Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 6, 2007

Interview with Max Boot

On Tuesday afternoon, Max Boot sat down with contentions to discuss his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, the controversial National Intelligence Estimate, and the progress being made in Iraq. Included is a brief tour of the Harold Pratt House, occupied by the Council on Foreign Relations.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-3ZJ6rkTi8[/youtube]

On Tuesday afternoon, Max Boot sat down with contentions to discuss his recent trip to Saudi Arabia, the controversial National Intelligence Estimate, and the progress being made in Iraq. Included is a brief tour of the Harold Pratt House, occupied by the Council on Foreign Relations.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-3ZJ6rkTi8[/youtube]

Read Less

More on the Hong Kong Elections

As Arthur Waldron has written, the election of Anson Chan to LegCo, Hong Kong’s legislature, was an important victory for democracy in the city, a special administrative region of China. Chan took her seat yesterday after beating Regina Ip, the candidate favored by the Chinese government, in Sunday’s landslide win. The race was especially symbolic because both Chan and Ip sought to fill a vacancy created by the death of Ma Lik. Ma was the head of the misnamed Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s main pro-Beijing party.

Not surprisingly, Beijing’s friends attacked Chan moments after she was sworn in. Tsang Tak-sing, Hong Kong’s secretary for home affairs, launched a personal attack on the new lawmaker, calling her a “sudden democrat” who cares little for the livelihood of the people of the city. Tsang, by the way, is the brother of a past chairman of the Democratic Alliance.

It’s clear that Mainland leaders not only want the LegCo seat back, they need to eliminate Chan from politics. Her electoral win is not only a victory for democracy in Hong Kong, it is threatening to the rulers of the modern Chinese state. And unfortunately for Beijing, her presence in the legislature undermines a core assumption of the Communist Party of China. Ever since the early 1990′s, Chinese officials have been betting that continual economic growth will keep them in power. Yet Hong Kong’s strong economy this decade did not translate into sufficient support at the polls for the pro-Beijing Ip.

Moreover, Chan’s victory also undercuts an emerging trend in Western thinking. Due to the apparent success of present-day Communism in China, political scientists are beginning to believe that authoritarian is a sustainable form of governance. Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, for instance, is no friend of Communism, but he now talks of “resilient authoritarianism.” Dozens of analysts have picked up on this theme and doubt the link between economic progress and democratization. Francis Fukuyama’s seminal End of History is now ridiculed.

Yet Anson Chan’s victory reminds political scientists that real people do not think prosperity is a substitute for representative governance. The academics and analysts should remember their Tocqueville. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution he wrote that sustained prosperity does not tranquilize a citizenry. On the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.”

So we are all in debt to Chan, dubbed “Hong Kong’s conscience,” for reminding us that repressive governments are never as strong as they appear. Yesterday was a good moment for the people of Hong Kong—and for the rest of us as well.

As Arthur Waldron has written, the election of Anson Chan to LegCo, Hong Kong’s legislature, was an important victory for democracy in the city, a special administrative region of China. Chan took her seat yesterday after beating Regina Ip, the candidate favored by the Chinese government, in Sunday’s landslide win. The race was especially symbolic because both Chan and Ip sought to fill a vacancy created by the death of Ma Lik. Ma was the head of the misnamed Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the territory’s main pro-Beijing party.

Not surprisingly, Beijing’s friends attacked Chan moments after she was sworn in. Tsang Tak-sing, Hong Kong’s secretary for home affairs, launched a personal attack on the new lawmaker, calling her a “sudden democrat” who cares little for the livelihood of the people of the city. Tsang, by the way, is the brother of a past chairman of the Democratic Alliance.

It’s clear that Mainland leaders not only want the LegCo seat back, they need to eliminate Chan from politics. Her electoral win is not only a victory for democracy in Hong Kong, it is threatening to the rulers of the modern Chinese state. And unfortunately for Beijing, her presence in the legislature undermines a core assumption of the Communist Party of China. Ever since the early 1990′s, Chinese officials have been betting that continual economic growth will keep them in power. Yet Hong Kong’s strong economy this decade did not translate into sufficient support at the polls for the pro-Beijing Ip.

Moreover, Chan’s victory also undercuts an emerging trend in Western thinking. Due to the apparent success of present-day Communism in China, political scientists are beginning to believe that authoritarian is a sustainable form of governance. Columbia University’s Andrew Nathan, for instance, is no friend of Communism, but he now talks of “resilient authoritarianism.” Dozens of analysts have picked up on this theme and doubt the link between economic progress and democratization. Francis Fukuyama’s seminal End of History is now ridiculed.

Yet Anson Chan’s victory reminds political scientists that real people do not think prosperity is a substitute for representative governance. The academics and analysts should remember their Tocqueville. In The Old Regime and the French Revolution he wrote that sustained prosperity does not tranquilize a citizenry. On the contrary, it promotes “a spirit of unrest.”

So we are all in debt to Chan, dubbed “Hong Kong’s conscience,” for reminding us that repressive governments are never as strong as they appear. Yesterday was a good moment for the people of Hong Kong—and for the rest of us as well.

Read Less

Deconstructing the NIE

Like other contentions readers, I have been interested in the exchange between Norman Podhoretz and Gabriel Schoenfeld over whether the new National Intelligence Estimate was driven by a political agenda designed to block military action against Iran. Norman suggested that it was; Gabe argued that his suspicions were unjustified; Norman retracted* his earlier post; Gabe basically said maybe there is something to Norman’s “dark suspicions” after all.

I agree with the conclusion reached in Gabe’s second post that there probably was political calculation behind the NIE, and if so it comes out in the language chosen by its authors. As pointed out by reader Ben Orlanski, and quoted by Gabe, the wording of the NIE is hardly neutral. The lead sentence—“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”—is designed to convey an impression that we don’t have to worry much about Iranian nukes.

The second sentence, claiming that Tehran’s decision was “directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure” is designed to convey the impression that diplomacy is sufficient to keep Iranian ambitions in check and that no bombing is needed—even though, if Iran really did halt its weapons program in 2003, it must surely have done so in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not to any diplomatic gambit on our part.

Read More

Like other contentions readers, I have been interested in the exchange between Norman Podhoretz and Gabriel Schoenfeld over whether the new National Intelligence Estimate was driven by a political agenda designed to block military action against Iran. Norman suggested that it was; Gabe argued that his suspicions were unjustified; Norman retracted* his earlier post; Gabe basically said maybe there is something to Norman’s “dark suspicions” after all.

I agree with the conclusion reached in Gabe’s second post that there probably was political calculation behind the NIE, and if so it comes out in the language chosen by its authors. As pointed out by reader Ben Orlanski, and quoted by Gabe, the wording of the NIE is hardly neutral. The lead sentence—“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”—is designed to convey an impression that we don’t have to worry much about Iranian nukes.

The second sentence, claiming that Tehran’s decision was “directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure” is designed to convey the impression that diplomacy is sufficient to keep Iranian ambitions in check and that no bombing is needed—even though, if Iran really did halt its weapons program in 2003, it must surely have done so in response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, not to any diplomatic gambit on our part.

A more neutral and accurate summary of the NIE would have read something like this: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program, but we have only moderate confidence that it has not resumed the program since then. In any case, we assess with high confidence that Iran continues to enrich uranium in violation of United Nations sanctions. Although Tehran claims that this enrichment is part of a civilian nuclear-power program, it could produce enough fissile material within a minimum of two years to make a nuclear weapon. We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides do so, but we have no idea if that decision has been made.”

That would still convey the same information contained in the rest of the NIE, but it would give a very different impression up front, which is the only part most people notice.

I am not privy to any inside information about administration deliberations, but I am guessing that the wording of this NIE was criticized by Vice President Cheney and his aides, the keepers of the conservative flame in the administration’s waning days. I am guessing, again with no real basis, that they pressed for a more neutral write-up and won a few cosmetic concessions from the intelligence community, but that they were prevented from doing more because they feared that if the intelligence agencies lost a bruising interagency battle over the NIE, disgruntled officials would leak word that intelligence was being “politicized” and that the “books were cooked” to conform with the administration’s ideological agenda.

The threat of leaks also must have compelled the President and Vice President, whatever their misgivings, to approve the release of the NIE. They would know that if they didn’t release the NIE, intelligence officials opposed to their policies (and that’s most of them) would leak selective tidbits to make the President look bad the next time he warned of the dangers from Iran.

It would be nice if high-level deliberations like this could be conducted without the constant threats of leaks from our oh-so-secret intelligence agencies, but that’s not the way Washington works these days. The power to go public gives intelligence officials great pull that they can exercise if they disagree with the views of senior policymakers, and they have not been shy about using this gambit, no matter how illegal or destructive their leaks might be.

I hasten to add that I do not suspect the director of National Intelligence, retired Vice Admiral Mike McConnell, or the director of the CIA, Air Force General Michael Hayden, of participating in this political campaign. Both strike me as mild-mannered, straight-down-the-middle technocrats, but it is precisely that neutrality on their part that can leave them open to a partisan agenda pushed by senior subordinates such as the “hyper-partisan anti-Bush officials” said by the Wall Street Journal editorial page to be the primary authors of the NIE.

*CLARIFICATION: Norman Podhoretz informs me that I mischaracterized his views (see below) in my item on “Deconstructing the NIE.” He emails: “For the record…the only thing I retracted was the suspicion that the NIE was another one of those leaks that have regularly gushed out of the CIA and State to undermine Bush. But when I learned for a fact that the White House knew about it in advance and authorized publication (for fear that it would leak anyway and make it seem that they were suppressing unfavorable intelligence), I felt that I had to make a correction. What I didn’t retract is the charge that it’s a political document disguised as an intelligence report—especially in the way the conclusions are presented.” Mea culpa.

Read Less

Could This Be the Worst Newspaper Column Ever Written?

It could. Roger Cohen’s piece today praises Hugo Chavez and attacks the United States because Venezuela just demonstrated it is more of a democracy. I wish I were joking. I mean, really. It quotes Chavez in the aftermath of the defeat of the referendum that would have made him a dictator: “The people’s decision will be upheld in respect of the basic rule of democracy: the winning option is the one that gets most votes.” After which Roger Cohen observes: “The United States might ponder those words — not just because of what happened in the presidential election of 2000; not just because the arithmetic of voting has proved unpalatable in Palestine; not just because of the past U.S.-abetted trampling of elected Latin American leaders in Chile and elsewhere — but because democracy was alive and vital in Venezuela on Sunday in a way foreign to President Bush’s America.”

Foreign to Bush’s America? You mean Bush’s America where out-of-power Democrats won 32 seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate only 13 months ago? Is there no such thing as an editor at the New York Times?

It could. Roger Cohen’s piece today praises Hugo Chavez and attacks the United States because Venezuela just demonstrated it is more of a democracy. I wish I were joking. I mean, really. It quotes Chavez in the aftermath of the defeat of the referendum that would have made him a dictator: “The people’s decision will be upheld in respect of the basic rule of democracy: the winning option is the one that gets most votes.” After which Roger Cohen observes: “The United States might ponder those words — not just because of what happened in the presidential election of 2000; not just because the arithmetic of voting has proved unpalatable in Palestine; not just because of the past U.S.-abetted trampling of elected Latin American leaders in Chile and elsewhere — but because democracy was alive and vital in Venezuela on Sunday in a way foreign to President Bush’s America.”

Foreign to Bush’s America? You mean Bush’s America where out-of-power Democrats won 32 seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate only 13 months ago? Is there no such thing as an editor at the New York Times?

Read Less

Jesus Christ Just Loves to Confound the Pundits, You See

Mike Huckabee has just declared that Jesus Christ is directly at work in his campaign’s rise: “There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people…There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has. And it defies all explanation, it has confounded the pundits. And I’m enjoying every minute of them trying to figure it out, and until they look at it, from a, just experience beyond human, they’ll never figure it out. And it’s probably just as well. That’s honestly why it’s happening.” I’m not a Protestant theologian, but isn’t this taking things a bit too far even for those who believe both in the efficacy of prayer and in the Republican platform?

Mike Huckabee has just declared that Jesus Christ is directly at work in his campaign’s rise: “There’s only one explanation for it, and it’s not a human one. It’s the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people…There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has. And it defies all explanation, it has confounded the pundits. And I’m enjoying every minute of them trying to figure it out, and until they look at it, from a, just experience beyond human, they’ll never figure it out. And it’s probably just as well. That’s honestly why it’s happening.” I’m not a Protestant theologian, but isn’t this taking things a bit too far even for those who believe both in the efficacy of prayer and in the Republican platform?

Read Less

Poisoning the Process

Today, the White House announced that President Bush sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il urging him to make a full disclosure of his country’s nuclear activities. The letter reinforces comments made by the State Department’s Christopher Hill that Pyongyang must come clean on the enrichment of uranium.

Hill’s demand comes on the heels of his statement yesterday that there was still no agreement between Washington and Pyongyang as to the information that North Korea must provide about its nuclear weapons. The success or failure of American efforts to disarm the militant state will almost entirely depend on its willingness to deliver a complete inventory of its programs and facilities as required by the agreement reached in February in Beijing at the six-party talks.

How will we know whether Pyongyang is telling the truth when it issues its disclosure? The United States has, over the course of more than two decades, collected information regarding the extent of the North Korean programs to build bombs based on both plutonium and uranium cores. American analysts will be comparing what the North has released with information previously obtained. If there is a wide discrepancy, then we know Kim Jong Il has no intention of giving up his arsenal of atomic weaponry.

Unfortunately, Hill, the American representative at the six-party negotiations, has been helping the North Koreans. For instance, in early October he publicly stated that Pyongyang possesses about 110 pounds of plutonium obtained from its reactor in Yongbyon. More important, Hill announced on the first of this month that he expected the North Koreans to clear up doubts about the centrifuges and aluminum tubes we know they had previously purchased from a black-market ring based in Pakistan.

Read More

Today, the White House announced that President Bush sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il urging him to make a full disclosure of his country’s nuclear activities. The letter reinforces comments made by the State Department’s Christopher Hill that Pyongyang must come clean on the enrichment of uranium.

Hill’s demand comes on the heels of his statement yesterday that there was still no agreement between Washington and Pyongyang as to the information that North Korea must provide about its nuclear weapons. The success or failure of American efforts to disarm the militant state will almost entirely depend on its willingness to deliver a complete inventory of its programs and facilities as required by the agreement reached in February in Beijing at the six-party talks.

How will we know whether Pyongyang is telling the truth when it issues its disclosure? The United States has, over the course of more than two decades, collected information regarding the extent of the North Korean programs to build bombs based on both plutonium and uranium cores. American analysts will be comparing what the North has released with information previously obtained. If there is a wide discrepancy, then we know Kim Jong Il has no intention of giving up his arsenal of atomic weaponry.

Unfortunately, Hill, the American representative at the six-party negotiations, has been helping the North Koreans. For instance, in early October he publicly stated that Pyongyang possesses about 110 pounds of plutonium obtained from its reactor in Yongbyon. More important, Hill announced on the first of this month that he expected the North Koreans to clear up doubts about the centrifuges and aluminum tubes we know they had previously purchased from a black-market ring based in Pakistan.

Through these public statements, the American diplomat was either telling the North Koreans what we know or reminding them what their disclosure had to include. Moreover, he has had extensive conversations with them in private. As Hill told reporters today, “We’ve had a lot of discussions with them about uranium enrichment.”

It looks like Hill may have coached Pyongyang and thereby compromised the disclosure process, which is critical to the six-party disarmament efforts. By doing so, he is making it more difficult for us to determine whether North Korea’s disclosure, whenever it is delivered, is reliable.

How much damage has Hill caused? If the six-party process is to continue, it is absolutely essential that the intelligence community learn exactly what he has told the North Koreans—and to make an initial assessment whether it will ever be possible for us to measure Pyongyang’s truthfulness. I suspect that the American diplomat has already told too much to his North Korean counterparts.

Read Less

China’s Attack Plan

Will China launch some major and dangerous move against Taiwan—a blockade? missile firings? worse?—next March, just five months ahead of the opening of the triumphant Beijing Olympics (motto: “one world, one dream”)?

Such madness seems inconceivable. Yet the pattern of Beijing’s diplomacy with respect to Taiwan’s referendum on its application to the United Nations is convincing me that some such action is possible, even likely.

China is intent on denying any international status to Taiwan, a democratic country of some 23 million people having a gross national product approaching four hundred billion dollars.

She was expelled from the UN in 1971 when China joined and has failed a dozen times to rejoin thereafter. Now she plans a referendum on how to word her next application. (I have explained these basic issues in an earlier posting.)

Read More

Will China launch some major and dangerous move against Taiwan—a blockade? missile firings? worse?—next March, just five months ahead of the opening of the triumphant Beijing Olympics (motto: “one world, one dream”)?

Such madness seems inconceivable. Yet the pattern of Beijing’s diplomacy with respect to Taiwan’s referendum on its application to the United Nations is convincing me that some such action is possible, even likely.

China is intent on denying any international status to Taiwan, a democratic country of some 23 million people having a gross national product approaching four hundred billion dollars.

She was expelled from the UN in 1971 when China joined and has failed a dozen times to rejoin thereafter. Now she plans a referendum on how to word her next application. (I have explained these basic issues in an earlier posting.)

As China seeks to stanch leaks in the diplomatic embargo, it is becoming clear that Beijing has decided to make the referendum into a casus belli: into the “red line,” the provocation that cannot be tolerated and that must force her to turn to military coercion. She is preparing the ground carefully, lining up support for her position from the very countries that might back Taiwan.

Thus, for months last year the Chinese embassy hammered the relevant American Deputy Assistant Secretary of State with threats. The result: on August 27, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte stated unequivocally that “any kind of provocative steps” on Taiwan’s part were unacceptable.

Shortly thereafter, Chinese President Hu Jintao directly warned President Bush “that this year and the next will be a ‘highly dangerous period’ in the Taiwan Strait.” He referred, ominously, to China’s 2005 “Anti-Secession Law,” which requires the use of “nonpeaceful means” to counter “major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China.” Hu stated that the referendum would be just such a “major incident.”

Now France and Britain have, unwittingly I think, added their signatures to the international permission slip that China appears to be preparing. According to Reuters, on November 26, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated “that France opposes Taiwan’s contentious plan to hold a referendum on UN membership next year.” Then, according to AFP, Foreign Secretary David Miliband made clear on December 5 Britain’s opposition to the referendum on pushing for UN membership, adding that any “reckless maneuvers” were to be “deplored.”

Without insistent Chinese prompting, one suspects, neither Negroponte nor Sarkozy nor Miliband would have spoken. Yet all did, in complete ignorance, one suspects, of the net China is weaving.

For who will protest or act if China does use the referendum as a pretext for military action next March? One would expect democratic powers such as the United States, France, and Britain to take the lead. But they have already stated their support for China’s political position (though not for force). My fear is that such statements of seeming acquiescence may persuade China that she could get away with a turn to force. Such miscalculation could in fact lead to war.

Read Less

Mitt Romney’s Boilerplate Mistake

So Mitt Romney, facing the rise of Mike Huckabee’s Christian-centric campaign in Iowa and judging that the Huckabee surge is related to discomfort with Romney’s Mormonism, gave his much-anticipated speech on faith this morning. It’s perfectly fine Republican boilerplate — faith must inform our views but it does not guide them, the public square should not be naked, our Founders believed in religion and yet even they had to deal with intolerance toward minority faiths, Martin Luther King was really very good, etc. etc. Many commentators on the Right are praising the speech, but I fear they’re grading on a curve; strictly as a matter of rhetoric, it tended toward the bland. The only genuinely novel aspect of it was the addition of the Mormon trail to a brief account of the history of religious intolerance in America (“Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths…”).

The key passage is this:

I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith. Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin….

If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers — I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

That’s entirely fine. But there’s something oddly pointless about this protestation. Who is the audience for this speech, aside from people like me who make their living in part watching them and reading their texts and writing about them? No one thought Romney would say that Mormon elders would play a leading role in his White House counseling him on policy. Anyone inclined to believe such a thing won’t be convinced by Romney’s protestations in any case.

Romney has always had an uphill battle in this election, although you’re not supposed to say it, as it will occasion someone else delivering you a long speech about religious tolerance. As far as minority religions go, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one of the minority-est. There are, by at least one count, three times as many Jews in the United States. The number of Americans who openly profess to be Christian is around 74 percent; the number of those raised Christian is 84 percent. Americans are without a doubt the most tolerant people on earth, but religion is very important to them, and someone whose fellow believers number 1/55th of the population of the United States is someone who is going to have trouble closing the deal with voters.

For those who don’t know Romney is a Mormon, well, they sure will now. For the next two or three days, it’s all anybody will know about him. Chances are it is the word that people will most associate with him from here on out. I don’t think that’s a good direction for a campaign that finds itself in the fight of its life in Iowa against the most explicitly Christian candidate in the field. (The only response so far comparable to mine is David Frum’s, though his typically trenchant criticism has more to do with the underlying meaning of the speech.)

So Mitt Romney, facing the rise of Mike Huckabee’s Christian-centric campaign in Iowa and judging that the Huckabee surge is related to discomfort with Romney’s Mormonism, gave his much-anticipated speech on faith this morning. It’s perfectly fine Republican boilerplate — faith must inform our views but it does not guide them, the public square should not be naked, our Founders believed in religion and yet even they had to deal with intolerance toward minority faiths, Martin Luther King was really very good, etc. etc. Many commentators on the Right are praising the speech, but I fear they’re grading on a curve; strictly as a matter of rhetoric, it tended toward the bland. The only genuinely novel aspect of it was the addition of the Mormon trail to a brief account of the history of religious intolerance in America (“Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths…”).

The key passage is this:

I do not define my candidacy by my religion. A person should not be elected because of his faith nor should he be rejected because of his faith. Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions. Their authority is theirs, within the province of church affairs, and it ends where the affairs of the nation begin….

If I am fortunate to become your president, I will serve no one religion, no one group, no one cause, and no one interest. A President must serve only the common cause of the people of the United States.

There are some for whom these commitments are not enough. They would prefer it if I would simply distance myself from my religion, say that it is more a tradition than my personal conviction, or disavow one or another of its precepts. That I will not do. I believe in my Mormon faith and I endeavor to live by it. My faith is the faith of my fathers — I will be true to them and to my beliefs.

That’s entirely fine. But there’s something oddly pointless about this protestation. Who is the audience for this speech, aside from people like me who make their living in part watching them and reading their texts and writing about them? No one thought Romney would say that Mormon elders would play a leading role in his White House counseling him on policy. Anyone inclined to believe such a thing won’t be convinced by Romney’s protestations in any case.

Romney has always had an uphill battle in this election, although you’re not supposed to say it, as it will occasion someone else delivering you a long speech about religious tolerance. As far as minority religions go, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is one of the minority-est. There are, by at least one count, three times as many Jews in the United States. The number of Americans who openly profess to be Christian is around 74 percent; the number of those raised Christian is 84 percent. Americans are without a doubt the most tolerant people on earth, but religion is very important to them, and someone whose fellow believers number 1/55th of the population of the United States is someone who is going to have trouble closing the deal with voters.

For those who don’t know Romney is a Mormon, well, they sure will now. For the next two or three days, it’s all anybody will know about him. Chances are it is the word that people will most associate with him from here on out. I don’t think that’s a good direction for a campaign that finds itself in the fight of its life in Iowa against the most explicitly Christian candidate in the field. (The only response so far comparable to mine is David Frum’s, though his typically trenchant criticism has more to do with the underlying meaning of the speech.)

Read Less

The NIE and Neorealism

Norman Podhoretz has already pointed out that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran “represents a 180-degree turn from the conclusions of the last NIE on Iran’s nuclear program,” which were asserted with equal certitude. But the NIE has another, much more serious, problem.

The NIE asserts that “some combination of threats of intensified scrutiny and pressure”—no problem there—”along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might . . . prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” My first reaction to this was to wonder why, if the U.S. has succeeded in stopping Iran’s program without any bribes, we now need to include them to prevent Tehran from starting it up again, but no matter: the NIE generously admits that it is “difficult” to specify what such a “combination” of threats and opportunities might be. The more fundamental question is whether it is in the interest of the United States—and the world—to purchase (if obtainable) a continued halt at such a price. Since Tehran’s declared goals include eradicating Israel from the face of the earth and spreading the Iranian Revolution across the entire Middle East, the answer must be that it is not.

Deciding that, of course, is not the job of the intelligence community. But the NIE’s description of its rationale for reaching its conclusion about Iran’s malleability is revealing: Tehran, it argues, halted the program in 2003 in response to unspecified “international pressure”—apparently the same kind that bore so heavily on Qaddafi—which indicates that the regime’s decisions are guided by “a cost-benefit approach.”

Read More

Norman Podhoretz has already pointed out that the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran “represents a 180-degree turn from the conclusions of the last NIE on Iran’s nuclear program,” which were asserted with equal certitude. But the NIE has another, much more serious, problem.

The NIE asserts that “some combination of threats of intensified scrutiny and pressure”—no problem there—”along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might . . . prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program.” My first reaction to this was to wonder why, if the U.S. has succeeded in stopping Iran’s program without any bribes, we now need to include them to prevent Tehran from starting it up again, but no matter: the NIE generously admits that it is “difficult” to specify what such a “combination” of threats and opportunities might be. The more fundamental question is whether it is in the interest of the United States—and the world—to purchase (if obtainable) a continued halt at such a price. Since Tehran’s declared goals include eradicating Israel from the face of the earth and spreading the Iranian Revolution across the entire Middle East, the answer must be that it is not.

Deciding that, of course, is not the job of the intelligence community. But the NIE’s description of its rationale for reaching its conclusion about Iran’s malleability is revealing: Tehran, it argues, halted the program in 2003 in response to unspecified “international pressure”—apparently the same kind that bore so heavily on Qaddafi—which indicates that the regime’s decisions are guided by “a cost-benefit approach.”

I winced when I read that phrase. Does anyone make decisions on that basis? States certainly do not. The phrase belongs to neorealism, to the unitary rational actor approach to the study of decision-making. The broad realist tradition—and a respectable one it is—extends back to Thucydides. Its modern and more limited variant, neorealism, exemplified today by Kenneth Waltz, Stephen Walt, and John Mearsheimer, refuses to try to understand policy-making in all its complexity. Instead, it treats states as billiard balls, ignores their leaders, politics, beliefs, and cultures, and considers only their size, their place on the table, and the position of the other billiard balls.

Neorealism has the advantage of parsimony: because it is based on simple but powerful assumptions, including the belief that nations act rationally, it generates testable predictions. But the simplifying assumptions that make it useful for scholars make it useless as a guide to how and why states actually make decisions. The only practical contribution the discipline of international relations has made in the last forty years is democratic peace theory, commonly summarized as “democracies do not fight each other.” Even if that is only mostly true, it is inexplicable to neorealists, who cannot understand why two democracies—the United States and Israel, for instance—might be allies even though the larger power has nothing much to gain from it materially.

The failure of neorealism stems directly from its assumptions. For states are not unitary. States have bureaucracies with their own agendas, factions and internal politics, and the most radical of them—like Iran—have a party machine that runs parallel to, and acts as a minder for, the official government. And states are not rational, at least not in a “cost-benefit” kind of way. Nor are they simply irrational. Rather, they have a hierarchy of preferences and seek to order them with some consistency. This kind of bounded rationality says nothing about what these preferences are, or whether they are moral, amoral, or immoral. Hitler, for instance, had two preferences: killing Jews and winning the war. And, in a bounded way, he was rational: he wanted to kill Jews more than he wanted to win, so he ran trains to Auschwitz, not the front.

The neorealist approach does have its uses. If you do not know anything about what is going on inside a country—for example, because it is a totalitarian dictatorship—a useful first cut is to ask what you would do if you were in charge. But to elevate neorealism, as the NIE has done, into a basis for offering high confidence assessments about such a state is an error. Walt and Mearsheimer’s embarrassingly amateur fantasies about the Israel Lobby demonstrate this all too clearly. For them, it is axiomatic that the United States has much more to gain from allying with the Arab oil dictators than with resource-poor Israel: the fact that the U.S. has failed to act in this way, has refused to carry out the proper “cost-benefit analysis,” can only be explained by a Jewish conspiracy. That is what passes for sophisticated thinking if you are a neorealist.

No, I do not believe that the U.S. intelligence community has stumbled into the Walt and Mearsheimer fever swamp. But the NIE’s resort to neorealist analysis is characteristic of ignorance: there is no reason to use this approach if you know what is going on. And that is the real problem. The U.S.—amazingly—publishes its National Intelligence Estimates. We make our policy in view of the entire world, and thereby impose serious constraints on our own government. We will not be able to be comfortable with Iran until we know as much about them as they know about us, and until they are as constrained by public debate as we are. And when we get that kind of Iran, we will not need high-profile but analytically shallow NIE’s.

Read Less

Have Democratic Lawmakers . . . Moved On?

In light of the successful U.S. troop surge in Iraq, the word withdrawal may be heading for the same trash bin that contains those other dead letters exit strategy and civil war. Democratic lawmakers, made hypocrites by their own rhetoric, now find themselves funding the war they’d declared lost, and doing so more-or-less unconditionally. Politico.com reports:

According to one senior Democratic lawmaker, there’s a growing discomfort among pro-defense Democrats about linking a $50 billion Iraq measure to troop withdrawal.

“We have to come off this lack of funding for the military operations,” the lawmaker said. “We have to continue the funding. We don’t want to look like we’re against troop funding. … We should separate the funding discussion from the rest of the war.”

Okay, what about “the rest of the war”? What current details of battle would they like to change?

It seems they’ll have to get back to us on that one. Last month, a funding bill contingent on troop withdrawal received 53 votes; that’s seven votes short of breaking a filibuster. So, they’re now looking for something that says, “We won’t stand for this war. Now, go out there and win!”

“I am advocating as strong a statement as we can get 60 votes for,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

How about, “Keep up the extraordinary job”?

In light of the successful U.S. troop surge in Iraq, the word withdrawal may be heading for the same trash bin that contains those other dead letters exit strategy and civil war. Democratic lawmakers, made hypocrites by their own rhetoric, now find themselves funding the war they’d declared lost, and doing so more-or-less unconditionally. Politico.com reports:

According to one senior Democratic lawmaker, there’s a growing discomfort among pro-defense Democrats about linking a $50 billion Iraq measure to troop withdrawal.

“We have to come off this lack of funding for the military operations,” the lawmaker said. “We have to continue the funding. We don’t want to look like we’re against troop funding. … We should separate the funding discussion from the rest of the war.”

Okay, what about “the rest of the war”? What current details of battle would they like to change?

It seems they’ll have to get back to us on that one. Last month, a funding bill contingent on troop withdrawal received 53 votes; that’s seven votes short of breaking a filibuster. So, they’re now looking for something that says, “We won’t stand for this war. Now, go out there and win!”

“I am advocating as strong a statement as we can get 60 votes for,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

How about, “Keep up the extraordinary job”?

Read Less

Hitler Makes a Comeback

It is a cliché to say that Adolf Hitler has become a cliché, and even camp to say that he was a bad man. Perhaps no one in the history of the planet has ever been more universally reviled, or with greater justice, than he. The word “Hitler” is an epithet every place on earth.

Or is it? In the Palestinian territories, Hitler is making a comeback. According to a report issued by Itamar Marcus and Barbara Crook of Palestinian Media Watch, the Teutonic tyrant’s popularity is on the rise. Parents name their children after him (“Hitler Abu-Alrab,” for example), the Voice of Palestine radio station recently gave out cash prizes in his honor, and in 1999, Mein Kampf was a best-seller. Whereas in Europe, Holocaust denial is a crime punishable by jail time, in the Palestinian authority it is considered one of a number of reasonable views. Even the doctoral dissertation of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas presents a range of opinions on the matter, concluding that “it is possible that the number of Jewish victims reached six million, but at the same time it is possible that the figure is much smaller—below one million.” And this is their chief political leader. We all know Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s current views on Israel—but at least his dissertation took on the rather benign subject of urban traffic management.

It is a cliché to say that Adolf Hitler has become a cliché, and even camp to say that he was a bad man. Perhaps no one in the history of the planet has ever been more universally reviled, or with greater justice, than he. The word “Hitler” is an epithet every place on earth.

Or is it? In the Palestinian territories, Hitler is making a comeback. According to a report issued by Itamar Marcus and Barbara Crook of Palestinian Media Watch, the Teutonic tyrant’s popularity is on the rise. Parents name their children after him (“Hitler Abu-Alrab,” for example), the Voice of Palestine radio station recently gave out cash prizes in his honor, and in 1999, Mein Kampf was a best-seller. Whereas in Europe, Holocaust denial is a crime punishable by jail time, in the Palestinian authority it is considered one of a number of reasonable views. Even the doctoral dissertation of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas presents a range of opinions on the matter, concluding that “it is possible that the number of Jewish victims reached six million, but at the same time it is possible that the figure is much smaller—below one million.” And this is their chief political leader. We all know Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s current views on Israel—but at least his dissertation took on the rather benign subject of urban traffic management.

Read Less

An African Toothache

Answer honestly: what would bother you more, waking up with a toothache or waking up to read a headline in the newspaper about an ongoing malaria epidemic in Malawi causing thousands of deaths a year? 

This question came to mind at a fascinating event here in New York as part of a series called Intelligence Squared, a public forum aimed at improving the level of discourse about important public issues. On Tuesday night, in front of a full house and recorded for subsequent broadcast on NPR, six leading specialists debated the proposition: aid to Africa is doing more harm than good.

I will admit to never having had much of an interest in African affairs, and I will also confess to being one of those people who would find the toothache more bothersome than news of a malaria epidemic. So, for me, one of the achievements of this debate was that it got me thinking about a range of issues that I have given little thought to in the past, and perhaps made my hypothetical toothache feel a bit less sore.

I was helped along by the speakers. George Ayittey, an economist from Ghana who teaches at American University, offered a devastating and passionately delivered evisceration of the existing system of aid, which he argued is keeping large swaths of Africa trapped in poverty under autocratic and kleptocratic regimes. He was helped along by William Easterly of NYU, who following in the footsteps of the great P.T. Bauer, has written the most recent bible of his side: The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The writer David Rieff was also on the same three-man team, but his deeply abstract points, delivered in an academic modality (“modality,” as was apparent, is his all-time favorite word) and qualified by a sententious and irrelevant declaration that he remained a man of the Left, made him more of a drain to his side than an asset.

The defenders of aid to Africa, C. Payne Lucas, president of Africare (an aid organization), John McArthur of Columbia University’s Earth Institute (whatever that is), and Gayle Smith, director of African affairs on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, also put on a very persuasive case that the aid picture is not entirely bleak. But it was marred by gratuitous Bush-bashing, in which they juxtaposed the billions spent fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the paucity of funds spent eradicating poverty in Africa. Revealing their left-wing tilt did not help to persuade me that their arguments focusing on the merits of aid itself were rock solid.

In the end, I came away with the view that the proposition itself, while it led to an illuminating discussion, does not make all that much sense. Like all subjects, aid to Africa is a many-sided subject and the issue cannot be decided by an easy yes or no. But I also came away with the conviction that public debate of this sort is a very valuable thing. Robert Rosenkranz, the philanthropist who has brought this Oxford-style forum from England to American shores, deserves congratulations for a genuine and original accomplishment.

Answer honestly: what would bother you more, waking up with a toothache or waking up to read a headline in the newspaper about an ongoing malaria epidemic in Malawi causing thousands of deaths a year? 

This question came to mind at a fascinating event here in New York as part of a series called Intelligence Squared, a public forum aimed at improving the level of discourse about important public issues. On Tuesday night, in front of a full house and recorded for subsequent broadcast on NPR, six leading specialists debated the proposition: aid to Africa is doing more harm than good.

I will admit to never having had much of an interest in African affairs, and I will also confess to being one of those people who would find the toothache more bothersome than news of a malaria epidemic. So, for me, one of the achievements of this debate was that it got me thinking about a range of issues that I have given little thought to in the past, and perhaps made my hypothetical toothache feel a bit less sore.

I was helped along by the speakers. George Ayittey, an economist from Ghana who teaches at American University, offered a devastating and passionately delivered evisceration of the existing system of aid, which he argued is keeping large swaths of Africa trapped in poverty under autocratic and kleptocratic regimes. He was helped along by William Easterly of NYU, who following in the footsteps of the great P.T. Bauer, has written the most recent bible of his side: The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The writer David Rieff was also on the same three-man team, but his deeply abstract points, delivered in an academic modality (“modality,” as was apparent, is his all-time favorite word) and qualified by a sententious and irrelevant declaration that he remained a man of the Left, made him more of a drain to his side than an asset.

The defenders of aid to Africa, C. Payne Lucas, president of Africare (an aid organization), John McArthur of Columbia University’s Earth Institute (whatever that is), and Gayle Smith, director of African affairs on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, also put on a very persuasive case that the aid picture is not entirely bleak. But it was marred by gratuitous Bush-bashing, in which they juxtaposed the billions spent fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the paucity of funds spent eradicating poverty in Africa. Revealing their left-wing tilt did not help to persuade me that their arguments focusing on the merits of aid itself were rock solid.

In the end, I came away with the view that the proposition itself, while it led to an illuminating discussion, does not make all that much sense. Like all subjects, aid to Africa is a many-sided subject and the issue cannot be decided by an easy yes or no. But I also came away with the conviction that public debate of this sort is a very valuable thing. Robert Rosenkranz, the philanthropist who has brought this Oxford-style forum from England to American shores, deserves congratulations for a genuine and original accomplishment.

Read Less

Myers on Johnson

It’s a rare review that can change one’s mind about a book he has deeply enjoyed—so rare that B. R. Myers’s Atlantic piece on Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is my only personal example. (Myers’s razor-sharp Reader’s Manifesto can be read here.) In October, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in the choir singing hosannas to Johnson’s National Book Award-winning Vietnam novel. Tree of Smoke was, I thought, both vastly entertaining and a moving addition to the literary evidence for W. T. Sherman’s maxim, “War is hell.” Now I’m a little embarrassed not to have remarked the many howlers that Myers picks out:

There is no point in dwelling on the story line, because even some of the book’s admirers have conceded its sluggishness and overlength—albeit with some humbug about how flaws make a good novel more likable, perfection being such a turnoff, etc. As for the action, it never feels authentic. Soldiers do not laugh in unison or call out frantically for M&M’s during a sudden and intense firefight, nor would a soldier crawling through bush find the attendant lacerations “exhilarating.” Not once does the reader feel fear or tension. . . . [O]ne thinks only of the silver-screen ‘Nam and of Life, not life, feeble substitutes for the riches to be had from Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Crawling through the thicket of Johnson’s prose, I did find the lacerations exhilarating. There was something about the language, overblown and inexact, that seemed perfectly suited to the subject matter. In A Reader’s Manifesto, Myers presents a very different take on that kind of anti-style. “Like [Annie] Proulx and so many others today,” he writes, “[Cormac] McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.” I’d say that applies to Johnson as well.

Tree of Smoke is in many ways a remarkable achievement. For all it gets wrong, it’s a tremendous effort of imagination; I don’t doubt, as Myers claims to, that the critics loved reading it. Still, I’ll admit that it falls wide of the mark, that the praise should have been tempered with a more careful consideration of the shortcomings. A final question for Myers, though: Where were you when I called for air support on the problem of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Now that’s a review I’d pay to see.

It’s a rare review that can change one’s mind about a book he has deeply enjoyed—so rare that B. R. Myers’s Atlantic piece on Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is my only personal example. (Myers’s razor-sharp Reader’s Manifesto can be read here.) In October, somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in the choir singing hosannas to Johnson’s National Book Award-winning Vietnam novel. Tree of Smoke was, I thought, both vastly entertaining and a moving addition to the literary evidence for W. T. Sherman’s maxim, “War is hell.” Now I’m a little embarrassed not to have remarked the many howlers that Myers picks out:

There is no point in dwelling on the story line, because even some of the book’s admirers have conceded its sluggishness and overlength—albeit with some humbug about how flaws make a good novel more likable, perfection being such a turnoff, etc. As for the action, it never feels authentic. Soldiers do not laugh in unison or call out frantically for M&M’s during a sudden and intense firefight, nor would a soldier crawling through bush find the attendant lacerations “exhilarating.” Not once does the reader feel fear or tension. . . . [O]ne thinks only of the silver-screen ‘Nam and of Life, not life, feeble substitutes for the riches to be had from Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Crawling through the thicket of Johnson’s prose, I did find the lacerations exhilarating. There was something about the language, overblown and inexact, that seemed perfectly suited to the subject matter. In A Reader’s Manifesto, Myers presents a very different take on that kind of anti-style. “Like [Annie] Proulx and so many others today,” he writes, “[Cormac] McCarthy relies more on barrages of hit-and-miss verbiage than on careful use of just the right words.” I’d say that applies to Johnson as well.

Tree of Smoke is in many ways a remarkable achievement. For all it gets wrong, it’s a tremendous effort of imagination; I don’t doubt, as Myers claims to, that the critics loved reading it. Still, I’ll admit that it falls wide of the mark, that the praise should have been tempered with a more careful consideration of the shortcomings. A final question for Myers, though: Where were you when I called for air support on the problem of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? Now that’s a review I’d pay to see.

Read Less