Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 7, 2007

South Africa’s Nixon

Richard Nixon was the most paranoid of American leaders, frequently lashing out at enemies—real or perceived—out to get him. Whether it was the “East Coast Establishment” in their ritzy private clubs and their control over the media, or hippies, Jews, or homosexuals, it seemed that nearly everyone was arrayed against Nixon. The great irony was that, by the time of his resignation, this was pretty much true.

R.W. Johnson, one of South Africa’s leading journalists, has an excellent piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been nothing short of a disaster for his country. The focus of Johnson’s piece is Mbeki’s exceptional paranoia, which seems to match that of Nixon. Perhaps the most bizarre of Mbeki’s obsessions concerns the source of his support for Robert Mugabe; Johnson writes that it stems from the belief that a Western plot exists to topple Mugabe in Zimbabwe, with Mbeki’s African National Congress next in its sights.

To his legacy of AIDS denial, rampant crime, and support for the regime of Robert Mugabe, Mbeki will soon be able to add his bequeathing of the country to Jacob Zuma, a man likely to prove the impossible task of being a worse leader than Mbeki. Zuma has credibly been accused of corruption (the investigation is still pending), and though he was cleared last year of rape charges against an HIV-positive woman half his age, he infamously announced at trial that he was safe from infection because he had showered after intercourse.

Just as with Nixon, Johnson observes of Mbeki that “it really is true now that his opponents are conspiring against him, that he is cornered and that his enemies may triumph.” The African National Congress’s annual convention, to be held later this month, will decide the party’s next leader, who, because of the one-party dominant nature of the state, will in all likelihood become the next president of South Africa. “The next month or two are going to be a difficult time in South Africa,” Johnson ends ominously. But with the pending arrival of Jacob Zuma to the presidency, the next two months will be just the beginning.

Richard Nixon was the most paranoid of American leaders, frequently lashing out at enemies—real or perceived—out to get him. Whether it was the “East Coast Establishment” in their ritzy private clubs and their control over the media, or hippies, Jews, or homosexuals, it seemed that nearly everyone was arrayed against Nixon. The great irony was that, by the time of his resignation, this was pretty much true.

R.W. Johnson, one of South Africa’s leading journalists, has an excellent piece in today’s Wall Street Journal about South African President Thabo Mbeki, who has been nothing short of a disaster for his country. The focus of Johnson’s piece is Mbeki’s exceptional paranoia, which seems to match that of Nixon. Perhaps the most bizarre of Mbeki’s obsessions concerns the source of his support for Robert Mugabe; Johnson writes that it stems from the belief that a Western plot exists to topple Mugabe in Zimbabwe, with Mbeki’s African National Congress next in its sights.

To his legacy of AIDS denial, rampant crime, and support for the regime of Robert Mugabe, Mbeki will soon be able to add his bequeathing of the country to Jacob Zuma, a man likely to prove the impossible task of being a worse leader than Mbeki. Zuma has credibly been accused of corruption (the investigation is still pending), and though he was cleared last year of rape charges against an HIV-positive woman half his age, he infamously announced at trial that he was safe from infection because he had showered after intercourse.

Just as with Nixon, Johnson observes of Mbeki that “it really is true now that his opponents are conspiring against him, that he is cornered and that his enemies may triumph.” The African National Congress’s annual convention, to be held later this month, will decide the party’s next leader, who, because of the one-party dominant nature of the state, will in all likelihood become the next president of South Africa. “The next month or two are going to be a difficult time in South Africa,” Johnson ends ominously. But with the pending arrival of Jacob Zuma to the presidency, the next two months will be just the beginning.

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“Arab Street,” U.S.A.

An article in today’s Los Angeles Times reports new, sordid details in the investigation of Nada Nadim Prouty, a Lebanese woman—an illegal immigrant—who was nevertheless employed by the FBI and CIA(!), and is accused of stealing top-secret documents for Hizballah. Her brother-in-law, the paper reports, is a “suspected major fund-raiser” for Hizballah.

If that’s not shocking enough, the penultimate paragraph in the L.A. Times article contains very worrisome information, presumably placed in the article as background. “Hizballah is popular with many Lebanese Americans because of its humanitarian efforts and Middle East political activities.”

I thought the bit about Hizballah’s popularity was hyperbole, and I tried to find polling data that might back the statement up one way or another. Instead, I found this NPR story from last year. In the summer of 2006, it turns out, 15,000 Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, held a demonstration to declare their loyalties. When the crowd cheered “Who is your army?” The response was “Hizballah!” The editor of America’s largest Arab newspaper, the Arab-American News, chimed in that “the terrorist here is the Bush administration.” At the rally, swastikas were imprinted onto Israeli flags.

The second half of the sentence in the Los Angeles Times piece is terrifying for a different reason: its attempt at “objectivity.” Hizballah’s “political activities”? The old saying is that “war is politics by other means.” For Hizballah, an organization responsible for as many terror attacks against Americans as al Qaeda, terror is not simply “political activities” as other means, it is their only politics and their only means.

An article in today’s Los Angeles Times reports new, sordid details in the investigation of Nada Nadim Prouty, a Lebanese woman—an illegal immigrant—who was nevertheless employed by the FBI and CIA(!), and is accused of stealing top-secret documents for Hizballah. Her brother-in-law, the paper reports, is a “suspected major fund-raiser” for Hizballah.

If that’s not shocking enough, the penultimate paragraph in the L.A. Times article contains very worrisome information, presumably placed in the article as background. “Hizballah is popular with many Lebanese Americans because of its humanitarian efforts and Middle East political activities.”

I thought the bit about Hizballah’s popularity was hyperbole, and I tried to find polling data that might back the statement up one way or another. Instead, I found this NPR story from last year. In the summer of 2006, it turns out, 15,000 Arab-Americans in Dearborn, Michigan, held a demonstration to declare their loyalties. When the crowd cheered “Who is your army?” The response was “Hizballah!” The editor of America’s largest Arab newspaper, the Arab-American News, chimed in that “the terrorist here is the Bush administration.” At the rally, swastikas were imprinted onto Israeli flags.

The second half of the sentence in the Los Angeles Times piece is terrifying for a different reason: its attempt at “objectivity.” Hizballah’s “political activities”? The old saying is that “war is politics by other means.” For Hizballah, an organization responsible for as many terror attacks against Americans as al Qaeda, terror is not simply “political activities” as other means, it is their only politics and their only means.

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Russian Paranoia

Today, Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that his country must achieve parity in nuclear arms with the United States. “The weak ones are not loved and not heard, they are insulted, and when we have parity they will talk to us in a different way,” he said. Ivanov also intimated that the failure to achieve equality with the United States will result in the loss of Russian independence.

Russia has about 4,200 strategic nuclear weapons deployed. The United States, by contrast, has around 5,900. Yet there is no reason for Ivanov to speak in such dark terms. Both the United States and Russia are parties to the Treaty of Moscow. Pursuant to this agreement signed in 2002, both countries will reduce operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 2,200 by the last day of 2012. Moreover, the Pentagon, especially since 2004, has been reducing the number of strategic nukes below levels required by the Moscow Treaty. The view in Washington is that we do not need all our weapons.

And the truth is that Russia also does not require any more nukes to ensure its security. North Korea, for instance, deterred the United States for years by merely hinting that it possessed an atomic arsenal. Today, it has enough plutonium for a dozen nukes that can be delivered only by pickup truck or cargo container, and it is unlikely to have weaponized all its fissile material. The bomb it tested in October 2006 was a dud, which barely detonated. Yet no one is advocating a military solution to dethrone the thoroughly despicable Kim Jong Il. So, despite the ravings of First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov, Mother Russia is safe now and it will be safe even if it never approaches parity with the United States.

The Russians are apparently going on a bender, and if their comments make no sense, it is either because they want attention or because historical paranoia is coming to the surface. We know how to deal with nations that act like five year-olds, but we had better figure out the best way to handle the slightly unhinged folks running the Kremlin.

Today, Russia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that his country must achieve parity in nuclear arms with the United States. “The weak ones are not loved and not heard, they are insulted, and when we have parity they will talk to us in a different way,” he said. Ivanov also intimated that the failure to achieve equality with the United States will result in the loss of Russian independence.

Russia has about 4,200 strategic nuclear weapons deployed. The United States, by contrast, has around 5,900. Yet there is no reason for Ivanov to speak in such dark terms. Both the United States and Russia are parties to the Treaty of Moscow. Pursuant to this agreement signed in 2002, both countries will reduce operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 2,200 by the last day of 2012. Moreover, the Pentagon, especially since 2004, has been reducing the number of strategic nukes below levels required by the Moscow Treaty. The view in Washington is that we do not need all our weapons.

And the truth is that Russia also does not require any more nukes to ensure its security. North Korea, for instance, deterred the United States for years by merely hinting that it possessed an atomic arsenal. Today, it has enough plutonium for a dozen nukes that can be delivered only by pickup truck or cargo container, and it is unlikely to have weaponized all its fissile material. The bomb it tested in October 2006 was a dud, which barely detonated. Yet no one is advocating a military solution to dethrone the thoroughly despicable Kim Jong Il. So, despite the ravings of First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov, Mother Russia is safe now and it will be safe even if it never approaches parity with the United States.

The Russians are apparently going on a bender, and if their comments make no sense, it is either because they want attention or because historical paranoia is coming to the surface. We know how to deal with nations that act like five year-olds, but we had better figure out the best way to handle the slightly unhinged folks running the Kremlin.

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Stemming the Tide

In today’s Guardian, we read:

The number of foreign jihadists entering Iraq has fallen by nearly half in recent months as a result of tougher action by the country’s neighbors and the rejection of the “al Qaeda brand” by ordinary Iraqis, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said yesterday. General David Petraeus told the Guardian in an interview that attacks in Iraq had fallen to levels not seen since early 2005, and that “ethno-sectarian violence” which had “surged off the charts” following the bombing of the Samara mosque in February 2006 had now “fallen dramatically.” “There is still a lot of hard work to be done,” Petraeus added by way of caution. Despite the damage inflicted on al Qaeda in Iraq, he said the group remained “a dangerous enemy.”

The sharp drop in foreign jihadists entering Iraq is one more data point to add to the progress we’ve seen in 2007, including a dramatic decrease in American combat casualties, Iraqi civilian casualties, suicide bombings, and roadside bombings; the increase in local population support for our efforts; the tremendous body blows al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has absorbed; the “Anbar Awakening” and the widespread rejection of bin Ladenism we are seeing among Sunni Iraqis; Shia in Baghdad turning against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army; the continuation of “bottom up” reconciliation efforts and the distribution of oil revenues (even absent laws mandating it); and early signs that the huge refugee flow out of Iraq has begun to reverse itself.

In light of this, it’s important to underscore two things. The first is that General Petraeus is surely right to say that there is still a lot of hard work to do in Iraq. Progress that’s been made can be stalled or even reversed. There are ebbs and flows to war—and in Iraq we have seen things change dramatically for the worse and change dramatically for the better. Those of us who have supported the surge, then, need to heed his counsel when he says, as he did to the New York Times

Nobody says anything about turning corners, seeing lights at the ends of tunnels, any of those phrases. And I think when you’ve been doing this as long as some of us have, you just keep your head down and keep moving.

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In today’s Guardian, we read:

The number of foreign jihadists entering Iraq has fallen by nearly half in recent months as a result of tougher action by the country’s neighbors and the rejection of the “al Qaeda brand” by ordinary Iraqis, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said yesterday. General David Petraeus told the Guardian in an interview that attacks in Iraq had fallen to levels not seen since early 2005, and that “ethno-sectarian violence” which had “surged off the charts” following the bombing of the Samara mosque in February 2006 had now “fallen dramatically.” “There is still a lot of hard work to be done,” Petraeus added by way of caution. Despite the damage inflicted on al Qaeda in Iraq, he said the group remained “a dangerous enemy.”

The sharp drop in foreign jihadists entering Iraq is one more data point to add to the progress we’ve seen in 2007, including a dramatic decrease in American combat casualties, Iraqi civilian casualties, suicide bombings, and roadside bombings; the increase in local population support for our efforts; the tremendous body blows al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has absorbed; the “Anbar Awakening” and the widespread rejection of bin Ladenism we are seeing among Sunni Iraqis; Shia in Baghdad turning against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army; the continuation of “bottom up” reconciliation efforts and the distribution of oil revenues (even absent laws mandating it); and early signs that the huge refugee flow out of Iraq has begun to reverse itself.

In light of this, it’s important to underscore two things. The first is that General Petraeus is surely right to say that there is still a lot of hard work to do in Iraq. Progress that’s been made can be stalled or even reversed. There are ebbs and flows to war—and in Iraq we have seen things change dramatically for the worse and change dramatically for the better. Those of us who have supported the surge, then, need to heed his counsel when he says, as he did to the New York Times

Nobody says anything about turning corners, seeing lights at the ends of tunnels, any of those phrases. And I think when you’ve been doing this as long as some of us have, you just keep your head down and keep moving.

Iraq remains a fragile, traumatized, and in many respects a broken country. It is nowhere near where it needs to be. And the central government still needs to do more, much more, to advance political reconciliation. But across the board, repairs are being made. We should therefore take sober satisfaction for what General Petraeus, the American military, and the people of Iraq have achieved this year and continue building on it. We have, at long last, a formula for long-term success.

At the same time, leaders of the Democratic Party continue to act in a deeply irresponsible and politically reckless way. Earlier this week, for example, we read this on the Politico blog:

Democrats are increasingly bailing on their previously held view that the troop surge in Iraq has been a “failure,” but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid isn’t ready to jump on the bandwagon with other Democrats who say the surge has worked. The Senate re-opened for business on Monday after a two-week Thanksgiving break, during which key Democrats traveled to Iraq and declared that the surge is working, at least from a security and military perspective. Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), one the top war critics, stunned fellow Democrats late last week with his statement that “the surge is working,” even though he added that political reconciliation has been lagging. Murtha’s view was backed by Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who also said the surge worked after he returned from Iraq. But Reid, in a Monday press conference, ceded no ground. “The surge hasn’t accomplished its goals,” Reid said. ” . . . We are involved, still, in an intractable civil war.”

So despite the extraordinary progress we’ve seen this year in Iraq, Majority Leader Reid still wants to deny it, in order to force a change in strategy that would have catastrophic consequences. More and more people, even in his own party, see how destructive, and self-destructive, this would be.

Soon Harry Reid may be standing alone.

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Is President Bush the Real Author of the Iran NIE?

I recently had a chance to sit down over coffee with Donald Rumsfeld, now in private life, to discuss intelligence issues and some other related subjects. In the course of our conversation (as I recalled this morning on the anniversary of December 7, 1941), Rumsfeld brought up the subject of Roberta Wohlstetter’s magisterial book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. He especially pointed me to the book’s introduction by Thomas Schelling, which opens up a short and very brilliant discussion of the nature of surprise, a copy of which Rumsfeld had on hand to give me.  

“Surprise, when it happens to a government,” wrote Schelling,

is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he’ll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion — which is usually too late. (Unlike movies, real life provides no musical background to tip us off to the climax.) Finally, as at Pearl Harbor, surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.

This text, and presumably the attack on Pearl Harbor itself — Rumsfeld was nine years old when it occurred — seems to have had a profound influence on the former Secretary of Defense. When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings on the still-innocent date of January 11, 2001, he was asked a simple but highly pertinent question by Senator Pat Roberts: “What’s the one big thing that keeps you up at night?”

“Intelligence,” is what Rumsfeld replied without missing a beat. And the “importance of considerably improving our intelligence capabilities so that we know more about what people think and how they behave.”

Alas, improving our intelligence capabilities is one thing President Bush has conspicuously failed to do. Our country fell victim to a first intelligence failure on his watch on September 11, 2001, in an attack on our homeland that in both casualties and costs was more devastating than the Japanese surprise attack of 1941. Our country was then led into a war in part on the basis of an erroneous intelligence estimate about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Since September 11 we have poured immense resources into improving intelligence and embarked on numerous reforms, including both a 100-day and a 500-day plan to “integrate” the intelligence community’s diverse components. But as we see from the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran — shoddily argued on its face, with the facts it puts forward directly contradicting its own starkly stated finding that the Iranian nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003 — the fundamental problem of our intelligence community remains intractably in place. Some very low-quality people, who have few inhibitions about smuggling their politics into intelligence findings, continue to occupy positions of high responsibility in the bureaucracy.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? We can blame some of this on Bush’s first CIA director, George Tenet. And we can also point a finger at Tenet’s successor, the far less canny but equally hapless Porter Goss, who was forced out of the job within half a year. And we can question many of the decisions taken by John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, the two directors, successively, of the new post of Director of National Intelligence.

But who appointed all these people? Who kept the Clinton holdover George Tenet in office after September 11 and then, even after the Iraq-WMD “slam-dunk” fiasco, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor? Who appointed Porter Goss to run the CIA and failed to back him up when he tried to clean house? Who acquiesced in the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is emerging as a clumsy and duplicative bureaucratic behemoth, far more focused on drawing and redrawing the organizational charts of the intelligence community than on getting the intelligence itself straight, as the latest NIE demonstrates?

Looking back over the past seven years, I believe it is increasingly apparent that President Bush’s failure to reform the intelligence community — to manage even to gain control of it — is emerging as the largest blot on his presidency. Accused of politicizing the intelligence community, the President has manifestly failed to depoliticize it, with ramifications now spreading across the globe, including the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons while the U.S. turns a blind eye. 

“Neglect of responsibility,” wrote Schelling, is one of the factors that lead governments to be taken by surprise. Such neglect already cost us dearly on September 11, 2001. We are now fully into the age of weapons of mass destruction, and it may cost us far more the next time around.

I recently had a chance to sit down over coffee with Donald Rumsfeld, now in private life, to discuss intelligence issues and some other related subjects. In the course of our conversation (as I recalled this morning on the anniversary of December 7, 1941), Rumsfeld brought up the subject of Roberta Wohlstetter’s magisterial book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. He especially pointed me to the book’s introduction by Thomas Schelling, which opens up a short and very brilliant discussion of the nature of surprise, a copy of which Rumsfeld had on hand to give me.  

“Surprise, when it happens to a government,” wrote Schelling,

is likely to be a complicated, diffuse, bureaucratic thing. It includes neglect of responsibility, but also responsibility so poorly defined or so ambiguously delegated that, like a string of pearls too precious to wear, is too sensitive to give to those who need it. It includes the alarm that fails to work, but also the unalert watchman, but also the one who knows he’ll be chewed out by his superior if he gets higher authority out of bed. It includes the contingencies that occur to no one, but also those that everyone assumes somebody else is taking care of. It includes straightforward procrastination, but also decisions protracted by internal disagreement. It includes, in addition, the inability of individual human beings to rise to the occasion until they are sure it is the occasion — which is usually too late. (Unlike movies, real life provides no musical background to tip us off to the climax.) Finally, as at Pearl Harbor, surprise may include some measure of genuine novelty introduced by the enemy, and possibly some sheer bad luck.

This text, and presumably the attack on Pearl Harbor itself — Rumsfeld was nine years old when it occurred — seems to have had a profound influence on the former Secretary of Defense. When he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings on the still-innocent date of January 11, 2001, he was asked a simple but highly pertinent question by Senator Pat Roberts: “What’s the one big thing that keeps you up at night?”

“Intelligence,” is what Rumsfeld replied without missing a beat. And the “importance of considerably improving our intelligence capabilities so that we know more about what people think and how they behave.”

Alas, improving our intelligence capabilities is one thing President Bush has conspicuously failed to do. Our country fell victim to a first intelligence failure on his watch on September 11, 2001, in an attack on our homeland that in both casualties and costs was more devastating than the Japanese surprise attack of 1941. Our country was then led into a war in part on the basis of an erroneous intelligence estimate about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

Since September 11 we have poured immense resources into improving intelligence and embarked on numerous reforms, including both a 100-day and a 500-day plan to “integrate” the intelligence community’s diverse components. But as we see from the latest National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) about Iran — shoddily argued on its face, with the facts it puts forward directly contradicting its own starkly stated finding that the Iranian nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003 — the fundamental problem of our intelligence community remains intractably in place. Some very low-quality people, who have few inhibitions about smuggling their politics into intelligence findings, continue to occupy positions of high responsibility in the bureaucracy.

Who is responsible for this state of affairs? We can blame some of this on Bush’s first CIA director, George Tenet. And we can also point a finger at Tenet’s successor, the far less canny but equally hapless Porter Goss, who was forced out of the job within half a year. And we can question many of the decisions taken by John Negroponte and Mike McConnell, the two directors, successively, of the new post of Director of National Intelligence.

But who appointed all these people? Who kept the Clinton holdover George Tenet in office after September 11 and then, even after the Iraq-WMD “slam-dunk” fiasco, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor? Who appointed Porter Goss to run the CIA and failed to back him up when he tried to clean house? Who acquiesced in the creation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which is emerging as a clumsy and duplicative bureaucratic behemoth, far more focused on drawing and redrawing the organizational charts of the intelligence community than on getting the intelligence itself straight, as the latest NIE demonstrates?

Looking back over the past seven years, I believe it is increasingly apparent that President Bush’s failure to reform the intelligence community — to manage even to gain control of it — is emerging as the largest blot on his presidency. Accused of politicizing the intelligence community, the President has manifestly failed to depoliticize it, with ramifications now spreading across the globe, including the prospect of Iran’s obtaining nuclear weapons while the U.S. turns a blind eye. 

“Neglect of responsibility,” wrote Schelling, is one of the factors that lead governments to be taken by surprise. Such neglect already cost us dearly on September 11, 2001. We are now fully into the age of weapons of mass destruction, and it may cost us far more the next time around.

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Bush’s Big Adventure

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s Annapolis Conference, President Bush told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that there was no reason for him to go to the region to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. “Going to the region in itself is not going to unstick negotiations,” Bush said, seeming annoyed by the suggestion that he should get out more. “This idea about somehow you’re supposed to travel and therefore good things are going to happen is just not realistic.”

But earlier this week, the President apparently had a change of heart, with White House National Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirming that Bush will visit Israel in early January. This marks a significant shift in strategy: Bush had given the strong impression that he intended to monitor bilateral negotiations from afar, only getting involved if necessary to resolve impasses. Perhaps realizing that impasses—and thus his direct involvement—were inevitable, Bush wisely chose to visit the region now. Yet the most important outcome of his visit will not be resolving intricate details regarding refugees or Jerusalem. Rather, Bush’s visit can serve a critical public diplomacy purpose, so long as it is used to reach out to Israelis and Palestinians, encouraging both to support their leaders’ bid for peace.

In Israel, Bush will find a public that is deeply skeptical of Annapolis, having little faith in Olmert and, arguably, less faith in a Palestinian body politic still heavily controlled by Hamas. Yet, for Bush, the Israeli public is winnable: Bush has continually iterated his understanding for Israelis’ security concerns, and he is often regarded as the most pro-Israel president of all time. Bush’s visit to Israel will demonstrate his seriousness regarding Annapolis, possibly convincing Israelis that peace can—and therefore must—be sealed during his presidency.

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In the immediate aftermath of last week’s Annapolis Conference, President Bush told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that there was no reason for him to go to the region to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. “Going to the region in itself is not going to unstick negotiations,” Bush said, seeming annoyed by the suggestion that he should get out more. “This idea about somehow you’re supposed to travel and therefore good things are going to happen is just not realistic.”

But earlier this week, the President apparently had a change of heart, with White House National Security spokesman Gordon Johndroe confirming that Bush will visit Israel in early January. This marks a significant shift in strategy: Bush had given the strong impression that he intended to monitor bilateral negotiations from afar, only getting involved if necessary to resolve impasses. Perhaps realizing that impasses—and thus his direct involvement—were inevitable, Bush wisely chose to visit the region now. Yet the most important outcome of his visit will not be resolving intricate details regarding refugees or Jerusalem. Rather, Bush’s visit can serve a critical public diplomacy purpose, so long as it is used to reach out to Israelis and Palestinians, encouraging both to support their leaders’ bid for peace.

In Israel, Bush will find a public that is deeply skeptical of Annapolis, having little faith in Olmert and, arguably, less faith in a Palestinian body politic still heavily controlled by Hamas. Yet, for Bush, the Israeli public is winnable: Bush has continually iterated his understanding for Israelis’ security concerns, and he is often regarded as the most pro-Israel president of all time. Bush’s visit to Israel will demonstrate his seriousness regarding Annapolis, possibly convincing Israelis that peace can—and therefore must—be sealed during his presidency.

Among Palestinians, Bush faces a much tougher public diplomacy outlook. The Palestinian public views the Bush administration as the enabler of everything that encumbers their livelihoods: the security barrier, checkpoints, roadblocks, and curfews. Palestinians further view Bush’s democracy agenda as hypocritical, given the U.S.-led isolation of Hamas that followed its 2006 electoral victory. Finally, the Palestinian public views the peace process cynically, and will ask how the recent announcement that Israel will build more housing units in Har Homa—headline news throughout the Arab world yesterday—jives with land-for-peace.

Bush’s visit to the region is unlikely to change any of these realities immediately—indeed, that is not the point of public diplomacy. However, if Bush visits Ramallah, engages with members of Palestinian civil society, demonstrates sympathy for Palestinian pain, and insists that its remedy lies in serious engagement with Israel, he will be taking the first step towards showing Palestinians that the peace process will seek their advancement. He could further use these conversations to express his dismay for Hamas’s ascendancy, and argue that it was Hamas’s suicide bombings—and no American-Israeli conspiracy—that prompted the West Bank barrier’s construction.

For this reason, Bush’s trip to the region must emphasize media interviews and meetings with Israeli and Palestinian citizens. Indeed, if the administration merely intends a series of closed-door meetings with Olmert and Abbas in warmer climates, an important opportunity to advance the credibility of U.S. policy will be lost.

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Oprah Winfrey Endorses…

Does anybody read the New York Observer anymore? I actually didn’t know it was still published, having tuned out when Hilton Kramer retired his front page art column a few years back. But the salmon-colored sheet drew my attention this week with a candidate for the most inane cover story ever: underwear.

Spanx is a girdle-like undergarment that makes the woman who pulls it on appear five to ten pounds slimmer. Even youthful, svelte ladies are addicted to the “power panty,” as the Observer alerts us. I knew the paper’s mission was to cover every nuance of what people are wearing in Manhattan, but this week’s article hits a new low. A wad of filler, its sole objective seems to be displaying a cutesy cartoon of Spanx-sporters Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow in their skivvies.

This drivel proves the obsolescence of a society rag like the NYO in the age of Gawker and other online social diaries.

Does anybody read the New York Observer anymore? I actually didn’t know it was still published, having tuned out when Hilton Kramer retired his front page art column a few years back. But the salmon-colored sheet drew my attention this week with a candidate for the most inane cover story ever: underwear.

Spanx is a girdle-like undergarment that makes the woman who pulls it on appear five to ten pounds slimmer. Even youthful, svelte ladies are addicted to the “power panty,” as the Observer alerts us. I knew the paper’s mission was to cover every nuance of what people are wearing in Manhattan, but this week’s article hits a new low. A wad of filler, its sole objective seems to be displaying a cutesy cartoon of Spanx-sporters Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow in their skivvies.

This drivel proves the obsolescence of a society rag like the NYO in the age of Gawker and other online social diaries.

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Bookshelf

• I like shoptalk, even when I don’t completely understand it, and I like it best of all when the shop is the studio of a working artist. To be sure, a lifetime in journalism has taught me that some artists are incapable of talking about their work—or anything else—but it’s surprising how often a skillfully edited interview can shed useful light on the myriad mysteries of creation. Moreover, I’ve also discovered that I don’t necessarily have to like the work of the artist in question in order for me to take a respectful interest in his working methods. Whenever I teach a course in criticism, I tell my students, “Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can’t do.”

Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, has been interviewing artists ever since he was a graduate student, and now he’s spun 34 of those interviews into a book called 30 Years: Interviews and Outtakes. As an art collector, I have strong and well-defined tastes in painting and sculpture, and insofar as Auping’s choice of interview subjects reflects his own taste, I’d say we don’t have much in common. Only one of the artists represented in 30 Years, Martin Puryear, is also to be found on my own list of personal favorites, while several of the others make my teeth itch. Yet I still read 30 Years with close and consistent attention and learned much from it—though not all the lessons were intentional.

It didn’t exactly surprise me to find, for instance, that the conceptual and politically-oriented artists questioned by Auping are inclined as a rule to emit great clouds of blather (“The kind of art we have today is really just a throw-off of the maximized profit, a function of the capital which is poured into it”). Conversely, the most interesting artists are usually—though not always—the ones with the most interesting things to say. Asked about the art of Fernand Léger, Louise Bourgeois replied, “He was very rigid, very limited. But he could find emotion in that geometry. Léger could be hard and intimate at the same time.”

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• I like shoptalk, even when I don’t completely understand it, and I like it best of all when the shop is the studio of a working artist. To be sure, a lifetime in journalism has taught me that some artists are incapable of talking about their work—or anything else—but it’s surprising how often a skillfully edited interview can shed useful light on the myriad mysteries of creation. Moreover, I’ve also discovered that I don’t necessarily have to like the work of the artist in question in order for me to take a respectful interest in his working methods. Whenever I teach a course in criticism, I tell my students, “Always treat artists with respect. Most of them know how to do something you can’t do.”

Michael Auping, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, has been interviewing artists ever since he was a graduate student, and now he’s spun 34 of those interviews into a book called 30 Years: Interviews and Outtakes. As an art collector, I have strong and well-defined tastes in painting and sculpture, and insofar as Auping’s choice of interview subjects reflects his own taste, I’d say we don’t have much in common. Only one of the artists represented in 30 Years, Martin Puryear, is also to be found on my own list of personal favorites, while several of the others make my teeth itch. Yet I still read 30 Years with close and consistent attention and learned much from it—though not all the lessons were intentional.

It didn’t exactly surprise me to find, for instance, that the conceptual and politically-oriented artists questioned by Auping are inclined as a rule to emit great clouds of blather (“The kind of art we have today is really just a throw-off of the maximized profit, a function of the capital which is poured into it”). Conversely, the most interesting artists are usually—though not always—the ones with the most interesting things to say. Asked about the art of Fernand Léger, Louise Bourgeois replied, “He was very rigid, very limited. But he could find emotion in that geometry. Léger could be hard and intimate at the same time.”

Nor was I greatly surprised to find that minimalists tend to be brief. Like, say, Ellsworth Kelly:

I will say that at a very early age I felt that I saw things abstractly. The more carefully I looked, the more abstract they became.

Again, not always: Agnes Martin’s reply when asked what she tells her students was both lengthy and worth quoting at length.

You have to be careful with the intellect as an artist. The intellectual struggles with the facts. That’s not inspirational. If you are an intellectual and you are going to buy a house, you would think about the cost, check on the taxes, look at the survey, and go through a whole list of things that make you feel better about buying the house. If you couldn’t rationalize it, you wouldn’t buy it. If the house genuinely inspired you, you wouldn’t worry about the list. You would find a way to buy it. You have to deal with the practical matters, but you wouldn’t worry about them because you would be involved with your inspiration. That’s what artists have to do. They have to stay involved with their inspiration. They can’t be constantly worried about the cost of paint.

As for Puryear, he mostly talks about matters of technique, and his comments are very specific. Asked about the genesis of Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1966), the best-known of his wooden sculptures, he tells you just what you want to know:

It was made from an ash sapling—a very tall, young ash tree that I cut on my property and brought into the studio. I kept it for quite a while and I knew I wanted to do something with it because it was such an interesting form. Most samplings that grow in the woods grow ramrod straight. This one had a lot of very interesting undulations in its stem . . . the undulations were fascinating to me, and I kept it for quite some time just in that shape, with a kind of broad trunk with the bark on it. Eventually I peeled the bark off, and began thinking about it in relation to the ladder.

You can see what he did next by going to the Museum of Modern Art’s Martin Puryear retrospective, which is up through January 14, after which it travels to Fort Worth, Washington’s National Gallery, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. If you can’t catch it in any of those places, pick up a copy of the catalogue. It contains, among other good things, a fine essay by Michael Auping, and the 165 illustrations will give you some idea of why I recently praised Puryear as “the American Brancusi, a master woodworker whose elegantly crafted creations, by turns playful and mysterious, allude subtly to political matters without once bowing to the tyranny of the idea.”

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Europe Doesn’t Back Down

The NIE release on Iran’s nuclear program has had some peculiar effects on so many erstwhile critics of U.S. intelligence. It’s been variously welcomed as a sign that the same intelligence community that got it tragically wrong before 9/11 and spectacularly wrong before the Iraq war now has it absolutely right. It’s been viewed as the greenlight for turning off the missile defense project in Europe and as the evidence that it’s high time to end the sanctions regime and start engaging Iran.

Not so.

While pundits are busy dreaming up the next free trade zone in Bandar Abbas and European industries plan their next business deal with Iran’s revolutionary guards’ front companies, European leaders have managed to notice the subtext of the NIE release—what’s truly in it, and what’s missing. And they are not rushing to sign new trade agreements and friendship treaties with Tehran.

If true, the NIE confirms what neither the IAEA nor the UN Security Council could conclusively say until today: Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program. As noted in yesterday‘s New York Times, the NIE tells us that the weapons’ part of the program only was brought to a halt—but not the other two critical components: enrichment, which the NIE says is proceeding until, ‘eventually’, Iran will have enough weapons’ grade uranium and plutonium for a nuclear bomb; and ballistic missiles, which can only be explained in the context of WMD, and which the NIE does not mention.

UN sanctions were approved to pressure Iran to come clean on the nature and extent of its nuclear program. The IAEA’s most recent report confirms that Iran has much to explain still. It must tell the world why it has 3,000 operational centrifuges (and counting) when it could get its nuclear fuel from Russia and need not enrich it indigenously. It needs to explain why it has a plutonium enrichment plant in Arak, which makes sense only for military reasons. Now that the NIE has revealed to the world that the Iranians were trying to build a bomb, Iran must explain even more, not less.

The NIE release on Iran’s nuclear program has had some peculiar effects on so many erstwhile critics of U.S. intelligence. It’s been variously welcomed as a sign that the same intelligence community that got it tragically wrong before 9/11 and spectacularly wrong before the Iraq war now has it absolutely right. It’s been viewed as the greenlight for turning off the missile defense project in Europe and as the evidence that it’s high time to end the sanctions regime and start engaging Iran.

Not so.

While pundits are busy dreaming up the next free trade zone in Bandar Abbas and European industries plan their next business deal with Iran’s revolutionary guards’ front companies, European leaders have managed to notice the subtext of the NIE release—what’s truly in it, and what’s missing. And they are not rushing to sign new trade agreements and friendship treaties with Tehran.

If true, the NIE confirms what neither the IAEA nor the UN Security Council could conclusively say until today: Iran had a clandestine nuclear weapons program. As noted in yesterday‘s New York Times, the NIE tells us that the weapons’ part of the program only was brought to a halt—but not the other two critical components: enrichment, which the NIE says is proceeding until, ‘eventually’, Iran will have enough weapons’ grade uranium and plutonium for a nuclear bomb; and ballistic missiles, which can only be explained in the context of WMD, and which the NIE does not mention.

UN sanctions were approved to pressure Iran to come clean on the nature and extent of its nuclear program. The IAEA’s most recent report confirms that Iran has much to explain still. It must tell the world why it has 3,000 operational centrifuges (and counting) when it could get its nuclear fuel from Russia and need not enrich it indigenously. It needs to explain why it has a plutonium enrichment plant in Arak, which makes sense only for military reasons. Now that the NIE has revealed to the world that the Iranians were trying to build a bomb, Iran must explain even more, not less.

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Not Hawkish Enough for the Doves

It’s not only conservatives who are troubled by the new National Intelligence Estimate. So are many liberals. According to this Los Angeles Times article, the ranks of the critics include my Council on Foreign Relations colleagues Ray Takeyh and Gary Samore as well as Sharon Squassoni of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Clinton National Security Adviser Tony Lake.

They make essentially the same point that I and other, more conservative skeptics have made: The NIE puts too much stock in Iran stopping its “nuclear weapons program” while downplaying the fact that Iran continues to enrich uranium as part of a supposedly civilian nuclear-energy program that could, in reality, be turned to military use fairly easily.

The NIE seems to let Iran off the hook, thereby undercutting efforts to push tough sanctions and perhaps to make a diplomatic breakthrough. Ironically, the net result of the NIE may be to make military action more, not less, likely. If the international community slacks off on efforts to contain Iran—as now seems increasingly likely—a future U.S. president is more likely to be confronted with the unpalatable alternatives of either allowing Iran to go nuclear or ordering air strikes to stop it.

It’s not only conservatives who are troubled by the new National Intelligence Estimate. So are many liberals. According to this Los Angeles Times article, the ranks of the critics include my Council on Foreign Relations colleagues Ray Takeyh and Gary Samore as well as Sharon Squassoni of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Clinton National Security Adviser Tony Lake.

They make essentially the same point that I and other, more conservative skeptics have made: The NIE puts too much stock in Iran stopping its “nuclear weapons program” while downplaying the fact that Iran continues to enrich uranium as part of a supposedly civilian nuclear-energy program that could, in reality, be turned to military use fairly easily.

The NIE seems to let Iran off the hook, thereby undercutting efforts to push tough sanctions and perhaps to make a diplomatic breakthrough. Ironically, the net result of the NIE may be to make military action more, not less, likely. If the international community slacks off on efforts to contain Iran—as now seems increasingly likely—a future U.S. president is more likely to be confronted with the unpalatable alternatives of either allowing Iran to go nuclear or ordering air strikes to stop it.

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