Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 17, 2007

More On Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald says I mischaracterized what he wrote in the following paragraph:

Writing at The Podhoretz Family’s Commentary Magazine, right-wing blog favorite Michael Totten — who says he has been the only reporter other than al-Fadhily in Fallujah — takes issue with some of al-Fadhily’s claims about the extent to which Fallujah was destroyed by our 2004 military assualt. In doing so, Totten revealingly points out that he, Totten, is always with the U.S. military, while the independent al-Falahdy “isn’t embedded with the military and focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians,” as though that makes Totten’s assertions more credible, rather than less credible, than al-Fadhily’s.

He wrote in an email that he did not say my “reporting was less credible with regard to whether 70 percent of Fallujah had been destroyed.” It looked that way from my first reading of his paragraph, but I suppose it could be read both ways and the misunderstanding can be chalked up to sloppy writing on his part, sloppy reading on my part, or both.

In any case, I have no interest in mischaracterizing what he or anyone else writes. And I’m glad to hear he did not mean to say what I thought he said.

He says, in his email, that he thinks al-Fadhily is more credible than me “SOLELY WITH RESPECT to the point about whether Falljuah residents had been harassed or arrested after speaking with journalists.”

I think he’s wrong about that, but feel free to click on over and read his argument.

One point he makes is fair enough, at least. I did not back up my assertion with evidence. He’s right. I didn’t. I exceeded my word limit and tried to keep it short, so here is some evidence now:

Arresting citizens for talking to journalists is a strict violation of the human rights rules being handed down from the Americans to the Iraqis. And the Iraqi Police are very closely supervised by the Marines. They live together in the same stations and go on joint patrols with each other.

I personally sat in on a class where two Marine officers instructed Iraqi Police officers in the human rights ethics expected of them. United Nations documents, rather than American documents, were the source material for the course, but the Iraqi Police are being trained to act like professional police officers in a liberal democracy, not a dictatorship.

Not everything sticks. It’s possible that the Iraqi Police would round someone up for no reason other than talking to journalists, but the Marines would be furious and would instantly undo the problem as soon as they found out about it.

No one can disprove a negative, but this one does not pass the smell test. Iraq is a paranoid place. I can’t prove that the Americans didn’t put a shark in a Euphrates River canal to scare people, either, but I shouldn’t have to.

Glenn Greenwald says I mischaracterized what he wrote in the following paragraph:

Writing at The Podhoretz Family’s Commentary Magazine, right-wing blog favorite Michael Totten — who says he has been the only reporter other than al-Fadhily in Fallujah — takes issue with some of al-Fadhily’s claims about the extent to which Fallujah was destroyed by our 2004 military assualt. In doing so, Totten revealingly points out that he, Totten, is always with the U.S. military, while the independent al-Falahdy “isn’t embedded with the military and focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians,” as though that makes Totten’s assertions more credible, rather than less credible, than al-Fadhily’s.

He wrote in an email that he did not say my “reporting was less credible with regard to whether 70 percent of Fallujah had been destroyed.” It looked that way from my first reading of his paragraph, but I suppose it could be read both ways and the misunderstanding can be chalked up to sloppy writing on his part, sloppy reading on my part, or both.

In any case, I have no interest in mischaracterizing what he or anyone else writes. And I’m glad to hear he did not mean to say what I thought he said.

He says, in his email, that he thinks al-Fadhily is more credible than me “SOLELY WITH RESPECT to the point about whether Falljuah residents had been harassed or arrested after speaking with journalists.”

I think he’s wrong about that, but feel free to click on over and read his argument.

One point he makes is fair enough, at least. I did not back up my assertion with evidence. He’s right. I didn’t. I exceeded my word limit and tried to keep it short, so here is some evidence now:

Arresting citizens for talking to journalists is a strict violation of the human rights rules being handed down from the Americans to the Iraqis. And the Iraqi Police are very closely supervised by the Marines. They live together in the same stations and go on joint patrols with each other.

I personally sat in on a class where two Marine officers instructed Iraqi Police officers in the human rights ethics expected of them. United Nations documents, rather than American documents, were the source material for the course, but the Iraqi Police are being trained to act like professional police officers in a liberal democracy, not a dictatorship.

Not everything sticks. It’s possible that the Iraqi Police would round someone up for no reason other than talking to journalists, but the Marines would be furious and would instantly undo the problem as soon as they found out about it.

No one can disprove a negative, but this one does not pass the smell test. Iraq is a paranoid place. I can’t prove that the Americans didn’t put a shark in a Euphrates River canal to scare people, either, but I shouldn’t have to.

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Huckabee’s “Bunker Mentality”?

Over at National Review Online, Pete Wehner has a good deconstruction of Mike Huckabee’s Foreign Affairs article. I have little to add to Pete’s comments except to note the contradictory nature of Huck’s second paragraph. It runs as follows:

American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad. My administration will recognize that the United States’ main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists. At the same time, my administration will never surrender any of our sovereignty, which is why I was the first presidential candidate to oppose ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which would endanger both our national security and our economic interests.

It is telling that Huckabee seemingly cannot see the tension between the first three sentences of that paragraph, which contain standard liberal boilerplate denouncing the Bush administration’s alleged failure to “reach out” to the rest of the world, and the final line, which contains standard right-wing boilerplate denouncing the Law of the Sea Treaty, of all things.

It is odd even to mention the Law of the Sea Treaty so high up in an essay laying out foreign policy priorities. Although it has been denounced by some conservatives who claim the treaty would infringe on American sovereignty, whether you are for or against it, the treaty is a mere footnote in terms of American foreign policy priorities. It may or may not be a good idea—I’m agnostic—but it’s a stretch to claim that it “would endanger both our national security and our economic interests,” much less to suggest that it is the top threat to those interests.

But it is especially odd for Huckabee to trumpet his opposition to a treaty that has been embraced by most of the rest of the world and even by the Bush administration, while claiming that his administration will be more “open” than the current one to the rest of the world. Rejecting the Law of the Sea Treaty is exactly the kind of move—along the lines of the Bush administration’s rejection of treaties on global warming, landmines, and the International Criminal Court—that drives other countries, especially our European allies, batty. It is hardly the kind of gesture that the next president would pick to suggest that his administration is going to end an alleged “bunker mentality.”

Over at National Review Online, Pete Wehner has a good deconstruction of Mike Huckabee’s Foreign Affairs article. I have little to add to Pete’s comments except to note the contradictory nature of Huck’s second paragraph. It runs as follows:

American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration’s arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad. My administration will recognize that the United States’ main fight today does not pit us against the world but pits the world against the terrorists. At the same time, my administration will never surrender any of our sovereignty, which is why I was the first presidential candidate to oppose ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, which would endanger both our national security and our economic interests.

It is telling that Huckabee seemingly cannot see the tension between the first three sentences of that paragraph, which contain standard liberal boilerplate denouncing the Bush administration’s alleged failure to “reach out” to the rest of the world, and the final line, which contains standard right-wing boilerplate denouncing the Law of the Sea Treaty, of all things.

It is odd even to mention the Law of the Sea Treaty so high up in an essay laying out foreign policy priorities. Although it has been denounced by some conservatives who claim the treaty would infringe on American sovereignty, whether you are for or against it, the treaty is a mere footnote in terms of American foreign policy priorities. It may or may not be a good idea—I’m agnostic—but it’s a stretch to claim that it “would endanger both our national security and our economic interests,” much less to suggest that it is the top threat to those interests.

But it is especially odd for Huckabee to trumpet his opposition to a treaty that has been embraced by most of the rest of the world and even by the Bush administration, while claiming that his administration will be more “open” than the current one to the rest of the world. Rejecting the Law of the Sea Treaty is exactly the kind of move—along the lines of the Bush administration’s rejection of treaties on global warming, landmines, and the International Criminal Court—that drives other countries, especially our European allies, batty. It is hardly the kind of gesture that the next president would pick to suggest that his administration is going to end an alleged “bunker mentality.”

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A Response to Glenn Greenwald

cross-posted at Middle East Journal

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald thinks that because I was embedded with the U.S. military and al-Fadhily wasn’t that my reporting from Fallujah is less credible. (For the post Greenwald is criticizing, see here.) Specifically he insists that al-Fadhily’s claim that 70 percent of Fallujah is destroyed is more credible than my claim to the contrary.

If the city were 70 percent destroyed it would look much like Dresden did after the fire-bombing. I could not possibly spend a month there without noticing, especially since I moved to a new location inside the city every day. You can believe that I would publish pictures of vast destruction in Fallujah if it existed because that’s exactly what I did when I recently went to Ramadi and Lebanon. I do have a track record of that sort of thing. I have no reason, good or bad, to treat Fallujah any differently.

It would be truly amazing—if not impossible—if I could spend so much time in Fallujah and not notice that 70 percent of it was destroyed.

I recently (sincerely and politely) offered to help Glenn Greenwald get to Iraq safely since he’s a journalist who writes about it so much. So far he hasn’t responded. By his own logic, both al-Fadhily and myself are more credible on the subject than he is. I wouldn’t normally pull rank on a colleague like this, but since Glenn pulled rank over me on al-Fadhily’s behalf, he gets the same in return.

I’ll still help Glenn get to Iraq if he wants so we won’t have to talk to each other like this.

cross-posted at Middle East Journal

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald thinks that because I was embedded with the U.S. military and al-Fadhily wasn’t that my reporting from Fallujah is less credible. (For the post Greenwald is criticizing, see here.) Specifically he insists that al-Fadhily’s claim that 70 percent of Fallujah is destroyed is more credible than my claim to the contrary.

If the city were 70 percent destroyed it would look much like Dresden did after the fire-bombing. I could not possibly spend a month there without noticing, especially since I moved to a new location inside the city every day. You can believe that I would publish pictures of vast destruction in Fallujah if it existed because that’s exactly what I did when I recently went to Ramadi and Lebanon. I do have a track record of that sort of thing. I have no reason, good or bad, to treat Fallujah any differently.

It would be truly amazing—if not impossible—if I could spend so much time in Fallujah and not notice that 70 percent of it was destroyed.

I recently (sincerely and politely) offered to help Glenn Greenwald get to Iraq safely since he’s a journalist who writes about it so much. So far he hasn’t responded. By his own logic, both al-Fadhily and myself are more credible on the subject than he is. I wouldn’t normally pull rank on a colleague like this, but since Glenn pulled rank over me on al-Fadhily’s behalf, he gets the same in return.

I’ll still help Glenn get to Iraq if he wants so we won’t have to talk to each other like this.

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The U.S. Stands Strong on Climate Change

This is from today’s New York Times editorial entitled “Disappointments on Climate,” about the recent UN climate conference in Bali.

Despite pleas from their European allies, the Americans flatly rejected the idea of setting even provisional targets for reductions in greenhouse gases. And they refused to give what the rest of the world wanted most: an unambiguous commitment to reducing America’s own emissions. Without that, there is little hope that other large emitters, including China, will change their ways.

The more one examines the data on climate change and emissions, the more one might be likely to call the piece: “Good News on Climate.” Commitments to reduce emissions serve the sole purpose of appeasing an hysterical world community. The fact is, countries that signed the Kyoto treaty on emissions went on to be worse emissions offenders than countries that didn’t. An article in the American Thinker reports:

If we look at that data and compare 2004 (latest year for which data is available) to 1997 (last year before the Kyoto treaty was signed), we find the following:

* Emissions worldwide increased 18 percent.

* Emissions from countries that signed the treaty increased 21 percent.

* Emissions from non-signers increased 10 percent.

* Emissions from the U.S. increased 6.6 percent.

More importantly, there is still nothing resembling conclusive data suggesting mankind has a significant effect on the Earth’s climate. This is from an open letter signed by “over 100 prominent international scientists” and sent to the UN Secretary General in Bali: “It is not possible to stop climate change, a natural phenomenon that has affected humanity through the ages.”

And: “Attempts to prevent global climate change from occurring are ultimately futile, and constitute a tragic misallocation of resources that would be better spent on humanity’s real and pressing problems.”

The letter, an antidote to climate change hysteria, is worth reading in its entirety.

This is from today’s New York Times editorial entitled “Disappointments on Climate,” about the recent UN climate conference in Bali.

Despite pleas from their European allies, the Americans flatly rejected the idea of setting even provisional targets for reductions in greenhouse gases. And they refused to give what the rest of the world wanted most: an unambiguous commitment to reducing America’s own emissions. Without that, there is little hope that other large emitters, including China, will change their ways.

The more one examines the data on climate change and emissions, the more one might be likely to call the piece: “Good News on Climate.” Commitments to reduce emissions serve the sole purpose of appeasing an hysterical world community. The fact is, countries that signed the Kyoto treaty on emissions went on to be worse emissions offenders than countries that didn’t. An article in the American Thinker reports:

If we look at that data and compare 2004 (latest year for which data is available) to 1997 (last year before the Kyoto treaty was signed), we find the following:

* Emissions worldwide increased 18 percent.

* Emissions from countries that signed the treaty increased 21 percent.

* Emissions from non-signers increased 10 percent.

* Emissions from the U.S. increased 6.6 percent.

More importantly, there is still nothing resembling conclusive data suggesting mankind has a significant effect on the Earth’s climate. This is from an open letter signed by “over 100 prominent international scientists” and sent to the UN Secretary General in Bali: “It is not possible to stop climate change, a natural phenomenon that has affected humanity through the ages.”

And: “Attempts to prevent global climate change from occurring are ultimately futile, and constitute a tragic misallocation of resources that would be better spent on humanity’s real and pressing problems.”

The letter, an antidote to climate change hysteria, is worth reading in its entirety.

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China and Russia Rescue Iran

Color the atomic ayatollahs happy. Today, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that the country had begun supplying nuclear fuel for Iran’s Russian-designed power station at Bushehr. The shipment of enriched uranium will take place in several stages over the course of two months. The first delivery—weighing 80 tons—was completed this Sunday.

Sundays are now lucky for Tehran. The previous Sunday Sinopec Group, one of Beijing’s state energy giants, signed a $2 billion final contract with Iran’s oil ministry to develop the massive Yadavaran field in the southwestern part of the country.

The inking of the Chinese deal comes more than three years after the initial agreement. Moscow’s delivery of uranium was postponed for about nine months. Why the long delays? Atomstroyexport, the Russian state monopoly, blames Iran’s failure to make payments, and Sinopec cites disagreements over rates of return on its investment. Yet whatever is the truth, both long-running squabbles were indisputably—and I would add “miraculously”—settled within days after the issuance of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities.

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Color the atomic ayatollahs happy. Today, Russia’s Foreign Ministry announced that the country had begun supplying nuclear fuel for Iran’s Russian-designed power station at Bushehr. The shipment of enriched uranium will take place in several stages over the course of two months. The first delivery—weighing 80 tons—was completed this Sunday.

Sundays are now lucky for Tehran. The previous Sunday Sinopec Group, one of Beijing’s state energy giants, signed a $2 billion final contract with Iran’s oil ministry to develop the massive Yadavaran field in the southwestern part of the country.

The inking of the Chinese deal comes more than three years after the initial agreement. Moscow’s delivery of uranium was postponed for about nine months. Why the long delays? Atomstroyexport, the Russian state monopoly, blames Iran’s failure to make payments, and Sinopec cites disagreements over rates of return on its investment. Yet whatever is the truth, both long-running squabbles were indisputably—and I would add “miraculously”—settled within days after the issuance of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities.

The most important finding of the NIE relates to Iran’s susceptibility to pressure. Referring to the regime’s nuclear weapons program, the estimate states: “Our assessment that the program probably was halted primarily in response to international pressure suggests Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously.” If in fact this judgment is correct, then it follows that a failure to maintain such pressure could lead to a restarting of Iran’s covert efforts to weaponize the atom. (Here contentions blogger Emanuele Ottolenghi comes to a similar conclusion.) These recent deals with Russia and China, therefore, look like green lights that get the nuclear weapons program back on track (assuming, of course, that it ever went into remission in the first place).

If nothing is done to undo Iran’s business contacts with Russia and China, it will become exceedingly difficult to convince Europe and Japan to curtail their commercial relations with the Islamic Republic. After all, the Russians and the Chinese will fill any order, make any purchase, or commit to any investment that others refuse. Iran is still under two sets of UN sanctions, and, whatever they say, the Russians and the Chinese are helping the ayatollahs weather them.

Can Washington convince Russia and China to end their commercial relations with Iran and rally the rest of the international community? To borrow the stilted phrasing of the NIE, I judge with high confidence that this is the critical question of our time.

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Huckabee, Who Swallows Other Campaigns Whole

Of course Mike Huckabee can win the Republican nomination. I dismissed the possibility a few weeks ago by saying he had no “path to the nomination,” and I was foolish to do so. Huckabee’s path is evident — with surprising victories in early states, he steamrolls faltering campaigns and pushes them aside until he is the only guy left standing. This is precisely the Mitt Romney strategy, only instead of being manufactured at great expense with a campaign machine as Romney’s was, Huckabee’s path is being cleared for him not by money and media but but by an honest-to-God (or, perhaps, given Huckabee’s own sentiments about the role of Christ in his campaign, honest-to-Jesus) groundswell. So the Romney strategy is working, but it may not be working for Romney, in Iowa, at least.

Perhaps the most telling sign of Huckabee’s potential national success is his ability to drain the life out of the nominating strategies of other campaigns. First, he vampirized Fred Thompson — the candidate who was supposed to emerge relatively late as the socially conservative Southerner and overwhelm the other candidates with his capacity to unite core Republican constituencies. Thompson was half-hearted about it — wanted to talk more about the threat of Social Security, which no voter actually cares about — but Huckabee is not. Having subsumed Thompson, Huckabee is now in the process of trying to subsume Romney. And if Huckabee should actually win Florida on January 29 — the state that was supposed to confirm Rudy Giuliani’s sure march to the nomination — then Huckabee will have gone from swallowing Thompson whole to swallowing Romney whole to swallowing Giuliani whole.

In this scenario, that leaves McCain, the only candidate who doesn’t actually have a theory about how to win ever since his strategy to run as the party consensus frontrunner blew up so spectacularly over the summer. Right now it seems McCain is just winging it, trying to score better numbers than anyone expected in New Hampshire and seeing if that reignites mainstream Republican enthusiasm for him. If the race for the Republican presidential nomination has taken a turn away from theories, and if a guy with little or no money (Huckabee) can stage a dramatic race to the front of the pack, then a guy with little or no money (McCain) can begin to move on Huckabee in January.

This scenario depends on Rudy Giuliani’s slide becoming permanent, and on Mitt Romney deciding he doesn’t want to waste any more of his fortune on a losing battle. But if Giuliani arrests his slide, and Romney goes all in with up to $100 million of his own money, then the three of them — Giuliani, Romney, and McCain — will be battling to make the case that he and only he can save the Republican Party from a Goldwater-level electoral disaster in November with Huckabee at the top of the ticket.

Of course Mike Huckabee can win the Republican nomination. I dismissed the possibility a few weeks ago by saying he had no “path to the nomination,” and I was foolish to do so. Huckabee’s path is evident — with surprising victories in early states, he steamrolls faltering campaigns and pushes them aside until he is the only guy left standing. This is precisely the Mitt Romney strategy, only instead of being manufactured at great expense with a campaign machine as Romney’s was, Huckabee’s path is being cleared for him not by money and media but but by an honest-to-God (or, perhaps, given Huckabee’s own sentiments about the role of Christ in his campaign, honest-to-Jesus) groundswell. So the Romney strategy is working, but it may not be working for Romney, in Iowa, at least.

Perhaps the most telling sign of Huckabee’s potential national success is his ability to drain the life out of the nominating strategies of other campaigns. First, he vampirized Fred Thompson — the candidate who was supposed to emerge relatively late as the socially conservative Southerner and overwhelm the other candidates with his capacity to unite core Republican constituencies. Thompson was half-hearted about it — wanted to talk more about the threat of Social Security, which no voter actually cares about — but Huckabee is not. Having subsumed Thompson, Huckabee is now in the process of trying to subsume Romney. And if Huckabee should actually win Florida on January 29 — the state that was supposed to confirm Rudy Giuliani’s sure march to the nomination — then Huckabee will have gone from swallowing Thompson whole to swallowing Romney whole to swallowing Giuliani whole.

In this scenario, that leaves McCain, the only candidate who doesn’t actually have a theory about how to win ever since his strategy to run as the party consensus frontrunner blew up so spectacularly over the summer. Right now it seems McCain is just winging it, trying to score better numbers than anyone expected in New Hampshire and seeing if that reignites mainstream Republican enthusiasm for him. If the race for the Republican presidential nomination has taken a turn away from theories, and if a guy with little or no money (Huckabee) can stage a dramatic race to the front of the pack, then a guy with little or no money (McCain) can begin to move on Huckabee in January.

This scenario depends on Rudy Giuliani’s slide becoming permanent, and on Mitt Romney deciding he doesn’t want to waste any more of his fortune on a losing battle. But if Giuliani arrests his slide, and Romney goes all in with up to $100 million of his own money, then the three of them — Giuliani, Romney, and McCain — will be battling to make the case that he and only he can save the Republican Party from a Goldwater-level electoral disaster in November with Huckabee at the top of the ticket.

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A Lebanon War Postmortem

Since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, the enormity of Israel’s bungling has become increasingly clear. A new after-action review has just been released, this one by Amir Kulick of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The piece analyzes Hizballah’s military strategy, which “rested on the assumption that Israeli society was weak and incapable of absorbing a large number of casualties…. Hizballah believed that undermining Israel’s resilience would perforce lead to an end to the fighting on terms favorable to the organization.” Of Hizballah’s efficacy in battle, the report states: “the operational logic that directed Hizballah proved militarily correct.” The author has interesting things to say about Hizballah’s rebuilding effort since the end of the war, how UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army affect its freedom of movement, how the war changed its relationship with Syria and Iran, and what the next conflict might look like.

It is a nicely-done and informative analysis, but I’d like to add two points: First, the report misses one of the central, and most successful, pillars of Hizballah’s strategy, which was to use civilian casualties in Lebanon and the sensational media images resulting from them as a means of undermining the Israeli war effort. And second, Israeli strategists must think about a rather unconventional way to respond to Hizballah in the next outbreak of hostilities, which is to bypass fighting in Lebanon and go directly to Hizballah’s local source of weaponry, money, and support: Syria.

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Since the end of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war, the enormity of Israel’s bungling has become increasingly clear. A new after-action review has just been released, this one by Amir Kulick of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

The piece analyzes Hizballah’s military strategy, which “rested on the assumption that Israeli society was weak and incapable of absorbing a large number of casualties…. Hizballah believed that undermining Israel’s resilience would perforce lead to an end to the fighting on terms favorable to the organization.” Of Hizballah’s efficacy in battle, the report states: “the operational logic that directed Hizballah proved militarily correct.” The author has interesting things to say about Hizballah’s rebuilding effort since the end of the war, how UNIFIL and the Lebanese Army affect its freedom of movement, how the war changed its relationship with Syria and Iran, and what the next conflict might look like.

It is a nicely-done and informative analysis, but I’d like to add two points: First, the report misses one of the central, and most successful, pillars of Hizballah’s strategy, which was to use civilian casualties in Lebanon and the sensational media images resulting from them as a means of undermining the Israeli war effort. And second, Israeli strategists must think about a rather unconventional way to respond to Hizballah in the next outbreak of hostilities, which is to bypass fighting in Lebanon and go directly to Hizballah’s local source of weaponry, money, and support: Syria.

Regarding my first point, about Hizballah’s strategy: its rocket fire sought to accomplish more than just the bombardment of the northern third of Israel. The fire reliably provoked Israeli return fire, which, tactically speaking, allowed Hizballah to call down Israeli munitions on its preferred targets in Lebanon. Consider the places from which Hizballah fired many of its rockets: neighborhoods, apartment buildings, anywhere civilians could be found. The rocket fire was thus intended to have two effects for Hizballah, the first and obvious being the placement of a large part of Israel under Hizballah’s missile umbrella, and the second and less obvious—but ultimately more important—being the moral delegitimization of the Israeli war effort. We see Hamas today employing the exact same tactic in Gaza, where Palestinian children are sent on suicide missions to retrieve rocket launchers after they’ve fired their payloads toward Israel. For Hamas, the tactic is a win-win—they either get their launchers back, or the children are killed by Israeli return fire and Hamas enjoys the moral absolution that derives from international condemnation of Israeli self-defense. Cynical, but very smart.

For Hizballah, this tactic worked better than the limited success Hamas has had with it in Gaza. The war in 2006 was not so much a vindication of the weakness of the Israeli home front as it was a demonstration of Israel’s inability to wage war in contravention of the wishes of the “international community,” primarily the United States and the UN. As soon as pictures of Lebanese children killed in Israeli air strikes began appearing on the front pages of newspapers around the world, Hizballah had set in motion an end to the conflict on terms largely favorable to it.

Israel’s benighted pursuit of an air campaign to the almost total exclusion of a sustained ground effort contributed to the civilian-casualties calamity—but is it really plausible that a large-scale ground war would have spared civilian lives? Not likely. Israel simply has no good options in fighting a group that intentionally operates from among a sympathetic civilian population and that intentionally tries to get its own civilians “martyred” by the IDF.

This leads back to my second point. The INSS report says correctly that Syria and Iran “are Hizballah’s financial, logistical, and military lifeline.” By fighting in southern Lebanon, Israel plays directly into Syria and Iran’s hands, allowing them to remain isolated from the fighting, and enables their support for Hizballah to be largely cost-free. But terrorism—especially Hizballah’s—has a return address. As far as Israel is concerned, that address is Damascus.

The next time around, Israel should refuse to fight Syria and Iran’s war. It should bypass Lebanon and go straight to the source. Hizballah exists largely as a means for Syria and Iran to wage war against Israel without having actually to fight Israel, and Israel has continuously reinforced the wisdom of this strategy by refusing to include Syrian targets in its war plans. I do not expect that in the next conflict we will see Bashar Assad’s palaces in ruins, but it is an interesting thought to entertain.

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Iran’s Hegemonic Drive

Following on the recent release of the NIE, Michael Young, an editor of the Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star, sheds light on the real game awaiting us with Iran. According to Young, the main issue is not the report’s accuracy, but rather Iran’s push for hegemony in the region and the reaction of the U.S. to that push. Iran’s rhetoric gives plenty of reason to believe that rationality is not the strongest feature of its rulers. On the other hand, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is very rational, given the country’s ambitions: a bomb (or the capacity to build it) would greatly enhance its power over the Gulf, the Caspian Basin, and the Levant. As Iran gained power, it would become an unignorable player in the complex game of Palestinian-Israeli peace.

The intelligence community has now concluded that the Iranians are no longer building a bomb. But is Iran, then, harmless? Of course not. The NIE shows that the Iranians were building a bomb in the first place, something that no official document asserted conclusively until now (the IAEA never went so far, saying only that it could not confirm the Iranians were NOT building a bomb). Given that the NIE says the Iranians halted the weaponization part of their program under pressure (while they kept working on the two more difficult elements of the program, enrichment and ballistic missiles), why should that pressure be let off now?

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Following on the recent release of the NIE, Michael Young, an editor of the Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star, sheds light on the real game awaiting us with Iran. According to Young, the main issue is not the report’s accuracy, but rather Iran’s push for hegemony in the region and the reaction of the U.S. to that push. Iran’s rhetoric gives plenty of reason to believe that rationality is not the strongest feature of its rulers. On the other hand, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power is very rational, given the country’s ambitions: a bomb (or the capacity to build it) would greatly enhance its power over the Gulf, the Caspian Basin, and the Levant. As Iran gained power, it would become an unignorable player in the complex game of Palestinian-Israeli peace.

The intelligence community has now concluded that the Iranians are no longer building a bomb. But is Iran, then, harmless? Of course not. The NIE shows that the Iranians were building a bomb in the first place, something that no official document asserted conclusively until now (the IAEA never went so far, saying only that it could not confirm the Iranians were NOT building a bomb). Given that the NIE says the Iranians halted the weaponization part of their program under pressure (while they kept working on the two more difficult elements of the program, enrichment and ballistic missiles), why should that pressure be let off now?

Even if one assumes the NIE to be accurate, the basic questions about Iran do not change. Can the U.S. afford to let the Iranians become the dominant regional power and have a say over all the crises the West wishes to solve in the Middle East? Can the U.S. afford an outcome in Lebanon solely dictated by Tehran? How Does Iran’s desire to be a player in the “peace process” square with that process’s nominal goal? And what about Iran’s support of insurgents in Southern Iraq ? And Iran’s bullying of other Gulf states? Young says that

Iran would gladly draw the U.S. into a lengthy discussion of everything and nothing, and use this empty gabfest as a smokescreen to advance its agenda. But diplomacy is not an end in itself; to be meaningful it has to achieve specific aims and be based on confidence that both sides seek a mutually advantageous deal. Nothing suggests the Iranians have reached that stage yet.

Focus on the bomb has led some to ask the wrong questions about Iran. Iran’s current agenda is a threat to Western interests—the bomb is just a tool to advance that agenda more effectively. Instead of accommodating Iran in exchange for a temporary reprieve in its pursuit of nuclear power, American foreign policy should focus on containing Iran’s push for hegemony.

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If You Have 90 Minutes and Nothing to Do…

…you could watch me, Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, and Mona Charen discuss America, Jews, and Israel in a streaming video transcription of a December 9 panel in San Francisco sponsored by the Jewish Policy Center. The JPC offers it for viewing here (it takes about half a minute to load, so be a little patient). You can get a flavor for what we talked about from this post by Rick Richman of Jewish Current Issues.

…you could watch me, Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, and Mona Charen discuss America, Jews, and Israel in a streaming video transcription of a December 9 panel in San Francisco sponsored by the Jewish Policy Center. The JPC offers it for viewing here (it takes about half a minute to load, so be a little patient). You can get a flavor for what we talked about from this post by Rick Richman of Jewish Current Issues.

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Commemorating the Struggle for Soviet Jewry

The campaign to free Soviet Jewry was one of the great human rights struggles—and successes—of the last century. Here was a situation in which the battle lines were sharply drawn, people of conscience had only one side to take, and where the distinction between the Free World and the Soviet slave state could not have been more clear.

December 6 marked the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Sunday Rally in Washington, D.C., which brought an estimated 250,000 people to the National Mall on the eve of a summit between President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev. The anniversary was celebrated by NCSJ, formerly known the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

The struggle for Soviet Jewry serves as a useful example to contemporary human rights movements. Here was an issue that attracted supporters from an array of political corners—from evangelical Christians to the labor movement, the latter of which played a pivotal role. There was Bayard Rustin, the great civil rights activist, who lent not just his personal understanding of the connection between the African-American and Jewish freedom struggles, but also his mellifluous voice to the singing of Negro spirituals. That Rustin would be a leader in the campaign to free Soviet Jews was hardly a surprise; he was the greatest black proponent of Jewish causes. Ten years ago, writing in the New Republic, Paul Berman noted that “[Rustin] organized a tiny but noisy black organization [Black Americans to Support Israel Committe, BASIC] in favor of Israel. That was as noble as anything he ever did.”

Most passionate, of course, was Senator Scoop Jackson, author of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which (very sensibly) prohibited normal trade relations with countries that prevented their citizens’ freedom of movement (a right that is granted in the United Nations Charter). The amendment continues to be a useful tool in promoting human rights and religious liberty abroad as it encourages countries to improve their records in order to “graduate” from the law.

If anything, the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Sunday rally ought serve as a reminder that human rights should always be on the agenda of the United States, no matter what the issue or country with which it’s dealing.

The campaign to free Soviet Jewry was one of the great human rights struggles—and successes—of the last century. Here was a situation in which the battle lines were sharply drawn, people of conscience had only one side to take, and where the distinction between the Free World and the Soviet slave state could not have been more clear.

December 6 marked the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Sunday Rally in Washington, D.C., which brought an estimated 250,000 people to the National Mall on the eve of a summit between President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev. The anniversary was celebrated by NCSJ, formerly known the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.

The struggle for Soviet Jewry serves as a useful example to contemporary human rights movements. Here was an issue that attracted supporters from an array of political corners—from evangelical Christians to the labor movement, the latter of which played a pivotal role. There was Bayard Rustin, the great civil rights activist, who lent not just his personal understanding of the connection between the African-American and Jewish freedom struggles, but also his mellifluous voice to the singing of Negro spirituals. That Rustin would be a leader in the campaign to free Soviet Jews was hardly a surprise; he was the greatest black proponent of Jewish causes. Ten years ago, writing in the New Republic, Paul Berman noted that “[Rustin] organized a tiny but noisy black organization [Black Americans to Support Israel Committe, BASIC] in favor of Israel. That was as noble as anything he ever did.”

Most passionate, of course, was Senator Scoop Jackson, author of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which (very sensibly) prohibited normal trade relations with countries that prevented their citizens’ freedom of movement (a right that is granted in the United Nations Charter). The amendment continues to be a useful tool in promoting human rights and religious liberty abroad as it encourages countries to improve their records in order to “graduate” from the law.

If anything, the 20th anniversary of the Freedom Sunday rally ought serve as a reminder that human rights should always be on the agenda of the United States, no matter what the issue or country with which it’s dealing.

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Intelligence Failure

Why do intelligence agencies get things wrong? A whole catalog of factors would have to be produced to answer this question. At the top of list is the sheer difficulty of the work. Trying to piece together information about an adversary operating in secret is an inherently difficult challenge. In the face of deception, denial, and uncertainty, it is understandable that analysts at a place like the CIA sometimes get things wrong.

But one of the more common pitfalls that intelligence analysts face is their own preconceived ideas. It is remarkable how powerful a force these can be. Perhaps this is one factor explaining the bizarre language of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) flatly declaring that Iran had shut down its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 even as the same document presents evidence that the most critical aspects of a nuclear program–the uranium-enrichment process–is humming along at steady clip at Natanz.

If this is an instance of intelligence officers clinging desperately to their ideas in the face of evidence to the contrary, it would not be the first time in the history of the CIA. A fascinating case concerns the question of whether the USSR was supporting international terrorism in the 1970’s and 80’s.

In 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig publicly and controversially asserted that the USSR was behind terrorist actions around the world. It was only after this statement that he asked the intelligence community to produce an NIE assessing his claim. This, of course, was backward; public statements by high-ranking officials should follow intelligence, not the other way around.

In any event, the task of producing the estimate fell to the Soviet division of the CIA. The full story is told in Robert Gates’s indispensable 1996 memoir, From the Shadows. “The first draft by the analysts proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Haig had exaggerated the Soviet role — that the Soviet did not organize or direct international terrorism.” The NIE stated, in Gates’s summary:

that the Soviets disapproved of terrorism, discouraged the killing of innocents by groups they trained and supported, did not help free-lance third-world terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization, and under no circumstances did Moscow support the nihilist terrorist groups of Western Europe — the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction [RAF], and so on. It cited Soviet public condemnations of such groups and carefully described the distinctions the Soviets made between national liberation groups or insurgencies and groups involved in out-and-out terrorism.

This estimate made its way for approval to Bill Casey, Reagan’s CIA director, who found it thinly sourced, improperly framed, and tendentiously argued: it had been too “narrowly focused on whether the Soviets exercised direct operational control of terrorist groups” and in Casey’s view “‘had the air of a lawyer’s plea’ that an indictment should issue because there was not enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Disappointed by the quality of the NIE, Casey sent it back for redrafting, this time not by CIA’s Soviet division but by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm. The document that emerged after a prolonged interagency wrangle was more nuanced than the original CIA draft. On the crucial question of whether the USSR had supported the nihilist terrorist groups it reported that the evidence was “thin and contradictory,” but also:

that some individuals in such groups had been trained by Soviet friends and allies that also provided them with weapons and safe transit. It also observed that the Soviets had often publicly condemned such groups and considered them uncontrollable adventurers whose activities on occasion undermined Soviet objectives It noted that some such nihilistic terrorists had found refuge in Eastern Europe.

How well did either estimate — the ultra-cautious CIA one, and the cautious DIA one — hold up?

A decade later, after Communism collapsed and the archives opened, the full picture became clear, and it was now obvious, writes Gates, that both CIA and DIA had been far wide of the mark:

[w]e found out that the East Europeans (especially the East Germans) indeed not only had provided sanctuary for West European “nihilist” terrorists, but had trained, armed, and funded many of them. (For example, during the late 1970’s — early 80’s, the East German Stasi (intelligence service) supplied the West German Red Army Faction with weapons, training, false documentation, and money. The training and weapons were put to use in the RAF car-bomb attack against Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany on August 31, 1981, which injured seventeen people. The same group was also involved in the unsuccessful rocket attack against the car of General Frederick Krosen in Heidelberg in September 1981.) It was inconceivable that the Soviets, and especially the KGB, which had these governments thoroughly penetrated, did not know and allow (if not encourage) these activities to continue. . . .

We also learned in March 1985 about a Soviet effort to target U.S. servicemen in West Germany for terrorist attacks that shocked us all. According to information from Soviet sources, Soviet agents had been assigned the task of locating dead-drop sites — places for information being transmitted to and from agents — inside bars and restaurants near American military installations in West German cities. The purpose of these sites, however was not for dead drops, but for hiding explosive devices that would be set off in a way to make them look like terrorist attacks. The sites included behind vending machines, in a ventilation cavity under a sink, in a bathroom stall over the windowsill, on a wooden beam over a lavatory, under the bottom of a paper-towel dispense, and so on. CIA  checked out fourteen of these reported sits and confirmed the existence of all but one, just as reported. And every location was filled with U.S. servicemen or dependents or was known to be frequented by U.S. and NATO servicemen. We later concluded that the targeting had been done in 1983, probably in connection with the very aggressive Soviet campaign against deployment of the INF missiles.

How was all this missed? The widespread conviction within the agency that the Soviet leaders would not do such violent things led analysts to rule out the possibility. “The same analysts who complained constantly,” writes Gates, “about the lack of good human intelligence on Soviet activities in effect argued that the absence of such reporting proved their case.” In other words, systematic bias led the CIA to produce an estimate that was the diametric reversal of reality.

If that sounds familiar, it is.

Why do intelligence agencies get things wrong? A whole catalog of factors would have to be produced to answer this question. At the top of list is the sheer difficulty of the work. Trying to piece together information about an adversary operating in secret is an inherently difficult challenge. In the face of deception, denial, and uncertainty, it is understandable that analysts at a place like the CIA sometimes get things wrong.

But one of the more common pitfalls that intelligence analysts face is their own preconceived ideas. It is remarkable how powerful a force these can be. Perhaps this is one factor explaining the bizarre language of the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) flatly declaring that Iran had shut down its nuclear-weapons program in 2003 even as the same document presents evidence that the most critical aspects of a nuclear program–the uranium-enrichment process–is humming along at steady clip at Natanz.

If this is an instance of intelligence officers clinging desperately to their ideas in the face of evidence to the contrary, it would not be the first time in the history of the CIA. A fascinating case concerns the question of whether the USSR was supporting international terrorism in the 1970’s and 80’s.

In 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig publicly and controversially asserted that the USSR was behind terrorist actions around the world. It was only after this statement that he asked the intelligence community to produce an NIE assessing his claim. This, of course, was backward; public statements by high-ranking officials should follow intelligence, not the other way around.

In any event, the task of producing the estimate fell to the Soviet division of the CIA. The full story is told in Robert Gates’s indispensable 1996 memoir, From the Shadows. “The first draft by the analysts proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Haig had exaggerated the Soviet role — that the Soviet did not organize or direct international terrorism.” The NIE stated, in Gates’s summary:

that the Soviets disapproved of terrorism, discouraged the killing of innocents by groups they trained and supported, did not help free-lance third-world terrorist groups like the Abu Nidal organization, and under no circumstances did Moscow support the nihilist terrorist groups of Western Europe — the Red Brigades, the Red Army Faction [RAF], and so on. It cited Soviet public condemnations of such groups and carefully described the distinctions the Soviets made between national liberation groups or insurgencies and groups involved in out-and-out terrorism.

This estimate made its way for approval to Bill Casey, Reagan’s CIA director, who found it thinly sourced, improperly framed, and tendentiously argued: it had been too “narrowly focused on whether the Soviets exercised direct operational control of terrorist groups” and in Casey’s view “‘had the air of a lawyer’s plea’ that an indictment should issue because there was not enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Disappointed by the quality of the NIE, Casey sent it back for redrafting, this time not by CIA’s Soviet division but by the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm. The document that emerged after a prolonged interagency wrangle was more nuanced than the original CIA draft. On the crucial question of whether the USSR had supported the nihilist terrorist groups it reported that the evidence was “thin and contradictory,” but also:

that some individuals in such groups had been trained by Soviet friends and allies that also provided them with weapons and safe transit. It also observed that the Soviets had often publicly condemned such groups and considered them uncontrollable adventurers whose activities on occasion undermined Soviet objectives It noted that some such nihilistic terrorists had found refuge in Eastern Europe.

How well did either estimate — the ultra-cautious CIA one, and the cautious DIA one — hold up?

A decade later, after Communism collapsed and the archives opened, the full picture became clear, and it was now obvious, writes Gates, that both CIA and DIA had been far wide of the mark:

[w]e found out that the East Europeans (especially the East Germans) indeed not only had provided sanctuary for West European “nihilist” terrorists, but had trained, armed, and funded many of them. (For example, during the late 1970’s — early 80’s, the East German Stasi (intelligence service) supplied the West German Red Army Faction with weapons, training, false documentation, and money. The training and weapons were put to use in the RAF car-bomb attack against Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany on August 31, 1981, which injured seventeen people. The same group was also involved in the unsuccessful rocket attack against the car of General Frederick Krosen in Heidelberg in September 1981.) It was inconceivable that the Soviets, and especially the KGB, which had these governments thoroughly penetrated, did not know and allow (if not encourage) these activities to continue. . . .

We also learned in March 1985 about a Soviet effort to target U.S. servicemen in West Germany for terrorist attacks that shocked us all. According to information from Soviet sources, Soviet agents had been assigned the task of locating dead-drop sites — places for information being transmitted to and from agents — inside bars and restaurants near American military installations in West German cities. The purpose of these sites, however was not for dead drops, but for hiding explosive devices that would be set off in a way to make them look like terrorist attacks. The sites included behind vending machines, in a ventilation cavity under a sink, in a bathroom stall over the windowsill, on a wooden beam over a lavatory, under the bottom of a paper-towel dispense, and so on. CIA  checked out fourteen of these reported sits and confirmed the existence of all but one, just as reported. And every location was filled with U.S. servicemen or dependents or was known to be frequented by U.S. and NATO servicemen. We later concluded that the targeting had been done in 1983, probably in connection with the very aggressive Soviet campaign against deployment of the INF missiles.

How was all this missed? The widespread conviction within the agency that the Soviet leaders would not do such violent things led analysts to rule out the possibility. “The same analysts who complained constantly,” writes Gates, “about the lack of good human intelligence on Soviet activities in effect argued that the absence of such reporting proved their case.” In other words, systematic bias led the CIA to produce an estimate that was the diametric reversal of reality.

If that sounds familiar, it is.

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Talking to the Enemies?

In yesterday’s New York Times, Helene Cooper speculates that the tide is turning on the Bush administration’s “Don’t-Talk-To-Evil” policy. Her prediction: by the first two years of the next administration, the United States will be talking to, well, everybody—North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Libya, and Venezuela. After all, she argues, the Bush administration’s recent overtures to Syria and low-level contacts with Iran regarding Iraq will likely intensify once Bush leave office, while relations with Cuba might be just a Castro heartbeat away.

But if an era of good feelings with Hugo Chavez seems just a bit far-fetched, Cooper outdoes herself, adding Hamas and Hizballah to the next administration’s buddy list. Under what circumstances might the U.S. deal with Hamas? Cooper writes:

If the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently a United States darling, kisses and makes up with Hamas and somehow gets the organization to agree to recognize Israel, there’s a chance.

Apparently someone forgot to tell Cooper that approximately 250,000 Hamas supporters marched in Gaza on Saturday to mark Hamas’s 20th anniversary, with trilingual banners declaring, “We Will Not Recognize Israel.” But who needs a reality check when think-tank star power can be summoned to predict the equally outlandish future U.S.-Hizballah relationship? Relying on New America Foundation stud Daniel Levy, who has become the go-to man for all sound bites in support of engaging terrorists, Cooper writes:

[Hizballah’s] case, while hard, may not be as tough a nut as Hamas, especially if the ongoing Syrian-American détente continues. “The Americans are already talking to Nabih Berri,” says a former Israeli peace negotiator, Daniel Levy, referring to a Shiite Muslim Lebanese politician who has close ties to Hizballah and Syria.

Of course, the U.S. primarily deals with Nabih Berri because, for all the duplicity that one finds in Lebanese politics, he still isn’t an actual member of Hizballah. But raising this objection completely misses the point. After all, in soliciting advice from Levy in an article packed with fact-free analysis, Cooper mistakenly engages an unreliable “expert” long before the U.S. forges any questionable alliances. It’s thus the Times’s journalism—and not U.S. foreign policy—that is showing the most profound signs of slippage.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Helene Cooper speculates that the tide is turning on the Bush administration’s “Don’t-Talk-To-Evil” policy. Her prediction: by the first two years of the next administration, the United States will be talking to, well, everybody—North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Libya, and Venezuela. After all, she argues, the Bush administration’s recent overtures to Syria and low-level contacts with Iran regarding Iraq will likely intensify once Bush leave office, while relations with Cuba might be just a Castro heartbeat away.

But if an era of good feelings with Hugo Chavez seems just a bit far-fetched, Cooper outdoes herself, adding Hamas and Hizballah to the next administration’s buddy list. Under what circumstances might the U.S. deal with Hamas? Cooper writes:

If the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is currently a United States darling, kisses and makes up with Hamas and somehow gets the organization to agree to recognize Israel, there’s a chance.

Apparently someone forgot to tell Cooper that approximately 250,000 Hamas supporters marched in Gaza on Saturday to mark Hamas’s 20th anniversary, with trilingual banners declaring, “We Will Not Recognize Israel.” But who needs a reality check when think-tank star power can be summoned to predict the equally outlandish future U.S.-Hizballah relationship? Relying on New America Foundation stud Daniel Levy, who has become the go-to man for all sound bites in support of engaging terrorists, Cooper writes:

[Hizballah’s] case, while hard, may not be as tough a nut as Hamas, especially if the ongoing Syrian-American détente continues. “The Americans are already talking to Nabih Berri,” says a former Israeli peace negotiator, Daniel Levy, referring to a Shiite Muslim Lebanese politician who has close ties to Hizballah and Syria.

Of course, the U.S. primarily deals with Nabih Berri because, for all the duplicity that one finds in Lebanese politics, he still isn’t an actual member of Hizballah. But raising this objection completely misses the point. After all, in soliciting advice from Levy in an article packed with fact-free analysis, Cooper mistakenly engages an unreliable “expert” long before the U.S. forges any questionable alliances. It’s thus the Times’s journalism—and not U.S. foreign policy—that is showing the most profound signs of slippage.

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Google and America’s Defense

With a market cap of $215 billion, Google has become the second-most valuable technology company after Microsoft. An article in the New York Times provides a fascinating glimpse of how Google has pulled off that feat in less than ten years.

“Conventional software is typically built, tested and shipped in two- or three-year product cycles,” the article notes. “Inside Google, Mr. [Eric] Schmidt [the CEO] says, there are no two-year plans. Its product road maps look ahead only four or five months at most. And, Mr. Schmidt says, the only plans ‘anybody believes in go through the end of this quarter.’”

As an example of how this “quicksilver” culture works in practice, the article offers the story of a new Google product:

Early this month, Google released new cellphone software, with the code-name Grand Prix. A project that took just six weeks to complete, Grand Prix allows for fast and easy access to Google services like search, Gmail, and calendars through a stripped-down mobile phone browser. (For now, it is tailored for iPhone browsers, but the plan is to make it work on other mobile browsers as well.)

Grand Prix was born when a Google engineer, tinkering on his own one weekend, came up with prototype code and e-mailed it to Vic Gundotra, a Google executive who oversees mobile products. Mr. Gundotra then showed the prototype to Mr. Schmidt, who in turn mentioned it to Mr. [Sergey] Brin [Google co-founder]. In about an hour, Mr. Brin came to look at the prototype.

“Sergey was really supportive,” recalls Mr. Gundotra, saying that Mr. Brin was most intrigued by the “engineering tricks” employed. After that, Mr. Gundotra posted a message on Google’s internal network, asking employees who owned iPhones to test the prototype. Such peer review is common at Google, which has an engineering culture in which a favorite mantra is “nothing speaks louder than code.”

As co-workers dug in, testing Grand Prix’s performance speed, memory use and other features, “the feedback started pouring in,” Mr. Gundotra recalls. The comments amounted to a thumbs-up, and after a few weeks of fine-tuning and fixing bugs, Grand Prix was released. In the brief development, there were no formal product reviews or formal approval processes.

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With a market cap of $215 billion, Google has become the second-most valuable technology company after Microsoft. An article in the New York Times provides a fascinating glimpse of how Google has pulled off that feat in less than ten years.

“Conventional software is typically built, tested and shipped in two- or three-year product cycles,” the article notes. “Inside Google, Mr. [Eric] Schmidt [the CEO] says, there are no two-year plans. Its product road maps look ahead only four or five months at most. And, Mr. Schmidt says, the only plans ‘anybody believes in go through the end of this quarter.’”

As an example of how this “quicksilver” culture works in practice, the article offers the story of a new Google product:

Early this month, Google released new cellphone software, with the code-name Grand Prix. A project that took just six weeks to complete, Grand Prix allows for fast and easy access to Google services like search, Gmail, and calendars through a stripped-down mobile phone browser. (For now, it is tailored for iPhone browsers, but the plan is to make it work on other mobile browsers as well.)

Grand Prix was born when a Google engineer, tinkering on his own one weekend, came up with prototype code and e-mailed it to Vic Gundotra, a Google executive who oversees mobile products. Mr. Gundotra then showed the prototype to Mr. Schmidt, who in turn mentioned it to Mr. [Sergey] Brin [Google co-founder]. In about an hour, Mr. Brin came to look at the prototype.

“Sergey was really supportive,” recalls Mr. Gundotra, saying that Mr. Brin was most intrigued by the “engineering tricks” employed. After that, Mr. Gundotra posted a message on Google’s internal network, asking employees who owned iPhones to test the prototype. Such peer review is common at Google, which has an engineering culture in which a favorite mantra is “nothing speaks louder than code.”

As co-workers dug in, testing Grand Prix’s performance speed, memory use and other features, “the feedback started pouring in,” Mr. Gundotra recalls. The comments amounted to a thumbs-up, and after a few weeks of fine-tuning and fixing bugs, Grand Prix was released. In the brief development, there were no formal product reviews or formal approval processes.

No formal reviews, no formal approval process—and just six weeks from conception to market. Now that’s speed!

Obviously other companies can learn from Google. But so can any other large organization, in particular the Department of Defense. America’s enemies are showing a dismaying ability to quickly adapt their tactics, techniques, and procedures on battlefields such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. armed forces have had trouble moving as fast, in part because they are saddled with an antiquated, Industrial Age bureaucracy. It is doubtful that they ever could or should become as bureaucracy-free as Google. More checks and safeguards are needed when people’s lives are at stake, not just profits. But it would make sense for the armed forces to study corporations like Google to figure out how to speed up their own bureaucratic metabolism, because our decentralized foes, such as al Qaeda, are organized more along the lines of Google than of the Pentagon’s elaborate hierarchy.

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Blair Kamin, Cheerleader

CORRECTION: Michael J. Lewis, in this post, substantially understates the extent of John Silber’s errors and the breadth of the praise Millennium Park received in the national press, as well as misstating Blair Kamin’s position on Silber.

It did not take long for the bouncers at the flashy and exclusive nightclub that is contemporary architecture to show John Silber the door. Silber, the former president of Boston University, has just published Architecture of the Absurd: How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art, a heartfelt essay about the state of architecture today, and the visual mayhem wreaked by the cult of the celebrity architect. Already the first snide response has come in and—predictably—it does not so much engage the book’s ideas as condemn the author’s temerity in writing about architecture in the first place.

The review of Blair Kamin, the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, is remarkable for its quality of vitriol. For him, Architecture of the Absurd is “just another rant in the culture wars,” written by someone who “isn’t an architect” and who has not even inspected the buildings he reviles, merely “bloviating from afar.” Nor does Silber’s criticism offer anything new: “architecture critics have said it all before.” In the end, Architecture of the Absurd is written off as “more rant than reason.”

Such is the magisterial disdain reserved for outsiders from whom one expects no retribution and whom one can attack with impunity. But is it true that outsiders—those who bloviate from afar—have nothing to offer? What about those who bloviate from within—like, for example, Kamin?

Kamin makes much of a factual error by Silber concerning Chicago’s Millennium Park (Frank Gehry was not its planner, as Silber stated, although he designed its Pritzker Pavilion). Having found this slip, Kamin acts as if one need pay no attention to anything else that Silber says. In fact, Silber looked at Chicago’s new park, with its thicket of eye-catching public sculptures, critically, something that Kamin himself never did. Throughout the long history of that controversial project, Kamin was a dependable cheerleader, praising the park as “a real public space, not a gated fantasyland.”

It’s something of an occupational hazard for critics at municipal newspapers to be civic boosters. But Kamin’s embrace of local pieties blinded him to one of the most intriguing (and disturbing) developments in contemporary architecture. One of the reasons that Millennium Park was built so swiftly was that its planners divided it into a series of discrete features, giving donors the right to choose their own architects and sculptors. Instead of providing a comprehensive aesthetic vision, in effect the park presented, as I wrote at the time, “a series of detached vignettes—in effect, naming opportunities.” The results may indeed be extraordinarily popular, but their broader ramifications are ominous, especially once other cities relinquish aesthetic control to their fund-raising operations.

So long as there are architecture critics like Kamin, who cannot separate aesthetic judgment from civic boosterism, we have all the more need for the fresh outside perspective of an audacious and delightfully independent critic like Silber.

 

CORRECTION: Michael J. Lewis, in this post, substantially understates the extent of John Silber’s errors and the breadth of the praise Millennium Park received in the national press, as well as misstating Blair Kamin’s position on Silber.

It did not take long for the bouncers at the flashy and exclusive nightclub that is contemporary architecture to show John Silber the door. Silber, the former president of Boston University, has just published Architecture of the Absurd: How ‘Genius’ Disfigured a Practical Art, a heartfelt essay about the state of architecture today, and the visual mayhem wreaked by the cult of the celebrity architect. Already the first snide response has come in and—predictably—it does not so much engage the book’s ideas as condemn the author’s temerity in writing about architecture in the first place.

The review of Blair Kamin, the architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, is remarkable for its quality of vitriol. For him, Architecture of the Absurd is “just another rant in the culture wars,” written by someone who “isn’t an architect” and who has not even inspected the buildings he reviles, merely “bloviating from afar.” Nor does Silber’s criticism offer anything new: “architecture critics have said it all before.” In the end, Architecture of the Absurd is written off as “more rant than reason.”

Such is the magisterial disdain reserved for outsiders from whom one expects no retribution and whom one can attack with impunity. But is it true that outsiders—those who bloviate from afar—have nothing to offer? What about those who bloviate from within—like, for example, Kamin?

Kamin makes much of a factual error by Silber concerning Chicago’s Millennium Park (Frank Gehry was not its planner, as Silber stated, although he designed its Pritzker Pavilion). Having found this slip, Kamin acts as if one need pay no attention to anything else that Silber says. In fact, Silber looked at Chicago’s new park, with its thicket of eye-catching public sculptures, critically, something that Kamin himself never did. Throughout the long history of that controversial project, Kamin was a dependable cheerleader, praising the park as “a real public space, not a gated fantasyland.”

It’s something of an occupational hazard for critics at municipal newspapers to be civic boosters. But Kamin’s embrace of local pieties blinded him to one of the most intriguing (and disturbing) developments in contemporary architecture. One of the reasons that Millennium Park was built so swiftly was that its planners divided it into a series of discrete features, giving donors the right to choose their own architects and sculptors. Instead of providing a comprehensive aesthetic vision, in effect the park presented, as I wrote at the time, “a series of detached vignettes—in effect, naming opportunities.” The results may indeed be extraordinarily popular, but their broader ramifications are ominous, especially once other cities relinquish aesthetic control to their fund-raising operations.

So long as there are architecture critics like Kamin, who cannot separate aesthetic judgment from civic boosterism, we have all the more need for the fresh outside perspective of an audacious and delightfully independent critic like Silber.

 

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