Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 5, 2007

Brown Comes A Cropper

On Friday, the Daily Telegraph reported results “among the most devastating for any government in the history of opinion polling”: the proportion of voters satisfied with Gordon Brown as prime minister has fallen to 23 percent. As the New York Times put it yesterday, this is a complete “reversal of fortune” from Brown’s summer dominance. His only consolation is that he has time to recover before he has to call an election in May 2010.

We have seen this movie before. In April 1955, Anthony Eden, the prime minister in waiting since 1951, took over Number 10 from Winston Churchill. Eden won a general election in May 1955, but by January 1957, destroyed by the Suez Crisis, he was out of office, replaced by Harold Macmillan.

Brown’s error was to fail to do the one thing Eden did right: hold (and win) an election soon after coming to power. Tony Blair tripped Brown up by leaving in June: Brown could not have gone to the polls until early October. But Brown made matters worse first by dithering, and then by announcing on October 6 that he had decided against calling an
election. By late September, the Tories were making up ground; since then, they have sprinted ahead.

The parallel is not just between Eden and Brown. The Marquess of Salisbury was followed in 1902 by Arthur Balfour, who lasted only three years. Stanley Baldwin was replaced by Neville Chamberlain in 1937, who left in May 1940. Winston Churchill was followed by Eden, gone in 1957. Harold Macmillan’s successor was Alec Douglas-Home, who survived only a year. Harold Wilson made room in 1976 for James Callaghan, who lost to Thatcher in 1979. Margaret Thatcher dominated the 1980’s, but her heir John Major, though he won victory against the odds in 1992, was routed by Blair in 1997. And now Blair’s heir has run onto the rocks six months after ousting his former leader.

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On Friday, the Daily Telegraph reported results “among the most devastating for any government in the history of opinion polling”: the proportion of voters satisfied with Gordon Brown as prime minister has fallen to 23 percent. As the New York Times put it yesterday, this is a complete “reversal of fortune” from Brown’s summer dominance. His only consolation is that he has time to recover before he has to call an election in May 2010.

We have seen this movie before. In April 1955, Anthony Eden, the prime minister in waiting since 1951, took over Number 10 from Winston Churchill. Eden won a general election in May 1955, but by January 1957, destroyed by the Suez Crisis, he was out of office, replaced by Harold Macmillan.

Brown’s error was to fail to do the one thing Eden did right: hold (and win) an election soon after coming to power. Tony Blair tripped Brown up by leaving in June: Brown could not have gone to the polls until early October. But Brown made matters worse first by dithering, and then by announcing on October 6 that he had decided against calling an
election. By late September, the Tories were making up ground; since then, they have sprinted ahead.

The parallel is not just between Eden and Brown. The Marquess of Salisbury was followed in 1902 by Arthur Balfour, who lasted only three years. Stanley Baldwin was replaced by Neville Chamberlain in 1937, who left in May 1940. Winston Churchill was followed by Eden, gone in 1957. Harold Macmillan’s successor was Alec Douglas-Home, who survived only a year. Harold Wilson made room in 1976 for James Callaghan, who lost to Thatcher in 1979. Margaret Thatcher dominated the 1980’s, but her heir John Major, though he won victory against the odds in 1992, was routed by Blair in 1997. And now Blair’s heir has run onto the rocks six months after ousting his former leader.

Historian David Cannadine has described this pattern in twentieth-century British history as “the village fiddler after Paganini”: a dominant leader followed by a supposedly heavyweight successor who immediately comes a cropper. Why? Bad luck is a political reality, and the Prime Ministerial successors, taken as a group, may simply have been less talented than their predecessors.

But fundamentally, the pattern exists because in parliamentary systems a government can fall with a single vote. Therefore, as Churchill put it, “the loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips he must be sustained.” But though a British party will manifest intense loyalty to the leader that puts it into power, it never feels as strongly about his successor.

Occasionally, as in 1957, a party can discard the successor and rally around a new leader: Brown may be forced to make way for a new Labour leader at a time not of his choosing. But such successes are rare. The odds are that Brown, having turned down, will keep going that way and ride his party to defeat.

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A Blow for Democracy in Hong Kong

The slow-moving but steady struggle for democracy in Hong Kong—which China promised in 1997 when taking over the territory from the British, but without specifying a date—took a major step forward with today’s swearing-in of newly-elected Anson Chan to the Legislative Council.

Chan’s victory was a major setback, ten years into rule by Beijing, for the Chinese scenario, according to which the city is to be de-politicized gradually and democracy made to disappear while Hong Kong remains an economic center. By electing Chan by 54 percent over her pro-Beijing opponent, the voters of Hong Kong dealt a deadly blow to that plan.

Chan, a highly respected former civil servant born in Shanghai and educated in Hong Kong Catholic schools and at Tufts University in the United States, had avoided politics for years since her resignation in 2001 from the number two post in the first Chinese-run administration. (She had been the first ethnic Chinese to hold the analogous post under the British).

Chan stepped forward, however, when the death of Ma Lik, leader of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), opened up a key seat in the city’s Legislative Council. Chan’s opponent for this seat was prominent politician Regina Ip.

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The slow-moving but steady struggle for democracy in Hong Kong—which China promised in 1997 when taking over the territory from the British, but without specifying a date—took a major step forward with today’s swearing-in of newly-elected Anson Chan to the Legislative Council.

Chan’s victory was a major setback, ten years into rule by Beijing, for the Chinese scenario, according to which the city is to be de-politicized gradually and democracy made to disappear while Hong Kong remains an economic center. By electing Chan by 54 percent over her pro-Beijing opponent, the voters of Hong Kong dealt a deadly blow to that plan.

Chan, a highly respected former civil servant born in Shanghai and educated in Hong Kong Catholic schools and at Tufts University in the United States, had avoided politics for years since her resignation in 2001 from the number two post in the first Chinese-run administration. (She had been the first ethnic Chinese to hold the analogous post under the British).

Chan stepped forward, however, when the death of Ma Lik, leader of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), opened up a key seat in the city’s Legislative Council. Chan’s opponent for this seat was prominent politician Regina Ip.

DAB leader Ma Lik will probably be best remembered for remarks in May of this year dismissing the Tiananmen massacre: “We should not say the Communist Party massacred people on June 4 . . . it was not a massacre.” Attempting to play the anti-foreign card, he added that the government should decide what really happened, not “gweilos” (a derogatory Cantonese word for foreigners).

Ma also criticized democracy, arguing that universal suffrage should not be introduced until 2022, when more Hong Kongers will have gone through “national awareness education.”

Regina Ip had, like Ma, made herself suddenly controversial through comments that were ill-judged at best. In 2002, when China proposed an “Anti-Subversion Law” that would have greatly increased Beijing’s already tight control over Hong Kong, Ip sprang to the defense of the measure, stating “Hitler was elected by the people. But he ended up killing seven million people. This proves that democracy is not a cure-all medicine.” (Faced with massive public protest, Beijing withdrew the legislation the following year.)

So this by-election was a high-stakes grudge match, with plenty of mudslinging, between two of Hong Kong’s most powerful female politicians and between the mutually hostile pro-democracy and pro-Beijing political organizations. It took place against a background of ten years’ tug-of-war, with China seeking to kick democracy into the indefinite future. With pro-Beijing standard bearer Ma Lik now dead and Regina Ip trounced at the polls, Chan’s victory is all the more significant.

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Keep Digging!

As if last week’s discovery of a 2,500-year-old wall in Jerusalem, most probably built by the biblical Nehemiah, were not enough to affix ancient Jerusalem squarely in our historical eye, another major discovery has just been reported by the Israel Antiquities Authority: the Palace of Queen Helena, dating to the late Second Temple Period, or the mid-1st century C.E.. According to the Jerusalem Post (the article includes a stunning photo of the excavation), the site

includes massive foundations; walls, some of which are preserved to a height in excess of five meters and built of stones that weigh hundreds of kilograms; halls that are preserved to a height of at least two stories; a basement level that was covered with vaults; remains of polychrome frescoes, water installations, and ritual baths.

According to the report, the find suggests that ancient Jerusalem was much larger in area than previously thought.

Archaeologists will tell you that this palace, while of enormous historical value for the Second Temple period, does nothing for the debate over the historicity of the Hebrew Bible—for the simple reason that the Old Testament’s accounts end centuries before Queen Helena’s high-profile conversion to Judaism. Fair enough. Yet, in the unscholarly battles over public opinion, it is hard to avoid the feeling that those who would rewrite history without a Jewish presence in the land of Israel—the self-styled post-colonialist combatants who see in every archaeological find yet more proof of Zionist propaganda, and the whole coterie of post-truth Saidians (like Barnard’s Nadia Abu El-Haj) who have decided that since history is really just politics, they are free to rewrite history according to their politics—have been dealt yet another major setback.

The lesson here is that when bad scholarship is mustered to aid political causes, the best response is better scholarship. Keep digging!

As if last week’s discovery of a 2,500-year-old wall in Jerusalem, most probably built by the biblical Nehemiah, were not enough to affix ancient Jerusalem squarely in our historical eye, another major discovery has just been reported by the Israel Antiquities Authority: the Palace of Queen Helena, dating to the late Second Temple Period, or the mid-1st century C.E.. According to the Jerusalem Post (the article includes a stunning photo of the excavation), the site

includes massive foundations; walls, some of which are preserved to a height in excess of five meters and built of stones that weigh hundreds of kilograms; halls that are preserved to a height of at least two stories; a basement level that was covered with vaults; remains of polychrome frescoes, water installations, and ritual baths.

According to the report, the find suggests that ancient Jerusalem was much larger in area than previously thought.

Archaeologists will tell you that this palace, while of enormous historical value for the Second Temple period, does nothing for the debate over the historicity of the Hebrew Bible—for the simple reason that the Old Testament’s accounts end centuries before Queen Helena’s high-profile conversion to Judaism. Fair enough. Yet, in the unscholarly battles over public opinion, it is hard to avoid the feeling that those who would rewrite history without a Jewish presence in the land of Israel—the self-styled post-colonialist combatants who see in every archaeological find yet more proof of Zionist propaganda, and the whole coterie of post-truth Saidians (like Barnard’s Nadia Abu El-Haj) who have decided that since history is really just politics, they are free to rewrite history according to their politics—have been dealt yet another major setback.

The lesson here is that when bad scholarship is mustered to aid political causes, the best response is better scholarship. Keep digging!

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The NIE Is Good News, Not Political Currency

Whenever Democrats accuse George W. Bush of using 9/11 as a scare tactic or talking point it tells me that the accuser, not the President, is set on trivializing the attacks of that day. If things are so good that you can’t see beyond the partisan implications of world-historic catastrophe then you’ve settled into a deadly kind of decadence.

On the flipside, I think you can say the same of people whose response to dodging a nuclear bullet is to snicker.

The NIE, if accepted at face value, means nothing less than the nullification of the deadliest threat we faced. Less than a week ago, we understood our Iranian options to be abysmal and worse. An Iran hell-bent on nukes demanded either military intervention or de facto surrender (and this is to say nothing of the consequences of an Iranian nuclear launch.) One would think averting, if not facing down, this menace a cause for celebration. Yet, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats have found nothing more than an opportunity for political calibration. All they’ve done is tsk tsk the Bush administration for its hardline approach to Tehran (while ignoring that it’s this very tactic which yielded Iranian compliance.)

In going down this road, Democrats are endorsing a dangerously cynical analysis. Any genuine threat is downplayed as a scare tactic, and any success is denied as Bush PR. As the Left continues to react to potentially world-shaking events with political haymaking, we’re left wondering where they actually stand on those events. That is, if such things matter to them at all.

Whenever Democrats accuse George W. Bush of using 9/11 as a scare tactic or talking point it tells me that the accuser, not the President, is set on trivializing the attacks of that day. If things are so good that you can’t see beyond the partisan implications of world-historic catastrophe then you’ve settled into a deadly kind of decadence.

On the flipside, I think you can say the same of people whose response to dodging a nuclear bullet is to snicker.

The NIE, if accepted at face value, means nothing less than the nullification of the deadliest threat we faced. Less than a week ago, we understood our Iranian options to be abysmal and worse. An Iran hell-bent on nukes demanded either military intervention or de facto surrender (and this is to say nothing of the consequences of an Iranian nuclear launch.) One would think averting, if not facing down, this menace a cause for celebration. Yet, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton, and other Democrats have found nothing more than an opportunity for political calibration. All they’ve done is tsk tsk the Bush administration for its hardline approach to Tehran (while ignoring that it’s this very tactic which yielded Iranian compliance.)

In going down this road, Democrats are endorsing a dangerously cynical analysis. Any genuine threat is downplayed as a scare tactic, and any success is denied as Bush PR. As the Left continues to react to potentially world-shaking events with political haymaking, we’re left wondering where they actually stand on those events. That is, if such things matter to them at all.

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Connecting the Dots

There’s a lot going on at contentions about the NIE, but make sure to check out Gabriel Schoenfeld’s tackling of the same subject over at connecting the dots.

There’s a lot going on at contentions about the NIE, but make sure to check out Gabriel Schoenfeld’s tackling of the same subject over at connecting the dots.

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Bawer on Barack

Bruce Bawer is one of the great literary critics and political writers of the age (his latest book, While Europe Slept, was nominated for a National Book Award earlier this year). Recently, he picked up a copy of Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, and is quite disappointed:

Yet on whom does Barack’s memoir focus? On his father – whom Barack, against all evidence (which suggests that Dr. Obama was colossally selfish and narcissistic), seeks to portray as heroic, sympathetic, indeed near-mythic. Obama père was a polygamist (and a lousy husband to all his wives), but Barack gives no indication that he finds this morally problematic; on the contrary, he seems determined to excuse his father’s many failings as consequences of imperialism, colonialism, and/or racism. One can, of course, well understand why a small boy – or even a young man – might idealize out of all proportion the father he never met. But Obama shows few signs in this book of recognizing that he’s doing this. Meanwhile, perversely, he treats his mother and grandparents, who by his own account raised him with extraordinary devotion, all but dismissively. At one point he even suggests that Gramps and Toot were really racists – and that all white people, in fact, are racists, and that black people have been so deformed by this racism that black individuals can hardly be held responsible for their own moral lapses.

Bawer’s review is well-worth reading in full. Were it not for the slavish devotion of Obama’s supporters—who make a very big deal out of Obama’s physical traits and personal history—then Bawer’s criticisms might be called irrelevant. But Obama is being sold to us as a man with a great biography (indeed, this life story—and loathing of Hillary Clinton—seems to be the aspect propelling his candidacy) and so that biography is well-worth examining, perhaps more so than those of the other candidates. As Bawer concludes, “As for [Obama's] social, racial, and political attitudes—well, yes, since 1995 he’s definitely changed his tune about a few things. But how much has he changed deep down inside?”

Bruce Bawer is one of the great literary critics and political writers of the age (his latest book, While Europe Slept, was nominated for a National Book Award earlier this year). Recently, he picked up a copy of Barack Obama’s 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, and is quite disappointed:

Yet on whom does Barack’s memoir focus? On his father – whom Barack, against all evidence (which suggests that Dr. Obama was colossally selfish and narcissistic), seeks to portray as heroic, sympathetic, indeed near-mythic. Obama père was a polygamist (and a lousy husband to all his wives), but Barack gives no indication that he finds this morally problematic; on the contrary, he seems determined to excuse his father’s many failings as consequences of imperialism, colonialism, and/or racism. One can, of course, well understand why a small boy – or even a young man – might idealize out of all proportion the father he never met. But Obama shows few signs in this book of recognizing that he’s doing this. Meanwhile, perversely, he treats his mother and grandparents, who by his own account raised him with extraordinary devotion, all but dismissively. At one point he even suggests that Gramps and Toot were really racists – and that all white people, in fact, are racists, and that black people have been so deformed by this racism that black individuals can hardly be held responsible for their own moral lapses.

Bawer’s review is well-worth reading in full. Were it not for the slavish devotion of Obama’s supporters—who make a very big deal out of Obama’s physical traits and personal history—then Bawer’s criticisms might be called irrelevant. But Obama is being sold to us as a man with a great biography (indeed, this life story—and loathing of Hillary Clinton—seems to be the aspect propelling his candidacy) and so that biography is well-worth examining, perhaps more so than those of the other candidates. As Bawer concludes, “As for [Obama's] social, racial, and political attitudes—well, yes, since 1995 he’s definitely changed his tune about a few things. But how much has he changed deep down inside?”

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A Victory for Ahamdinejad?

The more we learn about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the less “confidence” we can have in its sanguine findings about the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Today comes news that Israel, one of America’s closest collaborators in intelligence-gathering in the Middle East, has reached very different conclusions. Haaretz quotes Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister and now defense minister (and hardly a hawk), as follows:

“It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program but as far as we know it has probably since revived it.”

His comments go to one of the key weaknesses of the NIE. While it claims with “high confidence” that Iran suspended its nuclear-weapons work in 2003, the report offers only “moderate confidence” that this program has not been resumed.

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The more we learn about the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, the less “confidence” we can have in its sanguine findings about the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Today comes news that Israel, one of America’s closest collaborators in intelligence-gathering in the Middle East, has reached very different conclusions. Haaretz quotes Ehud Barak, Israel’s former prime minister and now defense minister (and hardly a hawk), as follows:

“It seems Iran in 2003 halted for a certain period of time its military nuclear program but as far as we know it has probably since revived it.”

His comments go to one of the key weaknesses of the NIE. While it claims with “high confidence” that Iran suspended its nuclear-weapons work in 2003, the report offers only “moderate confidence” that this program has not been resumed.

Some will no doubt dismiss Israeli officials as being alarmist, although they have a larger stake—a life and death stake—than do American intelligence analysts in figuring out the state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Harder to dismiss are concerns from the International Atomic Energy Agency, which has long been criticized for being relatively soft on Iran and other proliferators. While Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, greeted the release of the NIE with a “sigh of relief,” others who are involved in his agency’s work are apparently taking a more cautious attitude. The New York Times reports:

“To be frank, we are more skeptical,” a senior official close to the agency said. “We don’t buy the American analysis 100 percent. We are not that generous with Iran.” The official called the American assertion that Iran had “halted” its weapons program in 2003 “somewhat surprising.”

When even some at the IAEA think the U.S. intelligence community is being too generous in its assessment of Iran, that should be cause for serious concern.

And, indeed, whether Iran has restarted its “nuclear weapons program” since 2003 or not, the fact remains that its supposedly “civilian” enrichment work could easily produce a bomb. Indeed, as this New York Times article notes,

After the United States, the Soviet Union, and Britain became the first three countries with atom bombs, all the rest hid their military programs to one extent or another behind the mask of peaceful nuclear power. That includes France, China, Israel, India, South Africa, and Pakistan.

A number of experts have even raised the possibility that Iran may have suspended its “nuclear weapons” work in 2003 because it had already come up with a working bomb design, and now only needs to produce enough highly enriched uranium to create a working bomb. The hardest part of making a nuclear weapon is not the design and production of the warhead; it is the production or procurement of the fissile material. It is quite possible that A.Q. Khan, the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist, may have provided Iran with a working bomb design. Or perhaps the Iranians have gotten what they need from their friends in North Korea, who were also beneficiaries of the A.Q. Khan network.

Whatever the case, the news, even if accurate, that Iran suspended its “nuclear weapon” work in 2003 is hardly cause for celebration. Unfortunately the NIE’s political impact is out of all proportion to its analytical rigor. It will now be harder than ever to get tough international sanctions on Iran.

As noted by CNN, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is claiming “victory,” declaring that “the report said clearly that the Iranian people were on the right course” and that “Iran has turned to a nuclear country and all world countries have accepted this fact.” Much as I would like to think that Ahmadinejad is wrong, in this case I think he has a point.

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What is That Strange Odor at Langley?

A day has passed since the release of the new intelligence-community estimate of the Iranian program and the smell of rotting fish is growing stronger. Even the editorial page of the New York Times is wondering if the NIE erred on the side of incaution. It reports that an official “close” to the International Atomic Energy Agency “told the Times yesterday that new American assessment might be too generous to Iran.”

Any careful reading of the NIE makes its obvious that this is true. The report’s stark opening declaration – made with “high confidence” – that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 is blatantly misleading. The only thing that was halted in 2003 was what the intelligence community calls the military side of Iran’s nuclear program.

Leaving the impression that the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran has receded, the NIE omits all mention of the fact that a civilian uranium-enrichment program remains as active as before at Natanz, where 3,000-plus centrifuges are whirring away. This critical point is only referred to obliquely in the single footnote in the declassified version of the NIE. In other words, it is buried. The footnote read: “For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

But as William Broad writes in today’s Times, “[t]he open secret of the nuclear age is that the line between civilian and military programs is extraordinarily thin.” Indeed, in a country like Iran, when it comes to civil and military uranium-enrichment programs, we are dealing with a distinction without a difference. The enriched uranium produced at Natanz could be turned to military purposes tomorrow or the day after if that is what ayatollahs decree.

Even the new NIE implicitly acknowledges this fact. It judges 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.” Although it says this is “very unlikely,” it adds that by the following year, i.e., in the 2010 to 2015 time frame, Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon.” These timelines differ only marginally from the timelines offered in the 2005 NIE that is now said by the intelligence community to be incorrect.

The overall impression created by the NIE is that the Iranian nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, and such is the interpretation it is being given all over the world. But we do not have to rely on leaks, or on the differing assessment of allied countries like Israel, to see that this is false. All the evidence we need is contained in the NIE itself, which is framed in a deeply slanted way.

There are so many dots in need of connecting here that we would need a pointillist painter to make sense of what is going on.

1. Why was the public version of the NIE written in this misleading way?

2. How did the two Bush appointees running the intelligence community, Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, and Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, allow such a flawed product to make its way into the public domain? Is this a case of the fish rotting from the head? Should one or both of them be fired for incompetence, or worse?

3 Why did President Bush, who was only fully briefed on the new “findings” last week, also authorize the NIE’s release? Did he welcome the document as a way of taking the pressure off him to strike Iran? Or, as seems more likely, was he compelled to do so to avoid charges of suppressing intelligence?

Yesterday, I dismissed Norman Podhoretz’s expression of “dark suspicions” 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.

I responded to him by noting that leaks were one thing, an NIE produced by a laborious inter-agency process is another, and that “the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit.”

But in dismissing Norman’s dark suspicions, did I treat his claim “a bit too literally,” as Ben Orlanski has written in the comments section in response to my post? Orlanski goes on to explain: 

This isn’t a question of cooking the books to produce bogus information to defeat Bush. It is a question of how this was spun. The NIE report chose to lead with the made-for-headline finding about the halt to the program. But this isn’t really the most relevant part of the report, just the part that was pretty clearly intended to grab headlines. Is saying that a conspiracy? I don’t think so. I think the authors wanted to impact the political debate, and did so not by lying or creating bogus conclusions or reasoning, but simply by choosing to emphasize the part of their overall conclusions that played most pointedly into the political environment. [This] suggest[s] certain political canniness [on the part] of our intelligence agencies, and also suggests that they wanted to have an impact on ultimate policy. That is not their role, and there is something disconcerting about their assuming it.

With this I would entirely agree. If that is indeed what happened here, and the evidence that it did so is in front of our eyes, and if it is indeed what Norman was saying, then, like the intelligence-community’s disavowal of its 2005 NIE, I would have to disavow my previous “low confidence” estimate in Norman “dark suspicions” and join him in voicing equally dark suspicions of my own.

A day has passed since the release of the new intelligence-community estimate of the Iranian program and the smell of rotting fish is growing stronger. Even the editorial page of the New York Times is wondering if the NIE erred on the side of incaution. It reports that an official “close” to the International Atomic Energy Agency “told the Times yesterday that new American assessment might be too generous to Iran.”

Any careful reading of the NIE makes its obvious that this is true. The report’s stark opening declaration – made with “high confidence” – that Iran halted its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 is blatantly misleading. The only thing that was halted in 2003 was what the intelligence community calls the military side of Iran’s nuclear program.

Leaving the impression that the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran has receded, the NIE omits all mention of the fact that a civilian uranium-enrichment program remains as active as before at Natanz, where 3,000-plus centrifuges are whirring away. This critical point is only referred to obliquely in the single footnote in the declassified version of the NIE. In other words, it is buried. The footnote read: “For the purposes of this Estimate, by ‘nuclear weapons program’ we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.”

But as William Broad writes in today’s Times, “[t]he open secret of the nuclear age is that the line between civilian and military programs is extraordinarily thin.” Indeed, in a country like Iran, when it comes to civil and military uranium-enrichment programs, we are dealing with a distinction without a difference. The enriched uranium produced at Natanz could be turned to military purposes tomorrow or the day after if that is what ayatollahs decree.

Even the new NIE implicitly acknowledges this fact. It judges 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.” Although it says this is “very unlikely,” it adds that by the following year, i.e., in the 2010 to 2015 time frame, Iran “probably would be technically capable of producing enough HEU for a weapon.” These timelines differ only marginally from the timelines offered in the 2005 NIE that is now said by the intelligence community to be incorrect.

The overall impression created by the NIE is that the Iranian nuclear program came to a halt in 2003, and such is the interpretation it is being given all over the world. But we do not have to rely on leaks, or on the differing assessment of allied countries like Israel, to see that this is false. All the evidence we need is contained in the NIE itself, which is framed in a deeply slanted way.

There are so many dots in need of connecting here that we would need a pointillist painter to make sense of what is going on.

1. Why was the public version of the NIE written in this misleading way?

2. How did the two Bush appointees running the intelligence community, Mike McConnell, the Director of National Intelligence, and Michael Hayden, the director of the CIA, allow such a flawed product to make its way into the public domain? Is this a case of the fish rotting from the head? Should one or both of them be fired for incompetence, or worse?

3 Why did President Bush, who was only fully briefed on the new “findings” last week, also authorize the NIE’s release? Did he welcome the document as a way of taking the pressure off him to strike Iran? Or, as seems more likely, was he compelled to do so to avoid charges of suppressing intelligence?

Yesterday, I dismissed Norman Podhoretz’s expression of “dark suspicions” 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.

I responded to him by noting that leaks were one thing, an NIE produced by a laborious inter-agency process is another, and that “the idea that intelligence officials engaged in a coordinated effort to cook the evidence seems impossible to credit.”

But in dismissing Norman’s dark suspicions, did I treat his claim “a bit too literally,” as Ben Orlanski has written in the comments section in response to my post? Orlanski goes on to explain: 

This isn’t a question of cooking the books to produce bogus information to defeat Bush. It is a question of how this was spun. The NIE report chose to lead with the made-for-headline finding about the halt to the program. But this isn’t really the most relevant part of the report, just the part that was pretty clearly intended to grab headlines. Is saying that a conspiracy? I don’t think so. I think the authors wanted to impact the political debate, and did so not by lying or creating bogus conclusions or reasoning, but simply by choosing to emphasize the part of their overall conclusions that played most pointedly into the political environment. [This] suggest[s] certain political canniness [on the part] of our intelligence agencies, and also suggests that they wanted to have an impact on ultimate policy. That is not their role, and there is something disconcerting about their assuming it.

With this I would entirely agree. If that is indeed what happened here, and the evidence that it did so is in front of our eyes, and if it is indeed what Norman was saying, then, like the intelligence-community’s disavowal of its 2005 NIE, I would have to disavow my previous “low confidence” estimate in Norman “dark suspicions” and join him in voicing equally dark suspicions of my own.

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The Democrats’ Confused Diplomacy Vision

If you’re the kind of person who watches the Democratic debates for the quick camera shots of Dennis Kucinich’s wife, yesterday you were out of luck. When National Public Radio hosted a Democratic debate on Tuesday, it obstructed from view the best case for Kucinich’s sanity. Yet for everything the debate lacked in attractive political spouses, it more than compensated for with ineffectual approaches to confronting America’s public diplomacy challenge in the Muslim world.

The extent to which the Democratic candidates simply have no vision for improving America’s standing is astounding. The most bizarre public diplomacy program came from John Edwards, who seemed confused by the distinction between appealing to voters in Concord and people in Cairo. His plan for resuscitating our image abroad? Fighting poverty:

Now, as to the Muslim community, I think that the most important thing for America to do is to demonstrate that we have a responsibility not just to ourselves but to humanity, and to help make education available to fight global poverty. We need to take serious steps to demonstrate that America’s actually worthy of leadership.

Barack Obama similarly spoke in terms that might sell liberal voters in Iowa Falls, but alienate liberals in Isfahan. His strategy for courting moderate Muslims? Dialogue with their least moderate leaders:

… the reason for [advocating dialogue with Iran’s leaders] was not necessarily because we’re going to change Ahmadinejad’s mind. It’s because we’re going to change the minds of people inside Iran, moderate forces inside Iran, as well as our Muslim allies around the region, that we are willing to listen to them and try to engage in finding ways to resolve conflicts cooperatively.

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If you’re the kind of person who watches the Democratic debates for the quick camera shots of Dennis Kucinich’s wife, yesterday you were out of luck. When National Public Radio hosted a Democratic debate on Tuesday, it obstructed from view the best case for Kucinich’s sanity. Yet for everything the debate lacked in attractive political spouses, it more than compensated for with ineffectual approaches to confronting America’s public diplomacy challenge in the Muslim world.

The extent to which the Democratic candidates simply have no vision for improving America’s standing is astounding. The most bizarre public diplomacy program came from John Edwards, who seemed confused by the distinction between appealing to voters in Concord and people in Cairo. His plan for resuscitating our image abroad? Fighting poverty:

Now, as to the Muslim community, I think that the most important thing for America to do is to demonstrate that we have a responsibility not just to ourselves but to humanity, and to help make education available to fight global poverty. We need to take serious steps to demonstrate that America’s actually worthy of leadership.

Barack Obama similarly spoke in terms that might sell liberal voters in Iowa Falls, but alienate liberals in Isfahan. His strategy for courting moderate Muslims? Dialogue with their least moderate leaders:

… the reason for [advocating dialogue with Iran’s leaders] was not necessarily because we’re going to change Ahmadinejad’s mind. It’s because we’re going to change the minds of people inside Iran, moderate forces inside Iran, as well as our Muslim allies around the region, that we are willing to listen to them and try to engage in finding ways to resolve conflicts cooperatively.

And then there was Kucinich. Prepare yourself for a non sequitur. What’s his strategy for appealing to Muslim publics? He voted against the Iraq war:

… As the one up here who not only voted against, but voted 100 percent of the time against funding the war in Iraq, the war in Iraq was used to create a wedge between the United States and Islam.

Perhaps the most disappointing public diplomacy outlook, however, came from self-anointed Foreign Policy Maven Joe Biden, who seemed to think that public diplomacy meant changing our strategic objectives, rather than better explaining those objectives. Biden’s strategy? Only pursuing those wars that are broadly agreeable within the Muslim world:

…When we went into Afghanistan, the word was, the Arab street would rise up. We did it the right way. The Arab street knew that Arabs, the Muslims in al Qaeda were bad guys. They supported us. When we do things that don’t sound rational to them, it undercuts our legitimacy. We have no legitimacy.

In this line of argument, Biden seems to have his campaign strategy entirely backwards. Apparently, he hopes that what is agreeable in Sana’a will sway voters in Cedar Rapids.

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Banishing Dark Suspicions

Since posting my dark suspicions about the NIE the other day, I have come to the conclusion that Gabe Schoenfeld was right to challenge the darkest of them, which was “that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again.” Gabe agreed that, as he put it, “a long series of leaks have emanated from the intelligence community, many of them clearly designed to undermine or embarrass the Bush administration,” and that “some of these leaks appear to have come from ranking officials.” But he went on to argue that, given the process by which an NIE is produced, it seemed highly unlikely that this was another such case.

Some of the conclusions reached by the NIE are offered with what it calls “high confidence,” others with “moderate confidence,” and still others with “low confidence.” I offered the darkest of my own suspicions with only “moderate confidence,” to which Gabe responded as follows:

Although I remain as worried as Norman Podhoretz about the dangers posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and though there is ample reason to wonder about the quality of U.S. intelligence, I would still have to put “low confidence” in his dark suspicions.

It turns out that even his “low confidence” was too high. For it has now become clear that the White House was informed in advance of the new information that led the intelligence community to believe with “high confidence” that Iran had called a halt to its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. Moreover, far from being leaked, the new NIE was released only after its publication was authorized by the White House.

Why did the White House decide to make this new assessment public? Because, it can now be said with “high confidence,” the President found the intelligence backing it up too solid to discount. Therefore the only alternative to going public was to have it leak, which would have made the administration vulnerable to the charge that it was suppressing “unfavorable” intelligence.

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Since posting my dark suspicions about the NIE the other day, I have come to the conclusion that Gabe Schoenfeld was right to challenge the darkest of them, which was “that the intelligence community, which has for some years now been leaking material calculated to undermine George W. Bush, is doing it again.” Gabe agreed that, as he put it, “a long series of leaks have emanated from the intelligence community, many of them clearly designed to undermine or embarrass the Bush administration,” and that “some of these leaks appear to have come from ranking officials.” But he went on to argue that, given the process by which an NIE is produced, it seemed highly unlikely that this was another such case.

Some of the conclusions reached by the NIE are offered with what it calls “high confidence,” others with “moderate confidence,” and still others with “low confidence.” I offered the darkest of my own suspicions with only “moderate confidence,” to which Gabe responded as follows:

Although I remain as worried as Norman Podhoretz about the dangers posed by an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and though there is ample reason to wonder about the quality of U.S. intelligence, I would still have to put “low confidence” in his dark suspicions.

It turns out that even his “low confidence” was too high. For it has now become clear that the White House was informed in advance of the new information that led the intelligence community to believe with “high confidence” that Iran had called a halt to its nuclear-weapons program in 2003. Moreover, far from being leaked, the new NIE was released only after its publication was authorized by the White House.

Why did the White House decide to make this new assessment public? Because, it can now be said with “high confidence,” the President found the intelligence backing it up too solid to discount. Therefore the only alternative to going public was to have it leak, which would have made the administration vulnerable to the charge that it was suppressing “unfavorable” intelligence.

There has been another suspicion expressed by some who have commented on my post: namely, that the President decided to go public because the news brought by the NIE would allow him to back away from military action against the Iranian nuclear installations. Without entirely dismissing this possibility, I find it hard to credit, if only because of what Bush went out of his way to emphasize toward the end of his press conference yesterday:

If Iran shows up with a nuclear weapon at some point in time, the world is going to say, what happened to them in 2007? How come they couldn’t see the impending danger? What caused them not to understand that a country that once had a weapons program could reconstitute the weapons program? How come they couldn’t see that the important first step in developing a weapon is the capacity to be able to enrich uranium? How come they didn’t know that with that capacity, that knowledge could be passed on to a covert program? What blinded them to the realities of the world? And it’s not going to happen on my watch.

I take this statement to mean that, so far as the President is concerned, it does not necessarily follow from the new NIE that the military option is now off the table as a last resort. And indeed, the NIE acknowledges “with moderate confidence” that “convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership see between nuclear weapons development and Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives.”

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, even if the President is still intent on keeping the military option alive, and even if the fine print in the new NIE gives him room to do so, it will now be infinitely more difficult to persuade the Iranian leadership that military force remains a possibility.

I have for some time now been predicting that before leaving office George W. Bush will order air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities. I have made that prediction with what the NIE would describe as “moderate confidence,” but the best I can do now is offer it with “low-to-no confidence.” For despite the President’s evident resolve to keep the military option on the table, the effect of the new NIE here at home will almost certainly make it politically impossible for him to take military action even if it becomes clearer than it already is that nothing else can prevent the Iranians from getting the bomb, or even if further investigation should reveal that the intelligence behind the NIE is faulty. Already, indeed, serious questions have been raised about the reliability of this intelligence.

In any event, there is one set of judgments I have made to which I am sticking: that neither diplomacy nor sanctions nor an internal insurrection can prevent the Iranian mullahs from getting the bomb, and that if they should get the bomb, deterrence would not work to keep them from using it. The terrible upshot is that unless we are taken off the hook by the Israelis (whose defense officials, as against the NIE, reportedly believe that the Iranian program was resumed in 2005 and is still up and running today), sooner or later a President of the United States will be forced to decide whether John McCain was right when he said that the only thing worse than bombing Iran is letting Iran get the bomb. God help us all if he—or she—decides that McCain was wrong.

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What Will Europe Do?

Whatever efforts may have been underway to muster new support for a UN resolution expanding sanctions against Iran, the just-released National Intelligence Estimate will undercut them. No official responses have yet been formulated in Europe—no doubt, the EU and its member states’ governments will evaluate it and weigh each word carefully–but it would be very surprising if the EU, already lukewarm to the idea of more sanctions, will now renew its efforts to isolate Tehran. The sounds coming from Russia are also ominous. That leaves us with a U.S. government trying to paper over the awkward moment—its Iran policy has just collapsed under the weight of the NIE report—and at least one major question: Iran’s ballistic missile program. That is, the Iranians still have it. Why would they want such delivery machines if they did not intend at some point to load them with biological warheads or other unconventional weaponry?

Whatever efforts may have been underway to muster new support for a UN resolution expanding sanctions against Iran, the just-released National Intelligence Estimate will undercut them. No official responses have yet been formulated in Europe—no doubt, the EU and its member states’ governments will evaluate it and weigh each word carefully–but it would be very surprising if the EU, already lukewarm to the idea of more sanctions, will now renew its efforts to isolate Tehran. The sounds coming from Russia are also ominous. That leaves us with a U.S. government trying to paper over the awkward moment—its Iran policy has just collapsed under the weight of the NIE report—and at least one major question: Iran’s ballistic missile program. That is, the Iranians still have it. Why would they want such delivery machines if they did not intend at some point to load them with biological warheads or other unconventional weaponry?

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Hitchens and Hanukkah, Cont.

Sam, you are right in pointing to Hitchens’s distortions about Hanukkah. He has a tendency to present a deeply twisted view of Judaism in order to fit his overall thesis about how bad religion is for the world. Now Hanukah is to blame for the creation of Islam (and by implication the Taliban and 9/11)? Well, whatever.

But he is right about one thing in Slate. That is to point out how little Jewish Americans really know about their own holiday’s meaning. Though in Judaism it is a relatively minor holiday celebrating the reassertion of Jewish sovereignty and the freedom to practice their faith against the Greeks, in America it has become a central Jewish moment in the year, a time for gift-giving and candle-lighting, while bearing very little of its original meaning.

Hitchens is taking sides in a fight as old as Hanukkah itself. The Greeks had banned all Jewish practice, including such “irrational” habits as keeping a day of rest. Like the Greeks, Hitchens believes in reason but not in political tolerance–in the right of people to live their own truth, not his. Hitchens likes to paint both his own war and that of the Greeks as the rational children of light against “tribal Jewish backwardness” (theocracy, irrationalism, etc.), but to me the story of Hanukkah looks more like a successful struggle for religious and national independence against secularizing and universalizing tyranny. Remember, unlike the Greeks, the Jews had no ambition to convert the world by force, to impose their truth on everyone else. All they wanted was their Temple, their God, and their way of life, as irrational as it may seem to others. Can a liberal like Hitchens handle this?

Sam, you are right in pointing to Hitchens’s distortions about Hanukkah. He has a tendency to present a deeply twisted view of Judaism in order to fit his overall thesis about how bad religion is for the world. Now Hanukah is to blame for the creation of Islam (and by implication the Taliban and 9/11)? Well, whatever.

But he is right about one thing in Slate. That is to point out how little Jewish Americans really know about their own holiday’s meaning. Though in Judaism it is a relatively minor holiday celebrating the reassertion of Jewish sovereignty and the freedom to practice their faith against the Greeks, in America it has become a central Jewish moment in the year, a time for gift-giving and candle-lighting, while bearing very little of its original meaning.

Hitchens is taking sides in a fight as old as Hanukkah itself. The Greeks had banned all Jewish practice, including such “irrational” habits as keeping a day of rest. Like the Greeks, Hitchens believes in reason but not in political tolerance–in the right of people to live their own truth, not his. Hitchens likes to paint both his own war and that of the Greeks as the rational children of light against “tribal Jewish backwardness” (theocracy, irrationalism, etc.), but to me the story of Hanukkah looks more like a successful struggle for religious and national independence against secularizing and universalizing tyranny. Remember, unlike the Greeks, the Jews had no ambition to convert the world by force, to impose their truth on everyone else. All they wanted was their Temple, their God, and their way of life, as irrational as it may seem to others. Can a liberal like Hitchens handle this?

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