Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 14, 2007

More on the Air Strikes

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that American officials, speaking anonymously, confirmed that Israel had bombed one or more targets in Syria last Thursday. Jerusalem has not officially commented on the strikes, its first on Syria since 2003.

What exactly was Israel doing? The BBC suggested that Israeli pilots might have been testing Syrian air defenses. The Times reported that American officials said the most likely target was one or more conventional weapons caches. If so, Israel may have been targeting rockets on their way to Hizballah.

Yet the Times seems to suggest that the raid targeted a Syrian nuclear weapons program linked to Pyongyang. “The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left,” an unidentified Bush administration official, referring to fissile material, is quoted as saying. Thursday’s Washington Post states that an unidentified former Israeli official had been told that the attack on Syria was intended to take out a facility that could make unconventional weapons. The paper also reported that satellite imagery has revealed a Syrian facility that could be part of a nuclear weapons program. North Korea, known to merchandise any dangerous item it possesses, has been doing its best to appear guilty. Departing from its usual practice of not commenting on world affairs, Pyongyang on Tuesday denounced Israel’s raid.

Damascus undoubtedly has a nuclear weapons program, but at worst it is decades away from building a bomb on its own. Yet Iran is just years from mastering the techniques needed to construct an atomic device. If the raid last week had any significance, it was a warning to the theocrats in Tehran that Jerusalem is capable of another Osirak-type raid. And perhaps the air strikes were intended to send messages to European capitals and Washington as well: disarm Iran now or prepare for war. Syria’s U.N. ambassador said his country sustained no “material damage” in the Israeli raid. That may be true, but it is completely beside the point. Despite where the bombs landed on Thursday, Syrians were not the real target.

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that American officials, speaking anonymously, confirmed that Israel had bombed one or more targets in Syria last Thursday. Jerusalem has not officially commented on the strikes, its first on Syria since 2003.

What exactly was Israel doing? The BBC suggested that Israeli pilots might have been testing Syrian air defenses. The Times reported that American officials said the most likely target was one or more conventional weapons caches. If so, Israel may have been targeting rockets on their way to Hizballah.

Yet the Times seems to suggest that the raid targeted a Syrian nuclear weapons program linked to Pyongyang. “The Israelis think North Korea is selling to Iran and Syria what little they have left,” an unidentified Bush administration official, referring to fissile material, is quoted as saying. Thursday’s Washington Post states that an unidentified former Israeli official had been told that the attack on Syria was intended to take out a facility that could make unconventional weapons. The paper also reported that satellite imagery has revealed a Syrian facility that could be part of a nuclear weapons program. North Korea, known to merchandise any dangerous item it possesses, has been doing its best to appear guilty. Departing from its usual practice of not commenting on world affairs, Pyongyang on Tuesday denounced Israel’s raid.

Damascus undoubtedly has a nuclear weapons program, but at worst it is decades away from building a bomb on its own. Yet Iran is just years from mastering the techniques needed to construct an atomic device. If the raid last week had any significance, it was a warning to the theocrats in Tehran that Jerusalem is capable of another Osirak-type raid. And perhaps the air strikes were intended to send messages to European capitals and Washington as well: disarm Iran now or prepare for war. Syria’s U.N. ambassador said his country sustained no “material damage” in the Israeli raid. That may be true, but it is completely beside the point. Despite where the bombs landed on Thursday, Syrians were not the real target.

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The Zbig Lie

On Wednesday, the Obama campaign received an important new endorsement: Zbigniew Brzezinski, best known for having been Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, introduced Obama on the occasion of his Iraq speech in Iowa. Expect to hear a great deal from Brzezinski about his triumphs of Middle East diplomacy, which he—not to mention Jimmy Carter—is quite fond of recounting. “The fact of the matter is that I’m part of the only administration that brought about peace between Israel and its neighbors,” Brzezinski told NBC News on the day Obama delivered his Iraq policy speech. “And so I’m proud of my record in the Middle East.”

This is a deceptive attempt at rewriting history, one that Brzezinski and his gang have been pursuing for years in an effort to manufacture retroactively a success story for the Carter administration. The administration didn’t “bring about” peace between Israel and Egypt so much as hold a summit at Camp David to work out the details after Israel and Egypt had already committed themselves, independently and entirely in pursuit of their own interests, to a peace treaty. From the outset of the Carter administration, the American commitment had been not to a deal between Israel and Egypt, but to a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian question, and it was during the administration’s busy pursuit of a renewed Geneva Conference, inclusive of the Soviet Union, Israel, and the PLO, that the Israel-Egypt deal essentially fell into Carter’s lap.

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On Wednesday, the Obama campaign received an important new endorsement: Zbigniew Brzezinski, best known for having been Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, introduced Obama on the occasion of his Iraq speech in Iowa. Expect to hear a great deal from Brzezinski about his triumphs of Middle East diplomacy, which he—not to mention Jimmy Carter—is quite fond of recounting. “The fact of the matter is that I’m part of the only administration that brought about peace between Israel and its neighbors,” Brzezinski told NBC News on the day Obama delivered his Iraq policy speech. “And so I’m proud of my record in the Middle East.”

This is a deceptive attempt at rewriting history, one that Brzezinski and his gang have been pursuing for years in an effort to manufacture retroactively a success story for the Carter administration. The administration didn’t “bring about” peace between Israel and Egypt so much as hold a summit at Camp David to work out the details after Israel and Egypt had already committed themselves, independently and entirely in pursuit of their own interests, to a peace treaty. From the outset of the Carter administration, the American commitment had been not to a deal between Israel and Egypt, but to a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian question, and it was during the administration’s busy pursuit of a renewed Geneva Conference, inclusive of the Soviet Union, Israel, and the PLO, that the Israel-Egypt deal essentially fell into Carter’s lap.

In the mid-1970’s, Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian dictator, was in a bad position: The war he launched in 1973 to wrest the Sinai back from Israel had been a humiliating catastrophe, and he was under growing internal pressure to do something—anything—to salvage Egypt’s honor and retrieve its lost territory. Sidelined by the Carter administration’s focus on the Palestinians, Sadat’s only option was to pursue the Sinai through peaceful means, by directly engaging Israel. A series of monumental and previously unthinkable events took place: In November 1977, Sadat announced to the Egyptian parliament that “Israel will be astonished to hear me say now, before you, that I am prepared to go to their own house, to the Knesset itself, to talk to them.” Four days later Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin formally invited Sadat to Jerusalem, and a week later Sadat’s plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport. Sadat visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and then addressed the Knesset, declaring that “we accept living with you in peace and justice.” All of this happened entirely independent of—and actually in defiance of—the Carter administration, whose agenda in the region was entirely focused on laying the groundwork for the hoped-for Geneva Conference (which never ended up happening).

The Carter administration was caught completely off guard by this sudden rapprochement, and had no option but to try to include itself as much as possible in the dealmaking. By the time the Camp David summit was convened in September 1978, the only thorny issue left to resolve was the question of whether there would be any Israeli presence left in the Sinai as part of a peace treaty; Begin was initially intransigent on the question, but eventually conceded to a complete withdrawal. Peace between Israel and Egypt was born.

And so today, when Brzezinski brags to the press about how his dedication to diplomacy got results—as opposed, he intones, to the senseless warmongering of the Bush administration—we are witnessing a self-aggrandizing swindle, an attempt not only at enhancing the legacy of the Carter administration but of advancing the proposition that in the Middle East, peace is always possible with the right amount of skilled and dedicated American diplomacy.

The true lesson of the Egypt-Israel rapprochement is actually the opposite of what people like Brzezinski would like it to be: It is a lesson in the sometimes irrelevance of American diplomacy in forging peace between nations, and more importantly it is an example of the reality that peace between implacable foes is usually only possible when one has so thoroughly beaten the other on the battlefield that the defeated party is left with only one option, to sue for peace. People like Brzezinski would like us to believe that heroic diplomacy in 1978 midwifed a peace treaty. Candidate Obama will be ill-served listening to this nonsense.

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Making Iran Pay

An important event, which passed with hardly any media attention, transpired last week. A federal judge ordered that Iran pay $2.6 billion to the family members and survivors of the 1983 Hizballah bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 soldiers. In 2003, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth held Iran “legally responsible” for supporting Hizballah, which carried out the attacks. Last week’s ruling determined the damages. Interestingly, according to the Washington Post, “Iran did not contest the charges.”

Why would Iran refrain from challenging such a serious ruling against it? There are two ostensible reasons. The first is that the Iranian regime considers any United States court illegitimate, and would see engaging in an appeal as an infidel ritual. The second, and more interesting, is that this is a tacit acknowledgment on Iran’s part that it was responsible for this crime (which could be considered an act of war). By not contesting the charge, Iran admits, in a not-very-subtle fashion, that it arms and equips Hizballah.

This was not the first time that Judge Lamberth has found Iran guilty of acts of international terror, specifically terror aimed at killing American servicemen. In 2003, he found Iran guilty of training men who carried out the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 23 American soldiers.

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An important event, which passed with hardly any media attention, transpired last week. A federal judge ordered that Iran pay $2.6 billion to the family members and survivors of the 1983 Hizballah bombing of a Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 soldiers. In 2003, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth held Iran “legally responsible” for supporting Hizballah, which carried out the attacks. Last week’s ruling determined the damages. Interestingly, according to the Washington Post, “Iran did not contest the charges.”

Why would Iran refrain from challenging such a serious ruling against it? There are two ostensible reasons. The first is that the Iranian regime considers any United States court illegitimate, and would see engaging in an appeal as an infidel ritual. The second, and more interesting, is that this is a tacit acknowledgment on Iran’s part that it was responsible for this crime (which could be considered an act of war). By not contesting the charge, Iran admits, in a not-very-subtle fashion, that it arms and equips Hizballah.

This was not the first time that Judge Lamberth has found Iran guilty of acts of international terror, specifically terror aimed at killing American servicemen. In 2003, he found Iran guilty of training men who carried out the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 23 American soldiers.

Of course, there is no way for the 1983 victims of the Marine barracks bombing to collect the money they have been awarded. Iran’s assets in the United States amount to no more than $20 million, almost all of it diplomatic property that the American government cannot touch. So this ruling, and the subsequent judgment, are both symbolic.

Typical of this symbolism was a portion of Judge Lamberth’s written decision, in which he stated that “this extremely sizeable judgment will serve to aid in the healing process and simultaneously sound the alarm to the defendants that their unlawful attacks on our citizens will not be tolerated.” His first contention—that the awarding of many millions of dollars (which they will never see) will “aid in the healing process”—is one that only the victims of this tragedy can judge. The second—that a force-less American court ruling (not the first of its kind) will somehow dissuade Iran from continuing its support for global terror—is even more dubious.

Iran’s involvement in attacks against American soldiers persists, at least according to General David Petraeus. At a news conference Wednesday after his congressional testimony, the General said, “The evidence is very, very clear. We captured it when we captured Qais Khazali, the Lebanese Hizballah deputy commander and others. And it’s in black and white.”

But according to many on the Left, Petraues is somehow a traitor for reporting such evidence. Others who make mere mention of the Iranian proxy war (most prominently, Senator Lieberman) are called “warmongers,” in the words of net-left favorite Matthew Yglesias. Through such effusions, these critics betray a belief that the Islamic Republic will stop killing our soldiers if we just abandon Iraq. But as last week’s court ruling reminds us, Iran has been killing Americans for decades—long before the 2003 invasion. There’s no reason to think the attacks on Americans suddenly will stop, and all kinds of reasons to think they will increase, should we capitulate.

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What’s in a Name?

Regarding Washington’s pressure on Taiwan over its application to the U.N.., it is becoming increasingly clear that new thinking is needed. Washington insists that an “official name,” as yet unspecified, and not the standard “Taiwan,” must be used when the island’s people vote. Yet our attempts to explain what clearly is a misjudged response to Chinese pressure make us look stupid at best.

Who would not be baffled by the following, from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas J. Christensen, in a speech in Annapolis on Tuesday:

In the vernacular, we all speak of “Taiwan.” The State Department does, people in Taiwan do, even Beijing does. So why worry about using the same word in this more formal political and legal context? The simple reality is that, in the world of cross-Strait relations, political symbolism matters, and disagreements over it could be the source of major tensions or even conflict.

“Conflict” over use by the Taiwanese of the name by which we and Beijing refer to them? What should the Taiwanese call themselves? Christensen doesn’t say. The answer is “The Republic of China.” One gets some idea of how taboo those words officially are from the way Christensen himself avoids using them in a speech, the chief purpose of which is to recommend the name to the Taiwanese.

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Regarding Washington’s pressure on Taiwan over its application to the U.N.., it is becoming increasingly clear that new thinking is needed. Washington insists that an “official name,” as yet unspecified, and not the standard “Taiwan,” must be used when the island’s people vote. Yet our attempts to explain what clearly is a misjudged response to Chinese pressure make us look stupid at best.

Who would not be baffled by the following, from Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas J. Christensen, in a speech in Annapolis on Tuesday:

In the vernacular, we all speak of “Taiwan.” The State Department does, people in Taiwan do, even Beijing does. So why worry about using the same word in this more formal political and legal context? The simple reality is that, in the world of cross-Strait relations, political symbolism matters, and disagreements over it could be the source of major tensions or even conflict.

“Conflict” over use by the Taiwanese of the name by which we and Beijing refer to them? What should the Taiwanese call themselves? Christensen doesn’t say. The answer is “The Republic of China.” One gets some idea of how taboo those words officially are from the way Christensen himself avoids using them in a speech, the chief purpose of which is to recommend the name to the Taiwanese.

The semantics are symptoms of the deeper problem, which is our failure to face squarely the fact that our 1970’s China policy failed, in certain respects dangerously. Its premise was that Taiwan would join China when we cut relations with Taipei. But when we cut relations, Taiwan surprised us and democratized. We need to accept that fact.

Christensen does not. At one point he reminds his audience that “we do not recognize Taiwan as an independent state.” What then is it? What should we do?

First, we should acknowledge that our 1970’s policy failed. Washington, not Taipei, created the issues of the present.

Second, we should stop blaming Taipei for the failure of a policy about which the Taiwanese were never consulted, as Christensen did when he admonished its elected government for

[N]eedlessly provocative actions . . . [that] strengthen Beijing’s hand in limiting Taiwan’s space and scare away potential friends . . . . [M]ost countries in the world accept Beijing’s characterization of Taiwan, and, when energized, the PRC can call in overwhelming support to marginalize Taipei.

(That “overwhelming support” apparently includes Christensen himself, by the way.)

Third, after acknowledging the failure of the existing policies, Secretary Christensen and his colleagues should start considering how to fix them, so as to bring Taiwan back fully into the international system.

Finally, neither Secretary Christensen nor anyone else in our administration should overestimate Beijing’s power to influence the world.

If Washington stood up for Taiwan’s democratic rights, could China continue “to marginalize the island?” Almost certainly not.

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Let General Petraeus Do His Job

In yesterday’s Washington Post we read this:

At least 10 Senate Republicans have openly questioned the president’s Iraq strategy, even as they remain reluctant to embrace Democratic legislation to change it. Republican war critics said they are detecting a shift—albeit a slight one—toward outright dissent, as their colleagues digest the Petraeus and Crocker testimony and the prospect of a maintaining a large U.S. military presence in Iraq for the near future.

Republicans will not fundamentally break with the President over Iraq at this point. While the situation in Iraq remains very difficult and success is certainly not foreordained, we are seeing demonstrable progress on both the security side and in bottom-up reconciliation. Republicans stood with the President during the most difficult hours of this war; it only makes sense to stand with him when things are improving.

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In yesterday’s Washington Post we read this:

At least 10 Senate Republicans have openly questioned the president’s Iraq strategy, even as they remain reluctant to embrace Democratic legislation to change it. Republican war critics said they are detecting a shift—albeit a slight one—toward outright dissent, as their colleagues digest the Petraeus and Crocker testimony and the prospect of a maintaining a large U.S. military presence in Iraq for the near future.

Republicans will not fundamentally break with the President over Iraq at this point. While the situation in Iraq remains very difficult and success is certainly not foreordained, we are seeing demonstrable progress on both the security side and in bottom-up reconciliation. Republicans stood with the President during the most difficult hours of this war; it only makes sense to stand with him when things are improving.

Conventional wisdom has it that what matters most when it comes to the politics of Iraq is troop levels. The more American troops stationed in Iraq and the longer they stay, goes this reasoning, the more unpopular the war will be—and the more Republicans will suffer. The sooner we withdraw troops, this line of argument continues, the better it will get.

In fact, the most important metric is not the number of American troops in Iraq, but how well (or badly) the war is going. The main engine driving the war’s unpopularity hasn’t been the number of combat brigades in Iraq; it has been conditions on the ground. What upset the American people most of all, in my judgment, is that they felt (with some justification) the war was being mismanaged and was failing—and if it was failing, the cost in lives and treasure simply wasn’t worth it.

Now that the trajectory of events is more in our favor, there is a chance to build up some support among a war-weary public. Iraq will never be a popular war—but it is possible to sustain enough public support to achieve a decent outcome.

A thought experiment: assume that in June 2008 we have 130,000 American troops in Iraq and violence there is substantially less than it is today. Assume, too, that we are seeing more signs of progress in bottom-up reconciliation, the “Anbar Awakening” is spreading to other areas, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is in retreat, and we are even seeing tangible and encouraging steps from the central government.

Now assume that in June 2008 we have 80,000 American troops in Iraq and violence there is significantly worse than it is today. Assume, too, that the progress we’ve seen in Anbar Province is undone, AQI is resurgent, ethnic and religious divisions deepen, and the central government collapses.

Which situation do you think most hurts Republicans in 2008—the 130,000 troop scenario or the 80,000 troop scenario? The question answers itself.

Our policy in Iraq should be driven by what is in our national interest and meets our moral commitments. But if politics is going to drive Republican Members of Congress, then they might as well get behind policies that will lead to the best political outcome. And that means supporting policies that have the best chance of leading to success rather than catastrophic failure in Iraq. For better or worse the Republicans “own” this war; being the architects of a strategy that leads to a premature withdrawal and a defeat in Iraq will earn them nothing but contempt—and for good reasons.

Success in Iraq may well be attainable; Republicans should do everything they can to make that possibility a reality. And these days “everything they can” means giving General Petraeus the support he needs. Give him the tools, and he and his team will finish the job.

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