Beware Russians Bearing Gifts

When addressing the United Nations’ General Assembly on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will surely have a swagger in his step. Thanks to his reassertion of Russian power on the world stage over the Ukrainian crisis, Putin enjoys domestic popularity that Western leaders would salivate over—despite an economy in recession and overly reliant on exporting oil and gas. On top of this, Putin can take additional delight over his ability to reshape the West’s thinking over the Syrian crisis almost overnight by deploying forces to aid President Bashar al-Assad. Putin is now offering assistance in fighting ISIS and supposedly is even willing to fight ISIS single-handedly. However, we must view this offer with deep skepticism. Often, accepting gifts from enemies is a dangerous proposition.

With over 200,000 dead and millions displaced, the Syrian civil war has devolved into arguably the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since Rwanda, and our failure to do anything substantive merits significant blame for this. Europe prefers to live in blissful decline than carry its weight in the Middle East and now faces refugee inflows unseen since the end of World War II, putting tremendous pressure on its political union. At the same time, the President failed to act when Assad crossed his red line by gassing his own people. Our effort to arm moderate rebels has been a total embarrassment; for $500 million, we have trained “4 or 5” active fighters. Considering our government lacks the competence to even count with confidence to 5, it is no wonder this training program has failed at every level.

Unfortunately, power vacuums inevitably get filled; that is the one time-tested truth of geopolitics. By abdicating our leadership role, we left space that has since been filled by ISIS, leaving us with a civil war where both sides are evil. Fight ISIS and the child-gassing Assad stays in power; fight Assad and watch an apocalyptic terrorist state reign. The moderate rebels have been all but vanquished in the cross-fire. From Syria to Ukraine to the Iran deal, the bumbling of the Obama Administration has consistently left the United States with no-win situations.

Our calls for Assad to go have virtually no credibility given our unwillingness to do anything about it. Assad’s days have supposedly been numbered for years after all. At the same time, our effort to roll back ISIS from the air alone is proving to be ineffectual. Since stopping its advance on Mosul, ISIS has regrouped, solidified its territory, and controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Containing it is simply not a viable long-term strategy, and when the White House resorts to using inaccurate intelligence, you can be sure things are not going swimmingly.

Enter Russia.

Putin needs to keep Assad in power or at least ensure that a pro-Russia government takes power. Russia has a strategically critical naval base in Tartus, providing the Navy with a year round warm water hub and a replenishment base on the Mediterranean Sea. Putin cannot allow a regime that would threaten this base take power. At the same time, having risen to power in part thanks to his aggressive response to Chechen terrorists, Putin does understand the threat Islamic extremism poses to the world and probably sees the need to crush ISIS. As such, he has moved troops, tanks, and aircraft to Syria to assist Assad. With Russian assistance, Assad can stabilize the fight and even take some territory back.

Putin is now reaching out to the President to form a joint task force to fight ISIS and resolve the Syrian Civil War. While Putin may accept Assad gradually leaving power over time, Putin wants Assad at the negotiating table, a prolonged transition, and assurances any new government will be in-keeping with Russia’s strategic interests. Make no mistake, the timing of this military buildup is not coincidental. Putin is looking to gain leverage into the UN General Assembly where he can make a triumphant return to the world stage and show his citizenry the key role he played in solving this crisis. Putin has picked the perfect time to apply pressure and force the West’s hand.

Already, our European allies are ready to sign on. Nations like Austria and France now appear willing to let Assad remain in power for some time—perhaps indefinitely.

We mustn’t strike a deal with Putin so easily as there is a significant cost. Putin sees the U.S. retreating from the world, particularly the Middle East, and he has the ability to turn Russia into the regional power. Now with its lackluster and unproductive economy, Russia can do little to project power outwardly and compete with the US by itself (though its national will and nuclear arsenal keep it from being influenced by the United States). However, Russia with one or two regional powers can form hegemonic alliances that can effectively counter US power.

We have already seen Putin pivot East, ensuring Russia will be China’s primary energy supplier for decades as he tries to ally with a rising global power and project strength in the Pacific Basin. At the same time, with $150 billion in fresh funds, an economy unshackled, and 77 million people, Iran has the potential to be the regional power in the Middle East, usurping Saudi Arabia over time. Of course, this is another nation Putin is hitching his horse to. Iraq has turned to Iran for help fighting ISIS since Obama has all but abandoned the region. Shia Iraq is quickly turning into Iran’s proxy.

Similarly, Assad is merely an Iranian proxy, and a proxy Iran needs to keep funneling Hezbollah weaponry. Assad is the key to Iran maintaining its sphere of influence throughout Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. This is the danger of inviting Russian participation in a coalition against ISIS and accepting Assad at the negotiating table. Doing so guarantees a Russian-Iranian axis that extends from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. All the while, Russia makes overtures to Egypt and Turkey, which become all the more compelling as Russian dominance in the region becomes clearer. Even without these two nations, this turn of events would be devastating for the United States, shifting the balance of power away from us in the region and isolating the Gulf States who could turn to nuclear weapons to re-balance—opening the door to an arms race in the most volatile part of the globe.

The case for accepting Putin’s offer today may he compelling in the short-term. 2,000 Russian troops would help in the fight against ISIS, and since we have dithered for so long, there is no viable moderate opposition anymore. This makes our position that Assad must go less tenable—there is no one who can replace him. But to strike a deal with Putin today is to ensure Russian influence in the Middle East only grows over time as the balance shifts towards the Russian-Iranian axis. Plus working with him likely weakens Europe’s resolve to maintain sanctions over Ukraine, which will provide his economy with much needed oxygen.

Are we really prepared to welcome Vladimir Putin back to the world stage as the central dealmaker and risk ceding regional influence to him? A weak-willed Europe unwilling to do anything to actually deal with ISIS and Syria is. The United States should not be. Instead of striking the proverbial deal with the devil, the US should fight to win against ISIS, re-engage with Iraq, deploy 10-15,000 ground troops, roll back ISIS, and pry Iraq back away from Iran. Then with ISIS on the run into Syria, we again have leverage over Putin and can resolve the situation there in a more advantageous fashion. Yes, this strategy is more costly today than Putin’s offer of expedient assistance but it will pay dividends in years to come as Russia remains the outsider looking in at the Middle East.

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Boehner Must Go

While exiting the Presidential race, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker called on others to step aside and allow the field to narrow. Sometimes, the best thing a leader can do is step away and let someone else step forward. While I doubt many Presidential contenders will be heeding Walker’s call, I hope Speaker John Boehner does. The time has come for Boehner to go.

Once again, we stand at the precipice of a government shutdown (a mere nine days away), and Boehner seems paralyzed, unable to find a compromise that could appease his conservative critics while netting Obama’s signature. This is a situation Republicans repeatedly find themselves in as deadlines approach—forced to fold at the last moment or risk politically unpopular shutdowns instead of crafting some sort of tenable strategy. Now in many ways, I feel sympathy for Boehner. There is a group of around 30 uncompromising republicans (known as the Freedom Caucus), constantly causing him problems. He is then forced to grovel for Democrats’ vote to pass bills the President will sign. It truly is an unenviable job. However, it is a job best suited for someone else.

For a leader to be effective, he or she needs buy-in from the troops. A great plan only works when those who have to execute on it believe in it. Great leaders from Churchill to Patton to Martin Luther King earned and built respect, loyalty and trust amongst their soldiers, citizens, and followers. Without that, even the most well thought-out plans are doomed to failure. This is where the rationale for a continued Boehner speakership collapses. Boehner does not face an ideological deficit; he lacks trust, primarily over tactics. Boehner has a history of being opposed to abortion and Planned Parenthood, of opposing Obamacare (those who doubt his conviction should re-watch his moving speech opposing passage as Minority Leadership), and supporting fiscal sanity.

Boehner wants to separate the Planned Parenthood funding issue from keeping the government open, and Freedom Caucus members recognize that once separated out, President Obama will veto an effort to defund Planned Parenthood if the Senate is able to move on it (unlikely). By the same token, attach it to a continuing resolution, and Senate democrats or Obama again block it, shutting down the government. In reality, the Democrats are responsible for shutting down the government to keep open an organization in the business of brutally ending the lives of potential human beings to sell the body parts for profit. However, the media will blame republicans—that is unfair but is the reality of the world we live in. Plus given our push for smaller government, shutdowns (which are politically unpopular) tend to be blamed on republicans by voters. Heading into a critical election year, the GOP cannot afford too much of a hit to its brand and will be forced to cave, reopening the government and funding Planned Parenthood after a few days or weeks.

This is the problem of the Boehner speakership. He says the right things but is unable to accomplish almost anything. After winning re-election in 2012, Obama had no incentive to work with republicans. It has left me wondering what the point of winning control of Congress was. Since 2013, has Boehner been able to push through a single significant conservative priority? No. Anything would be vetoed by Obama, even after republicans retook the Senate. Seemingly, the only value in controlling congress is blocking Obama from doing bad stuff, but as showcased by the enactment of the Iran deal, Republicans don’t even wield that power particularly well!

Now, some conservatives can be guilty of over-promising; for instance, it was disingenuous of Senator Cruz to argue that shutting down the government would lead to the repeal of Obamacare. No President is going to repeal their signature law. However, Boehner has been unable to craft a strategy to net any major victories. His ineptitude has cost him the trust of several dozen members, and with the House GOP divided, there is even less leverage when dealing with Obama.

Fighting over government shutdowns is risky business, and conservatives should focus their battles elsewhere. Controlling congress can limit the damage an incompetent President can do, but when he is unwilling to compromise, congress alone cannot accomplish much. This reality underpins how critical the 2016 election is; to achieve conservative objectives and not merely block liberal ones, we need to win back the White House. Election pledges that all we needed was a Republican congress to reset the course of the nation have been proven patently false.

As such, John Boehner has lost the confidence of many members and the public. Since Obama’s reelection, he has been unable to achieve any meaningful goals and has been consistently outmaneuvered by democrats, leaving the party only days away from government-funding deadlines. Rather than trying to craft an intelligent alternative (ie suspend the $528 million in PP funding pending an investigation of their activities and allocated $1.5 billion to responsible providers of women’s healthcare, thereby forcing Obama to turn down an extra billion if he wants to support this horrible organization), he has left the party in a no-win situation: either be blamed for a government shutdown and eventually cave or fund Planned Parenthood.

It is time for Boehner to do the right thing for party and country and step aside. The House could pass a short-term (3 month) continuing resolution and find a Speaker whom both conservatives and moderates can trust to act principally with strategies that can actually deliver small victories (conservatives need to be realistic about the chance for major policy victories in the final year of Obama’s Presidency). I would suggest someone like Paul Ryan or Tom Price with conservative credibility, gravitas, and an ability to keep the House operating. We need a leader that members can trust; members like Ryan and Price have already earned that trust unlike Boehner. Switching leaders would go a long way towards reunifying the Republican caucus.

John Boehner has served his country well and should be respected for his service, but now is the time for new blood. He has failed to deliver any conservative victories, has a mixed record in terms of blocking Obama’s agenda, has lost credibility amongst a growing portion of the caucus, and has failed to devise any strategy to get things done without butting against politically unfriendly deadlines. Having to scrounge for Democratic votes is not a plausible strategy for the next 16 months. Instead, we need a Speaker whom conservatives can trust to employ the proper tactics and still keep the House in order. Boehner is no longer that Speaker. It is time for a fresh face.

Kim Davis Is No Conservative Hero

As the seemingly endless Kim Davis saga continues to play out, I have been struck by two entirely predictable phenomenon. First, the mainstream media has used this controversy to marginalize Christians and people of faith as behind-the-times if not hateful. Unfortunately, the mainstream media isn’t changing anytime soon, and conservatives and Christians just have to deal with unceasing bias and abuse. Second, I have found it interesting but entirely unsurprising that Ms. Davis is a Democrat, as that party is often the one lacking empathy and placing too much power in the hands of the government. Sadly, some conservatives have taken up her cause by making what amounts to a weak freedom of religion argument in defense of her action.

To be conservative is to support the limitation of the state’s power over its citizenry; each individual bureaucrats’ powers should be tightly restricted and regulated to ensure equal treatment and limit cronyism. Whether interacting with Official A or B, you should get the same outcome. Placing inordinate power in the hands of public officials is the hallmark of leftist authoritarian regimes where members of the government decide what job you have or in extremes whether you live or die—just ask those who refused to toe the party line in the Soviet Union. Placing unnecessary discretion in the hand of public officials gives the state power over its people.

We have seen this transpire on a small scale in the United States. Depending on what city you live in, some immigration laws are enforced while others are ignored, leading to horrible tragedies like Kate Steinle’s death. Our President blatantly ignores immigration laws, single-handedly rewrites EPA policies, and premised his signature law around the idea that government officials were best suited to determine what should be covered in healthcare insurance plans. Conservatives rightly balk at these measures because they concentrate more power in an inefficient, corrupt federal government. Together, these actions give the state more power over the people, bringing us closer to the tyranny we have spent centuries fighting against.

This brings us to the case of Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis who does not want to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, citing religious differences. Ms. Davis has been critical of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that legalized gay marriage, and for good reason! Justices Roberts, Scalia, and others have made persuasive arguments against the ruling’s legal logic. However, we cannot have a system where every government employee chooses which court ruling to apply and which to ignore. That would lead to total anarchy. If the Supreme Court over-reached, our constitution provides a path to rectify the situation. The legislative branch can craft new laws to nullify the ruling or if necessary amend the constitution, but until Congress acts, government employees need to respect the Court’s decisions. To act otherwise and let officials ignore rulings would essentially doom the Judiciary to irrelevancy and give the executive virtually unchecked power.

That leaves Davis with only a religious liberty argument—her religion teaches that same-sex unions are morally wrong and so she cannot be a party to one. Some conservatives have gravitated to this argument in recent days, but I fear they do so because they agree with Davis on gay marriage without thinking through the consequences. After all, the government does not rule on the wisdom of religious beliefs, it must protect and respect all sincerely held beliefs equally. If someone sincerely feels inter-racial marriages are against religious convictions, could they deny a license? If someone felt second marriages were immoral, should they be allowed to deny all licenses to divorced individuals?

Moreover, many religions stress fidelity and other requirements. Should each county clerk be allowed to ask prying questions to prospective couples to ensure the marriage meets that clerk’s own standard? Do we want government officials really exerting that much control over Americans, particularly over an issue as important and personal as marriage? The government, and by extension its officials, should not be prying into intimate details of its citizens private lives. There are likely religious issues with many marriages that have been approved by Davis and others; it just so happens the issues are more visible with gay couples. Should we treat gay couples differently because the potential religious issues are just harder to hide?

In the end, we as a society need to balance two rights, first, Davis’ right to believe what she wants, and every American’s right to purse happiness, including after the Supreme Court’s ruling, gay people’s right to marry. It is a delicate act, and throwing Davis in jail was clearly unnecessary. While I can see the pull to support Davis on religious grounds, this only concentrates more power in the hand of the government, giving officials more power and discretion. I ask: would President Obama’s immigration actions be any less lawless if they were driven by religious motivations? Government officials need to enforce all laws, even those they disagree with, to avoid cronyism and the concentration of power. Ultimately, the rights of the public have to outweigh the rights of government officials for an official can always resign but the public can’t just find a new, freer country.

Conservatives should be fighting for individuals’ freedom, rather than siding with Ms. Davis and putting more power in the hands of the government. This is really a battle about the role of government in our lives not about religious freedom. In my relatively short life as a young gay man, I have found conservatives and the Republican Party to be the champions of openness and acceptance, and democrats the party of division and intolerance. That is because conservatives see the uniqueness and beauty in each individual rather than in a central state. I just hope conservatives turn away from Davis’s antics and return to these roots.

Unfortunately, incidents like this can easily be used to unfairly caricature the party as having outdated if not bigoted beliefs. It is time for the real Republican Party to stand-up, the big tent that believes in fair play and the innate decency of all people with a government that does not involve itself unnecessarily in private lives or private markets. This is the party I’ve come to know and support. Given how younger Americans, democrat and republican alike, feel about same-sex marriage, certain members of the Republican Party needs to stop their knee-jerk reactions to incidents like this one if we are to be a viable, national party in coming years. Fortunately, the politically wise stance that Davis should issue licenses is also in keeping with true conservative principles: that the government and its officials serve the people not the reverse. It is time for Ms. Davis to serve all of her constituents, including those seeking same-sex marriage licenses, and if she doesn’t want to do that, she should step aside.