Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 3, 2007

The Riddle of the NIE

The American Intelligence Community has radically revised its estimate of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, or has it?

The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the most authoritative document produced by the American Intelligence Community, begins with a stark sentence: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

A previous NIE in 2005 drew the opposite conclusion, assessing with “high confidence” that Iran “currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

The new NIE appears completely to contradict the old one. But one needs to read between the lines; what is striking about this new NIE are some of the uncertainties and ambiguities in which it is couched.

Let us consider some if its “key judgments.”

The NIE states with “high confidence” that until the fall of 2003, “Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons” before they came to a halt. But the NIE mentions this 2003 halt in the Iranian program with a curious phrase: “the halt lasted at least several years.”

What do those words mean? They appear to leave open the possibility that the halt itself has halted, and work on nuclear weapons has resumed.

Even more curiously, the NIE then notes that, because of “intelligence gaps,” the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council assess only with “moderate confidence” that the “halt to activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear-weapons program.”

What do those words mean? They plainly suggest, first of all, that the Intelligence Community’s understanding of Iranian nuclear-weapons activities is incomplete. They also make clear that two key component agencies of the Intelligence Community have serious doubts about whether the halt is a full or a partial halt. But the NIE then proceeds to downplay that possibility, stating quite categorically: “We assess with moderate confidence [that] Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.”

Without access to the underlying intelligence on which these back-and-forth assertions in this committee-produced document are founded, interpreting them involves groping in the dark. But the peculiar language, and the disclosure of dissenting views expressed by the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council, strongly hint that sharp internal divisions exist about the precise nature of the Iranian halt — if it is a halt at all.

Connecting the Dots, which has been highly critical of leaks of classified information, is left in the uncomfortable position of hoping for a leak of classified information that will resolve all the mysteries surrounding this new assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. Only one thing can be said with “high confidence” about this new NIE: when sharp divisions exist within the U.S. Intelligence Community, leaks are on the way.

The American Intelligence Community has radically revised its estimate of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, or has it?

The new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the most authoritative document produced by the American Intelligence Community, begins with a stark sentence: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

A previous NIE in 2005 drew the opposite conclusion, assessing with “high confidence” that Iran “currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

The new NIE appears completely to contradict the old one. But one needs to read between the lines; what is striking about this new NIE are some of the uncertainties and ambiguities in which it is couched.

Let us consider some if its “key judgments.”

The NIE states with “high confidence” that until the fall of 2003, “Iranian military entities were working under government direction to develop nuclear weapons” before they came to a halt. But the NIE mentions this 2003 halt in the Iranian program with a curious phrase: “the halt lasted at least several years.”

What do those words mean? They appear to leave open the possibility that the halt itself has halted, and work on nuclear weapons has resumed.

Even more curiously, the NIE then notes that, because of “intelligence gaps,” the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council assess only with “moderate confidence” that the “halt to activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear-weapons program.”

What do those words mean? They plainly suggest, first of all, that the Intelligence Community’s understanding of Iranian nuclear-weapons activities is incomplete. They also make clear that two key component agencies of the Intelligence Community have serious doubts about whether the halt is a full or a partial halt. But the NIE then proceeds to downplay that possibility, stating quite categorically: “We assess with moderate confidence [that] Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.”

Without access to the underlying intelligence on which these back-and-forth assertions in this committee-produced document are founded, interpreting them involves groping in the dark. But the peculiar language, and the disclosure of dissenting views expressed by the Department of Energy and the National Intelligence Council, strongly hint that sharp internal divisions exist about the precise nature of the Iranian halt — if it is a halt at all.

Connecting the Dots, which has been highly critical of leaks of classified information, is left in the uncomfortable position of hoping for a leak of classified information that will resolve all the mysteries surrounding this new assessment of the Iranian nuclear program. Only one thing can be said with “high confidence” about this new NIE: when sharp divisions exist within the U.S. Intelligence Community, leaks are on the way.

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A Few More Questions About The NIE

On a practical level, the new National Intelligence Estimate makes it less likely than ever—and it was never that likely to begin with—that the Bush administration would strike Iran before leaving office, which may have been the point of the document. But there is much less than meets the eye in the details of the NIE itself—or rather the portions that were released publicly—to reach any conclusions about whether and to what degree we should be worried about Iran’s nuclear weapons development.

The headline of the NIE is contained in the first line: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

That sounds reassuring until you read further down:

Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.

In short, while Iran’s nuclear-weapons program may have been suspended (the NIE expresses only “moderate confidence that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007”), the “civilian” nuclear program is going forward. What the NIE doesn’t spell out is that it’s fairly easy to convert a civilian nuclear program into a military nuclear weapons program. All you need is the appropriate “scientific, technical, and industrial capacity”—which the NIE says “with high confidence that Iran has”—and some highly-enriched fissile material, which Iran is trying to produce.

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On a practical level, the new National Intelligence Estimate makes it less likely than ever—and it was never that likely to begin with—that the Bush administration would strike Iran before leaving office, which may have been the point of the document. But there is much less than meets the eye in the details of the NIE itself—or rather the portions that were released publicly—to reach any conclusions about whether and to what degree we should be worried about Iran’s nuclear weapons development.

The headline of the NIE is contained in the first line: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.”

That sounds reassuring until you read further down:

Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iran’s civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.

In short, while Iran’s nuclear-weapons program may have been suspended (the NIE expresses only “moderate confidence that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007”), the “civilian” nuclear program is going forward. What the NIE doesn’t spell out is that it’s fairly easy to convert a civilian nuclear program into a military nuclear weapons program. All you need is the appropriate “scientific, technical, and industrial capacity”—which the NIE says “with high confidence that Iran has”—and some highly-enriched fissile material, which Iran is trying to produce.

The NIE notes that “Iran resumed its declared centrifuge enrichment activities in January 2006, despite the continued halt in the nuclear weapons program” and that “Iran made significant progress in 2007 installing centrifuges at Natanz.” And that’s only in Iran’s declared program; as the NIE notes, there could be a covert production program.

Based on what we know, the NIE concludes that, although its “very unlikely,” “the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009”—i.e., two years from now. More likely, Iran might not have the capacity to produce enough HEU until 2010 or perhaps not until 2015.

To write off the danger of an Iranian nuke based on this report, you would have to assume that there is little chance of the mullahs turning their “civilian” nuclear program toward military uses—an assumption which relies upon interpreting Iranian intentions in a fairly benign way. The NIE acknowledges the lack of American knowledge about what the Iranians are up to:

We do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently whether Tehran is willing to maintain the halt of its nuclear weapons program indefinitely while it weighs its options, or whether it will or already has set specific deadlines or criteria that will prompt it to restart the program.

So at the end of this NIE you come away knowing not much more than when you started. Basically you are left with the knowledge that the Iranians are pursuing nuclear work that probably won’t result in a bomb in the next couple of years but that could produce a weapon sometime thereafter. And most of those key judgments are delivered with only “moderate confidence.” Given the intelligence community’s consistent track record of being wrong in the past, especially about other nations’ nuclear programs (the CIA has been surprised in the past by, among others, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, India, and Pakistan) that doesn’t inspire much, well, confidence.

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An Iran Dot?

A new National Intelligence Estimate states that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003.

Just two years ago, a previous NIE had stated that the intelligence community assesses “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable.”

What accounts for this about face, a disavowal of a judgment reached with “high confidence”? Here is one dot from July. Is it connected to the new NIE?

A new National Intelligence Estimate states that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003.

Just two years ago, a previous NIE had stated that the intelligence community assesses “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons despite its international obligations and international pressure, but we do not assess that Iran is immovable.”

What accounts for this about face, a disavowal of a judgment reached with “high confidence”? Here is one dot from July. Is it connected to the new NIE?

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The First Movie of the Post Stem-Cell Debate Era!

The highly entertaining sci-fi flick I Am Legend stars Will Smith as the last man left in New York City (and maybe on earth) after a cure for cancer mutates into a virus that kills 90 percent of the population and turns 99 percent of the remnant into flesh-eating zombies, is likely to be the big winner at the Christmas box office. Those who enjoy tracking blockbusters more for their allegory than their grosses, though, may relish the movie’s timing because of its surprising subtext about how religion and science can co-exist.

Call this the first movie of the post-stem cell-debate era. After last month’s wonderful news that genetically matched stem cells could be developed without embryos, liberals were flummoxed (and maybe angered) by the news that, when it comes to medical ethics and science, Bush-era America actually could walk and chew gum at the same time. No embryos means no embryo destruction, therefore no moral problems with the stem-cell research of the future.

Smith plays a soldier/scientist immune to the virus that has destroyed humanity and turned Manhattan into a postapocalyptic wasteland where deer and other wildlife run free but there is no sign of another human being. In a twist on the grimy despair of last year’s similar Children of Men, Smith’s character has hopes of using his own blood to concoct a serum that will reverse the effects of the virus and turn the zombies back into ordinary people. He’s an atheist who believes that science, and science alone, holds the key to the future. But in a third-act twist, it turns out that religion and blind faith will have equally important roles to play if there is to be a cure–you might also use the word “salvation”–for humanity.

The highly entertaining sci-fi flick I Am Legend stars Will Smith as the last man left in New York City (and maybe on earth) after a cure for cancer mutates into a virus that kills 90 percent of the population and turns 99 percent of the remnant into flesh-eating zombies, is likely to be the big winner at the Christmas box office. Those who enjoy tracking blockbusters more for their allegory than their grosses, though, may relish the movie’s timing because of its surprising subtext about how religion and science can co-exist.

Call this the first movie of the post-stem cell-debate era. After last month’s wonderful news that genetically matched stem cells could be developed without embryos, liberals were flummoxed (and maybe angered) by the news that, when it comes to medical ethics and science, Bush-era America actually could walk and chew gum at the same time. No embryos means no embryo destruction, therefore no moral problems with the stem-cell research of the future.

Smith plays a soldier/scientist immune to the virus that has destroyed humanity and turned Manhattan into a postapocalyptic wasteland where deer and other wildlife run free but there is no sign of another human being. In a twist on the grimy despair of last year’s similar Children of Men, Smith’s character has hopes of using his own blood to concoct a serum that will reverse the effects of the virus and turn the zombies back into ordinary people. He’s an atheist who believes that science, and science alone, holds the key to the future. But in a third-act twist, it turns out that religion and blind faith will have equally important roles to play if there is to be a cure–you might also use the word “salvation”–for humanity.

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Dark Suspicions about the NIE

A new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), entitled “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” has just dealt a serious blow to the argument some of us have been making that Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons and that neither diplomacy nor sanctions can prevent it from succeeding. Thus, this latest NIE “judges with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”; it “judges with high confidence that the halt was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work”; it “assesses with moderate confidence that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007”; it assesses, also with only “moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program”; but even if not, it judges “with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.”

These findings are startling, not least because in key respects they represent a 180-degree turn from the conclusions of the last NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. For that one, issued in May 2005, assessed “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons” and to press on “despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

In other words, a full two years after Iran supposedly called a halt to its nuclear program, the intelligence community was still as sure as it ever is about anything that Iran was determined to build a nuclear arsenal. Why then should we believe it when it now tells us, and with the same “high confidence,” that Iran had already called a halt to its nuclear-weapons program in 2003? Similarly with the intelligence community’s reversal on the effectiveness of international pressure. In 2005, the NIE was highly confident that international pressure had not lessened Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons, and yet now, in 2007, the intelligence community is just as confident that international pressure had already done the trick by 2003.

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A new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), entitled “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities,” has just dealt a serious blow to the argument some of us have been making that Iran is intent on building nuclear weapons and that neither diplomacy nor sanctions can prevent it from succeeding. Thus, this latest NIE “judges with high confidence that in fall 2003 Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”; it “judges with high confidence that the halt was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure resulting from exposure of Iran’s previously undeclared nuclear work”; it “assesses with moderate confidence that Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007”; it assesses, also with only “moderate confidence that the halt to those activities represents a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program”; but even if not, it judges “with high confidence that Iran will not be technically capable of producing and reprocessing enough plutonium for a weapon before about 2015.”

These findings are startling, not least because in key respects they represent a 180-degree turn from the conclusions of the last NIE on Iran’s nuclear program. For that one, issued in May 2005, assessed “with high confidence that Iran currently is determined to develop nuclear weapons” and to press on “despite its international obligations and international pressure.”

In other words, a full two years after Iran supposedly called a halt to its nuclear program, the intelligence community was still as sure as it ever is about anything that Iran was determined to build a nuclear arsenal. Why then should we believe it when it now tells us, and with the same “high confidence,” that Iran had already called a halt to its nuclear-weapons program in 2003? Similarly with the intelligence community’s reversal on the effectiveness of international pressure. In 2005, the NIE was highly confident that international pressure had not lessened Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons, and yet now, in 2007, the intelligence community is just as confident that international pressure had already done the trick by 2003.

It is worth remembering that in 2002, one of the conclusions offered by the NIE, also with “high confidence,” was that “Iraq is continuing, and in some areas expanding its chemical, biological, nuclear, and missile programs contrary to UN resolutions.” And another conclusion, offered with high confidence too, was that “Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material.”

I must confess to suspecting that the intelligence community, having been excoriated for supporting the then universal belief that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, is now bending over backward to counter what has up to now been a similarly universal view (including as is evident from the 2005 NIE, within the intelligence community itself) that Iran is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons. I also suspect that, having been excoriated as well for minimizing the time it would take Saddam to add nuclear weapons to his arsenal, the intelligence community is now bending over backward to maximize the time it will take Iran to reach the same goal.

But I entertain an even darker suspicion. It is that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again. This time the purpose is to head off the possibility that the President may order air strikes on the Iranian nuclear installations. As the intelligence community must know, if he were to do so, it would be as a last resort, only after it had become undeniable that neither negotiations nor sanctions could prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and only after being convinced that it was very close to succeeding. How better, then, to stop Bush in his tracks than by telling him and the world that such pressures have already been effective and that keeping them up could well bring about “a halt to Iran’s entire nuclear weapons program”—especially if the negotiations and sanctions were combined with a goodly dose of appeasement or, in the NIE’s own euphemistic formulation, “with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways.”

If this is what lies behind the release of the new NIE, its authors can take satisfaction in the response it has elicited from the White House. Quoth Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s National Security Adviser: “The estimate offers grounds for hope that the problem can be solved diplomatically—without the use of force—as the administration has been trying to do.”

I should add that I offer these assessments and judgments with no more than “moderate confidence.”

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In Defense of the MFA

In today’s post, horizon blogger Stefan Beck points out that Stewart O’Nan’s new book Last Night at the Lobster, about the manager of a fictional Red Lobster franchise, is about “where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it.”

Indeed, I think we’re all a little tired of irony. Stefan goes on to say he has “vowed to read any new fiction that depicts people working at actual jobs.” It is refreshing to read a tale about someone doing meaningful work, rather than about a sensitive guy or gal scooping lint from his or her navel.

But I would add one caveat. Of late there has been a backlash against creative writing programs, which are seen as factories in which boiler-plate first-person narratives and clever short stories get churned out on assembly lines. The conventional wisdom is that MFA grads have little life experience, and in fact that their degrees are the only things qualifying them to express themselves.

I believe the current interest in “where folks live” and “actual jobs” is part of the tide rolling against writing programs. (Full disclosure: I attended such a program.) For instance, in the catalog copy of a prestigious house for the debut novel of a young writer I know, her medical degree receives top priority in her biography, as if to say, “this writer has done something real.” Subsequently this writer’s MFA receives mention.

Now I’m not pooh-poohing work. It’s important. But just because jobs are real doesn’t mean writing programs are fake.

In today’s post, horizon blogger Stefan Beck points out that Stewart O’Nan’s new book Last Night at the Lobster, about the manager of a fictional Red Lobster franchise, is about “where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it.”

Indeed, I think we’re all a little tired of irony. Stefan goes on to say he has “vowed to read any new fiction that depicts people working at actual jobs.” It is refreshing to read a tale about someone doing meaningful work, rather than about a sensitive guy or gal scooping lint from his or her navel.

But I would add one caveat. Of late there has been a backlash against creative writing programs, which are seen as factories in which boiler-plate first-person narratives and clever short stories get churned out on assembly lines. The conventional wisdom is that MFA grads have little life experience, and in fact that their degrees are the only things qualifying them to express themselves.

I believe the current interest in “where folks live” and “actual jobs” is part of the tide rolling against writing programs. (Full disclosure: I attended such a program.) For instance, in the catalog copy of a prestigious house for the debut novel of a young writer I know, her medical degree receives top priority in her biography, as if to say, “this writer has done something real.” Subsequently this writer’s MFA receives mention.

Now I’m not pooh-poohing work. It’s important. But just because jobs are real doesn’t mean writing programs are fake.

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Last Night at the Lobster

Stewart O’Nan’s new novel Last Night at the Lobster, which details the last day in the life of a Red Lobster franchise, is near the top of my reading list this month. It isn’t just that the writers’ strike has deprived me of nightmare-job comedy like The Office; Mr. O’Nan’s book sounds more melancholy than comical, truth be told. Nor is it that today’s New York Times profile of Mr. O’Nan (“he still drives a 1995 metallic copper pearl [translation: orange] Mitsubishi Eclipse that rattles on the highway”) reassures us that the book isn’t just a hipster sneer at a soft target:

After lunch, a waiter delivered a brownie sundae to an elderly woman . . . and serenaded her with a surprisingly melodic rendition of “Happy Birthday.” “That gets to the heart of it,” Mr. O’Nan said. “It’s America. This is where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it.”

That certainly helps, but the chief reason I’ll be picking up Last Night is that after Joshua Ferris’s terrific debut of office life, Then We Came to the End, I vowed to read any new fiction that depicts people working at actual jobs. Part of the fun of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, for instance, is that it takes the reader through the ins and outs of real estate, a subject that I never expected to find fascinating. By contrast, Dana Vachon’s debut Mergers & Acquisitions shows people at a job, but not working in any discernible sense. The book might as well be set in a country club.

It’s amazing how greatly a writer benefits from a working knowledge of what people spend most of their time doing. In Paul Johnson’s Creators, he notes that Geoffrey Chaucer

was involved professionally with the army and navy, international commerce, the export and import trade, central and local government finance, parliament and the law courts, the Exchequer and Chancery, the agricultural and forestry activities of the crown estates . . . and the workings of internal commerce and industry, especially the building trade.

Apparently Chaucer knew life in all its toiling variety. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that, were he our contemporary, he himself might have written The Franchise Manager’s Tale.

Stewart O’Nan’s new novel Last Night at the Lobster, which details the last day in the life of a Red Lobster franchise, is near the top of my reading list this month. It isn’t just that the writers’ strike has deprived me of nightmare-job comedy like The Office; Mr. O’Nan’s book sounds more melancholy than comical, truth be told. Nor is it that today’s New York Times profile of Mr. O’Nan (“he still drives a 1995 metallic copper pearl [translation: orange] Mitsubishi Eclipse that rattles on the highway”) reassures us that the book isn’t just a hipster sneer at a soft target:

After lunch, a waiter delivered a brownie sundae to an elderly woman . . . and serenaded her with a surprisingly melodic rendition of “Happy Birthday.” “That gets to the heart of it,” Mr. O’Nan said. “It’s America. This is where folks live. There is nothing ironic or silly about it.”

That certainly helps, but the chief reason I’ll be picking up Last Night is that after Joshua Ferris’s terrific debut of office life, Then We Came to the End, I vowed to read any new fiction that depicts people working at actual jobs. Part of the fun of Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land, for instance, is that it takes the reader through the ins and outs of real estate, a subject that I never expected to find fascinating. By contrast, Dana Vachon’s debut Mergers & Acquisitions shows people at a job, but not working in any discernible sense. The book might as well be set in a country club.

It’s amazing how greatly a writer benefits from a working knowledge of what people spend most of their time doing. In Paul Johnson’s Creators, he notes that Geoffrey Chaucer

was involved professionally with the army and navy, international commerce, the export and import trade, central and local government finance, parliament and the law courts, the Exchequer and Chancery, the agricultural and forestry activities of the crown estates . . . and the workings of internal commerce and industry, especially the building trade.

Apparently Chaucer knew life in all its toiling variety. It doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that, were he our contemporary, he himself might have written The Franchise Manager’s Tale.

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The Hack’s Back

Don Imus pretended to be outrageous, then Al Sharpton pretended to be outraged, forcing Imus to pretend to be contrite and the radio industry to pretend to banish him.

Now, the Tom Wolfery continues. The pseudo-political talk-show host returned to the air today with two new black sidekicks (an after-the-fact bit of racial pandering that actually is outrageous), and sold out New York City’s Town Hall for the event. Ticket sales are going to—need I even tell you—the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids With Cancer.

This morning Imus referred to his comments about Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team. According to the New York Times, Imus said:

“I will never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me . . . and no one else will say anything on my program that will make anyone think I did not deserve a second chance.”

I’ve always maintained this whole bonfire of the inanities wouldn’t have ignited if Imus were actually funny. The original spark, “They look like a bunch of nappy-headed hos,” simply isn’t a joke. It’s barely an attempt at one, and is purely and simply offensive in a number of ways. According to several accounts, Imus actually does have a bit of a race issue. I was happy to see him go, even if I was unhappy to celebrate in the company of hypocritical provocateurs like Sharpton.

Imus started out his radio career as a bona fide shock jock. When he began reading the op-ed page people called him smart; when he showed his true colors they condemned him. His return is an unsurprising acknowledgment of our ever-plunging standards. What’s worse is it’s demonstration that concepts like prejudice and enlightenment are now nothing more than phases in clashing PR campaigns. Which it to say they mean precisely nothing.

Update: Sharpton pretends to be encouraged.

Don Imus pretended to be outrageous, then Al Sharpton pretended to be outraged, forcing Imus to pretend to be contrite and the radio industry to pretend to banish him.

Now, the Tom Wolfery continues. The pseudo-political talk-show host returned to the air today with two new black sidekicks (an after-the-fact bit of racial pandering that actually is outrageous), and sold out New York City’s Town Hall for the event. Ticket sales are going to—need I even tell you—the Imus Cattle Ranch for Kids With Cancer.

This morning Imus referred to his comments about Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team. According to the New York Times, Imus said:

“I will never say anything in my lifetime that will make any of these young women at Rutgers regret or feel foolish that they accepted my apology and forgave me . . . and no one else will say anything on my program that will make anyone think I did not deserve a second chance.”

I’ve always maintained this whole bonfire of the inanities wouldn’t have ignited if Imus were actually funny. The original spark, “They look like a bunch of nappy-headed hos,” simply isn’t a joke. It’s barely an attempt at one, and is purely and simply offensive in a number of ways. According to several accounts, Imus actually does have a bit of a race issue. I was happy to see him go, even if I was unhappy to celebrate in the company of hypocritical provocateurs like Sharpton.

Imus started out his radio career as a bona fide shock jock. When he began reading the op-ed page people called him smart; when he showed his true colors they condemned him. His return is an unsurprising acknowledgment of our ever-plunging standards. What’s worse is it’s demonstration that concepts like prejudice and enlightenment are now nothing more than phases in clashing PR campaigns. Which it to say they mean precisely nothing.

Update: Sharpton pretends to be encouraged.

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Light, Truth, and the New Republic

At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, I decided that a part-time student job at Yale University Press would be a good line-item on my resume. At the interview, the editor, in a proud voice, told me that the “Yale Press is the second-largest university press, after Oxford. But Oxford’s not really a university press, of course.” This assertion—with its implied disdain for the black-fingernailed tradesmen at Oxford University Press—stuck, to the point that it’s been part of my table talk for eight years.

Now, it’s true that in November of 2005, a small crack appeared in the wall of separation: Yale launched a new imprint with the New Republic. But the books slated to be published were serious works of free inquiry: TNR‘s EIC Martin Peretz on Zionism, foreign policy expert Joshua Kurlantzick on China, historian Michael Makovsky on Churchill. Books, in other words, meeting Yale’s high standards. But no more. In today’s mail came Election 2008: A Voter’s Guide, by Franklin Foer and the editors of the New Republic. No! Is it possible? Is a “university press”—my university press, not those trade traitors at Oxford!—publishing a collection of magazine articles? A volume of unremarkable, tawdry candidate profiles, complete with illustrations and essays on Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel, neither of whom is running for president, and Sam Brownback, who is no longer doing so? And publishing it as a “Voter’s Guide,” no less?

I imagine Election 2008 is intended to be a “special gift” included with subscriptions to the New Republic. Is this what Yale University wants as its copyrighted intellectual property? The book is a compendium of the New Republic’s usual doses of too-clever-by-half partisan shtick. With the publication of a gift-offer book, Yale University Press has abandoned the proud claims made by the editor. And Yale has tarnished itself as a school: can you imagine the hysterical outcry that would result if a collection of articles from, say, the National Review, was published under its auspices?

At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, I decided that a part-time student job at Yale University Press would be a good line-item on my resume. At the interview, the editor, in a proud voice, told me that the “Yale Press is the second-largest university press, after Oxford. But Oxford’s not really a university press, of course.” This assertion—with its implied disdain for the black-fingernailed tradesmen at Oxford University Press—stuck, to the point that it’s been part of my table talk for eight years.

Now, it’s true that in November of 2005, a small crack appeared in the wall of separation: Yale launched a new imprint with the New Republic. But the books slated to be published were serious works of free inquiry: TNR‘s EIC Martin Peretz on Zionism, foreign policy expert Joshua Kurlantzick on China, historian Michael Makovsky on Churchill. Books, in other words, meeting Yale’s high standards. But no more. In today’s mail came Election 2008: A Voter’s Guide, by Franklin Foer and the editors of the New Republic. No! Is it possible? Is a “university press”—my university press, not those trade traitors at Oxford!—publishing a collection of magazine articles? A volume of unremarkable, tawdry candidate profiles, complete with illustrations and essays on Newt Gingrich and Chuck Hagel, neither of whom is running for president, and Sam Brownback, who is no longer doing so? And publishing it as a “Voter’s Guide,” no less?

I imagine Election 2008 is intended to be a “special gift” included with subscriptions to the New Republic. Is this what Yale University wants as its copyrighted intellectual property? The book is a compendium of the New Republic’s usual doses of too-clever-by-half partisan shtick. With the publication of a gift-offer book, Yale University Press has abandoned the proud claims made by the editor. And Yale has tarnished itself as a school: can you imagine the hysterical outcry that would result if a collection of articles from, say, the National Review, was published under its auspices?

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Light the Fire

So much in our hectic, 21st century lives takes place onscreen, why not literature?

Jeff Bezos and his company Amazon have treaded where all other such attempts have failed: into the land of e-book readers. Bezos’s device is called the “Kindle” and features a six-inch screen and a $400 price tag. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog today displays the headline, “Two Weeks In, Kindle Still ‘Fugly’ & Expensive.”

It seems the Kindle could become a kind of iPod for books, where content can be catalogued and shared. Personally, I find it difficult to read at length onscreen. But if the device were comfortable to use, I would do so. And let’s face it, books are dirty and take up space. Why not get rid of them?

According to an opinion column in last week’s Wall Street Journal, reading is on the way out. Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?

So much in our hectic, 21st century lives takes place onscreen, why not literature?

Jeff Bezos and his company Amazon have treaded where all other such attempts have failed: into the land of e-book readers. Bezos’s device is called the “Kindle” and features a six-inch screen and a $400 price tag. Mediabistro’s GalleyCat blog today displays the headline, “Two Weeks In, Kindle Still ‘Fugly’ & Expensive.”

It seems the Kindle could become a kind of iPod for books, where content can be catalogued and shared. Personally, I find it difficult to read at length onscreen. But if the device were comfortable to use, I would do so. And let’s face it, books are dirty and take up space. Why not get rid of them?

According to an opinion column in last week’s Wall Street Journal, reading is on the way out. Do electronics like the Kindle have what it takes to save reading?

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Iran’s Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities

What is Iran really up to?

Here is a well-informed guess, codified in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) produced by the the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Two of its key findings:

• We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.

• We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. (INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.) All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015.

How is “moderate confidence” defined in NIE-speak? Moderate confidence “generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence. “

How is “high confidence” defined? On the one hand, it “generally indicates that our judgments are based on high-quality information, and/or that the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.” On the other hand, it “is not a fact or a certainty . . . and such judgments still carry a risk of being wrong.”

In other words, the latest NIE is not a rock-solid judgment, and as we have already seen in a number of other dramatic instances, even the intelligence community’s rock-solid judgments might not be solid at all.

What is Iran really up to?

Here is a well-informed guess, codified in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) produced by the the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Two of its key findings:

• We judge with moderate confidence that the earliest possible date Iran would be technically capable of producing enough HEU [highly enriched uranium] for a weapon is late 2009, but that this is very unlikely.

• We judge with moderate confidence Iran probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame. (INR judges Iran is unlikely to achieve this capability before 2013 because of foreseeable technical and programmatic problems.) All agencies recognize the possibility that this capability may not be attained until after 2015.

How is “moderate confidence” defined in NIE-speak? Moderate confidence “generally means that the information is credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence. “

How is “high confidence” defined? On the one hand, it “generally indicates that our judgments are based on high-quality information, and/or that the nature of the issue makes it possible to render a solid judgment.” On the other hand, it “is not a fact or a certainty . . . and such judgments still carry a risk of being wrong.”

In other words, the latest NIE is not a rock-solid judgment, and as we have already seen in a number of other dramatic instances, even the intelligence community’s rock-solid judgments might not be solid at all.

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Defeat for Chavez

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez–who called George Bush the devil and noted that the day after the American President addressed the United Nations “it smells of sulfur still today”–has suffered a stunning defeat. Yesterday Venezuelans voted to reject a referendum that would overhaul the constitution and expedite Chavez’s plan to transform Venezuela into a socialist regime. Under Chavez’s leadership, the country has turned away from the United States, once a staunch ally.

The referendum Venezuelans voted down contained 69 proposed changes to the constitution. Such changes called for eliminating presidential term limits, increasing the authority of the President, and designating more property as communal. Not surprisingly, Chavez enjoyed large support from poorer communities, though the New York Times reports that some voting centers in lower income areas had no lines. According to the Times, “’I’m impressed by the lack of voters,’ said Ninoska González, 37, who sells cigarettes on the street. ‘This was full last year.'”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times notes that students were essential to Chavez’s opposition. The Venezuelan leader regards this opposition as “‘daddy’s little children,’ ‘fascists,’ and ‘the children of the rich,’ who he says are taking orders from the U.S. government.”

This moment is a good one for U.S.-Venezuelan relations, though it’s not exactly time to celebrate. As indicated by Chavez’s olfactory hallucination around our President, reason seems not to hamper the Venezuelan leader. One can only speculate as to what forms his response to today’s defeat will take.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez–who called George Bush the devil and noted that the day after the American President addressed the United Nations “it smells of sulfur still today”–has suffered a stunning defeat. Yesterday Venezuelans voted to reject a referendum that would overhaul the constitution and expedite Chavez’s plan to transform Venezuela into a socialist regime. Under Chavez’s leadership, the country has turned away from the United States, once a staunch ally.

The referendum Venezuelans voted down contained 69 proposed changes to the constitution. Such changes called for eliminating presidential term limits, increasing the authority of the President, and designating more property as communal. Not surprisingly, Chavez enjoyed large support from poorer communities, though the New York Times reports that some voting centers in lower income areas had no lines. According to the Times, “’I’m impressed by the lack of voters,’ said Ninoska González, 37, who sells cigarettes on the street. ‘This was full last year.'”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times notes that students were essential to Chavez’s opposition. The Venezuelan leader regards this opposition as “‘daddy’s little children,’ ‘fascists,’ and ‘the children of the rich,’ who he says are taking orders from the U.S. government.”

This moment is a good one for U.S.-Venezuelan relations, though it’s not exactly time to celebrate. As indicated by Chavez’s olfactory hallucination around our President, reason seems not to hamper the Venezuelan leader. One can only speculate as to what forms his response to today’s defeat will take.

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Olmert’s Bizarre Reading List

Thanks to their highly controversial recent publications, former President Jimmy Carter and the academic tag-team of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have become persona non grata in much of the American Jewish community. Carter’s Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid argued that Israeli settlement in the West Bank—not terrorism, nor the ascendancy of Hamas—is the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy argued that U.S. policy in the Middle East is primarily driven by “American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests.”

Yet while the American Jewish community was busy debating whether these authors were anti-Semitic, conspiratorial, or simply misguided, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was apparently leafing through the two bestselling tomes for sound-bite material. Consider Olmert’s bizarre press statements following last week’s Annapolis Conference, in which he framed his pursuit of negotiations with terms perfectly agreeable to Cater, Walt, and Mearsheimer.

First, Olmert conceded to Carter’s claim that Israel faces a choice between peace or apartheid, saying:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.

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Thanks to their highly controversial recent publications, former President Jimmy Carter and the academic tag-team of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have become persona non grata in much of the American Jewish community. Carter’s Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid argued that Israeli settlement in the West Bank—not terrorism, nor the ascendancy of Hamas—is the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Walt and Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy argued that U.S. policy in the Middle East is primarily driven by “American Jews who make a significant effort in their daily lives to bend U.S. foreign policy so that it advances Israel’s interests.”

Yet while the American Jewish community was busy debating whether these authors were anti-Semitic, conspiratorial, or simply misguided, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was apparently leafing through the two bestselling tomes for sound-bite material. Consider Olmert’s bizarre press statements following last week’s Annapolis Conference, in which he framed his pursuit of negotiations with terms perfectly agreeable to Cater, Walt, and Mearsheimer.

First, Olmert conceded to Carter’s claim that Israel faces a choice between peace or apartheid, saying:

If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then, as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.

Then, borrowing a page from the Walt-Mearsheimer playbook, Olmert argued that Israel must choose peace over apartheid to satisfy its supporters in the United States, who are essential to the Jewish state’s survival; as he told Haaretz:

The Jewish organizations, which were our power base in America, will be the first to come out against us because they will say they cannot support a state that does not support democracy and equal voting rights for all its residents.

Olmert should be taken to task for his carelessness. For starters, perhaps he needs to be reminded of his primary constituency. Olmert represents Israelis, and will need Israelis’ broad support to make the painful concessions that peace will require. It is truly hard to imagine Israelis being swayed by the prospective loss of American Jewish moral support for their government’s decisions, particularly when peace carries substantial risks for their personal security, first and foremost.

Furthermore, Olmert should be reminded of his secondary constituency: Palestinians, who will hardly be motivated to support peace with an Israeli prime minister who frames negotiations as a means of avoiding institutionalized racism. At least one Egyptian newspaper was aglow with headlines noting that the Israeli Prime Minister compared his state to apartheid South Africa. This is public diplomacy at its worst.

Olmert is going to have to learn to better represent Israelis and more effectively address Palestinians if forthcoming negotiations are to have any chance. On the other hand, in case negotiations fail, Olmert has done a good job of opening up a future position as a Middle East Fellow at the Carter Center.

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British Backbone

The feckless response of the British government to the barbaric treatment of one of its citizens, Gillian Gibbons—imprisoned by the Sudanese government for allowing her classroom of seven-year-olds to name a stuffed animal “Muhammed”—is not the type of “diplomacy” that ought become a matter of course when dealing with religious fascists and tyrants. To its credit, the British government is acting quite differently—under great pressure from its craven, European allies—in response to the scheduled appearance of Robert Mugabe at an upcoming European/African Union summit in Lisbon which starts this Saturday.

Mrs. Gibbons has become a literal hostage of the Sudanese regime; her very life is in the hands of Islamist tyrants. Likewise the European Union has become, (wittingly, to its shame) the hostage of the African Union, many of whose member states—namely those belonging to the Southern African Development Community regional group—are making their presence at this weekend’s conference conditional upon Mugabe’s presence. Not only are SADC’s members threatening to boycott the conference if Mugabe is not invited, they are simultaneously demanding that the Zimbabwe crisis itself not be on the conference agenda. The Executive Secretary of SADC stated that “SADC will not go to Lisbon to discuss Zimbabwe because the summit is not about Zimbabwe, but about relations between the EU and Africa,” he said. Mugabe has duly thanked the members of SADC, telling a crowd in Harare last week, “I want to express our gratitude to our fellow members of SADC for their support of Zimbabwe in its assertion to defend its sovereignty against the onslaught that has come from Britain and its allies.”

“Relations between the EU and Africa,” however, have everything to do with Zimbabwe. Considering the billions of dollars in aid money that Western governments give annually to African ones, the governance of African states is certainly pertinent to the nations forking over so much dough, indeed, “governance and human rights” are one of 5 topics that are on the conference agenda. So if the SADC states see fit to prop up, exalt, and equip a murderous dictator whose economic policies have gravely affected European businesses and who has violated the human rights of thousands of British subjects–to say nothing of those policies which have led to the deaths of untold thousands of Mugabe’s own people and created one of the largest refugee crises in the world–it’s difficult to see how this situation does not fit under the purview of the European Union’s relations with its African allies.

Earlier this year, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown showed some spine and stated that he would not attend the summit if Mugabe were to be there. Mugabe has confirmed his attendance for the weekend, and the European Union—by indulging the petty whims of African states—has demonstrated its favoritism for a tyrant over the leader of one of the world’s great democracies. Thus far, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Mirek Topolanek, is the only other European leader to follow Brown’s example. This is an encouraging sign, however minor, that at least some Europeans understand the importance of not caving into the demands of tyrants, or their enablers.

Update: Gibbons has been pardoned. Three cheers for that.

The feckless response of the British government to the barbaric treatment of one of its citizens, Gillian Gibbons—imprisoned by the Sudanese government for allowing her classroom of seven-year-olds to name a stuffed animal “Muhammed”—is not the type of “diplomacy” that ought become a matter of course when dealing with religious fascists and tyrants. To its credit, the British government is acting quite differently—under great pressure from its craven, European allies—in response to the scheduled appearance of Robert Mugabe at an upcoming European/African Union summit in Lisbon which starts this Saturday.

Mrs. Gibbons has become a literal hostage of the Sudanese regime; her very life is in the hands of Islamist tyrants. Likewise the European Union has become, (wittingly, to its shame) the hostage of the African Union, many of whose member states—namely those belonging to the Southern African Development Community regional group—are making their presence at this weekend’s conference conditional upon Mugabe’s presence. Not only are SADC’s members threatening to boycott the conference if Mugabe is not invited, they are simultaneously demanding that the Zimbabwe crisis itself not be on the conference agenda. The Executive Secretary of SADC stated that “SADC will not go to Lisbon to discuss Zimbabwe because the summit is not about Zimbabwe, but about relations between the EU and Africa,” he said. Mugabe has duly thanked the members of SADC, telling a crowd in Harare last week, “I want to express our gratitude to our fellow members of SADC for their support of Zimbabwe in its assertion to defend its sovereignty against the onslaught that has come from Britain and its allies.”

“Relations between the EU and Africa,” however, have everything to do with Zimbabwe. Considering the billions of dollars in aid money that Western governments give annually to African ones, the governance of African states is certainly pertinent to the nations forking over so much dough, indeed, “governance and human rights” are one of 5 topics that are on the conference agenda. So if the SADC states see fit to prop up, exalt, and equip a murderous dictator whose economic policies have gravely affected European businesses and who has violated the human rights of thousands of British subjects–to say nothing of those policies which have led to the deaths of untold thousands of Mugabe’s own people and created one of the largest refugee crises in the world–it’s difficult to see how this situation does not fit under the purview of the European Union’s relations with its African allies.

Earlier this year, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown showed some spine and stated that he would not attend the summit if Mugabe were to be there. Mugabe has confirmed his attendance for the weekend, and the European Union—by indulging the petty whims of African states—has demonstrated its favoritism for a tyrant over the leader of one of the world’s great democracies. Thus far, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Mirek Topolanek, is the only other European leader to follow Brown’s example. This is an encouraging sign, however minor, that at least some Europeans understand the importance of not caving into the demands of tyrants, or their enablers.

Update: Gibbons has been pardoned. Three cheers for that.

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It Was Not A Misunderstanding

Last Wednesday, a White House spokesman said that the Chinese foreign minister had told President Bush it was all a “misunderstanding.” But according to Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, the Chinese are saying that their foreign minister “did not tell President Bush on Wednesday that blocking the Thanksgiving Day port visit to Hong Kong by aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was the result of a misunderstanding.”

The incident followed Beijing’s refusal, a few days earlier, to permit two American minesweeping ships permission to take refuge in Hong Kong harbor from a storm.

Whether these incident were misunderstandings or not, the most disconcerting aspect of this affair is not Chinese behavior, which is becoming predictable in its unpredictability, but our government’s puzzled response.

“I’m aware of no hiccups at all in our efforts to increase military-to-military cooperation, exchanges with the Chinese,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. “I think that’s why this incident is so baffling to us, because there was no indication at all prior to the Kitty Hawk being refused entry to the port of Hong Kong that there was any reason or any cause for concern.”

Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, says the Kitty Hawk incident “is not, in our view, conduct that is indicative of a country that understands its obligations as a responsible nation.” True enough.

But why did Admiral Keating have to go on to say that the incidents are “perplexing”?

Why did he have to say “We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to work our way around some of these aggravations”?

Why did he have to say (in remarks summarized in the Thai press) that “he does not want to reduce military cooperation with China, but rather to increase dialogue and joint training in order to avoid misunderstandings”?

Even if these “aggravations” truly are “perplexing,” should the stance of the U.S. government be that of a disappointed supplicant expressing bafflement? Or at the very least should we be saying forcefully that China appears increasingly to be playing by different rules than we are, and it’s time to pay attention?

Last Wednesday, a White House spokesman said that the Chinese foreign minister had told President Bush it was all a “misunderstanding.” But according to Bill Gertz of the Washington Times, the Chinese are saying that their foreign minister “did not tell President Bush on Wednesday that blocking the Thanksgiving Day port visit to Hong Kong by aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk was the result of a misunderstanding.”

The incident followed Beijing’s refusal, a few days earlier, to permit two American minesweeping ships permission to take refuge in Hong Kong harbor from a storm.

Whether these incident were misunderstandings or not, the most disconcerting aspect of this affair is not Chinese behavior, which is becoming predictable in its unpredictability, but our government’s puzzled response.

“I’m aware of no hiccups at all in our efforts to increase military-to-military cooperation, exchanges with the Chinese,” said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell. “I think that’s why this incident is so baffling to us, because there was no indication at all prior to the Kitty Hawk being refused entry to the port of Hong Kong that there was any reason or any cause for concern.”

Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, says the Kitty Hawk incident “is not, in our view, conduct that is indicative of a country that understands its obligations as a responsible nation.” True enough.

But why did Admiral Keating have to go on to say that the incidents are “perplexing”?

Why did he have to say “We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to work our way around some of these aggravations”?

Why did he have to say (in remarks summarized in the Thai press) that “he does not want to reduce military cooperation with China, but rather to increase dialogue and joint training in order to avoid misunderstandings”?

Even if these “aggravations” truly are “perplexing,” should the stance of the U.S. government be that of a disappointed supplicant expressing bafflement? Or at the very least should we be saying forcefully that China appears increasingly to be playing by different rules than we are, and it’s time to pay attention?

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