Frank Rich on the National Circus: Even Neocons Disagree on Mideast Intervention

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Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: Mubarak is released from prison, the Syrian government unleashes a horrific attack, the Obama administration plays damage control on the NSA, and the city's newspapers diss Spitzer.

This has been another historically terrible week for the remnants of the Arab Spring. In Egypt, the military-appointed government released the totalitarian former president Hosni Mubarak from prison to house arrest even as it continues to hold Mubarak’s democratically chosen successor, Mohamed Morsi. In Syria, rebels reported that the government had attacked them with chemical weapons. With the exception of Libya, the Obama administration has remained on the sidelines during the Middle East upheavals of the last two years. Is it time for the U.S. to get more involved?
It’s easy to say we should get more involved, and almost everyone does. But there is zero agreement as to how, and you can’t act on an impulse as opposed to a plan. Do we add serious support to the Syrian rebels — assuming, no doubt correctly, that Assad’s government is indeed guilty of the latest round of slaughter — and risk empowering our Islamist enemies? (It was particularly galling to hear John McCain say this week that such an intervention would come at “very little cost” — essentially the same prediction he made about the war in Iraq.) Do we stand up against the murderous military regime in Egypt and call its coup by its rightful name, a coup? It’s morally the right thing to do — but it also means going against the express lobbying of our ally Israel, which abhors the Muslim Brotherhood and wants the generals to stay in place. It’s a measure of how little American consensus there is about these and other questions that both political parties are divided on what to do and how to do it. In the GOP, for instance, it’s not just the neocon interventionists versus the neo-isolationists, but now neocon versus neocon, with Elliott Abrams and John Bolton taking diametrically opposite positions in dueling Wall Street Journal op-ed pieces this week. As for the centrist Establishment, we have the sage Thomas Friedman, who is essentially praying in print for some “Third Way” compromise to materialize in the midst of this chaos. Meanwhile, the American public that would have to pay in blood and treasure for any intervention isn’t engaged at all. We all know what happens when America pushes into foreign intervention without public support or, in this case, even knowledge. For those who fault Obama’s passive leadership on these issues — and often with reason — where are the alternative leaders in either party or in Congress who might rally American action? 

Yesterday the Obama administration released a classified Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court ruling that chastised the NSA for compiling domestic communications with no connection to terrorism. The government has touted this as a sign that they are serious about NSA oversight. Is this a smart PR move on their part? And is there any reason we should be convinced that the NSA is being properly managed?
The answers are no and no. The Obama administration's release of this secret court’s 2011 rebuke of the NSA struck me as a desperate PR move and substantively meaningless — a crumb thrown out in the dead of August with the hope that it might placate NSA (and Obama) critics and somehow distract from the continuing revelations of domestic spying spewing forth from the Edward Snowden cache. (And not just from Snowden and his journalistic outlets, the Guardian and Washington Post; this week the Journal also had its own investigative scoop, the discovery that NSA programs cannot just vacuum up e-mail addresses and other metadata but can also monitor three quarters of all U.S. online traffic, whether by Internet phone or e-mail.) And certainly the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court is no watchdog: That one 2011 wrist-slap aside, the court has been stacked (by John Roberts) with conservatives, including most recently José Cabranes, a nominal Democrat whose views are in line with original Bush-Cheney privacy invasions.

The New York Times, Post, and Daily News all endorsed city comptroller candidate Scott Stringer over the weekend, each paper making it clear it was loathe to see Eliot Spitzer back in office. Still, polls show Spitzer trouncing Stringer. Will the Stringer endorsements make a difference? Or does Spitzer's charisma, celebrity, and money guarantee his comeback?
This is what New York City politics have come to in this race among some of the dullest candidates on the planet: We can actually use charisma in the same sentence as Spitzer. I share the three papers’ preference for Scott Stringer in the comptroller race, but particularly these days I doubt that the supposed influence of print editorial pages can overcome Spitzer’s celebrity and money. What’s amazing is that Weiner, by the far the most “charismatic” of the mayoral candidates, was for a time this-close to pulling off a similar coup in that race. And no wonder: Watching last night’s mayoral debate, the jolt of a Weiner texting reference was about the only time you felt you hadn’t stumbled into a City Council meeting on zoning regulations.  

Since leaving the State Department, Hillary Clinton has been raking in serious bucks on the speaking circuit. Her latest engagement, Politico reports, will be as featured speaker at a conference hosted by the private-equity firm the Carlyle Group. Earlier this month, you wrote about D.C's cozy, favor-trading, influence-peddling culture and how it had metastasized during the Clinton years. Does Hillary's choice of post-office gigs concern you?
It is kosher for a former public official to speak for whatever the market will bear. But if he — or she — goes back through the public-private revolving door to run for office again, than every fee must be vetted to see if those writing the checks could have been seeking a quid pro quo. But speaking fees are the least of the issue when it comes to the Clintons. As I wrote in that piece, investigators have been on the case of two close Hillary (and Bill) Clinton associates caught in potential ethical conflicts: (1) Huma Abedin, the Hillary aide who went to work as a “consultant” for a private “strategic” firm run by the Clinton factotum Doug Band even as she was collecting taxpayers’ money from the State Department, and (2) Terry McAuliffe, the longtime Clinton fund-raiser and Virginia gubernatorial candidate who got into murky business with a green car company with Tony Rodham, Hillary’s brother. In the short time since my piece was published, both of these stories have proved to have longer legs. The State Department is now stonewalling both the Times and Senate investigators seeking more information about the Abedin double-interests; the SEC is looking into McAuliffe’s business. It’s true that many Clinton “scandals” have been either non-scandals or out-and-out fictions sold by their ideological opponents. But these latest are self-inflicted wounds that will continue to fester if Hillary Clinton is in fact running again for president. The simplest way to make them to go away is to stop stonewalling; you’d think that, of all politicians, the Clintons would have learned that lesson by this late date.