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The Political Animal

Discrediting Arguments on the Iran Deal

Argument and persuasion are not the same thing. An argument is a series of statements, or premises, arranged and propounded to entail a conclusion – to support a claim. Persuasion is the attempt to influence and change minds. Ideally, the former plays the major role in the latter, but in politics and policy, as in life, this is not always so. Armed robbery is an act of persuasion. The barrel of a gun makes a weak argument that its holder is entitled to your wallet, but it makes strong case that you should hand it over. At the point of a gun, one is persuaded to give up the goods.

Negotiations are persuasion, not argument. Around the negotiating table, people may seem endlessly to argue, in order to prove the justness or necessity of their positions: people need to justify themselves and they sometimes play to a public. What negotiators really do is attempt to develop in the minds of their opponents the conviction that failure to accede to demands will produce in the opponents the state of being sorry. When a negotiated settlement is reached, both sides will have, to a degree, formed this conviction with regard to the other side’s demands, traded off against their own. In this conviction, and to justify their efforts and the end result, they will present the agreement to their constituencies in just this way. No negotiating team returns to those it represents with the report that a better deal was possible, but that the team decided to settle for less.

Sometimes constituencies accept this claim, sometimes they do not. Negotiated agreements are sometimes rejected, both for good and for ill. The proof is in the further pressure applied to the other side, succumbed to in time or not, and what is lost in the process.

A negotiating team needs to persuade its voting constituency to accept the deal. It makes an argument for the agreement it reached with the other side. This argument may, and should, consist of propositions regarding the detailed substance of the agreement and how it reasonably meets the demands and needs addressed in the negotiations, all things considered. To the degree that the constituency is satisfied with the agreement, and arguments in support, on its face, there will be need for little more.

Opposition to the agreement changes everything. In the real world, opposition degrades argument. It may degrade argument in two senses, both of them manners of discrediting the argument. In one sense, argument is literally degraded in quality, as the various vested interests turn from argument proper to naked persuasion. Common to this persuasion is the effort to discredit the argument by discrediting the opponent. Poisoning the well and ad hominem attack are both fallacious forms of argument that pretend to discredit the position by attempting deceptively to discredit the person instead. There can be legitimate arguments to the person, and we see them in the debate over the Iran deal when the expertise and authority of individuals to evaluate various technical areas of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is challenged. However, mere argument to expertise is superficial, and ultimate authority is to be found in the intellectual substance of the argument.

The basest attempts to discredit the person in the arguments over the Iran deal can be seen in charges that President Obama is an appeaser or even, most vilely, antisemitc. The President and those supporting the JCPOA have been no less base in tarring opponents as war mongers, neocons, or dual-loyalist Jews. Just as supporters of President Bush, in advance of the invasion of Iraq, challenged the patriotism of those who opposed the war, supporters of President Obama, in putting forth the JCPOA, are attacking opponents’ honesty and patriotism.

Currently, New York Senator Chuck Schumer is being subjected to the lowest kinds of disreputable sliming, including from the most well-known voices for President Obama. An even lower example actually appeared in Foreign Policy, penned by Jeffrey Lewis, resorting to attacks on Schumer’s dignity as a human being.

There is another, legitimate way to discredit an argument – the actual argument, and not those offering it – and that is to discredit a fundamental premise of the argument. Next, I will attempt to discredit the single most prominent defense of the Iran deal, made by every supporter of it.

AJA

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The Political Animal

Arguments in Defense of the Iran Deal and Their Implications

There are many areas on which to focus one’s attention in the Iran deal. My own has been consistently drawn to the administration’s arguments in defense of the deal. Attended to, they are remarkably revealing in their implications about administration thinking, while not, in fact, actually being much remarked upon.

It is a tediously if necessarily repeated truism that negotiation requires compromise in positions about which the parties were previously uncompromising. Thus there will always be opportunity for absolutists not at the table to carp and condemn. Negotiators are charged with perfidy by those they represent only a little less often than battlefield turncoats. However, when the very subject of negotiation is a matter of life and death, and previously stated demands were presented as the conditions of life and death, against a foe more than hyperbolically and otherwise rhetorically malevolent, talking back concessions is a harder sell.

The administration has confidently affirmed without discomfort that the deal will protect the world from a nuclear Iran for somewhere between 10 and 15 years. As Leon Wieseltier wrote, “15 years is just a young person’s idea of a long time.” For many humanities Ph.D.s 10-15 years is about the time between that first seminar and the final granting of the degree. It is about three World Cups from now, the middle of a third presidential term after Obama leaves office, the start, looking backwards, of George W. Bush’s second term. Seem like a very long time?

Feels like a long time to junior; for mom and dad – where did the time go? For nations in geo-political historical time? Blink.

When the eyelid opens to see again, what does it see? Iran as a changed nation, no longer the active state sponsor of terrorism it remains today? If it is not changed, will an economic sanctions regime will be re-imposed, from scratch, all over again? Based upon what international will to challenge Iran to the ultimate end result that did not extend the length of the agreement this time around, when all was at last in place in an arrangement of pieces not likely to be duplicated?

Some other president will do what is necessary? What is that? Are we witnessing at the end of this long negotiation, unacknowledged, the most elaborately primed kick of the can down the road ever attempted?

The contention over a nuclear Iran has always been founded in the insistence that there be none, certainly not militarily, and this has always been the stance of President Obama. It is a position grounded only in a credible military threat. There was no such credible threat towards North Korea – a lot of bluster, but no brawn – and there is now a nuclear North Korea. The delicate balance for a leader so situated and genuinely open to, but not invested in, negotiations is how to extend the one open hand while withholding in the rear the other cocked fist. There is little doubt for other than the most uncritically devoted that Obama has not maintained this balance. For all of the drone-driven anti-terrorist mini wars he has maintained, his wise determination not to do “stupid stuff” abroad has also revealed what turned out to be the unwise bluster he would not, as in Syria, back up. It does not matter what the truth is, Obama came to be perceived by his critics and his enemies as fatally invested in the negotiations, offering just a lot of talk about “options” and “tables.”

Too often, when challenged about concessions in Geneva, the Obama-Kerry response essentially has been “you’re a fool to think you could have done better.” Sometimes that response is the knowledge of the negotiating table; other times, it is the revelation of a hand weakly played. Outside the room, we can only judge by the terms and general conditions.

When it became known that the terms of the IAEA investigations into the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s program were contained in separates agreements between the IAEA and Iran, on which the U.S. was briefed, but to which it was not privy and has no access, Secretary Moniz told the Senate committee, ‘“These kinds of technical arrangements with the IAEA are as a matter of standard practice not released publicly or to other states.”

It is, said Moniz, a matter of ““customary confidentiality.”

Members of the committee were as startled by the explanation as Kerry, alongside Moniz, was stumbling in offering it. Is a negotiated nuclear containment agreement with an internationally aspirant, totalitarian theocratic state “standard practice” and a “customary” matter?

“This is the way the agency works with countries,” Moniz also said. “If countries choose to make the documents public, then the IAEA of course can do so.”

Which is it, then, that we are to understand?

That the U.S. did not demand as a condition of the agreement that Iran authorize the IAEA to make the documents, not public, but available to the P-5?

Or that the U.S. did make the demand, Iran rejected it, and the U.S. accepted that rejection?

Would Iran have scuttled the deal over the issue? Would it not have been telling had they been so willing?

There are multiple such puzzlements over life and death matters. There is the transformation of the “anytime, anywhere” inspections that Kerry now says he never heard of into a supposed “24” days that turn out to be many more, and the embarrassing confusions over it (see the update near the bottom).  Yet despite the array of problematic elements, the administration, which argued, then, for everyone to wait to see the agreement before challenging it, argues now that we must accept this deal or have war.

“If we walk away, we walk away alone,” Kerry said.

Our partners are not going to be with us. Instead, they will walk away from the tough multilateral sanctions that brought Iran to the table to begin with. Instead, we will have squandered the best chance we have to solve the problem through peaceful means.

As the administration constructed the context in which the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has been presented, the following might be argued now by Kerry about any less than satisfactory agreement:

If Congress rejects this, Iran goes back to its enrichment. The Ayatollah will not come back to the table … the sanctions regime completely falls apart.

We will have set ourselves back. I don’t know how I go out to another country if that happens and say: ‘Hey, you ought to negotiate with us,’ because they will say: ‘Well, you have 535 secretaries of state in the United States. We don’t know who we are negotiating with. Whatever deal we make always risks being overturned.

If this is so, we may ask, how has it come to be so?

But first, let us note that it was a determined, controversial course set by the White House not to treat an Iran deal as a treaty. The Senate has a constitutional, democratic role in the approval of treaties and it has nearly as long a history of rejecting them. The constitutional requirement of a two thirds vote tells us that the framers intended the treaty to require overwhelming support. It is not without precedent even for a potentially presidency-defining treaty to be rejected by the Senate. (See Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles.) In this history, and in this constitutional requirement, the nation and its founders have anticipated the critique of “you have 535 secretaries of state in the United States. We don’t know who we are negotiating with. Whatever deal we make always risks being overturned.” We have still managed to negotiate treaties.

President Obama did not want to meet Woodrow Wilson’s fate. John Kerry was clear about the motivation in his testimony to congress. The choice to frame the Iran deal as an executive agreement rather than a treaty was not academic.

“I spent quite a few years trying to get treaties through the US Senate, and frankly, it’s become physically impossible,” Kerry said. “You can’t pass a treaty anymore.”

So the administration, first, constructed a process aimed at easing the prospects of approval over the opposition of congressional opponents, then argued that skeptics should hold their comments until the deal the process intended to achieve was reached, and now that is has been reached, argues that it was the only possible deal and that the only alternative to it – the consequence of rejecting the deal – is war. It is a kind of rhetorical blackmail. It is a blackmail that utilizes, too, as its key pressure point – that threat of war – the very details it has all along diminished and even mocked coming from Benjamin Netanyahu.

Time to Breakout

In September 2012 at the United Nations, with the aid of his ball bomb and fuse chart, and calling for the establishment of “red line,” Netanyahu famously claimed,

By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.

From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb. [Emphasis added]

Netanyahu was mocked for the cartoon diagram, but as usual, too, was derided, in the later words of the Guardian, for his “alarmist tone” as someone, “who has long presented the Iranian nuclear programme as an existential threat to Israel and a huge risk to world security.”

The Guardian would then, early this year, with a Wikileaks release, headline that “Leaked cables show Netanyahu’s Iran bomb claim contradicted by Mossad.” A closer reading of the cables told a different story, but that is not the point here. A few months later, the White House offered its own, visual jab at the Israeli prime minister by sending out a tweet that used the bomb graphic.

WH mocks BN

Note that the consequences of “Without the Deal” are bad, but unspecific. Now, however, at the White House’s Iran Deal website, while sparing us a repeat of that particular graphic (maybe with good reason), the White House claims the following:

As it stands today, Iran has a large stockpile of enriched uranium and nearly 20,000 centrifuges, enough to create 8 to 10 bombs. If Iran decided to rush to make a bomb without the deal in place, it would take them 2 to 3 months until they had enough weapon-ready uranium (or highly enriched uranium) to build their first nuclear weapon.

Putting it together, to clarify, in September 2012 Netanyahu projected as late as the summer of 2013 for the completion of medium enrichment, with perhaps a few months more before the development of sufficient enriched uranium for a bomb. As a reminder, the interim agreement between the P5-1 and Iran was reached in November 2013. That is a few months after the summer of that year. According to the interim agreement, all progress in Iran’s nuclear enrichment was halted for the period of negotiations toward a more lasting agreement. Now, at the conclusion of the current negotiations, the Obama administration is warning, in rather alarmist tones, that failure to accept the JCPOA will leave the world confronting the almost immediate threat of a nuclear Iran. The timelines match, with a “few months” wiggle room, and the administration is, in other words, setting a “red line,” in the agreement itself, by warning that the consequences of a failure to accept it could be war.

The only difference in this between Netanyahu then and Obama now are the terms of the agreement and the willingness to demonize the one and lionize the other.

Declares the President:

Instead of chest-beating that rejects the idea of even talking to our adversaries, which sometimes sounds good in sound bites but accomplishes nothing, we’re seeing that strong and principled diplomacy can give hope of actually resolving a problem peacefully. Instead of rushing into another conflict, I believe that sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way must always be a last resort, and that before we put their lives on the line we should exhaust every alternative. [Emphasis added]

This disappointing distortion is more characteristic of the President’s conservative political enemies than his own customary reasoned argumentation. We do see, of course, the usual-suspect neocon chest beaters, but there are also many others, open to talk, offering good, reasoned criticisms of the deal – as well as those alternatives that the President and the Secretary of State habitually assert are absent from the critiques, but which, rather, they simply do not wish to credit.

Far from fitting the stale, auto-rhetorical charge of “rushing” to war, American policy toward Iran has involved a multi-decade effort, over three presidencies constructively to engage the Iranian government. It has included a formal acknowledgement of the CIA role in the 1953 coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the easing of a previous regime of economic sanctions. It has also consisted of an earlier offer from the George W. Bush administration that Iran rejected.

The open hand of the Clinton administration was spurned. The more generous offer of the Bush administration, when Iran was not sufficiently hurting, was spurned. There is no doubt that the current sanctions drove Iran to negotiate. The matter now in dispute is how well the U.S. played its hand at the table. The trump card in that hand was always the prospect of American, or an American-Israeli, use of force. The ideal play of a trump lies in its effective force when not used, activated by the credible threat of use. That effective force is some product of a genuine willingness to use the trump and the opponent’s belief in such willingness. What have been the presiding conditions for that belief among the Iranians? What are they now?

The former Massachusetts senator also dismissed the idea that military strikes were a realistic way of containing Iran’s nuclear potential.

“Iran has already mastered the fuel cycle,” [Kerry] said. “They have mastered the ability to produce significant amounts of fissile material. You can’t bomb away that knowledge any more than you can sanction it away.”

The tone of the administration’s pitch to Congress appears to have shifted in recent weeks from actively selling the merits of the deal to stressing the lack of viable alternatives….

Imagine the conversations this kind of talk stimulates in the covert corridors of Tehran.

So desperate is the administration in defense of its deal that is actively undermining Israel’s international position and legitimizing Iranian arguments

Said Kerry of a potential Israeli strike, “Iran would then have a reason to say, ‘Well, this is why we need the bomb.’”

Rather than defend any Israeli preemptive act as a response to the constant threat of Iranian annihilation of Israel, Kerry has framed such an act as a justification for the development of an Iranian nuclear capability.

In light of this flaccid posture, continuing pro forma declarations that “all options remain on the table” are met now by Iranian leaders with disbelief:

Kerry and other US officials “have repeatedly admitted that these threats have no effect on the will of the people of Iran and that it will change the situation to their disadvantage,” Zarif claimed.

They are even met with derision:

“The US should know that it has no other option but respecting Iran and showing modesty towards the country and saying the right thing,” Rouhani told a crowd in the western Iranian city of Sanandij on Sunday.

….

“The table they are talking about has broken legs.”

There is even reason to believe that this administration is willing, in the end, to accept a nuclear Iraq. Argued Vice President Biden,

“Imagine stopping them now in the Gulf of Aden” — referring to Iran’s backing for the Houthi insurgency in Yemen — “and stopping them if they had a nuclear weapon,” Biden said. “As bad, as much of a threat as the Iranians are now to destabilizing the conventional force capability in the region, imagine what a threat would be if we had walked away from this tight deal.”

The U.S. has not stopped Iran in the Gulf of Aden. Now it acknowledges how further disarmed it would feel before a nuclear armed Iran. And Biden here predicates that nuclear Iran as the alternative to acceptance of the current Iran deal.

Given the arguments of government officials and of many supporters in general, it is not unreasonable to question, with Iran, as it was with North Korea in a far less combustible area of the world, whether the will is actually there to prevent a nuclear Iran.

That administration officials are swinging wildly in this fight is obvious. They are throwing whatever argumentative punches they think will land, including roundhouse swings that hit their friends and hooks they launch from the knees that end on their own noses. If, in the end, they do win this fight, and the deal passes, and Iran cheats, or develops its bomb in thirteen years, the best chance to play the trump without actually slamming it on the table will have been squandered.

AJA

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Israel The Political Animal

A Second Look: Thinking Through the Iranian Dilemma

I posted the following on March 19 of last year. Nothing that has transpired since, not even the recently achieved, yet still not implemented short-term deal – which I think a basis for justified future military action just as it is, more hopefully, a foundation for peaceful resolution – has changed the balance of views contained within.

Thinking Through the Iranian Dilemma

Attempting to think through a dilemma like the threat of a nuclear Iran is like trying to make one’s way through a windstorm. For most people, who have none of the inside information of those in various official roles, or the view from the doorway of the analysts with access, all of the details that leak, and the incidental events – the assassinations, the computer viruses, the IAEA visits – are like gusts kicked up by the local geography and spiraling across the street. Not much they can tell the casual observer about stormy origins or where things are blowing. And then there are, behind the gusts, the true, prevailing winds. Each aims to sweep you away. Each blows with the intent to catch you up in its forward motion, kick up and blind you with dust as it rushes to its predestination. But the prevailing winds, with a little meteorology, are identifiable. They can be measured and accounted for.

The most notable wind is the concern of Israel and the threat it feels. A countercurrent is the suspicion of those ideologically committed to construe Israeli interests and military affairs as malevolent. A third current comes from the U.S. right. There we have those, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for whom every U.S. opportunity for significance in the world is best expressed through military action; valor, for them, has never met its better part.

Closely aligned are those on the right for whom American Exceptionalism is a bluster in adversarial relations that will huff and puff and blow your house down. More generally, there is the right’s determination to cast any approach but bombs away by Barack Obama – the most militarily adroit and successful President in a generation, surpassing in those terms any Democratic president since Truman – as weak-willed appeasement.

There are other winds still. There are those, for instance, who warn against the catastrophe of war. There are always those who warn against the catastrophe of war. They are always right. War is a catastrophe. The greatest war ever fought, in size and greatness of purpose – the Second World War – is also the greatest catastrophe the world has ever known. But to warn against war because one wisely foresees the special catastrophe of a coming war, against the conditions that would prevail in the absence of it, is a wisdom different in kind from the unvarying warning against war because what it will bring is always more easily foreseen than what will come in its absence. There will always be the Neville Chamberlains. There will always be a Cyrus Vance, not just warning with caution, but actually resigning, regardless of success or failure, because of a constitutional opposition to acting forcefully in defense of one’s interests.

There are those for whom caution is a cover for Iranian apologetics. As blustery conservatives will label Obama a naïve appeaser for having sought negotiations and not committing to war, the apologists for theocratic tyranny will claim Obama never really tried negotiations. This is a crosswind that has to smell crisp and clean, whatever the fury.

How to stand amid all these winds? How to think with a little clarity within the howling? Let’s direct an instrument.

One confusion is that of American interests and Israeli interests. Let it be reasonable to argue that they need not be identical or contrary, even while similar. Both the U.S. and Israel have reasons to oppose a nuclear Iran. How much imagination does it take to assess the concerns of Israel – so much smaller, so much closer to Iran, already set sail amid a sea of enemies – as more pressing and critical than those of the U.S.? There are many vital reasons – among them the chances of ultimate success – to wish the course and final actions of the two to be completely aligned. This reasonably leads Israel to prod the U.S. to a greater sense of urgency. Just as reasonably, the U.S. seeks to calm Israel and slow it to an American pace. Neither is wrong to do so. Their interests are similar, not identical, and this is not mathematics. If Israel, in its own assessment of its security needs, were to act unilaterally, it would not be a betrayal of U.S. alliance and support, but an independent state’s independent act in defense of its interests. Whatever the results, the U.S. would rightfully assess and respond to them in its own interests, and among those interests is the U.S.’s natural alliance with Israel and the varied reasons for it. One response is predicted by retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, a specialst in war-gaming at the National War College and elsewhere, who agrees with everyone else that despite Israel’s military mastery, it does not have the capability for a truly devastating attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

I don’t believe it possible for the US not to be pulled into finishing the job even if Iran does not choose to respond immediately.  I’ve also written a paper on the logic.

No nation is likely to be pleased to be pulled into a course of action because of the actions of another state, and it would be natural to expect a wide range of responses and for those responses to align with those prevailing winds.

What of the U.S. acting on its own, or in consort, finally, with Israel? One war gamer, the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour, reported on this exchange with an Iranian dissident.

I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” — in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.

This observation is telling in an unexpected way. Why an Israeli strike would be “10 times worse” is not just an estimation of the consequences of a strike; it is significantly an expression of the conditions of the potential cause of it. Other than a few presumed recent assassinations, Israel has no historical record comparable to that of the U.S. as an adversary and imperial power that that has harmfully interfered in Iranian life and politics. That Israel might nonetheless, in one person’s judgment, produce so much greater present enmity than even the “Great Satan” itself is an expression of just the virulent religious and cultural hatred that leads Israel to fear the threat of a nuclear Iran to begin.

But this presupposes an American willingness to perform a military strike. There are the currents that oppose it. If we leave aside Israel’s ideological and racial enemies and the Iran apologists, and we focus only on the warnings against war itself and its potential consequences, what is the meaning – what is the consequence – of accepting a nuclear Iran? It is as imaginable yet unpredictable as the course of a war that might follow from a strike. One argument is, in reality, to work from just that condition of imaginable consequences – the full range of complication, multilateral involvement, and material and economic harm – yet unpredictability: how much worse and uncontrollable the consequences could be than we can even imagine.

This is a fascinating ground for thought. The fiasco of Iraq and the long misdirection of Afghanistan after initial success fully support it. But it is always so. We never know what will come. That sounds banal. But imagine, since we are imagining, that we could have foreseen all the ends of the Second World War – the tens of millions dead, the incomparable physical destruction, with many fates only transferred from one tyranny, Nazi Germany’s, to another, that of Soviet communism. Were we able to foresee that awful price, how forcefully might so many more than just the Chamberlains have argued against the Churchills that an accommodation to circumstance – the implacability of a malevolent force – was the wiser, less awful choice. Unlike the unvarying knowledge of war’s dreadful cost, the course of accommodation, with the future always, in our imaginations, holding the possibility of better choices, is invariably less vivid and awful to that imagination.

Some argue from the example of the Cold War for the success of containment. But what is that example, truly? First, that one does not know the true meaning of unimaginable if one posits the U.S. fighting a war  – after the long second world one – against the Soviet Union, and after the Chinese entry into Korea, against China too, as MacArthur pursued. We contained the Soviet Union and China because we had no genuine choice under the circumstances to do otherwise.

Second, and in practice, that for roughly forty years only, two great adversaries held each other in a terror of mutually assured destruction, and managed by that terror not to destroy each other. For only forty years. How often might the balance of that terror easily have been thrown off? We know of instances – Cuba most notably – when this example might well have become less exemplary. Is the Cold War, a single instance only of this strategy, a lesson in the reliability of containment or the world having managed four decades of good luck – a reason to sigh in relief? How likely it all might have gone another way.

So the idea of containment rests, perhaps, on no great bedrock. More, what will the choice of it assert in practice? There is no denying what it will say, more, proclaim: that the idea of nonproliferation is dead. Of the four nations known or believed to be nuclear non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two, India and Israel, may be viewed as special, democratic cases, and Pakistan and North Korea as two nations the world has good reason to wish without the weapons, but that for strategic reasons went unopposed. All four pose a threat to the NPT regime. Now Iran stands, and has stood for some time as the prime strategic and highly publicized challenge to non-proliferation.

Iran is also not a new challenge, as some now state, regularly remarking on a “rush to war.” Undoubtedly there are older discussions, than this one – also of war gaming – by James Fallows in the Atlantic, back in December, 2004.

 Throughout this summer and fall, barely mentioned in America’s presidential campaign, Iran moved steadily closer to a showdown with the United States (and other countries) over its nuclear plans.

In June the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had not been forthcoming about the extent of its nuclear programs. In July, Iran indicated that it would not ratify a protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty giving inspectors greater liberty within its borders. In August the Iranian Defense Minister warned that if Iran suspected a foreign power—specifically the United States or Israel—of preparing to strike its emerging nuclear facilities, it might launch a pre-emptive strike of its own, of which one target could be the U.S. forces next door in Iraq. In September, Iran announced that it was preparing thirty-seven tons of uranium for enrichment, supposedly for power plants, and it took an even tougher line against the IAEA. In October it announced that it had missiles capable of hitting targets 1,250 miles away—as far as southeastern Europe to the west and India to the east. Also, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected a proposal by Senator John Kerry that if the United States promised to supply all the nuclear fuel Iran needed for peaceful power-generating purposes, Iran would stop developing enrichment facilities (which could also help it build weapons). Meanwhile, the government of Israel kept sending subtle and not-so-subtle warnings that if Iran went too far with its plans, Israel would act first to protect itself, as it had in 1981 by bombing the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak.

That’s over seven years ago.

What might be the effects of speaking openly of containment, of a policy that openly acknowledges an unwillingness to bear the burden of enforcing nonproliferation? One well publicized Iranian war game exercise was conducted at Harvard in December 2009. Well publicized was how bad the outcomes were. Less publicized was the policy pursued by the war gamers who played the U.S. roles. Wrote David Ignatius,

My scorecard had Team Iran as the winner and Team America as the loser. The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence.

From another perspective,

“We started out thinking we were playing a weak hand, but by the end, everyone was negotiating for us,” said the leader of the Iranian team, Columbia University professor Gary Sick. By the December 2010 hypothetical endpoint, Iran had doubled its supply of low-enriched uranium and was pushing ahead with weaponization.

Reports Sadjadpour of his war game,

We didn’t limit our reaction to just the Middle East. Via proxy, we hit European civilian and military outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that if past is precedent, Europe would take the high road and not retaliate. We also activated terrorist cells in Europe — bombing public transportation and killing several civilians — in the belief that European citizens and governments would likely come down hard on Israel for destabilizing the region.

He offers this further account of calculation based on perception.

But, appreciating the logic of power, we stopped just short of provoking the United States. Before the simulation, I’d often heard it said that it wouldn’t make much difference whether Israel actually got a green light from the United States to strike Iran, for Tehran would never believe otherwise.

This assessment wasn’t borne out in the simulation. The U.S. secretary of state sent us a private note telling us that the Americans did not approve the Israeli strike, and vowed to restrain Israel from attacking further — if we also exercised restraint. They tried on multiple occasions to meet with us or speak by phone, but we refused. While Washington believed that its overtures would have a calming effect on us, we interpreted them to mean that we could strike back hard against Israel — not to mention European targets — without risking U.S. retaliation, at least not immediately.

A Tel Aviv war simulation around the same time, also based on threats and sanctions, achieved similar negative results. A third war game, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, had Israel conduct a strike.

[O]ne of the Brookings war game’s major conclusions is that Israel could pay dearly for an attack on Iran.

Still,

Some members of the “Israeli” team nonetheless felt that setting back Iran’s nuclear program “was worth it, even given what was a pretty robust response,” said one participant.

Sadjadpour makes the same point.

Not unlike wars themselves, different actors drew different lessons. Those, like myself, who thought that the costs of an Israeli attack significantly outweighed the benefits, felt the results of the simulation validated their position. In the span of just a few days, our simulation had the Middle East aflame. But those who, prior to the exercise, believed that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities was a necessary risk weren’t convinced otherwise.

President Obama has well argued that the only way to ensure a lasting end to an Iranian nuclear weapons program is if the Iranians choose to give it up themselves. Regime change could increase that likelihood, but that is not foreseeable. If we accept that the Israelis are the eighty pound gorilla in this debate, they clearly accept that there is still some unspecified amount of time left to see if that end can be achieved. Every effort should be made. Suzanne Maloney of Brookings offers a complex calculus in consideration of this end. But if it fails?

Amid all the arguments pro and con, the weakest by far are any individual’s assertions, however ostensibly expert the source, of what is “unbelievable” or “irrational” as prospective action by any party or of how any party is, on the contrary, a rational actor despite supposed caricatures otherwise. The history of civilization is littered with the debris of national acts and policies no rational and moral person would have anticipated before they were committed and pursued, and the world and some peoples the loser for them. To argue, from such casual and personally held inductions about how Israel’s enemies might rationally behave, that Israeli leaders and the Jewish people, in light of both their long and recent history, should risk their very existence – again – before the nuclear power of a religiously inspired and anti-Semitic enemy is to make an argument careless of history and without moral seriousness.

Who dares cry not seventy years later of the Jew’s hysteria, and what scent is it on that wind?

That is the Israeli view. From the U.S. perspective, to commit to a nuclear Iran by confessing an unwillingness to prevent it will be to offer the most toothless face ever to grin submissively at the post-war nuclear world. The advocate of this position needs to simulate across the world the outcome of widespread nuclear proliferation at the end of any credible regime to prevent it. Or offer a credible argument for why that would not be the outcome.

AJA

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Finessing Foreign Policy

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In his testimony at yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry said,

It is also imperative that in implementing President Obama’s vision for the world as he ends more than a decade of war, we join together to augment our message to the world. President Obama and every one of us here knows that American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone. We cannot allow the extraordinary good we do to save and change lives to be eclipsed entirely by the role we have had to play since September 11th, a role that was thrust upon us.

American foreign policy is also defined by food security and energy security, humanitarian assistance, the fight against disease and the push for development, as much as it is by any single counter terrorism initiative. It is defined by leadership on life threatening issues like climate change, or fighting to lift up millions of lives by promoting freedom and democracy from Africa to the Americas or speaking out for  the prisoners of gulags in North Korea or millions of refugees and displaced persons and victims of human trafficking. It is defined by keeping faith with all that our troops have sacrificed to secure for Afghanistan.  America lives up to her values when we give voice to the voiceless. [Emphasis added]

This is one expression of the realignment away from imperial overreach that I wrote about last week in explaining why President Obama – mistakenly, I think – chose Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. It is a realignment that is imperative to America’s future, in part because it is not merely a post 9/11 international role that requires redevelopment: post 9/11 policy has merely been an extension, against a different enemy, of Cold War militarism, and two decades after the end of the cold war – how time flies – it is essential that the country envision a new international role in a new global environment.

It isn’t always necessary to enunciate  change, however. Declarations can be simplified and mistaken. By belligerent or duplicitous foes, olive branches can be taken for fig leafs. President Obama’s outreach to the Arab and Muslim worlds in his Cairo speech of June 2009 earned him and the United States exactly no credit from the elements in those regions who already despise and mistrust the U.S., and it managed to persuade others, including some allies, that Obama misunderstands the nature of some international conflicts. The choice of Hagel for Defense reinforced that perception.

Friends and foes, and those at a wary distance, will know the U.S., as always, by its actions. When the U.S. leads in the humanitarian ways Kerry spoke of, that will be clearly seen. When it leads more forcefully as an advocate, if necessary, and resource, when necessary for international actions that are truly international, when it acts militarily both shrewdly and forcefully, and only massively in true self-defense, that will be clearly seen.

A small occurrence during the committee hearing is mildly instructive. Kerry at the start was interrupted by a protester. It was an ironic moment for he who began his public career as leader of an anti-war organization invited, finally, to appear before that very committee in 1971. Under the circumstances, Kerry might not be expected to respond in any but the empathetic manner he did, respectful of the role of public protest in a democracy. It needs to be noted, though, that what the young woman shouted was nonsense.

Before the woman was pulled out of the room, she declared that “we” are killing “thousands” in the Middle East, and that the “Middle East” is “not a threat to us.” Rather a large untooled umbrella, but these days, gone from Iraq, not remotely true. The Syrians are killing thousands, tens of thousands, but she did not cry out about that. She said she is “tired of her friends in the Middle East dying” and  didn’t know if her they would be” alive the next day.” Unless her friends live in certain remote areas of Yemen, where the U.S. makes drone strikes against Al-Qaeda – but is not killing thousands – whoever is endangering her friends, it is not the U.S. She cried out that we need “peace with Iran.” We are not, of course, at war with Iran. Otherwise, she expressed no opinion on Iranian nuclear, or for that matter, civil rights policy.

Kerry, forty years ago, was protesting an actual war. He was protesting a war in which the United States was itself actually engaged. Maybe the woman would like to protest the ongoing war in Afghanistan. That at least would be coherent. But distinctions matter. Active agents. Cause and effect. Accurate numbers. Words. They all matter. And they send messages, sometimes the ones we want and sometimes not. John Kennedy learned that coming out of his Vienna Summit with Nikita Kruschev.

AJA

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Israel The Political Animal

The Hagelian Dialectic

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This commentary first appeared in the Algemeiner on January 4. Today, President Obama announced his nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense.

The Chuck Hagel trial balloon has been aloft for weeks now, not to burst or land – since its lofting was never officially acknowledged – until either he or someone else is officially nominated for Secretary of Defense. What conclusions may be drawn without tendentiousness?

Above all, we see a pattern, oft repeated, of charge and counter charge between supporters of Israel and critics of Israel and American policy toward Israel, using the same language each time, making similar tenuous accusations and identical unsubstantiated claims. It is a fake dialogue – because no genuine interchange is intended – that cannot reach a synthesis because on neither side is the true, greater argument sufficiently the focus of attention.

In detail, first, even if one is both a strong supporter of Israel and of President Obama, even if one is generally admiring of the President’s foreign policy and holds no doubt of his commitment to the security of Israel in even the ultimate circumstances, nonetheless, the weakest part of that foreign policy has regarded Israel. About Israel, the President has demonstrated the tinniest of ears and spoken with the most recurring hiccups. Even if, ultimately, he nominates someone other than Hagel, the very idea that Obama considered him will have served only to foster greater mistrust among the already mistrustful.

Gil Troy, writing at Open Zion, has done the best, most balanced writing on this subject. Perhaps overstating the case in both directions, Troy has nonetheless noted a schism in the President’s foreign policy inclinations, between McGovern and Kissinger.

The question of where Obama stands regarding Israel has often pivoted on this deeper question of which Obama shows up when doing foreign policy. His conjuring up of an American-Muslim heritage in Cairo, his dithering before supporting Iran’s Green Revolution, his historically sloppy comparisons between Palestinians and African-Americans, and his occasional “tough-love” approach to Israel, all expressed his inner McGovern—revealing how a position that appears lovely and idealistic often becomes morally myopic. But supporting Israel militarily, endorsing Israel’s defensive war against Hamas missiles, and backing Israel in the U.N., have all expressed his inner Kissinger—sprinkled with a dash of nobility and idealism worthy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Given Obama’s difficulties with the Jewish community, some unwarranted, others clearly created on his own, and there being no upside to a Hagel trial balloon and even greater downside to his actual nomination, one can only wonder, “What was he thinking?”

Second, there has been excess, as there often is in these cases, in the reaction to Hagel. Once again, the dispute has been unnecessarily and uncertainly personalized and driven by identity politics.

Let us observe, as the evidence seems clearly to suggest, that Israel and even Jews hold no special place in Chuck Hagel’s human sympathies and affections. So? How much does any randomly chosen American, Israeli, or Jew care about Ghanaians? Or the Aymara Indians of Bolivia? Everyone need not care all that much about Jews or Israel. That does not make anyone anti-Israel or even an anti-Semite, even if the occasional politically incorrect, clumsy locution escapes his lips. Yet as is often the case, some Jews and other supporters of Israel have responded to an unsympathetic political actor like Hagel with tenuous charges of animus and even anti-Semitism. This serves only to focus the debate on identity politics and group influence rather than on profound and outstanding principles.

The outstanding instance of this tendency occurred where such misbehaviors can be frequently found, somewhere in the vicinity of Bill Kristol, whether at the Emergency Committee for Israel or The Weekly Standard, which early headlined the threat of an anonymous senate aid,

Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.

The ugliest manifestation of that quote, beside its anonymity, is the charge of anti-Semite brandished as black mail threat: no honest commitment to exposing anti-Semitism just on its virtues, but only as a threat of character assassination to gain the upper hand in political warfare. Proud work, that – work that honestly earns the counter-charge of “smear” otherwise flung so carelessly and ignorantly by Israel’s programmatic Western foes.

However, in any widespread contention, there will be people who behave badly. There is no party discipline in public debate. The greater empirical truth is that such cheap resort to name-calling has been relatively rare, and most of it, if one investigates, from minor figures. Troy in his own searches discovered what I did, that when searching the Internet for “Chuck Hagel” and “anti-Semite” what one finds in overwhelming abundance are links to writing objecting to Hagel being called an anti-Semite rather than the few mostly unknown figures who have actually called him that.

This leads to a third point in detail – the nature of the response, whenever these affairs arise, from those whose program it is to criticize Israel and object to American support of Israel. First, they will decry the influence of the Israeli lobby – influence and support they wish they had themselves. Second, in the manner of the arch smear monger himself, Glenn Greenwald, they will accuse critics of someone like Hagel of smearing him, when they themselves have little understanding of, or concern for, the easy distinction between a smear and a criticism. Third, in the most extraordinary cases, such as that of Charles Freeman over three years ago, and now Hagel, portions of the foreign policy and journalism establishments will rise in defense of their now current standard bearer – this last even when, as now, it produces the incongruity of firm liberals providing very weak evidence in support of a very conservative figure they would otherwise vigorously oppose.

That incongruity, however, points us to that true, greater argument that should always be the focus in these debates, not the question of Jews and who loves them or hates them, or whether “they” have too much influence. Chuck Hagel did not need to be the second Jewish senator from Nebraska. One need be no anglophile to recognize England as a proper ally, or sacrifice one’s peeves with the French to know we would back them, again, against an intolerant aggressor. No less the South Koreans, the Aussies.

In his recent series of posts on Hagel, Steve Clemons of the Atlantic posed the following questions to a collection of experts almost universally supportive of Hagel’s foreign policy views on Israel:

Others argue that Hagel has been supportive of Israel’s interests but in a way that doesn’t make a false choice between Israel and Arab states and doesn’t compromise core US national security interests.  Do you think his views on US-Israel relations are disturbing, unconstructive and disqualifying?  Do you believe that Hagel is an enemy of Israel?  Or do you find his views, if you are familiar with them, constructive and realistic takes on US-Middle East policy?

These are all the reasonable or currently relevant questions to ask.

The suggestion itself that there is a “false choice” between Israel and, generally, the Arab States is the essential reason – and not philo or anti-Semitism – that Hagel is the wrong choice, and the defense of him mistaken. Is there a false choice between democracy and autocracy? Between modern liberalism and, often, medieval religious fanaticism? Is the there a false choice between the Enlightenment and a belief in the personal integrity of the individual – in human and civil rights on the one hand, and on the other, nations whose cultures frequently remain infected by misogyny, homophobia, and the vilest forms of anti-Semitism? The very idea that fundamental alliance with either Israel or the Arab states presents a false choice, and that such are the terms on which defenders of Hagel might offer their defense is reason alone to reject his nomination. Was it a false choice between Western Europe and the Soviet Bloc? Between South and North Korea? Kosovo and Serbia?

There is, indeed, an American foreign policy culture that has long excused the sins of the Arab world and minimized its stark differences from the Israeli state. They have had their economic or cultural reasons, or a commitment to foreign policy “realism.” But there is no reason that supporters, not only of Israel, but of all those Enlightenment and liberal democratic virtues should welcome as Secretary of Defense a man who in his policy stances has not sufficiently recognized the stark differences in this choice, or who garners his defense from others who similarly fail to recognize them.

When we hear spoken the idea that support of Israel might “compromise core US national security interests,” we must ask how it compromises US security interests to align the nation always with liberal democracies against undemocratic and repressive states. When, in the history of the United States, would anyone advocating for a cabinet position have wished to argue that the U.S. had been wrong, and had compromised core security interests by supporting allied democracies against surrounding undemocratic, repressive, and intolerant states that threatened them? Should we not now be supportive of Poland against potential threats from Russia? Australia against a terrorizing China? Which advocates of American foreign policy would deem these “false choices”?

All of these questions culminate in the proposal by Clemons that Hagel’s views might constitute “constructive and realistic takes on US-Middle East policy.” Realistic and constructive to oppose terror designation for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard? To oppose urging the EU to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization, as the U.S. has done? To oppose economic sanctions on Iran, leaving only the choices of either, ultimately, armed conflict or dangerously naive faith in the possibility of negotiated settlement without coercive influence?

It is easy to argue that Hagel misperceives the nature of contending forces in a crucial geopolitical area. His advocacy of ending sanctions against Cuba is empirically well-founded. His refusal as a senator to acknowledge the Armenian genocide (facing none of the practical exigencies of a president, perhaps, to demur), suggests a similar realism ill-founded in a commitment to historical truth and humane international values, and this curiously aligns him in the current uproar with elements of the left critical of Israel for supposedly inhumane treatment of Palestinians. But then foreign policy realism contradictorily married to an agenda other than self-interest will always produce contradiction. Thus many Israelis and supporters of Israel had no difficulty criticizing the Obama administration for not fully supporting the Mubarak tyranny even in the face of a full popular uprising against it – even as Israel rightly touts its commitment to democratic values. Thus many on the left now run to the Republican Hagel’s defense – even as they oppose nearly everything else for which he has stood.

It is not only easy to argue that Hagel is wrong on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; a strong and coherent argument can be made, on the historical evidence and the merits, that his misperception of the Middle East has broader implications worldwide. The argument can be made on its merits. To support Israel is to support democracy and liberal values. To support Israel against the repressive, intolerant, and often inhumane regimes that have hatefully and violently sought to destroy it even before its birth is to support all the virtues for which the American and Western democracies are supposed to stand – for which Western and American liberals are supposed to stand. The choice could not be starker, the implications in a post 9/11 world could not be bolder, the failure of vision through the wrong choice could not be greater.

What those committed to a wise and broad American foreign policy vision need care about is that nominees for foreign policy positions share this vision.  That is the ground, the honest and sufficient ground on which the battle should be fought. All the rest is a distraction or a cynical manipulation to other ends.

AJA

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The Political Animal

We Are Not Speechless, but Dumb before Terrorism

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I had it in mind to offer today a series of many quotations on terrorism. I thought some collection of insightful commentary on the phenomenon might be of momentary worth. What provoked the thought, it may not surprise, was yesterday’s suicide bombing in Bulgaria. The U.S is now confirming its belief, in agreement with Israel’s immediate suspicion, that the attacker was an agent of Hezbollah, under the direction of Iran, in retaliation for the assassinations of Iranian scientists working on the Iranian nuclear program.

What changed my intention was the discovery of how little – almost nothing – of any worth, it seems, has ever been said on the subject. Overwhelmingly, commentary is politically self-serving and rationalizing: how the acts that one’s enemy commits are terrorism, or conversely, how just such assertions as those – with the faith in a people’s moral rectitude and civilizational superiority being reversed (there being, you understand, in this form of political-moral conversion reaction, no non-relativistic basis on which to hold such a belief) – are their own justification for a counter or even originating, terrorism. Because terrorism, according to political analysis, is always caused. What provokes it, in contrast – social, economic, and political conditions – is spontaneously originating, or, at least, originates from some sort of (state or cultural) predatory self-directed ill: greed, the acquisition of material power. Or, to return to the first perspective, the terrorism originates in evil and the response to it is a response to evil.

These are analyses and commentaries not likely to resonate with the opposing figure. They are songs of righteousness we sing to ourselves. The deeper, more scholarly analyses, from what I read, are just that – deeper, more scholarly, yet no more successful in responding to a profound human mystification with what remains a cheap political rationalization, and I name it a rationalization rather than an explanation because social, cultural, and political answers to moral questions can never be anything else.

Not surprisingly, the volume of all the above, post 9/11, increased by several orders of magnitude. Some of what I read was written and spoken by people I otherwise admire, in one or two instances greatly. And almost nothing of what I read did not fail to diminish the speaker, for the reasons above, before the central, agonizing, and unanswerable mystery of what we mostly recognize as terrorism today: the ability, the willingness, the righteous passage to kill purposely, even one, but often large numbers of strangers, randomly and regardless of individual circumstance, who are not direct participants in any offense against the perpetrator – beyond being members of a group the perpetrator identifies as an enemy – and who are not in any way threatening the perpetrators life. Opportunistic and no more, like the fly that flew in, without plan, to your kitchen. To do this, as well, without any reasonable conviction that someday soon – if not tomorrow, then next month or year, surely within two years, or sometime close enough to breathe in like the sea air – this murder, this carnage, this impossible possible act will be raised up by a universal deliverance in something truly accomplished to a moral justification beyond that which more common people can fathom.

On the same front page of The New York Times as the Bulgaria report is the news of last night’s shooting in Colorado.

A gunman opened fire in a crowded movie theater in the Denver suburbs early Friday morning, killing at least 12 people and wounding 50 others, the local police and federal officials said.

The shooting erupted during midnight showings of “The Dark Knight Rises” at the multiplex in Aurora, Colo., where throngs had gathered, some dressed as characters from the highly anticipated Batman sequel.

For now, authorities have ruled out “terror”-related causes. So we call these different phenomena. Maybe.

When they say that mankind shall be free at last, they mean that mankind shall commit suicide. When they talk of a paradise without right or wrong, they mean the grave. They have but two objects, to destroy first humanity and then themselves. That is why they throw bombs instead of firing pistols. The innocent rank and file are disappointed because the bomb has not killed the king; but the high-priesthood are happy because it has killed somebody.”
― G.K. ChestertonThe Man Who Was Thursday

“The object of terrorism is terrorism. The object of oppression is oppression. The object of torture is torture. The object of murder is murder. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”
― George Orwell1984

 

*Update: Helpful reader Justquoting, below, informs that the Orwell quotation above is an alteration from the original, with “terrorism,” a word of the moment and decade, actually, in the book, “persecution.” Makes more sense in the context of the novel, though terrorism, I think, would fit nicely in.

AJA

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Israel The Political Animal

Thinking Through the Iranian Dilemma

Attempting to think through a dilemma like the threat of a nuclear Iran is like trying to make one’s way through a windstorm. For most people, who have none of the inside information of those in various official roles, or the view from the doorway of the analysts with access, all of the details that leak, and the incidental events – the assassinations, the computer viruses, the IAEA visits – are like gusts kicked up by the local geography and spiraling across the street. Not much they can tell the casual observer about stormy origins or where things are blowing. And then there are, behind the gusts, the true, prevailing winds. Each aims to sweep you away. Each blows with the intent to catch you up in its forward motion, kick up and blind you with dust as it rushes to its predestination. But the prevailing winds, with a little meteorology, are identifiable. They can be measured and accounted for.

The most notable wind is the concern of Israel and the threat it feels. A countercurrent is the suspicion of those ideologically committed to construe Israeli interests and military affairs as malevolent. A third current comes from the U.S. right. There we have those, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for whom every U.S. opportunity for significance in the world is best expressed through military action; valor, for them, has never met its better part.

Closely aligned are those on the right for whom American Exceptionalism is a bluster in adversarial relations that will huff and puff and blow your house down. More generally, there is the right’s determination to cast any approach but bombs away by Barack Obama – the most militarily adroit and successful President in a generation, surpassing in those terms any Democratic president since Truman – as weak-willed appeasement.

There are other winds still. There are those, for instance, who warn against the catastrophe of war. There are always those who warn against the catastrophe of war. They are always right. War is a catastrophe. The greatest war ever fought, in size and greatness of purpose – the Second World War – is also the greatest catastrophe the world has ever known. But to warn against war because one wisely foresees the special catastrophe of a coming war, against the conditions that would prevail in the absence of it, is a wisdom different in kind from the unvarying warning against war because what it will bring is always more easily foreseen than what will come in its absence. There will always be the Neville Chamberlains. There will always be a Cyrus Vance, not just warning with caution, but actually resigning, regardless of success or failure, because of a constitutional opposition to acting forcefully in defense of one’s interests.

There are those for whom caution is a cover for Iranian apologetics. As blustery conservatives will label Obama a naïve appeaser for having sought negotiations and not committing to war, the apologists for theocratic tyranny will claim Obama never really tried negotiations. This is a crosswind that has to smell crisp and clean, whatever the fury.

How to stand amid all these winds? How to think with a little clarity within the howling? Let’s direct an instrument.

One confusion is that of American interests and Israeli interests. Let it be reasonable to argue that they need not be identical or contrary, even while similar. Both the U.S. and Israel have reasons to oppose a nuclear Iran. How much imagination does it take to assess the concerns of Israel – so much smaller, so much closer to Iran, already set sail amid a sea of enemies – as more pressing and critical than those of the U.S.? There are many vital reasons – among them the chances of ultimate success – to wish the course and final actions of the two to be completely aligned. This reasonably leads Israel to prod the U.S. to a greater sense of urgency. Just as reasonably, the U.S. seeks to calm Israel and slow it to an American pace. Neither is wrong to do so. Their interests are similar, not identical, and this is not mathematics. If Israel, in its own assessment of its security needs, were to act unilaterally, it would not be a betrayal of U.S. alliance and support, but an independent state’s independent act in defense of its interests. Whatever the results, the U.S. would rightfully assess and respond to them in its own interests, and among those interests is the U.S.’s natural alliance with Israel and the varied reasons for it. One response is predicted by retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, a specialst in war-gaming at the National War College and elsewhere, who agrees with everyone else that despite Israel’s military mastery, it does not have the capability for a truly devastating attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

I don’t believe it possible for the US not to be pulled into finishing the job even if Iran does not choose to respond immediately.  I’ve also written a paper on the logic.

No nation is likely to be pleased to be pulled into a course of action because of the actions of another state, and it would be natural to expect a wide range of responses and for those responses to align with those prevailing winds.

What of the U.S. acting on its own, or in consort, finally, with Israel? One war gamer, the Carnegie Endowment’s Karim Sadjadpour, reported on this exchange with an Iranian dissident.

I asked a longtime aide to Karroubi about the plausibility of the above scenario. He said that an Israeli strike on Iran would be “10 times worse” — in terms of eliciting popular anger — than a U.S. strike and agreed that it would likely bring recognized opposition figures in concert with the government, strengthening the state’s capacity to respond.

This observation is telling in an unexpected way. Why an Israeli strike would be “10 times worse” is not just an estimation of the consequences of a strike; it is significantly an expression of the conditions of the potential cause of it. Other than a few presumed recent assassinations, Israel has no historical record comparable to that of the U.S. as an adversary and imperial power that that has harmfully interfered in Iranian life and politics. That Israel might nonetheless, in one person’s judgment, produce so much greater present enmity than even the “Great Satan” itself is an expression of just the virulent religious and cultural hatred that leads Israel to fear the threat of a nuclear Iran to begin.

But this presupposes an American willingness to perform a military strike. There are the currents that oppose it. If we leave aside Israel’s ideological and racial enemies and the Iran apologists, and we focus only on the warnings against war itself and its potential consequences, what is the meaning – what is the consequence – of accepting a nuclear Iran? It is as imaginable yet unpredictable as the course of a war that might follow from a strike. One argument is, in reality, to work from just that condition of imaginable consequences – the full range of complication, multilateral involvement, and material and economic harm – yet unpredictability: how much worse and uncontrollable the consequences could be than we can even imagine.

This is a fascinating ground for thought. The fiasco of Iraq and the long misdirection of Afghanistan after initial success fully support it. But it is always so. We never know what will come. That sounds banal. But imagine, since we are imagining, that we could have foreseen all the ends of the Second World War – the tens of millions dead, the incomparable physical destruction, with many fates only transferred from one tyranny, Nazi Germany’s, to another, that of Soviet communism. Were we able to foresee that awful price, how forcefully might so many more than just the Chamberlains have argued against the Churchills that an accommodation to circumstance – the implacability of a malevolent force – was the wiser, less awful choice. Unlike the unvarying knowledge of war’s dreadful cost, the course of accommodation, with the future always, in our imaginations, holding the possibility of better choices, is invariably less vivid and awful to that imagination.

Some argue from the example of the Cold War for the success of containment. But what is that example, truly? First, that one does not know the true meaning of unimaginable if one posits the U.S. fighting a war  – after the long second world one – against the Soviet Union, and after the Chinese entry into Korea, against China too, as MacArthur pursued. We contained the Soviet Union and China because we had no genuine choice under the circumstances to do otherwise.

Second, and in practice, that for roughly forty years only, two great adversaries held each other in a terror of mutually assured destruction, and managed by that terror not to destroy each other. For only forty years. How often might the balance of that terror easily have been thrown off? We know of instances – Cuba most notably – when this example might well have become less exemplary. Is the Cold War, a single instance only of this strategy, a lesson in the reliability of containment or the world having managed four decades of good luck – a reason to sigh in relief? How likely it all might have gone another way.

So the idea of containment rests, perhaps, on no great bedrock. More, what will the choice of it assert in practice? There is no denying what it will say, more, proclaim: that the idea of nonproliferation is dead. Of the four nations known or believed to be nuclear non-signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, two, India and Israel, may be viewed as special, democratic cases, and Pakistan and North Korea as two nations the world has good reason to wish without the weapons, but that for strategic reasons went unopposed. All four pose a threat to the NPT regime. Now Iran stands, and has stood for some time as the prime strategic and highly publicized challenge to non-proliferation.

Iran is also not a new challenge, as some now state, regularly remarking on a “rush to war.” Undoubtedly there are older discussions, than this one – also of war gaming – by James Fallows in the Atlantic, back in December, 2004.

 Throughout this summer and fall, barely mentioned in America’s presidential campaign, Iran moved steadily closer to a showdown with the United States (and other countries) over its nuclear plans.

In June the International Atomic Energy Agency said that Iran had not been forthcoming about the extent of its nuclear programs. In July, Iran indicated that it would not ratify a protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty giving inspectors greater liberty within its borders. In August the Iranian Defense Minister warned that if Iran suspected a foreign power—specifically the United States or Israel—of preparing to strike its emerging nuclear facilities, it might launch a pre-emptive strike of its own, of which one target could be the U.S. forces next door in Iraq. In September, Iran announced that it was preparing thirty-seven tons of uranium for enrichment, supposedly for power plants, and it took an even tougher line against the IAEA. In October it announced that it had missiles capable of hitting targets 1,250 miles away—as far as southeastern Europe to the west and India to the east. Also, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected a proposal by Senator John Kerry that if the United States promised to supply all the nuclear fuel Iran needed for peaceful power-generating purposes, Iran would stop developing enrichment facilities (which could also help it build weapons). Meanwhile, the government of Israel kept sending subtle and not-so-subtle warnings that if Iran went too far with its plans, Israel would act first to protect itself, as it had in 1981 by bombing the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak.

That’s over seven years ago.

What might be the effects of speaking openly of containment, of a policy that openly acknowledges an unwillingness to bear the burden of enforcing nonproliferation? One well publicized Iranian war game exercise was conducted at Harvard in December 2009. Well publicized was how bad the outcomes were. Less publicized was the policy pursued by the war gamers who played the U.S. roles. Wrote David Ignatius,

My scorecard had Team Iran as the winner and Team America as the loser. The U.S. team — unable to stop the Iranian nuclear program and unwilling to go to war — concluded the game by embracing a strategy of containment and deterrence.

From another perspective,

“We started out thinking we were playing a weak hand, but by the end, everyone was negotiating for us,” said the leader of the Iranian team, Columbia University professor Gary Sick. By the December 2010 hypothetical endpoint, Iran had doubled its supply of low-enriched uranium and was pushing ahead with weaponization.

Reports Sadjadpour of his war game,

We didn’t limit our reaction to just the Middle East. Via proxy, we hit European civilian and military outposts in Afghanistan and Iraq, confident that if past is precedent, Europe would take the high road and not retaliate. We also activated terrorist cells in Europe — bombing public transportation and killing several civilians — in the belief that European citizens and governments would likely come down hard on Israel for destabilizing the region.

He offers this further account of calculation based on perception.

But, appreciating the logic of power, we stopped just short of provoking the United States. Before the simulation, I’d often heard it said that it wouldn’t make much difference whether Israel actually got a green light from the United States to strike Iran, for Tehran would never believe otherwise.

This assessment wasn’t borne out in the simulation. The U.S. secretary of state sent us a private note telling us that the Americans did not approve the Israeli strike, and vowed to restrain Israel from attacking further — if we also exercised restraint. They tried on multiple occasions to meet with us or speak by phone, but we refused. While Washington believed that its overtures would have a calming effect on us, we interpreted them to mean that we could strike back hard against Israel — not to mention European targets — without risking U.S. retaliation, at least not immediately.

A Tel Aviv war simulation around the same time, also based on threats and sanctions, achieved similar negative results. A third war game, at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, had Israel conduct a strike.

[O]ne of the Brookings war game’s major conclusions is that Israel could pay dearly for an attack on Iran.

Still,

Some members of the “Israeli” team nonetheless felt that setting back Iran’s nuclear program “was worth it, even given what was a pretty robust response,” said one participant.

Sadjadpour makes the same point.

Not unlike wars themselves, different actors drew different lessons. Those, like myself, who thought that the costs of an Israeli attack significantly outweighed the benefits, felt the results of the simulation validated their position. In the span of just a few days, our simulation had the Middle East aflame. But those who, prior to the exercise, believed that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities was a necessary risk weren’t convinced otherwise.

President Obama has well argued that the only way to ensure a lasting end to an Iranian nuclear weapons program is if the Iranians choose to give it up themselves. Regime change could increase that likelihood, but that is not foreseeable. If we accept that the Israelis are the eighty pound gorilla in this debate, they clearly accept that there is still some unspecified amount of time left to see if that end can be achieved. Every effort should be made. Suzanne Maloney of Brookings offers a complex calculus in consideration of this end. But if it fails?

Amid all the arguments pro and con, the weakest by far are any individual’s assertions, however ostensibly expert the source, of what is “unbelievable” or “irrational” as prospective action by any party or of how any party is, on the contrary, a rational actor despite supposed caricatures otherwise. The history of civilization is littered with the debris of national acts and policies no rational and moral person would have anticipated before they were committed and pursued, and the world and some peoples the loser for them. To argue, from such casual and personally held inductions about how Israel’s enemies might rationally behave, that Israeli leaders and the Jewish people, in light of both their long and recent history, should risk their very existence – again – before the nuclear power of a religiously inspired and anti-Semitic enemy is to make an argument careless of history and without moral seriousness.

Who dares cry not seventy years later of the Jew’s hysteria, and what scent is it on that wind?

That is the Israeli view. From the U.S. perspective, to commit to a nuclear Iran by confessing an unwillingness to prevent it will be to offer the most toothless face ever to grin submissively at the post-war nuclear world. The advocate of this position needs to simulate across the world the outcome of widespread nuclear proliferation at the end of any credible regime to prevent it. Or offer a credible argument for why that would not be the outcome.

AJA

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Uncategorized

The Wisdom of G.H.W. Bush – and Barack Obama

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Whatever one’s judgment about the goal of the Gulf War of 1991, it is difficult to argue (which hardly means that no one will) that it was not superbly managed and prosecuted. The deeply and broadly experienced George Herbert Walker Bush, in contrast to his shallow but zealously missionary son G.W., famously chose, after driving Iraqi troops from Kuwait, not to pursue the Iraqi army to Baghdad. The subsequent abandonment of the Iraqi Shia to Saddam’s revenge after Bush encouraged them to rise up was the war’s one great screw up. That tawdry entailment of proxy geopolitics gets balanced in the historical memory with the multiple subsequent lessons of how flinty is the taste for battle on behalf of people who otherwise despise you. One weighs that loss against the gain of the no fly zone and the genuine rescue of Iraq’s Kurds, who gained not only their lives but the opportunity, perhaps never more boldly seized, to build a vibrant society under constant threat of tyranny.

Son G.W., we know, screwed the pooch to world record levels in pursuing mock wars of high minded liberation. His Iraq war is over, managed carefully to an end, in the circumstances presented to  him, by Barack Obama. But G.W. screwed up more than one war in display of the anti-wisdom of his father. In Afghanistan, with the Taliban driven from power and a base for Al-Qaeda eliminated, its leadership driven from the country, the Gulf War model would have suggested declaring victory and moving on to what should have been the only Long War, against transnational terrorizing Islamism. Instead, stuck in Iraq, Bush and NATO piddled about half-heartedly for six years in a further war of nation building and battle against insurgency.

When Obama came to office, he felt again compelled by circumstance , as well as the promise of the military and the wonder what if we hadn’t screwed it up for six years, to pursue a truer commitment and see if that would make the difference in eliminating AfPac as a future base for terrorism. Obama made a major commitment, but he did not go all in, as the martial voices of the imperial GOP will always have us do, sending legion after legion into battle. Do any but unanchored GOP presidential candidates and the usual Republican Cato the Elders still believe that creating a stable, reliable ally in Afghanistan is an achievable end, a fight worth fighting any longer?

This week’s Quran burnings at Bagram Airforce Base, and the ugly murderous reaction to the incident, reinforce two lessons at least. It is very little reported why the Qurans were considered fuel for a fire. The evidence is that Taliban prisoners were passing messages to each other by writing in Qurans. Apparently, in another life affirming expression of God’s eternal love, this is a blasphemy calling for death. These Qurans might have been used for a propaganda victory over the Taliban. Well, we have our Seal Team Sixes and we have our book burnings. Life and war are messy, and screw ups really are the norm, you know. But a mistake is a mistake, and a burned book, even on purpose, is a burned book. The homicidal rage that has followed it is a degeneracy of human development that not many Americans will care to accept in return for the expenditure of American resources, blood, and will.

Obama, though, has seen this coming. Not all that long, really, after he upped the ante in Afghanistan, he began to gather his chips toward the edge of the table. He will get us out as best he can, playing the cards he was dealt. He will continue to fight the war Bush mostly mouthed, the diffuse and international war of terror groups and replicating cells. He will get no credit for that from his political enemies. You have to wonder how much credit he will ever get for devoting so much of the energy of his two presidential terms, should he get them, to carefully cleaning up the war making misadventures of his predecessor. History judges those kinds of achievements, which are a little too subtle, and honest, for the campaign trail.

Similarly, against the first push he faced to initiate a war of his own, in Libya, Obama refused to commit American ground troops or even to engage without an international coalition he insisted take the lead. This was not Roman enough for the GOP, but Libya is not looking so swell right now. Obama managed to meet what was pressed upon him as a moral obligation, to save those threatened by Gaddafi, but like Bush the Elder in the Gulf, he did not over commit the country to its detriment. In the same way, against those who would have Obama bomb Iranian nuclear sites now, and those for whom no amount of negotiation with an obdurate foe is ever enough until it has managed a course to failure, Obama seeks to work the force of arms against the force of genuine and biting international policy sanctions. If the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapons program is somehow peacefully diffused, it will be one of the signal geopolitical achievements of our era, and it will be Obama’s.

It is hard not to believe that G.H.W. would not have enjoyed a policy conversation with the current president more than one with his son. That would earn Obama condemnation from opposing quarters, but that’s pretty much the way it has been. But the truth is that in between the two men, you can’t find a surer presidential hand in foreign policy.

Now what Obama has to do in the next nine months is not break any pledges on taxes.

AJA

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The Political Animal

Trita Parsi’s Three-Card Monte Argument Against Iran Sanctions

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Trita Parsi is never at a loss to provide excuses for Iran or explanations for how U.S. and Western policies toward Iran are mistaken. If you believe Parsi, those policies are even the source of conflict. Parsi’s latest argument appears at the Boston Review Online. Titled “Blunt Instrument: Sanctions Don’t Promote Democratic Change,” the article states near its start,

The official objective of the sanctions is to compel Iran to negotiate with the West toward the implementation of existing UN Security Council resolutions calling for Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. Unofficially, there are hints that the sanctions are aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime and bringing about democratic change.

It could be that various foreign policy establishment figures hope that an additional benefit of sanctions over some unexpected term might be economic, thus, in turn, governing destabilization of the Iranian regime, but there is abundant reason to hold such a view as no more than a happy fantasy of some best case outcome. Certainly, there is no evidence that the sanctions are “aimed at collapsing the Iranian regime.” Certainly, public policy, openly, repeatedly, across international boundaries, foreign minister coffee tables, and IAEA boardroom tables is – and has been discussed since the last Presidential election – as sanctions aimed at persuading Iran to abandon any efforts toward development of a nuclear weapons program. Arguing against that policy is harder, though not impossible – Parsi does it – so this time he tries a different tack. Though he acknowledges the “official” objective (wink, wink – not the real one), he claims there are entirely unspecified “hints” that their aim is really quite other. In this article, rather than argue against the actual policy of Iran sanctions, Parsi makes up a policy, and argues against it.

Parsi proceeds to cite a series of sources – from a “widely cited study by Gary Clyde Hufbauer, Jeffrey J. Schott, and Kimberly Ann Elliot,” to “[s]ecurity expert Robert Pape,” Clifton Morgan, Navin Bapat, and Valentin Krustev and their TIES study, and “[e]conomist Mats Lundahl.” In each case the study or source places a limiting number – a significantly high 34% in the case of the starting Hufbauer, Schott, and Elliot – on the success of limited or total economic sanctions. In each case, then, Parsi relies upon the currently named authority to argue for limited expectations in the use of economic sanctions to achieve democratic change – which is not, to remind, the policy of the United States or the West. In each case, Parsi moves on to another authority in order to cast doubt on the success rate suggested in the previous study. Each previous study is relied on to establish a rate of failure in the use of economic sanctions (to achieve democratic change), but its reliability is only trusted in establishing failure – the next study is then employed to cast doubt on the success rate suggested by the previous study, which, in each case, is trusted in arguing for failure, but not trusted, according to the same procedures by which the study was performed, in providing evidence for and analysis of success.

There is a card trick I learned as a child in which the gullible participant is asked to remove, view, and replace a card of the deck. Then, through a series of excluding questions directed at the participant – intended to suggest the process of divination – the performer of the trick is able lead the participant, through, in fact, an implicit process of elimination, to unknowingly make clear to the trickster what the card must be. The card trick takes its performer exactly where he wishes to go.

By the time we get to South Africa, Lundahl has given Parsi reason to doubt once again.

Thus, even the most widely cited case of sanctions’ success is, at best, debatable.

There will come a day on this earth – I don’t know when – when it will be impossible to find someone willing to debate something. Until then, everything is, at least in principle, “debatable,” though there must be some standard beyond one cited disputant for “at best.”

In the end, Parsi reveals his tell. He has oddly misrepresented the objective of the sanctions policy against Iran. For what reason?

Additional research is needed on the apparent inverse correlation between broad economic sanctions and democratization. The existing data, however, suggest that states and indigenous pro-democracy groups should be cautious about using economic sanctions as a tool in their struggles against authoritarian regimes. The data not only show that dictatorships faced with sanctions tend to enhance their grip on power, but also that successful cases of democratization have overwhelmingly occurred in the absence of broad economic sanctions. While the evidence may present an inconvenient reality for national legislatures poised to use sanctions to look tough and appear to “do something”—regardless of the actual consequences—indigenous pro-democracy groups should have no illusions about the impact of broad economic warfare on their prospects. [Emphasis added]

Parsi’s is an argument aimed at a very particular audience. (I truly love the ideological invocation of “indigenous.”) It is aimed at Iranian pro-democracy forces within Iran, seeking to separate them from the Western sanctions policy, with the hope, thereby, of undermining it.

Though I suppose that’s debatable.

AJA

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Israel

Existential Threats and Slanted Arguments

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UPDATED BELOW

There are breeds of argument that always startle me for their smug, tendentious presumption.

Here is one, frequently made, this time by Robert Wright, that rests the continued –  literally – existence of a nation on the parsing of translations and the assurances of theocratic tyrannies. (I assure you, said Mr. Hitler, after the Sudetenland – shaking hands, and with smiles all around – I’m done.)

Actually, the Iranians aren’t a nation whose leaders have set themselves that “strategic goal [of eliminating Israel].” They are a nation with a crackpot president who (a) isn’t the country’s supreme leader and doesn’t have the power to order an attack on Israel; (b) did say “the occupying regime must be wiped off the map” (or “vanish from the page of time”–the translation is disputed); but (c) later said he was referring to eliminating the Zionist form of government, not the people living under it; and (d) said the way to achieve this was to give Palestinians the vote–and that if they opted for a two-state solution rather than a single non-Zionist state, that would be fine, too; (e) also said that Iran would never initiate military hostilities with Israel.

One can just imagine any Israeli prime minister, with the missiles completing their brief trajectory, crying out at the pending annihilation of the Jewish nation, reconstituted again after two thousand years, “But he used the passive voice!”

And they promised, too.

You can read here a chronology – far lengthier than Wright’s consideration – of the anti-Semitic and genocidal pronouncements of Iran’s “crackpot president.”

This is followed by that other popular argument of presumption, the disbelieving assertion of an antagonist’s unwillingness to act in a morally and sensibly proscribed manner.

Could [Ehud] Barak really think that, even if Iranian leaders had said they would launch a first strike, they’d actually do such a thing? To believe that, you would have to believe that the Iranian regime is literally suicidal, since Israel’s nuclear retaliatory capacity is very robust (not to mention the fact that the event wouldn’t exactly go unnoticed by America). Does Barak really believe the Iranian leadership is crazy?

We know, of course, from history –  even recent history – that governments, regimes, and leaders never make cataclysmic strategic mistakes. It isn’t as if countries have in the past ever attempted to conquer half the known world, killing tens of millions along the way, including their own citizens, setting out to wipe off the map entire groups of people, only to have their efforts backfire with disastrous consequence. Why that would be crazy!

Says Wright,

Barak isn’t as alarmist as some. He concedes in the Times Magazine piece that “Iran has other reasons for developing nuclear bombs, apart from its desire to destroy Israel.” For example: “An Iranian bomb would ensure the survival of the current regime, which otherwise would not make it to its 40th anniversary in light of the admiration that the young generation in Iran has displayed for the West.” Got that? Two of the reasons the Iranian regime wants the bomb are (1) to launch an attack that would be literally suicidal; and (2) to ensure its survival. (No wonder Israelis think the Iranians are crazy!)

It is not as if- or maybe it is  – Wright himself is among those people who have argued that while the U.S. set out to diminish the presence of Islamist terrorists in the world by going to war in Afghanistan, it actually increased their numbers. Nations may, according to Wright himself, follow courses of action that are contradictory to their aims and seeming best interests.

But in the case of Israel, Wright simplifies what the nature of the Iranian threat is to Israel.

Here is a less extreme and simplistic scenario, from Jeffrey Goldberg.

Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, launches a cross-border attack into Israel, or kills a sizable number of Israeli civilians with conventional rockets. Israel responds by invading southern Lebanon, and promises, as it has in the past, to destroy Hezbollah. Iran, coming to the defense of its proxy, warns Israel to cease hostilities, and leaves open the question of what it will do if Israel refuses to heed its demand.

Dennis Ross, who until recently served as President Barack Obama’s Iran point man on the National Security Council, notes Hezbollah’s political importance to Tehran. “The only place to which the Iranian government successfully exported the revolution is to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ross told me. “If it looks as if the Israelis are going to destroy Hezbollah, you can see Iran threatening Israel, and they begin to change the readiness of their forces. This could set in motion a chain of events that would be like ‘Guns of August’ on steroids.” Imagine that Israel detects a mobilization of Iran’s rocket force or the sudden movement of mobile missile launchers. Does Israel assume the Iranians are bluffing, or that they are not? And would Israel have time to figure this out? Or imagine the opposite: Might Iran, which will have no second-strike capability for many years — that is, no reserve of nuclear weapons to respond with in an exchange — feel compelled to attack Israel first, knowing that it has no second chance?

Wright closes with video of Trita Parsi, in which Parsi,

who just published a book called A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran

reshapes Israeli existential concerns, as focused on a loss of “maneuverability,” –  power, essentially; the power of Israel to protect itself, existentially – as a result of which it would be unable to “invade Lebanon or bomb Syria.” So as Wright selectively and presumptuously presents the case, not only are Israeli concerns about the Iranian nuclear threat outlandish on their face, but they are false and manipulative. Nothing manipulative at all on Wright’s part in citing as his authority the president of the National Iranian American Council, who has long made the case, against all evidence, of Iran’s willingness to engage.

Wright is developing a habit of these less than straightforward appeals, in closing, to authority. In a recent post on the “Israel-Firster” slanders, in which he took what is by this point a predictable position attacking those who rightfully object to the term, Wright in all pretense of ingenuousness offered this:

Is it anti-Semitic, or even anti-Israel, to call the Israeli occupation a moral abomination? I’m not Jewish, so I always feel awkward weighing in on the question of what constitutes anti-Semitism. Instead I turned to someone who is not only Jewish, but is also an Israeli who served in the occupied territory as a lieutenant and is still in the Israeli army reserve.

Now, of course, the issue is not whether one is anti-Semitic because of how one feels about the Israeli presence on the West Bank; it is whether the expression “Israel-Firster” is anti-Semitic in pedigree and aspersion. So Wright has distorted the issue. He also offered not the testimony of, at least, some wise man of Israeli or Jewish culture, but of the co-director of Breaking the Silence, a group guaranteed, in the honest gentile’s search – he only wants to know – to return to him the opinion he already holds. And so it does.

In the case of Parsi, here is what Sohrab Ahmari has to say:

Predictably, Israel and American Jews with an interest in U.S. policy are subjected to the harshest criticism. Israel’s perception of the Iranian threat, Mr. Parsi says, has long “resembled prophesy more than reality,” impelling the Jewish state to frame its conflict with Iran’s clerical regime “as one between the sole democracy in the Middle East and a theocracy that hated everything the West stood for.” Mr. Parsi rejects that perception.

….

Quick to ascribe irrationality and bad faith to opponents of engagement, Mr. Parsi is charitable when it comes to examining the motivations of the Iranian side. But he must frequently sift the obviously belligerent content of the theocrats’ statements to find signs of goodwill—signs invisible to unsophisticated “hawks” and “elements on the right” in the U.S.

Ahmari closes,

Mr. Obama’s engagement policy failed not because of Israeli connivance or because the administration did not try hard enough. The policy failed because the Iranian regime, when confronted by its own people or by outsiders, has only one way of responding: with a truncheon.

In the contention between the United States and Iran, Parsi is not a champion of U.S. interests or intentions. And he is the person Robert Wright offers as support for his own unsympathetic view of Israel’s much more dire concerns.

All just for the record.

UPDATE

I’m blogging on the fly while we travel and neglected to make the following point. Wright has just begun accepting comments on his Atlantic blog, as has Jeffrey Goldberg. As is the case with any blog that is antagonistic to Israel’s position vis a vis the Palestinians, Wright’s is drawing the comments of anti-Semites. It will ever be so. Blog hosts may rightly disavow responsibility for the opinions of their commenters, and even adopt the broadest view of moderating (deleting) controversial expressions. However, I would never permit a clearly racist or hateful comment to go unchallenged on this blog. Wright is engaging his commenters. Why has he not rebuked the commenters below, who have gained many more likes since I made these captures?

AJA

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The Political Animal

The Libertarian Delusion

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One of the signatures of the fallen human state is how precipitously and flat seemingly reasonable people can land on their cogitative rears. Accordingly, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on ourselves. You watch me, friend. I’ll be checking you.

For now, we have Ron Paul. In addition to certain strains of the disaffected young, neo-Nazi white supremacists, homosexual-hating pastors, Andrew Sullivan, and Glenn Greenwald, we Tuesday got Robert Wright at the Atlantic in a post titled – honestly – “The Greatness of Ron Paul.” Wright likes Paul’s ideas on foreign policy, and it is one of the characteristics of falling in like with a libertarian idea that all sound judgment and reasoning depart on the wings of one’s unfettered liberty.

It’s certainly true that Paul’s hawkish critics are using his weirder ideas and checkered past to try and make non-interventionism synonymous with creepiness. But, whatever their success, Paul is making one contribution to the foreign policy debate that could have enduring value.

Let’s note immediately that it is this rather measured endorsement that nonetheless merits for Wright the “greatness” in his title. Imagine if Paul actually became president and achieved something. There would be nowhere left to go but godhead. But notice how quickly Wright moves beyond “weirder ideas and checkered past.” I don’t need to fully itemize that past here, from John Birch Society speeches to the representative conspiracy-mongering. Yet Wright easily elides all this for love of Paul’s ideas on foreign disengagement.

Paul routinely performs a simple thought experiment: He tries to imagine how the world looks to people other than Americans.

This is such a radical departure from the prevailing American mindset that some of Paul’s critics see it as more evidence of his weirdness. A video montage meant to discredit him shows him taking the perspective of Iran. After observing that Israel and America and China have nukes, he asks about Iranians, “Why wouldn’t it be natural that they’d want a weapon? Internationally they’d be given more respect.”

Can somebody explain to me why this is such a crazy conjecture about Iranian motivation? Wouldn’t it be reasonable for Iranian leaders, having seen what happened to nukeless Saddam Hussein and nukeless Muammar Qaddafi, to conclude that maybe having a nuclear weapon would get them more respectful treatment?

No one who knows anything about foreign policy, or negotiations for that matter, needs to be told that framing circumstances and disputes from the perspective of one’s adversary is basic work for the professional policy, state department, and strategic analyst. It is how a nation best develops its own strategies and tactics, how it seeks opportunities for resolution – though, with exceptions, candidates running for president, especially pro forma GOP hawks, are none of these kinds of people. However, seeing matters through the eyes of the adversary does not mean agreeing with how the adversary thinks and thus legitimizing, for instance, Iranian strategic desires simply because one can, as a “thought experiment” conceive them as the Iranians might. Unless one is the kind of relativist more often these days found on the far left, all strategic ambitions are not equal simply because nations have them and can mutually understand them. Does Ron Paul – does Robert Wright – think the Iranian theocratic tyranny the moral equal of the world’s liberal democracies? If yes, then there is no basis on which to feel justified in opposing any ambition Iran might have, or North Korea, or the Soviet Union when it still had strategic ambitions. If no….

This is another variation of “one nation’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter” – more of the same reasoning that led the dregs of the anti-imperial left, in opposition to the Iraq War, actually to champion the Iraqi insurgency. This is, far from the moral achievement Wright conjures, the complete loss of critical and moral faculties.

Wright, like others, is taken with Paul’s wish to end the imperial breadth of U.S. military forces and interests around the world – but like all libertarian ideas it is absolutist and crude: simply withdraw, from everywhere, quickly, with no discrimination among regions, circumstances, interests, consequences. From the imperial aftermath of the Cold War, retreat reactively to an eighteenth century injunction to “avoid foreign entanglements.” This is not a guiding principle by which to lead a nation in the twenty-first century. It is standoffishness masquerading as political philosophy, a crank’s tantrum as national policy. Let’s just all leave each other the fuck alone.

Absolutist ideas, crude analysis, simplistic solutions – what Paul represents in all his considerations. Elsewhere at the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has made himself something of an expert student of the Civil War, presents the following video from 2007 of Paul discussing the war on Meet the Press.

The magnitude of the historical errors and misconceptions Paul peddles in a mere minute four is staggering. All but one of the states of the Confederacy had seceded before Lincoln took office, and the Confederacy was declared a mere seven days after. Lincoln, in fact, made a proposal of compensated emancipation to the Border States and Delaware, a slave-holding state that remained in the Union. None were willing to accept it. The comparison to Great Britain is a mockery of historical analysis. Great Britain’s slaves were held in overseas colonies – an abstract moral challenge to be met from afar – not within the nation and yearly corroding the mutual moral regard and civil ties of English men and women. Paul says of the aftermath of the war that it

lingered for a hundred years, I mean the hatred and all that existed.

Does Paul believe that the hatred for black Americans – the disenfranchisement, the discrimination, the beatings and lynchings – that followed the Civil War was caused by the Civil War? And why is Paul even discussing the Civil War? Do we know what ideas Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney entertain about the Civil War? In just over a minute, Paul provides that answer too, that Lincoln didn’t care about freeing the slaves (yes, Paul is one of those, too), but

he did this just to enhance (sic) and get rid of the original intent of the Republic.

In fact, Ron Paul does believe that the first policies instituted to wrest the American republic from its “original intent” and the people began with Lincoln and the Civil War, and that there is a lineage of subsequent proto and quasi-socialist progressive policy intended to “nationalize everything.”

I mentioned the other day, in “Ron Paul and Cranky Libertarianism,” that the second prong in libertarian philosophy, after opposition to centralized government, are its corollary conspiratorial perceptions, the manner in which its adherents close-read history and the world and come to see figures in the carpet. Among those public figures most prominently praising Paul these days (but not, mind you, in typical litigator’s casuistry, endorsing him) is crypto-libertarian Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is not himself explicitly a peddler of conspiracy theories, but he argues in a manner that appeals to the conspiratorially minded: he broadly labels those with whom he variously disagrees and hyperbolically reviles them for what he insinuates is their common purpose against true American interests. Just the other day, in a rabid twitter exchange with many among the growing numbers he has repelled with his ugliness, of which this is a small abstract, Greenwald endorsed an ally’s demonization of Obama supporters as people who would defend the president even if he “raped a nun.” Rather than accede to the flurry of objections to such a “metaphor,” Greenwald doubled down. Beyond correctly rejecting the metaphor label, he declined to defend the claim as merely an extreme illustration offered for effect and chose, instead, to advance the claim as literally true.

The tenor, then, of Ron Paul and libertarian support wavers between gurgling discontent and ideas elementarily conceived. For more of the latter, Greenwald recently recommended, terming it “brilliant,” a shoddy essay by Matt Stoller that praises Paul for his

opposition to war, the Federal government, and the Federal Reserve.

The essence of the essay by the former “senior policy advisor” to ex Rep. Alan Grayson is to retail the libertarian gold-standard of American conspiracy constructs – the concerted effort from Lincoln through Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt (Teddy is bypassed) to

centralize[ ] authority in the Federal government.

and develop

state control over finance and mass mobilization of social resources for warfare.

Of course, if one were to defend the sine qua non minimum libertarian belief in central government responsibility – to provide for the common defense – it would be difficult to conceive it without “state control over finance and mass mobilization of social resources for warfare”: unless, that is, the Pauls, Greewalds, and Stollers imagine, rather, the corporate boards and CEOs dukes and lords agreeing to tithe their rents and harvests in return for another Magna Carta, and their employees in their militia motley then hoisting muskets in the “campus” quads.

In arguing that libertarianism is some kind of unanswerable challenge to liberalism, Stoller tells us that

what connects all three of these Presidents is one thing – big ass wars, and specifically, war financing.

And while modern day Republicans like to pretend that Abraham Lincoln has anything but remotely to do with them, we know his true lineage, and Stoller clarifies the point anyway:

a long tradition of antiwar Democratic Presidents who took America to war.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, young again and without his Viagra, we have here Bob Dole speaking of “Democrat wars.” While focusing on the monetary threads in the carpet that look like the Virgin Mary crying, Stoller, like Dole at his most good-Republican-cloth-coat basic, ahistorically ignores the causes of war. But we already know that Paul thinks Lincoln only fought the Civil War not to preserve the union and reject slavery, but to nationalize monetary policy. And Stoller, attempting to shoehorn the crank of Paul’s mad libertarian monetary notions into a threadbare line of argument, offers this hodge podge on FDR:

And finally, we come to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s Fed is a bit more complex, because he did centralize monetary authority using wartime emergency powers, but he did so in peacetime. FDR abrogated gold clause contracts, seized the domestic supply of gold, and devalued the currency. He constrained banks with aggressive regulation and seizures of insolvent banks, saving depositors with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. He also used the RFC to set up much of what we know today as the Federal government, including early versions of disaster relief, small business lending, massive bridge and railroad building, the FHA, Fannie Mae, and state and local aid. Eventually, the government used this mechanism to finance college and housing for veterans with the GI Bill. Since veterans were much of the population right after World War II, effectively this was the first ever near-national safety net. FDR also fused the liberal and union establishments with the corporate world, creating the hybrid “military-industrial” complex that is with us to this day (see Alan Brinkley’s “End of Reform” for a good treatment of this process).

Later, this New Deal financing apparatus was used to finance the munitions industry and America’s role in World War II. At one point, the RFC owned eight war material producing subsidiaries, including the synthetic rubber industry. Importantly, FDR had the Fed working for him. The Fed kept interest rates pegged at an interest rate set by Treasury, and used reserve requirements to manage inflation. This led to a dramatic drop in inequality, and unemployment sank to 1% during World War II. In 1951, the Fed, buttressed by what Tom Ferguson calls “conservative Keynesian” corporate leaders, broke free of this arrangement, under the Treasury-Fed Accord, leading to the postwar monetary order. That accord is where the vaunted “Federal Reserve Independence” came from.

Give this man a chalkboard, a sweater, and some spectacles, and we need miss Glen Beck no longer.

The point is supposed to be that centralized government provides both the social contract that liberals love (of which Stoller provides what should be an inspiring brief account) and funds and organizes the wars it hates, and that this is Paul’s unanswered challenge to the coherence of liberal philosophy. It just may be that – if you are Katrina vanden Heuvel and your position on war can be reduced to you are “opposed” to it, in which case you think it “good” Ron Paul is on the political scene. But in offering a construct in which modern liberalism is defined internationally only by opposition to the Vietnam War, and all uses of American military might since, Stoller simplifies liberalism, reducing it only to its most disempowering strain over the past four decades.

Further, Stoller, like all those on the left who entertain what are misconceived as the ideas of Ron Paul, mistakes him profoundly. He and others conceive Paul, in his wishing to end the post World War Two American imperium, to be a voice of enlightened international relations. He is, on the contrary, a reactionary isolationist for whom any primitive considerations of the world scene are a byproduct of the most reductive social conceptions – conceptions that would destroy every element of the enlightened American society in which liberals believe. If one is above all stirred by conspiratorial imaginings or driven by bilious incontinence at all concentrations or exercises of power, one may find in Paul a representative. But for any liberal to think Ron Paul a subject of serious consideration is an inclination of utter foolishness, a political delusion in which the thinker has lost in disgruntlement all understanding of what liberalism is.

AJA

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Israel

Israel, Iran, “Social Activists” & the World We Live In

The event occurred in September. The video first hit YouTube in October. Over the past week it has been appearing on various blogs, though generally speaking only blogs with a dedicated or regular focus on Israel and Jewish issues. There is an old lesson in that, right there. My hat tip goes to Z World Blog, where I first saw the video, though several blogs I read, and others, have now reported on it.

Big news? No. Essential news? Yes. An Israeli weightlifter, Sergio Britva, wins first place at the World Masters Weightlifting Championships in Poland. The Iranian competitor, Hossein Khodadadi, takes second place. On the awards stand Khodadadi refuses Britva’s offered hand of sportsman-like congratulations. The moment the playing of the Israel national anthem ends, Khodadadi turns his back and steps off the podium.

We do not know if Khodadadi’s personal feelings played any role in his actions. Subsequent events show us – as if we should need at this point to be shown – that he had reason to fear the consequences, whatever his personal feelings, of any fellowship with an Israeli. Street Journalist informs us

Mir Rasool Raisi, Head of Delegation to Iran’s Weightlifting Team, and Hossein Khodadadi, a veteran weightlifting champion, have been banned from all sport activities for life. Mr. Khodadadi appeared on the platform beside an Israeli weight champion during the Poland competitions.

Jalal Yahya-Zadeh, head of Physical Education Committee for Youth Committee announced this news and and added: “The fact that an Iranian weightlifting veteran has competed against an Israeli during the worldwide competitions and has stood beside him during the distribution of medal is unjustifiable.”

In addition,

Mr Raisi has stressed the accompanying members of the Iranian expeditionary team  had destroyed all CDs and photos and did not expect happening of such matter.

Physical Education and Youth Committee has stated the Cultural Commissioners have been informed and the president has also been warned of such matter.

Mr. Yahia-zadeh has recommended to the safeguard organization of the Physical Education Committee to prevent such matters from happening.

Ben Cohen at Z Word offered,

I don’t know whether the Polish producers of the broadcast understood the enormous historical resonance here, but it really has to be seen.

What resonance? Well, to fully appreciate, the third place finisher was a German, who shook the Israeli’s hand. The event and incident transpired in Poland. An Israeli Jew stood in athletic victory, in Poland, beside a German who congratulated him and stood by his side as the Israeli national anthem played, while an Iranian, as a matter of state policy, spurned the Israeli in the latest iteration of historical anti-Semitism.

While some on the international scene sincerely congratulate themselves, and others cynically so, on perceived historical advances of the world political order, this pathetic (yet, also, complexly, quite glorious) scene transpires to little subsequent attention. There are nations in the world – whole national cultures – driven by anti-Semitic animus? Well, there are typhoons and earthquakes, too, no?

At more or less the same time, now, we have the affair of the anti-consumerist Vancouver-based Adbusters magazine, produced by the Canadian Adbusters Media Foundation, which describes itself as “a global network of artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs who want to advance the new social activist movement of the information age.” Hat off to Ben on this one too:

Jonathon Narvey of The Propagandist has written a compelling, if sadly nauseating, series on the effort by Adbusters – a Vancouver-based alternative media network – to associate the State of Israel with the crimes of Nazi Germany through a photo essay comparing Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto. Sounds like that would win some awards in Tehran, at least. Read Jonathon here, here and then here.

Follow Ben’s links to Narvey. The tell the whole repulsive, unfolding story. You will get along the way a video of Warsaw ghetto life and one of little reported Gaza life. There is also this priceless comment from an emailer to Adbusters Editor Kalle Lasn, who is currently crying censorship because the Shoppers chain of stores in Canada has removed Adbusters from its shelves. Wrote one Michael Ross,

Free speech also means allowing others to hold your views in the contempt they deserve and to heap scorn on your ahistorical and one-sided obsession with the Jews.

You have to laugh at the hypocricy of a lefty magazine editor who cries over the loss of corporate sponsorship. You are nothing, if not the author of your own satire.

I would alter “lefty” to “bogus social activist,” but otherwise, as Narvy comments, that’s it “precisely.”

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The Political Animal

The (Lost) Art of Democratic Argument – A Day Trip (2)

Yesterday at the Huffington Post, Shawn Amoei offered a post entitled “Neocon War Plans Undermine Iranians’ Quest for Democracy.” The post opened, after that already auspicious title,

The “Bomb Iran” crowd, fresh off their historic blunder in Iraq, is now at it again with Iran. As if the daily drumbeat of articles and op-eds advocating war with Iran was not enough, Republicans in the House of Representatives have introduced a truly dangerous resolution — explicitly green-lighting the use of force by Israel against Iran.

Amoei then went on to cite Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen as stating that any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be, he quotes Mullen, “calamitous.”

Now, if I weren’t someone who reads this sort of stuff for reasons other than genuine interest in what the writer has to say, I would have been ready to bolt at the title, and I definitely would not have passed that introductory paragraph, and so would never have learned how Amoei deceptively used Mullen’s statement. Working backwards, then, we need to know that Mullen, on Meet the Press, described both options – an attack aimed at disabling Iran’s nuclear program and the alternative of permitting a nuclear armed Iran – as bad, potentially calamitous outcomes. So, you see – you see what he did there? Amoei cherry picked Mullen’s statement about as manipulatively as can be done.

But back to that title. I imagine Amoei is a graduate of the Glenn Greenwald school of categorical thinking and reflexive labeling. True, there may be some individuals who never met a bomb they didn’t want to drop, and I’ve noted before that Charles Krauthammer himself is rumored to fly around in Washington airspace with actual hawks; however, this automatic, unthinking, empty use of the term Neocon to designate anyone who would ever consider under any circumstances the use of military force should be one of those signs that the writer you are about to read may, should you already agree with him, pet your peeve, but he is not about to offer anything in the way of respectable argument. Just in case one does not think the level of argumentation sufficiently lowered to begin, Amoei offers us an alternative label: the “bomb Iran” crowd. Crowd. You know, that bunch that hangs out around the corner of 96th and first. (Or is it the Yale club?) They harmonize with John McCain sampling the Beach Boys. Strategic foreign policy and national security considerations are here reduced to juvenile conceptualizing generally applied to groups that like to beat up hippies, fags, and suits or knock back Manhattan’s amid oak wainscoting while they trade legacy admissions. Then we’re “fresh” off the Iraq War (what’s the start date for “fresh”?) amid a primitive “drum beat” for war. Throw into that first paragraph “Republicans” (as if none other considers the possibility that action against the Iranian nuclear facilities may be necessary) and for good measure “Israel” and one has so slanted the presentation that quibbling about the appropriateness of the phrase “war with Iran” seems almost beside the point.

Not beside the point is the full title. One can certainly reasonably argue that military action and its range of consequences might set back the potential of democratic change in Iran. One can also argue that said potential has been pretty effectively squelched already this past year by Iran’s tyrannical regime, or even that the upheaval of any attack on the nuclear facilities might destabilize the political situation enough to bring about a democratic resurgence. One can argue all of those possibilities and more – that’s what honest, democratic argument is for – but the title states that the “quest for democracy” is already being undermined, right now, and not be any actual attack, but by the planning (thinking?) about the possibility.

This is not thinking. It’s thuggery. You were mugged on the way to the second paragraph.

AJA

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Culture Clash

Ten Questions for Monday

Weekend is over. Back to work.

  1. Who is right about Iran, Leon Wieseltier or Fareed Zakaria? The answer later in the week. (The Answer Man)
  2. What would be the nature of a Democratic president who was truly a Democrat, pursuing truly Democratic policies, with whom conservatives would genuinely respectfully disagree?
  3. Is a female politician who disdains feminism like a worker who earns 30 dollars per hour, with a 35 hour work week, benefits, sick leave, and two-weeks paid vacation, who hates unions?
  4. How much environmental damage would be enough for conservatives to believe that the loss of oil industry jobs was a necessary price to pay?
  5. Does self-consciousness transform every act? If a woman wears two-inch heels in the full knowledge and desire that they sexualize her for men, do her knowledge and wish release her from the bonds of male desire? Does the woman then bind men in female desire, or has the woman only adopted the male vision of the female as her own?
  6. Put your money down – Yankees, Tampa Bay, or Boston?
  7. Did you know that Amnesty International claims that Israel still occupies Gaza, even though Israel dismantled its settlements there and withdrew in 2005? Do you know what AI’s definition of occupation is?
  8. The rich kid on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis television series, named Chatsworth Osborne Jr., was preceded for six episodes on the series in a similar role by what ultimately world famous film actor and director?
  9. Referring to question number 1, should the U.S. ever foster or support popular uprisings in undemocratic states? What should be the criteria for deciding to do so, if ever?
  10. Was Albert Camus right, when he said, “We must simultaneously serve suffering and beauty”?

AJA

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The Political Animal

Scylla and Charybdis

To begin, the politics of policy is so often so dishonest that one marvels that so much so decent has been achieved. So many so foul, who know it and know it not, so many so foolish, who never know it. How to enter into it all and be neither foul nor fool? The dilemma of those who seek service or power, or both.

Yesterday’s Thomas Friedman column in The New York Times, “As Ugly as It Gets,” gets right to the foul.

I confess that when I first saw the May 17 picture of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, joining his Brazilian counterpart, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with raised arms — after their signing of a putative deal to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear weapons program — all I could think of was: Is there anything uglier than watching democrats sell out other democrats to a Holocaust-denying, vote-stealing Iranian thug just to tweak the U.S. and show that they, too, can play at the big power table?

No, that’s about as ugly as it gets.

“For years, nonaligned and developing countries have faulted America for cynically pursuing its own interests without regard for human rights,” observed Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment. “As Turkey and Brazil aspire to play on the global stage, they’re going to face the same criticisms they once doled out. Lula and Erdogan’s visit to Iran came just days after Iran executed five political prisoners who were tortured into confessions. They warmly embraced Ahmadinejad as their brother, but didn’t mention a word about human rights.

At the same time, it’s impossible not to see Friedman’s column as an indirect rebuke of that by fellow Times columnist Roger Cohen (fool), of last week, which I wrote about on Tuesday. In that column, Cohen rebuked the U.S. for not accepting the meaningless show deal.

Friedman rebuked the Obama administration too.

In my view, the “Green Revolution” in Iran is the most important, self-generated, democracy movement to appear in the Middle East in decades. It has been suppressed, but it is not going away, and, ultimately, its success — not any nuclear deal with the Iranian clerics — is the only sustainable source of security and stability. We have spent far too little time and energy nurturing that democratic trend and far too much chasing a nuclear deal.

He closes

I’d prefer that Iran never get a bomb. The world would be much safer without more nukes, especially in the Middle East. But if Iran does go nuclear, it makes a huge difference whether a democratic Iran has its finger on the trigger or this current murderous clerical dictatorship. Anyone working to delay that and to foster real democracy in Iran is on the side of the angels. Anyone who enables this tyrannical regime and gives cover for its nuclear mischief will one day have to answer to the Iranian people.

The Obama administration, very much in the realist manner of Bush 1, made a judgment call on Iran, that too overt expression of support for the protest movement could backfire. I thought the administration, while too restrained, overall played it right. Of course, that approach not enjoying any observable success, it was easy for the right to find democratic perfidy in what, once upon a Republican world, long, long ago, it would have accepted from that first Bush. The Right charged betrayal of democratic values even as the post-election resistance was at its peak because the only way Obama can do right by the Right is to be Right. The only thing Obama is not doing better, more aggressively, more effectively that Bush (despite some stumbles to be sure) in fighting the War on Terror is not to call it that and not to have actually started a war on faulty intelligence and bungled it for the first four years. But if Obama speaks the word “war” he will not, for the Right, speak it right. Foul.

Now Obama, rather than visit Arlington – for conservatives, suddenly the American flag lapel pin of veterans’ cemeteries – over the Memorial Day weekend, will visit Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery outside Chicago instead, and conservatives once again find him un-American. Of course, there is a perfectly reasonable other way to see it.

“We don’t really see the big deal, so long as he’s taking the time to honor our fallen war heroes throughout Memorial Day weekend,” said Ryan Galluci, spokesman for AMVETS. “After all, it’s not ground-breaking for a sitting President to visit other national cemeteries or overseas America cemeteries over the holiday. Arlington is certainly not the only place our fallen heroes are buried, so why not pay your respects to veterans around the country?”

But says Eric Erickson of Redstate.com. “Of course, Obama really doesn’t like the military, does he.” This is the same theme the Right now plays on any Democratic president, as it played it with Clinton. He doesn’t respect the military. The military doesn’t respect him. In Clinton’s case, the Right was replaying Vietnam. But now if you are a Democratic president without military service, you can expect it like the sunrise. Jefferson had no military service, by the way. Lincoln was in the Illinois militia off and on for three months in 1832. I don’t imagine that’s what made him a better general than McClellan. And can you imagine if Obama tolerated a McClellan today as Lincoln did then? Foul. Foul. Foul.

If Achilles, in Homer’s Iliad, was not “fleet-footed,” then he was “godlike” or “leader of men.” Hector, whom he slew, was “tamer of horses.” And when Achilles killed Hector, in a warrior’s burning rage, he dragged his body around the walls of Troy to humiliate both him and the Trojans. Odysseus, instead, was “resourceful” and “nimble-witted.” It was neither Achilles nor Hector who lived on archetypally in an epic of his own, but Odysseus. Of course, it took Odysseus ten years to lead his men home, to a house taken over by suitors to his wife, and a son usurped. No reelection for Odysseus.

It isn’t my intent to ill-favor Obama with a burdensome comparison. He has several buckets of balls in the air. The angle of the toss and degree of spin on each is easily critiqued without knowledge of where they’ll land, and that won’t mean anything anyway to his critics. But while he has a whole party of fierce, preening-warrior sons of Peleus to his Right, he’s got Charybdis to his Left. The Right imagines there is nothing to Obama’s left, but the Right is blinded by the smoke it snorts.

Yesterday, Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Marcy Winograd, once more challenging Jane Harmon in the Democratic primary for the House seat representing California’s 36th district. This is a race and interview of particular interest to me because it happens to be my district, where Winograd won 38% of the vote on the last try. I will get Israel quickly out of the way.

As a Jew, I do not want my name or country associated with occupation or extermination.

Extermination.

The “root causes” of the Afghan war and terrorism?

Most of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia and were angry at the proliferation of U.S. bases and forces in Saudi Arabia, so I think there’s a great degree of pushback over the presence of U.S. troops all over the world.

This is a woman who does not read and cannot learn.

JG: Is there anything you would do against terrorism militarily?

MW: I would join the International Criminal Court. I believe in diplomacy and the rule of law. When people are perpetrating acts of terrorism they should be tried before the world in the world court or tried in absentia. The strongest defense is when you create coalitions of people around the world, not when you have divided the world.

Be afraid. Be very afraid. (More fool.)

Many on the Right would have attacked Iran already. They got it right about Iraq’s WMD and Petrocolus has been slain. Winograd will ask Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs to play nice with their nuclear weapons. Odysseus, forced to sail between Scylla and Charybdis, chose to steer toward Scylla, where he might lose only some of his men, rather than the whirlpool of Charybdis, that might take the whole ship down.

Who knows what the exact parallel might be with Iran. But I like a cunning man. Here’s to tales of brave Ulysses.

AJA

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