Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 6, 2007

Time and Our Side

contentions would like to welcome our latest blogger, Peter Wehner. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, formerly served as the deputy assistant to the President and as the Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Michael Ignatieff, formerly of Harvard and now deputy leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, has written a piece in the New York Times Magazine that is both a reflection on political leadership and an honest, self-condemning explanation of why he supported the war in Iraq. Ignatieff’s essay, “Getting Iraq Wrong: What The War Has Taught Me About Political Judgment,” places him in a long list of commentators who have bared their souls and asked for forgiveness—or at least understanding—for supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A few points about the essay. It appears just six days after the climate-changing column by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (“A War We Might Just Win”). Ignatieff is penning his confessional at precisely the moment when the security situation is improving, at a faster rate than almost anyone could have imagined just seven months ago.

This does not mean the war is on the verge of being won; General Petraeus has said it’s the most challenging environment he’s witnessed in more than 30 years in uniform. What we do know is that when it comes to security and “bottom up” reconciliation, the arc of events is now favorable. (A decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and Ignatieff may one day have to write a mea culpa about his mea culpa.)

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contentions would like to welcome our latest blogger, Peter Wehner. Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, formerly served as the deputy assistant to the President and as the Director of the Office of Strategic Initiatives.

Michael Ignatieff, formerly of Harvard and now deputy leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, has written a piece in the New York Times Magazine that is both a reflection on political leadership and an honest, self-condemning explanation of why he supported the war in Iraq. Ignatieff’s essay, “Getting Iraq Wrong: What The War Has Taught Me About Political Judgment,” places him in a long list of commentators who have bared their souls and asked for forgiveness—or at least understanding—for supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A few points about the essay. It appears just six days after the climate-changing column by Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (“A War We Might Just Win”). Ignatieff is penning his confessional at precisely the moment when the security situation is improving, at a faster rate than almost anyone could have imagined just seven months ago.

This does not mean the war is on the verge of being won; General Petraeus has said it’s the most challenging environment he’s witnessed in more than 30 years in uniform. What we do know is that when it comes to security and “bottom up” reconciliation, the arc of events is now favorable. (A decent outcome in Iraq is still possible, and Ignatieff may one day have to write a mea culpa about his mea culpa.)

Ignatieff also explains his support for the war on fairly narrow grounds: his (admirable) emotional attachment to Iraqi exiles who believed the war was the only chance that members of their generation would have to live in freedom in their own country. The humanitarian case against Saddam was overwhelming, but it was not anything like the sole reason to go to war. The United States believed, with the rest of the world, that Saddam had WMD stockpiles. (We know now that he wanted to end sanctions while preserving his capability to reconstitute his WMD program when the sanctions regime ended.) Hussein was also the most destabilizing figure in the Middle East, having invaded two countries and committed genocide in his own. He was responsible for the death of more than a million people. Recklessness and hyper-aggression were in his DNA.

A third point: Ignatieff seems to be arguing for an American withdrawal, though he doesn’t say it outright. This would consign Iraqis to cruelty and slaughter on a scale that is almost beyond our capacity to absorb. In the words of the New York Times reporter John Burns, “cataclysmic violence” would follow in the wake of an early American withdrawal. Ignatieff, who supported the war for humanitarian reasons, is already being cited by those who want to accelerate an American withdrawal, despite the ethnic cleansing and genocide that would follow. This would be a difficult thing for a man like Ignatieff, of impressive moral concerns and commitments, to defend.

We may now be at a hinge moment in Iraq, when—after years of costly mistakes and misjudgments—we are on the right path. General David Petraeus says he needs one thing more than any other: time. Anyone who purports to care about the future of Iraq, and of the Iraqis, owes him at least that much.

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Hamas’s “Developments”

When Hamas and Fatah established a national unity government in March of 2007, Norway was the first Western country to recognize this new government, ending Hamas’s diplomatic isolation. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gar Store announced today, during a visit to Jerusalem, that his government has reversed its policy and no longer recognizes Hamas.

Norway’s decision is a welcome one. Still, one cannot help noticing that, as early as April of 2006, Norway had invited Hamas representatives to visit in order “to maintain dialogue,” on the grounds that Hamas plays “an important role in developments in the Middle East.” It’s not clear which kinds of development the Norwegians had in mind. But I’m fairly sure that executing opponents in the streets in front of their families, throwing a tied-up 28-year-old cook off the roof of a fifteen-story building, and forcibly converting a Christian scholar to Islam are not “developments” at all, but war crimes or gross human rights violations.

When Hamas and Fatah established a national unity government in March of 2007, Norway was the first Western country to recognize this new government, ending Hamas’s diplomatic isolation. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gar Store announced today, during a visit to Jerusalem, that his government has reversed its policy and no longer recognizes Hamas.

Norway’s decision is a welcome one. Still, one cannot help noticing that, as early as April of 2006, Norway had invited Hamas representatives to visit in order “to maintain dialogue,” on the grounds that Hamas plays “an important role in developments in the Middle East.” It’s not clear which kinds of development the Norwegians had in mind. But I’m fairly sure that executing opponents in the streets in front of their families, throwing a tied-up 28-year-old cook off the roof of a fifteen-story building, and forcibly converting a Christian scholar to Islam are not “developments” at all, but war crimes or gross human rights violations.

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The World Is Watching

There is a fascinating tidbit buried deep in this Washington Post story on America’s troubled relations with Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf. After explaining why U.S. officials are bothered by Musharraf’s lackadaisical response to the Islamist extremists who have found a refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Post reporters Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick write:

Musharraf also had a complaint of his own: His leverage over the tribal militants had slipped because of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Foreign fear of the might of the U.S. military, felt throughout the Muslim world immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was dissipating as U.S. troops became increasingly bogged down in Iraq. Now, he said, tribal leaders who had once cooperated with Musharraf because of his alliance with the Americans saw little reason to be afraid.

This confirms an essential and important point: that it was not the decision to invade Iraq per se that is causing an increase in terrorism, but our failure to secure victory, at least so far. And it contradicts one of the most common talking points used by Democrats such as Barack Obama, who argue for a pullout from Iraq: that a decision to leave Iraq will enable us to fight more effectively in Afghanistan. What this paragraph suggests—correctly I think—is that a pullout from Iraq would hurt us considerably in Afghanistan and other battlefields by heightening an impression, which already exists, of American weakness. It is that impression, as much as anything else, that emboldens our enemies, whether the Taliban or al Qaeda, to keep attacking us.

There is a fascinating tidbit buried deep in this Washington Post story on America’s troubled relations with Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf. After explaining why U.S. officials are bothered by Musharraf’s lackadaisical response to the Islamist extremists who have found a refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Post reporters Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick write:

Musharraf also had a complaint of his own: His leverage over the tribal militants had slipped because of the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Foreign fear of the might of the U.S. military, felt throughout the Muslim world immediately after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was dissipating as U.S. troops became increasingly bogged down in Iraq. Now, he said, tribal leaders who had once cooperated with Musharraf because of his alliance with the Americans saw little reason to be afraid.

This confirms an essential and important point: that it was not the decision to invade Iraq per se that is causing an increase in terrorism, but our failure to secure victory, at least so far. And it contradicts one of the most common talking points used by Democrats such as Barack Obama, who argue for a pullout from Iraq: that a decision to leave Iraq will enable us to fight more effectively in Afghanistan. What this paragraph suggests—correctly I think—is that a pullout from Iraq would hurt us considerably in Afghanistan and other battlefields by heightening an impression, which already exists, of American weakness. It is that impression, as much as anything else, that emboldens our enemies, whether the Taliban or al Qaeda, to keep attacking us.

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Will the New York Times Finally Be Indicted?

Is it possible that the New York Times could still be indicted for revealing the existence of the NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program in a December 2005 front-page story?

Shortly after the revelation appeared, a federal grand jury was empaneled to investigate the leak. A range of government officials, including Jane Harmon, then the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, pointed to the severe damage that the Times story did to our efforts to intercept al-Qaeda communications and thwart a second September 11. Shortly thereafter, President Bush called the newspaper’s conduct “shameful.”

I agreed with these assessments. In fact, I argued in March 2006 that the New York Times had also broken the black-letter law. It had breached the provisions of Section 798 of Title 18, which make it a crime to publish classified information concerning the interception of communications intelligence. Shortly thereafter, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez hinted that, in light of several statutes on the books, the New York Times’s conduct was under review by his department.

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Is it possible that the New York Times could still be indicted for revealing the existence of the NSA’s Terrorist Surveillance Program in a December 2005 front-page story?

Shortly after the revelation appeared, a federal grand jury was empaneled to investigate the leak. A range of government officials, including Jane Harmon, then the ranking Democrat of the House Intelligence Committee, pointed to the severe damage that the Times story did to our efforts to intercept al-Qaeda communications and thwart a second September 11. Shortly thereafter, President Bush called the newspaper’s conduct “shameful.”

I agreed with these assessments. In fact, I argued in March 2006 that the New York Times had also broken the black-letter law. It had breached the provisions of Section 798 of Title 18, which make it a crime to publish classified information concerning the interception of communications intelligence. Shortly thereafter, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez hinted that, in light of several statutes on the books, the New York Times’s conduct was under review by his department.

How did the Bush administration follow up? Faced with the politically explosive challenge of indicting our country’s leading newspaper, it did nothing at all. It was rewarded for its forbearance by another New York Times sensation, a front-page story in May 2006 revealing the details of a second highly classified counterterrorism program that worked through the European banking consortium SWIFT.

When the European central bank closed the program some months later, the New York Times ran a short item taking note, which it buried on the bottom of an inside page.

Now, over this past weekend, nearly two years after the initial NSA leak, Congress finally acted to codify the intelligence program that the New York Times compromised. But as coincidence would have it, the federal grand jury hearing evidence in the leak investigation is still active, and at the very same moment that Congress was tidying up the law, there was dramatic action.

Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff broke the story on Sunday, reporting that

a team of FBI agents, armed with a classified search warrant, raided the suburban Washington home of a former Justice Department lawyer. The lawyer, Thomas M. Tamm, previously worked in Justice’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR)—the supersecret unit that oversees surveillance of terrorist and espionage targets. The agents seized Tamm’s desktop computer, two of his children’s laptops, and a cache of personal files. Tamm and his lawyer, Paul Kemp, declined any comment. So did the FBI. But two legal sources who asked not to be identified talking about an ongoing case told Newsweek the raid was related to a Justice criminal probe into who leaked details of the warrantless eavesdropping program to the news media.

With the investigation making progress, the possibility remains that even if the New York Times is not indicted, its reporters—James Risen and Eric Lichtblau—might be called before the grand jury and asked to confirm under oath that Tamm, or some other suspect, was their source. That is what happened to a whole battalion of journalists in the investigation of Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame fiasco.

If Risen and Lichtblau promised their source confidentiality, they might choose not to testify. That would potentially place them, like Judith Miller in the Libby investigation, in contempt of court and even land them in prison.

Back when the NSA leak first occurred, I rated the probability of an indictment of the Times at somewhere between 0 and 1 percent. Today, with the Bush administration in disarray, and Alberto Gonzalez powerless, the probabilities have plummeted to .000001 percent. But a contempt citation is another kettle of fish. With the Judith Miller precedent both fresh and firmly fixed in law, the NSA-leak case might suddenly become very interesting.

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A-Rod Nation

Max Boot, contentions contributor, told us on Saturday that his unfulfilled passion is sports writing. So is mine.

In his post he revealed his devotion to an inferior sport, football. I, on the other hand, follow the national pastime. Max might disagree about the relative merits of our two sports, but he has to admit that this past Saturday, the baseball news was far more interesting than whatever may have happened in the gridiron world.

Saturday night, in my old hometown of San Diego, Barry Bonds launched a 91-mile-an-hour fastball into the left-center stands of Petco Park. By doing so, the left fielder of the San Francisco Giants tied Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s record for most career home runs, the most hallowed mark in American sport. As he rounded the bases, fans booed and held up uncomplimentary signs. The commissioner of baseball, in the stands at the time, stood grim-faced with his hands in his pockets.

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Max Boot, contentions contributor, told us on Saturday that his unfulfilled passion is sports writing. So is mine.

In his post he revealed his devotion to an inferior sport, football. I, on the other hand, follow the national pastime. Max might disagree about the relative merits of our two sports, but he has to admit that this past Saturday, the baseball news was far more interesting than whatever may have happened in the gridiron world.

Saturday night, in my old hometown of San Diego, Barry Bonds launched a 91-mile-an-hour fastball into the left-center stands of Petco Park. By doing so, the left fielder of the San Francisco Giants tied Hammerin’ Hank Aaron’s record for most career home runs, the most hallowed mark in American sport. As he rounded the bases, fans booed and held up uncomplimentary signs. The commissioner of baseball, in the stands at the time, stood grim-faced with his hands in his pockets.

The unenthusiastic crowd reaction was both predictable and understandable. Allegations of steroid use have dogged the slugger. Barry Bonds will never outlive the perception that he cheated his way into the record book, and except in the Bay Area, he is considered an embarrassment to baseball.

Because this is contentions, let me put Bonds’s disgrace into broader perspective. On the same day that Bonds tied Aaron, A-Rod, sometimes known as Alex Rodriguez, became the youngest player in major league history to hit 500 homers. When the Yankee third baseman breaks Bonds’s mark—some say he will even surpass 800 home runs—he will help rub out the stain of steroid use that has tainted his sport. In these times when many think our global position is in decline, let’s not forget that America’s greatest attribute is not its strength, but its capacity for self-renewal. We are a nation of A-Rods.

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