington was passive and paralyzed in the face of Soviet activism. “Fifteen years more of [such] a deterioration of our position in the world,” Kissinger wrote in opening his 1961 book “The Necessity for Choice,” “would find us reduced to Fortress America in a world in which we had become largely irrelevant.” A few years earlier, in the book that launched his career, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” Kissinger had advocated the tactical use of nuclear arms to have some way to respond to Soviet activism. And Kissinger was one of the most sober-minded and intelligent of the lot.

The 1950s abounded with what seem in retrospect deeply dangerous proposals designed to demonstrate U.S. vigor — including deposing Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, military confrontations in Hungary and the use of nuclear weapons over Taiwan. Pundits were outraged that North Vietnam and Cuba had gone communist while the United States just sat and watched.

In the midst of this clamor for action, one man, President Dwight Eisenhower, kept his cool, even though it sank his poll numbers. (The Kennedy/Johnson administration ended the passivity, notably in Cuba and Vietnam, with disastrous results.) I believe that decades from now, we will be glad that Barack Obama chose Eisenhower’s path to global power and not Putin’s.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hope fades on Obama’s vow to bring troops home before presidency ends

From The Washington Post:

In meeting after meeting this spring and summer, President Obama insisted that the last American troops in Afghanistan would return home by the end of his presidency, definitively ending the longest war in American history.

Obama and his closest foreign policy advisers laid out the reasons for his military commanders. Keeping as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely at a cost of as much as $10 billion to $15 billion a year wasn’t politically feasible or financially responsible. There were more pressing domestic priorities that needed money. The country faced bigger threats.

Then, in August, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came in with one more plan to maintain a counterterrorism force of as many as 5,000 troops in Afghanistan to prevent a reemergence of al-Qaeda and to battle Islamic State fighters seeking a foothold in the country. Dempsey’s plan was a quick, back-of-the-envelope exercise, according to senior administration officials.

This time, though, Obama didn’t dismiss it. “I think that’s an argument that can be made to the American people,” Obama said, according to a senior administration official who took part in the meeting and who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Obama had come to office with a deep skepticism of the U.S. military’s ability to bring order to broken and chaotic societies. His experiences over the course of his two terms in office had reinforced his instincts to the point that the phrase “no military solution” had become a mantra that he deployed not just to describe Afghanistan, but a half-dozen other conflicts in places like Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

This is Obama’s mind-set as he weighs a decision on whether to leave troops in Afghanistan past his presidency. It is a choice that would contravene a long-held personal desire and central tenet of his election campaigns — a definitive end to the wars he had inherited. His struggle shows how a president who once described war as an “expression of human folly” has come to wield force on battlefields where America’s interests often seem peripheral to him and where its enemies are brutal and determined.

Similar dilemmas had consumed his predecessors. Bill Clinton, after an agonizing debate, didn’t deploy troops to stop genocide in Rwanda, but he dispatched U.S. forces to halt ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. In the wake of 9/11, George W. Bush sought to stamp out the terror threat by toppling governments and trying to build democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama has defined American interests more narrowly than Bush or Clinton, convinced that the country’s biggest and costliest mistakes over the past 50 years have been the product of American military overreach.

His hesitancy to commit U.S. forces is especially evident in the way he talks about America’s military might. “His rhetoric is not in the traditional American vein,” said Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and history professor at Boston University. “It comes from a different place — one of ambivalence, complexity and a reluctance to sound crusading notes.”

Obama has launched military strikes in seven countries. He ended a war in Iraq only to recommit thousands of American troops there when Islamic State insurgents routed the U.S.-trained Iraqi army in Mosul. A few weeks later, he ordered the U.S. military to start bombing Islamic State strongholds in Syria.

Afghanistan has been the one constant that spans his two terms in office. As an inexperienced president, Obama decided to send more than 50,000 American troops into Afghanistan in an attempt to blunt the Taliban’s momentum, bolster the Afghan army and improve the prospects for reconciliation in a country that had experienced three decades of civil war.

Nearly seven years later, the leaders of Afghanistan’s new unity government were still feuding, Afghan security forces were losing ground to insurgents and the prospects for reconciliation with the Taliban seemed bleak.

In early October, Obama summed up one of the biggest lessons he’s taken from America’s interventions in these fractured societies. “What we’ve learned over the last 10, 12, 13 years is that unless we can get the parties on the ground to agree to live together in some fashion, then no amount of U.S. military engagement will solve the problem,” Obama said at a news conference.

What kind of difference could U.S. troops make in such deeply divided and chaotic countries? What were the risks of leaving? These were the questions that Obama would have to answer in Afghanistan. They were the sorts of questions that had come to define his presidency.

One year ago, Obama laid out his philosophy for how and when to use American military power in a carefully constructed speech at the U.S. Military Academy.

He had touched on the subject in previous addresses: before sending troops to Afghanistan, launching airstrikes in Syria, plunging the U.S. military back into Iraq. The subject had been the focus of his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize address and a major speech on drone warfare.

The speech at West Point was supposed to be the definitive word.

The United States would continue to use force unilaterally “when our core interests demand it — when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger,” Obama said. This was the rationale driving Obama’s drone campaign and Special Operations raids.

These sorts of operations were low cost but limited in what they could achieve. Often they provoked fury and resentment overseas.

To bring order to places such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya and Iraq, the United States needed to train allies on the ground, Obama said. The centerpiece of the president’s strategy to address this larger problem was a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund that would help the nation recruit, train and equip local forces.

Today the strategy that Obama outlined at West Point is in tatters. Congress gave Obama only $1.3 billion of the $5 billion he requested in 2015 to train local partners. Senior congressional staffers complained that the White House and Pentagon could never explain how and where they planned to spend all that money.

Even when there was money to build local forces, America’s allies, many of whom were beholden to corrupt or sectarian governments, frequently lacked the will to fight. Three weeks after Obama’s West Point speech, lightly armed Islamic State rebels seized Mosul, crushing Iraqi army units that had been the recipients of years of training and billions in aid and equipment. Then U.S.-backed forces in Yemen fell apart when that country dissolved into civil war. In Syria, the $500 million U.S. training and equipment program has produced only four trained fighters.

Why Bernie Sanders isn’t going to be president, in five words

Chris Cillizza writes in The Washington Post:

Here's an exchange from Bernie Sanders's appearance on "Meet the Press" on Sunday:

CHUCK TODD: Are you a capitalist?

BERNIE SANDER: No. I'm a Democratic Socialist.
And, in those five words, Sanders showed why — no matter how much energy there is for him on the liberal left — he isn't getting elected president.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Must reading: America’s Fading Footprint in the Middle East - As Russia bombs and Iran plots, the U.S. role is shrinking—and the region’s major players are looking for new ways to advance their own interests

Yaroslav Trofimov (don't know of him, but he has done one hell of a job on this balanced story) writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Despised by some, admired by others, the U.S. has been the Middle East’s principal power for decades, providing its allies with guidance and protection.

Now, however, with Russia and Iran thrusting themselves boldly into the region’s affairs, that special role seems to be melting away. As seasoned politicians and diplomats survey the mayhem, they struggle to recall a moment when America counted for so little in the Middle East—and when it was held in such contempt, by friend and foe alike.

“It’s the lowest ebb since World War II for U.S. influence and engagement in the region,” said Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat who served as the Obama administration’s ambassador to Afghanistan and before that as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan.

From shepherding Israel toward peace with its Arab neighbors to rolling back Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and halting the contagion of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the U.S. has long been at the core of the Middle East’s security system. Its military might secured critical trade routes and the bulk of the world’s oil supply. Today, the void created by U.S. withdrawal is being filled by the very powers that American policy has long sought to contain.

“If you look at the heart of the Middle East, where the U.S. once was, we are now gone—and in our place, we have Iran, Iran’s Shiite proxies, Islamic State and the Russians,” added Mr. Crocker, now dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “What had been a time and place of U.S. ascendancy we have ceded to our adversaries.”

Of course, the U.S. retains a formidable presence across the greater Middle East, with some 45,000 troops in the region and deep ties with friendly intelligence services and partners in power from Pakistan to Morocco. Even after U.S. pullbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s military might in the region dwarfs Russia’s recent deployment to Syria of a few dozen warplanes and a few thousand troops. And as the Obama administration has argued, it isn’t these disengagements but the regional overstretch under President George W. Bush that undermined America’s international standing.

Still, ever since the Arab Spring upended the Middle East’s established order in 2011, America’s ability to influence the region has been sapped by a growing conviction that a risk-averse Washington, focused on a foreign-policy pivot to Asia, just doesn’t want to exercise its traditional Middle Eastern leadership role anymore.

“It’s not American military muscle that’s the main thing—there is a hell of a lot of American military muscle in the Middle East. It’s people’s belief—by our friends and by our opponents—that we will use that muscle to protect our friends, no ifs, ands or buts,” said James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. “Nobody is willing to take any risks if the U.S. is not taking any risks and if people are afraid that we’ll turn around and walk away tomorrow.”

This perception seems to be gaining traction in the region, where traditional allies—notably Israel and the Gulf monarchies—feel abandoned after the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran. Many regional leaders and commentators compare Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unflinching support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ruthless regime with Washington’s willingness to let go of its own allies, notably Egypt’s longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The phrase “red line” now often elicits knowing smirks, a result of the president’s U-turn away from striking Syria after the Assad regime’s horrifying sarin-gas attack in 2013.

By focusing Moscow’s latest bombing raids on moderate Syrian rebels trained by the Central Intelligence Agency, with nary an American effort to protect them, Mr. Putin has showcased the hazards of picking the U.S. side in this part of the world.

“Being associated with America today carries great costs and great risks,” said Emile Hokayem, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Bahrain. “Whoever you are in the region, you have a deep grudge against the United States. If you are in liberal circles, you see Obama placating autocratic leaders even more. And if you are an autocratic leader, you go back to the issue of Mubarak and how unreliable the U.S. is as an ally. There is not one constituency you will find in the region that is supportive of the U.S. at this point—it is quite stunning, really.”

The Obama administration’s pivot away from the Middle East is rooted, of course, in deep fatigue with the massive military and financial commitments made by the U.S. since 9/11, above all after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: Since 2001, at least $1.6 trillion has been spent, according to the Congressional Research Service, and 6,900 U.S. troops have been killed in the region.

“We couldn’t have gone in more flat-out than we did in Iraq, and not only didn’t it work, it made things even worse. That’s something to keep in mind when talking about Syria,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former State Department official.

By scaling down its Middle East commitments, he added, the Obama administration has rightly recognized the limitations of U.S. power in a perennially turbulent region: “The difference is not whether you have peace, it’s whether Americans are involved in the lack of peace.”

Such reluctance to get involved also reflects the overall mood of the American public, argued Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank close to the administration.

“It’s not really about ‘exhaustion’ from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I see it a bit more as pragmatism—many Americans look back on the past 15 years of U.S. engagement in the Middle East, and they see a meager return on investment when it comes to stability. So there’s a natural skepticism,” he said.

For now, the American public isn’t paying much of a price for the erosion of the country’s standing in the Middle East. The U.S. hasn’t suffered a major terrorist attack on its homeland since 2001. Oil prices remain low. The millions of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq are flooding into neighboring countries and, increasingly, Europe, not into distant America. And while the region is aflame, with five wars now raging between Libya and Afghanistan, U.S. soldiers no longer die daily on its remote battlefields.

But U.S. disengagement still has long-term costs—even if one ignores the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, where more than 250,000 people have died and more than half the population has fled their homes. With the shale revolution, the U.S. may no longer be as dependent on Middle Eastern oil, but its allies and main trading partners still are. Islamic State’s haven in Iraq and Syria may let it plot major terrorist attacks in Europe and the U.S. And the American pullback is affecting other countries’ calculations about how to deal with China and Russia.

The White House disputes the notion that the U.S. is losing ground in the Middle East. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama said that Russia’s attacks on anti-Assad forces were made “not out of strength but out of weakness” and warned that Moscow would get “stuck in a quagmire.”

“We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia,” Mr. Obama added. “This is not some superpower chessboard contest.”

But for the past several decades, the Middle East has indeed been a geopolitical chessboard on which the U.S. carefully strengthened its positions—nurturing ties with such disparate friends as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Pakistan and Turkey to thwart the ambitions of Moscow and Tehran, Washington’s main regional rivals.

On the eve of the Arab Spring in 2011, Russia had almost no weight in the region, and Iran was boxed in by Security Council sanctions over its nuclear program. The costly U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had hardly brought stability, but neither country faced internal collapse, and the Taliban had been chased into the remote corners of the Afghan countryside. Many people in the Middle East chafed at America’s dominance—but they agreed that it was the only game in town.

Dramatic developments in recent weeks—from Russia’s Syrian gambit to startling Taliban advances in Afghanistan—highlight just how much the region has changed since then.

The Syrian deployment, in particular, has given Mr. Putin the kind of Middle Eastern power projection that, in some ways, exceeds the influence that the Soviet Union enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s. Already, he has rendered all but impossible plans to create no-fly zones or safe areas outside the writ of the Assad regime—and has moved to position Russia as a viable military alternative that can check U.S. might in the region.

“What Putin wants is to establish a sort of co-dominion with the U.S. to oversee the Middle East—and, so far, he has almost succeeded,” said Camille Grand, director of the Fondation pour la recherché stratégique, a French think tank.

Russia’s entry has been welcomed by many in the region—particularly in Iraq, a mostly Shiite country where the U.S. has invested so much blood and treasure—because of mounting frustration with the U.S. failure to roll back Islamic State.

More than a year after President Obama promised to “degrade and ultimate destroy” Islamic State, the Sunni militant group remains firmly in control of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. In May, it seized Ramadi, another crucial Iraqi city. Islamic State—also known as ISIS—is spreading across the region, rattling countries from Afghanistan to Libya to Yemen.

“What’s been the result of this American coalition? Just the expansion of ISIS,” scoffed retired Lebanese Maj. Gen. Hisham Jaber, who now runs a Beirut think tank.

Iraqi officials and Kurdish fighters have long complained about the pace of the U.S. bombing campaign against Islamic State and Washington’s unwillingness to provide forward spotters to guide these airstrikes or to embed U.S. advisers with combat units. These constraints have made the U.S. military, in effect, a junior partner of Iran in the campaign against Islamic State, providing air cover to Iranian-guided Shiite militias that go into battle with portraits of the Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei plastered on their tanks.

Iraq has already lost a huge chunk of its territory to Islamic State, and another calamity may be looming further east in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s recent seizure of the strategic city of Kunduz, which remains a battleground, suggests how close the U.S.-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani has come to strategic defeat. Its chances of survival could dwindle further if the Obama administration goes ahead with plans to pull out the remaining 9,800 U.S. troops next year.

“If the Americans decide to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan, what has happened in Kunduz will happen to many other places,” warned Afghan lawmaker Shinkai Karokhail.

Further afield, U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan has already driven Central Asian states that once tried to pursue relatively independent policies and allowed Western bases onto their soil back into Moscow’s orbit.

“It’s obvious that what’s happening in Afghanistan is pushing our countries closer to Russia. Who knows what America may come up with tomorrow—nobody trusts it anymore, not the elites and not the ordinary people,” said Tokon Mamytov, a former deputy prime minister of Kyrgyzstan who now teaches at the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavic University in Bishkek.

Among America’s regional allies, puzzlement over why the U.S. is so eager to abandon the region has now given way to alarm and even panic—and, in some cases, attempts at accommodation with Russia.

The bloody, messy intervention in Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies stemmed, in part, from a fear that the U.S. is no longer watching their backs against Shiite Iran. These Sunni Arab states could respond even more rashly in the future to the perceived Iranian threat, further inflaming the sectarian passions that have fueled the rise of Islamic State and other extremist groups.

The Gulf states “are acting more independently than we have seen in the last 40 years,” said Abdulhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the United Arab Emirates.

Even Israel is hedging its bets. Last year, it broke ranks with Washington and declined to vote for a U.S.-sponsored U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian annexation of Crimea. In recent days, Israel didn’t criticize the Russian bombardment in Syria.

So how deep—and how permanent—is this deterioration of the U.S. ability to shape events in the Middle East?

“The decline is not irreversible at all,” said retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who served in 2009-13 as NATO’s supreme allied commander and is now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He argues that a boost in aid, exercises and engagement with the Gulf states and Israel, as well as a larger commitment to fighting Islamic State and helping the moderate Syrian opposition, could undo the recent damage.

But others have concluded that the Middle East’s Pax Americana is truly over. “Whoever comes after Obama will not have many cards left to play,” said Mr. Hokayem. “I don’t see a strategy even for the next president. We’ve gone too far.”