Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 15, 2008

Beware Of Harvard Lawyers Running For President

Barack Obama, who likes to remind us that he is a constitutional law expert, opined Friday on the Second Amendment and the District of Columbia handgun ban, which is the subject of a landmark case before the Supreme Court. He offered this:

There’s been a long standing argument by constitutional scholars about whether the second amendment referred simply to militias or it spoke to an individual right to possess arms. I think the latter is the better argument. There is an individual right to bear arms, but it is subject to common-sense regulation just like most of our rights are subject to common-sense regulation. So I think there’s a lot of room before you getting bumping against a constitutional barrier for us to institute some of the common-sense gun laws that I just spoke about.

One hardly knows where to start. First, I think even at Harvard Law School they teach that when fundamental constitutional rights (e.g. speech, voting) are at issue, government regulation must be more than merely “common-sense” (usually termed “reasonable” in legalese) in order to abridge that right. (Likewise, in the area of discrimination prohibited by the 14th Amendment the government may not merely offer a “reasonable” explanation for classifying citizens by race.) In most cases, statutes which implicate constitutional rights are evaluated under a “strict” scrutiny test, or at the very least, an intermediate scrutiny test (for example, in the case of discrimination on the basis of gender). To simplify, the government has to have compelling or very important reasons to violate a constitutional right, and the means must be tailored narrowly to meet the objectives. Next problem: usually an outright ban on a constitutional right, as was the case with the D.C. handgun ban, is not going to meet any heightened scrutiny test.

Let’s apply his reasoning to abortion, which the Supreme Court has found to be constitutionally protected. Would a D.C. ban on abortion be a common-sense or reasonable regulation? I thought not. We can either conclude that Obama is not a great constitutional guru after all or he is attempting to pull some legal wool over voters’ eyes.
Barack Obama, who likes to remind us that he is a constitutional law expert, opined Friday on the Second Amendment and the District of Columbia handgun ban, which is the subject of a landmark case before the Supreme Court. He offered this:

There’s been a long standing argument by constitutional scholars about whether the second amendment referred simply to militias or it spoke to an individual right to possess arms. I think the latter is the better argument. There is an individual right to bear arms, but it is subject to common-sense regulation just like most of our rights are subject to common-sense regulation. So I think there’s a lot of room before you getting bumping against a constitutional barrier for us to institute some of the common-sense gun laws that I just spoke about.

One hardly knows where to start. First, I think even at Harvard Law School they teach that when fundamental constitutional rights (e.g. speech, voting) are at issue, government regulation must be more than merely “common-sense” (usually termed “reasonable” in legalese) in order to abridge that right. (Likewise, in the area of discrimination prohibited by the 14th Amendment the government may not merely offer a “reasonable” explanation for classifying citizens by race.) In most cases, statutes which implicate constitutional rights are evaluated under a “strict” scrutiny test, or at the very least, an intermediate scrutiny test (for example, in the case of discrimination on the basis of gender). To simplify, the government has to have compelling or very important reasons to violate a constitutional right, and the means must be tailored narrowly to meet the objectives. Next problem: usually an outright ban on a constitutional right, as was the case with the D.C. handgun ban, is not going to meet any heightened scrutiny test.

Let’s apply his reasoning to abortion, which the Supreme Court has found to be constitutionally protected. Would a D.C. ban on abortion be a common-sense or reasonable regulation? I thought not. We can either conclude that Obama is not a great constitutional guru after all or he is attempting to pull some legal wool over voters’ eyes.

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Helping the Iranian People

On Wednesday, Iran’s Guardian Council, the country’s constitutional watchdog, said that it had reinstated more than 280 candidates for the March 14 parliamentary elections. Earlier, more than 2,200 contenders, most of them reformists, had been disqualified, including a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s theocracy. The hardline Council may accept additional names in the next few weeks, when it will publish a final list of individuals eligible to run. There will be only a week of official campaigning.

The result is already foreordained: the disqualifications ensure that supporters of the unpopular president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will dominate the legislative body. At best, insurgents can win a tenth of the seats. Consequently, there will not be too much suspense on election night next month in the Islamic Republic. And don’t expect Wolf Blitzer to be announcing precinct-by-precinct results.

Electoral contests in tightly controlled regimes are never about outcome, of course. Turnout is the key factor. Autocrats always seek high participation levels to legitimize their rule, while dissidents change tactics, sometimes competing in rigged contests and at other moments shunning them. History tells us there is no one correct strategy for people who want to upend an odious government, and I do not know what ordinary Iranians should do between now and the 14th of next month.

“We have no such thing as majority rule in Islam,” said one elected member of Iran’s parliament a few years ago. Or as Khomeini himself once declared, “What we should have in mind is the satisfaction of God, not the satisfaction of the people.” Fortunately for us, that ayatollah’s doctrine ensures that theocratic governments will fail after initial fervor passes. The Iranian Revolution will be three decades old next year, and the corrupt and tired government that it left in its wake is sustaining itself primarily through oil and gas revenues, appeals to patriotism, and the support of big-power sponsors China and Russia. The Iranian people not only have to struggle against their own theocrats but also against the authoritarians in Moscow and Beijing.

There may be little we can do internally to affect the balance of power between the people and their rulers, but we certainly have the means to help Iranians by convincing the Russians and Chinese to withdraw their support for the government in Tehran. Regime change in the Islamic Republic is inevitable, but it can only happen soon if we do our part at this moment.

On Wednesday, Iran’s Guardian Council, the country’s constitutional watchdog, said that it had reinstated more than 280 candidates for the March 14 parliamentary elections. Earlier, more than 2,200 contenders, most of them reformists, had been disqualified, including a grandson of Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s theocracy. The hardline Council may accept additional names in the next few weeks, when it will publish a final list of individuals eligible to run. There will be only a week of official campaigning.

The result is already foreordained: the disqualifications ensure that supporters of the unpopular president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will dominate the legislative body. At best, insurgents can win a tenth of the seats. Consequently, there will not be too much suspense on election night next month in the Islamic Republic. And don’t expect Wolf Blitzer to be announcing precinct-by-precinct results.

Electoral contests in tightly controlled regimes are never about outcome, of course. Turnout is the key factor. Autocrats always seek high participation levels to legitimize their rule, while dissidents change tactics, sometimes competing in rigged contests and at other moments shunning them. History tells us there is no one correct strategy for people who want to upend an odious government, and I do not know what ordinary Iranians should do between now and the 14th of next month.

“We have no such thing as majority rule in Islam,” said one elected member of Iran’s parliament a few years ago. Or as Khomeini himself once declared, “What we should have in mind is the satisfaction of God, not the satisfaction of the people.” Fortunately for us, that ayatollah’s doctrine ensures that theocratic governments will fail after initial fervor passes. The Iranian Revolution will be three decades old next year, and the corrupt and tired government that it left in its wake is sustaining itself primarily through oil and gas revenues, appeals to patriotism, and the support of big-power sponsors China and Russia. The Iranian people not only have to struggle against their own theocrats but also against the authoritarians in Moscow and Beijing.

There may be little we can do internally to affect the balance of power between the people and their rulers, but we certainly have the means to help Iranians by convincing the Russians and Chinese to withdraw their support for the government in Tehran. Regime change in the Islamic Republic is inevitable, but it can only happen soon if we do our part at this moment.

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The Return of Durban

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who apparently doesn’t have greater problems to deal with, has announced that his country will host the follow-up session to the 2001 Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. This conference, of course, was infamous for its near-instantaneous descent into anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. How a United Nations conference could ever combat something as nebulous as “Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” is an open question. The U.N. has repeatedly proven itself rather adept at promoting bigotry itself (see its infamous resolution condemning Zionism as racism), and has repeatedly shied away from protecting people from violent racists, whether it be Darfurians attacked by the Arab government in Khartoum or white farmers evicted from their land in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Tony Leon, the former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party and now its spokesman on foreign affairs, warned that the conference would once again serve as a front for anti-Semitism:

“The question then arises how South Africa hopes to steer the conference in a direction of balance and probity, rather than leading it to degenerate again into a hate fest of intolerance and imprudence.”

He added that the South African taxpayer forked out R100-million for the last World Conference against Racism. “The results have been dismal and in terms of the advancement of the real fight against racism, almost non-existent.”

He asked: “Are we again going to witness, host and pay for a slanted, sectional and sectarian conference, or will we use our best endeavours and our foreign policy credentials to steer it in the right direction?”

Secretary Rice has already announced to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States will not partake in the conference if it “deteriorates into the kind of conference that Durban I was.” Canada has already bowed out of the conference irrespective of whatever makes it onto the agenda.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, who apparently doesn’t have greater problems to deal with, has announced that his country will host the follow-up session to the 2001 Durban World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance. This conference, of course, was infamous for its near-instantaneous descent into anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism. How a United Nations conference could ever combat something as nebulous as “Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance” is an open question. The U.N. has repeatedly proven itself rather adept at promoting bigotry itself (see its infamous resolution condemning Zionism as racism), and has repeatedly shied away from protecting people from violent racists, whether it be Darfurians attacked by the Arab government in Khartoum or white farmers evicted from their land in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

Tony Leon, the former leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance party and now its spokesman on foreign affairs, warned that the conference would once again serve as a front for anti-Semitism:

“The question then arises how South Africa hopes to steer the conference in a direction of balance and probity, rather than leading it to degenerate again into a hate fest of intolerance and imprudence.”

He added that the South African taxpayer forked out R100-million for the last World Conference against Racism. “The results have been dismal and in terms of the advancement of the real fight against racism, almost non-existent.”

He asked: “Are we again going to witness, host and pay for a slanted, sectional and sectarian conference, or will we use our best endeavours and our foreign policy credentials to steer it in the right direction?”

Secretary Rice has already announced to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the United States will not partake in the conference if it “deteriorates into the kind of conference that Durban I was.” Canada has already bowed out of the conference irrespective of whatever makes it onto the agenda.

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An Encouraging Picture of Iraq

In his most recent report, The Situation From Iraq: A Briefing from the Battlefield, Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), writes this:

No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area. A combination of the surge, improved win and hold tactics, the tribal uprising in Anbar and other provinces, the Sadr ceasefire, and major advances in the use of IS&R have transformed the battle against Al Qaida in Iraq. If the US provides sustained support to the Iraqi government — in security, governance, and development — there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state.

This is an important development. Dr. Cordesman, a respected voice on international affairs, has been highly critical of the lack of adequate post-war (Phase IV) planning in Iraq. He has long warned about the dangers of exiting Iraq prematurely and was a critic of those who argued we should divide Iraq into three ethno-religious entities. At the same time, Cordesman has been skeptical about the possibility of achieving stability in Iraq. Certainly no one could accuse Cordesman of wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to Iraq.

On May 2, 2006, Cordesman wrote:

No one can argue that the prospects for stability in Iraq are good. At best, the formation of a government will be the prelude to four months of debate over the constitution and every other divisive issue. There will follow two months of political struggle over a referendum to approve the result and Iraqis must then decide whether they can live with implementing the result. The “best case” is probably political turmoil well into 2007 and probably 2008… Even if victory is realistically defined as “muddling through” over half a decade more – the “2010 solution” – the odds are, at best, even.

On January 29, 2007, Cordesman (accurately) assessed things this way:

The insurgency in Iraq has become a “war after the war” that threatens to divide the country and create a full-scale civil conflict. It has triggered sectarian and ethnic violence that dominates the struggle to reshape Iraq as a modern state… Since its inception in the spring of 2003, the nature of the fighting in Iraq has evolved from a struggle between Coalition forces and former regime loyalists to a much more diffuse conflict, involving a number of Sunni groups, Shi’ite militias, and foreign jihadists, and which has spread to become a widespread civil conflict . . .

On February 5, 2007, in the aftermath of the President’s speech announcing the “surge,” Cordesman wrote this:

President Bush has presented a new strategy for the war in Iraq that may be able to defeat the insurgency and reverse Iraq’s drift towards large-scale civil war. His speech has, however, raised many questions as to both the risks it will create over the coming months and the real-world ability to actually implement his plans.

It turns out that the real-world ability to implement Bush’s plan was better than many thought. The risks were actually opportunities. And now, a year and a month after the surge was announced, we have seen progress far beyond what virtually anyone, even advocates of the surge, could have imagined.

We are still some distance away from Iraq emerging as a secure and stable state. “Serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years,” according to Cordesman, “although this seems significantly less likely than during the fall of 2007.” Yet, as Tony Cordesman now says, there is a very real chance that a secure and stable Iraq – one that is an ally instead of an adversary in the war against militant Islam – may yet come to pass. If it does, it will be an achievement of enormous, and perhaps even historic, consequence.

In his most recent report, The Situation From Iraq: A Briefing from the Battlefield, Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), writes this:

No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area. A combination of the surge, improved win and hold tactics, the tribal uprising in Anbar and other provinces, the Sadr ceasefire, and major advances in the use of IS&R have transformed the battle against Al Qaida in Iraq. If the US provides sustained support to the Iraqi government — in security, governance, and development — there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state.

This is an important development. Dr. Cordesman, a respected voice on international affairs, has been highly critical of the lack of adequate post-war (Phase IV) planning in Iraq. He has long warned about the dangers of exiting Iraq prematurely and was a critic of those who argued we should divide Iraq into three ethno-religious entities. At the same time, Cordesman has been skeptical about the possibility of achieving stability in Iraq. Certainly no one could accuse Cordesman of wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to Iraq.

On May 2, 2006, Cordesman wrote:

No one can argue that the prospects for stability in Iraq are good. At best, the formation of a government will be the prelude to four months of debate over the constitution and every other divisive issue. There will follow two months of political struggle over a referendum to approve the result and Iraqis must then decide whether they can live with implementing the result. The “best case” is probably political turmoil well into 2007 and probably 2008… Even if victory is realistically defined as “muddling through” over half a decade more – the “2010 solution” – the odds are, at best, even.

On January 29, 2007, Cordesman (accurately) assessed things this way:

The insurgency in Iraq has become a “war after the war” that threatens to divide the country and create a full-scale civil conflict. It has triggered sectarian and ethnic violence that dominates the struggle to reshape Iraq as a modern state… Since its inception in the spring of 2003, the nature of the fighting in Iraq has evolved from a struggle between Coalition forces and former regime loyalists to a much more diffuse conflict, involving a number of Sunni groups, Shi’ite militias, and foreign jihadists, and which has spread to become a widespread civil conflict . . .

On February 5, 2007, in the aftermath of the President’s speech announcing the “surge,” Cordesman wrote this:

President Bush has presented a new strategy for the war in Iraq that may be able to defeat the insurgency and reverse Iraq’s drift towards large-scale civil war. His speech has, however, raised many questions as to both the risks it will create over the coming months and the real-world ability to actually implement his plans.

It turns out that the real-world ability to implement Bush’s plan was better than many thought. The risks were actually opportunities. And now, a year and a month after the surge was announced, we have seen progress far beyond what virtually anyone, even advocates of the surge, could have imagined.

We are still some distance away from Iraq emerging as a secure and stable state. “Serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years,” according to Cordesman, “although this seems significantly less likely than during the fall of 2007.” Yet, as Tony Cordesman now says, there is a very real chance that a secure and stable Iraq – one that is an ally instead of an adversary in the war against militant Islam – may yet come to pass. If it does, it will be an achievement of enormous, and perhaps even historic, consequence.

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An English Woman Defends Shari’a

In the Birmingham Mail, Maureen Messent has written a ridiculous defense of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal to incorporate aspects of shari’a into British law.

From that innocuous thought was fashioned the belief that Dr Williams was advocating the practices of limb-lopping for thieves, stonings for adulterers and the whole grizzly gamut of uncivilised punishments dealt in some Islamic countries.

There are two alarming aspects to the Archbishop’s “innocuous thought.” These are the application of different laws to different citizens and the nature of shari’a itself. Ms. Messent ignores the first and plays games with the second. A noble state is in large part defined by the fair application of its laws. Citizenship means nothing if not the inclusion in a larger body of people subject to the same expectations. The kind of splintering that Williams advocates would mean the end of English unity.

Rowan Williams says Muslim citizens shouldn’t be torn between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty,” but by bending the country to meet the culture he’s addressing the problem too far downstream. Citizens should never have reached such a crossroads to begin with. It’s the fairly recent radicalization of European Islam that’s made British citizenship a cultural challenge for Muslims. It’s not the state’s job to further enable that shift, but rather to meet it with unapologetic severity.

Speaking of severity. There’s good reason for people to be concerned with the nature of shari’a, and not merely with its interpretation in “some Islamic countries.” The Independent reports that 17,000 women in Britain are victims of “honor violence” yearly. Now, would Ms. Messent and the Archbishop like to ease the pressure on the practitioners of this savagery? Or are “alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty” appropriately “stark”? Ms. Messent wrote that…

…the Archbishop is a man of peace. Only fools – a multitude of whom seemed up in arms this week – could interpret that suggestion as a return to medieval punishments. The outcry following his words, whipped up by idiots who hadn’t listened, was interesting.

Of the types of idiots one could be, I suppose interesting isn’t that bad.

In the Birmingham Mail, Maureen Messent has written a ridiculous defense of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s proposal to incorporate aspects of shari’a into British law.

From that innocuous thought was fashioned the belief that Dr Williams was advocating the practices of limb-lopping for thieves, stonings for adulterers and the whole grizzly gamut of uncivilised punishments dealt in some Islamic countries.

There are two alarming aspects to the Archbishop’s “innocuous thought.” These are the application of different laws to different citizens and the nature of shari’a itself. Ms. Messent ignores the first and plays games with the second. A noble state is in large part defined by the fair application of its laws. Citizenship means nothing if not the inclusion in a larger body of people subject to the same expectations. The kind of splintering that Williams advocates would mean the end of English unity.

Rowan Williams says Muslim citizens shouldn’t be torn between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty,” but by bending the country to meet the culture he’s addressing the problem too far downstream. Citizens should never have reached such a crossroads to begin with. It’s the fairly recent radicalization of European Islam that’s made British citizenship a cultural challenge for Muslims. It’s not the state’s job to further enable that shift, but rather to meet it with unapologetic severity.

Speaking of severity. There’s good reason for people to be concerned with the nature of shari’a, and not merely with its interpretation in “some Islamic countries.” The Independent reports that 17,000 women in Britain are victims of “honor violence” yearly. Now, would Ms. Messent and the Archbishop like to ease the pressure on the practitioners of this savagery? Or are “alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty” appropriately “stark”? Ms. Messent wrote that…

…the Archbishop is a man of peace. Only fools – a multitude of whom seemed up in arms this week – could interpret that suggestion as a return to medieval punishments. The outcry following his words, whipped up by idiots who hadn’t listened, was interesting.

Of the types of idiots one could be, I suppose interesting isn’t that bad.

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Wolff & Tolstoy

I don’t often make the time to listen to The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, but this month’s is a treat: T. C. Boyle reading and discussing Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” which first appeared in the magazine in 1995 and was included in Wolff’s 1996 collection The Night in Question. It’s also reprinted in Wolff’s forthcoming collection Our Story Begins, and was even made into a short film. (I can’t bring myself to watch it, though; I like the story too much.) In other words, it’s a very popular story, and I don’t think Boyle exaggerates in saying that it is, “at its length, perfect.” It’s six pages long.

“Bullet in the Brain” goes like this: A deeply cynical and vicious book critic named Anders walks into a bank. The bank gets held up. Anders cannot help laughing at the robbers’ clichéd lingo, at what he calls a “great script . . . the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” Fans of the crime genre will think of Sam Spade’s remark in The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” But Anders’s words to that effect don’t intimidate. They only earn him the titular bullet.

That isn’t a spoiler. The real story is what happened after “the bullet smashed Anders’s skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus.” Wolff’s autopsy deadpan gives way to a miraculously condensed account of the life that doesn’t and the moment that does flash before Anders’s eyes. We see, in effect, what made Anders who he is—and the memory of who he used to be bubbling up in the final seconds of his life.

Boyle notes how like Flannery O’Connor’s writing this story is, in that it takes an essentially comical or cartoonish situation and transforms it into something “poignant.” Indeed, O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has much in common with “Bullet in the Brain,” right down to the bullets and where they wind up. But I think Wolff’s story should be read alongside Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s every bit as merciless in laying bare the accretions and losses of a lifetime, and what they might mean to us as life comes to an end. Ilyich’s death is as slow and agonizing as Anders’s is not. Compare these very different approaches, and I think you’ll agree that these very different approaches achieve similar effects. And “poignant” doesn’t come close to describing them.

I don’t often make the time to listen to The New Yorker‘s fiction podcast, but this month’s is a treat: T. C. Boyle reading and discussing Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet in the Brain,” which first appeared in the magazine in 1995 and was included in Wolff’s 1996 collection The Night in Question. It’s also reprinted in Wolff’s forthcoming collection Our Story Begins, and was even made into a short film. (I can’t bring myself to watch it, though; I like the story too much.) In other words, it’s a very popular story, and I don’t think Boyle exaggerates in saying that it is, “at its length, perfect.” It’s six pages long.

“Bullet in the Brain” goes like this: A deeply cynical and vicious book critic named Anders walks into a bank. The bank gets held up. Anders cannot help laughing at the robbers’ clichéd lingo, at what he calls a “great script . . . the stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.” Fans of the crime genre will think of Sam Spade’s remark in The Maltese Falcon: “The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.” But Anders’s words to that effect don’t intimidate. They only earn him the titular bullet.

That isn’t a spoiler. The real story is what happened after “the bullet smashed Anders’s skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus.” Wolff’s autopsy deadpan gives way to a miraculously condensed account of the life that doesn’t and the moment that does flash before Anders’s eyes. We see, in effect, what made Anders who he is—and the memory of who he used to be bubbling up in the final seconds of his life.

Boyle notes how like Flannery O’Connor’s writing this story is, in that it takes an essentially comical or cartoonish situation and transforms it into something “poignant.” Indeed, O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” has much in common with “Bullet in the Brain,” right down to the bullets and where they wind up. But I think Wolff’s story should be read alongside Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s every bit as merciless in laying bare the accretions and losses of a lifetime, and what they might mean to us as life comes to an end. Ilyich’s death is as slow and agonizing as Anders’s is not. Compare these very different approaches, and I think you’ll agree that these very different approaches achieve similar effects. And “poignant” doesn’t come close to describing them.

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Obama Imitates Olmert

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has one of the lowest approval ratings in his country’s history thanks to his disastrous prosecution of the July 2006 war in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, and contrary to Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s delusional and arrogant boasts, Hezbollah didn’t win. I toured South Lebanon and the suburbs south of Beirut – Hezbollah’s two major strongholds – after the war. The magnitude of the destruction was stunning. It looked like World War II blew through the place. (Click here and here to see photos.) Nasrallah survived and replenished his arsensal stocks, but, as Israeli military historian Michael Oren put it, “If he has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

Israel didn’t win, either. None of Israel’s objectives in Lebanon were accomplished.

The best that can be said of that war is that it was a strategic draw with losses on both sides. Hezbollah absorbed the brunt of the damage.

It should be obvious why Israel didn’t prevail to observers of modern asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency. Olmert’s plan, such as it was, was doomed to fail from Day One. It may not have been obvious then, but it certainly should be by now.

American General David Petraeus proved counterinsurgency in Arabic countries can work. His surge of troops in Iraq is about a change of tactics more than an increase in numbers, and his tactics so far have surpassed all expectations. The “light footprint” model used during former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but American soldiers and Marines had no chance of defeating insurgents from behind barbed wire garrisons. Only now that the troops have left the relative safety and comfort of their bases and intimately integrated themselves into the Iraqi population are they able to isolate and track down the killers. They do so with help from the locals. They acquired that help because they slowly forged trusting relationships and alliances, and because they protect the civilians from violence.

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Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has one of the lowest approval ratings in his country’s history thanks to his disastrous prosecution of the July 2006 war in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

Nevertheless, and contrary to Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s delusional and arrogant boasts, Hezbollah didn’t win. I toured South Lebanon and the suburbs south of Beirut – Hezbollah’s two major strongholds – after the war. The magnitude of the destruction was stunning. It looked like World War II blew through the place. (Click here and here to see photos.) Nasrallah survived and replenished his arsensal stocks, but, as Israeli military historian Michael Oren put it, “If he has enough victories like this one, he’s dead.”

Israel didn’t win, either. None of Israel’s objectives in Lebanon were accomplished.

The best that can be said of that war is that it was a strategic draw with losses on both sides. Hezbollah absorbed the brunt of the damage.

It should be obvious why Israel didn’t prevail to observers of modern asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency. Olmert’s plan, such as it was, was doomed to fail from Day One. It may not have been obvious then, but it certainly should be by now.

American General David Petraeus proved counterinsurgency in Arabic countries can work. His surge of troops in Iraq is about a change of tactics more than an increase in numbers, and his tactics so far have surpassed all expectations. The “light footprint” model used during former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure may have seemed like a good idea at the time, but American soldiers and Marines had no chance of defeating insurgents from behind barbed wire garrisons. Only now that the troops have left the relative safety and comfort of their bases and intimately integrated themselves into the Iraqi population are they able to isolate and track down the killers. They do so with help from the locals. They acquired that help because they slowly forged trusting relationships and alliances, and because they protect the civilians from violence.

The Israel Defense Forces did nothing of the sort in Lebanon. Most Lebanese Shias are so hostile to Israel that such a strategy might not work even if David Petraeus himself were in charge of it. Even then it would take years to produce the desired results, just as it has taken several years in Iraq. Israelis have no wish to spend years fighting Hezbollah in Lebanon. International pressure would force them out if they did.

A Petraeus-like strategy wasn’t an option for Olmert. That, however, doesn’t mean we can’t compare the effectiveness of the Olmert and Petraeus strategies.

The Israel Defense Forces fought a month-long asymmetrical war in Lebanon mostly with air strikes. Israel didn’t aim at civilians, but it goes without saying that Israel likewise didn’t protect civilians from violence as the Americans protect Iraqis from violence. That can’t be done from the air. Israel did nothing at all to inspire the people of South Lebanon to come around to their side. Israelis, from the point of view of South Lebanese, are faceless enemies that devastated their towns from the heavens.

Many Hezbollah fighters were killed in the targeted strikes. Bunkers and weapons caches were destroyed. Safe houses proved to be anything but. Civilians as well as combatants were heavily punished.

At the end of the day, though, none of it mattered. Hezbollah remains standing. Their weapons stocks have been replenished by Iran through Syria. Civilian supporters of Nasrallah’s militia are more ferociously anti-Israel than ever. United Nations troops who deployed to the area will inadvertently function as “human shields” for Hezbollah if war breaks out again.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Al Qaeda has been vanquished almost everywhere. Moqtada al Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia declared a unilateral ceasefire. Many previously anti-American enemies have flipped to our side. Overall violence has been reduced by almost 90 percent. 75 percent of Baghdad is now secure.

Responsible political leaders and military commanders would be well-advised to analyze both approaches to assymetrical warfare and counterinsurgency, and to hew as closely as possible to the Petraeus model. Olmert’s is broken.

Senator Barack Obama, though, prefers the Olmert model whether he thinks of it that way or not. (Actually, I’m sure he doesn’t think of it as Olmert’s model, though basically that’s what it is.)

“Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq,” says a statement on the senator’s Web site. “He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months. Obama will make it clear that we will not build any permanent bases in Iraq. He will keep some troops in Iraq to protect our embassy and diplomats; if al Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes on al Qaeda.” [Emphasis added.]

Targeted strikes do kill some terrorists (and often, tragically, civilians, as well). But they have little or no effect overall in counterinsurgent urban warfare. Perhaps the senator or his advisors should read the new counterinsurgency manual – the one that has proven effective – and compare its strategy to targeted strikes which have proven to fail.

Here is just one critical excerpt:

Sometimes, the More You Protect Your Force, the Less Secure You May Be

1-149. Ultimate success in COIN [Counter-insurgency] is gained by protecting the populace, not the COIN force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents. Aggressive saturation patrolling, ambushes, and listening post operations must be conducted, risk shared with the populace, and contact maintained… . These practices ensure access to the intelligence needed to drive operations. Following them reinforces the connections with the populace that help establish real legitimacy.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

This strategy was not available to Olmert and the Israel Defense Forces. It will be available to Obama and the United States military should he choose to excercise it.

Obama is competing in a Democratic primary race. Perhaps if he is elected commander in chief and no longer needs to appease the left-wing of his party he will reverse himself and keep Petraeus right where he is. Reality has a way of imposing itself on presidents.

He would be wise to carefully consider what works and what doesn’t, not only for the sakes of the United States and Iraq, but also for purely calculating and self-interested reasons. Obama is a likeable guy. He could, in theory, be a popular president. Olmert, though, was also popular once. He probably never will be again.

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Hezbollah and Mughniyeh

Hezbollah’s very public display of affection for assassinated terrorist Imad Mughniyeh represents a stunning about-face. As Martin Kramer notes on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog, Hezbollah has broken from previous denials regarding its connections to Mughniyeh, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah eulogizing him and a Hezbollah flag draping his coffin—clear symbols that Mughniyeh ranked highly in the Hezbollah chain. Indeed, its ties to Mughniyeh were so profound that Hezbollah appears prepared to fight Israel in response to his killing, hinting that it will attack Israeli interests abroad.

But Hezbollah isn’t the only Levantine player willing to engage Israel over Mughniyeh’s death. Yesterday, at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “Whoever assassinated Imad Mughniyeh has assassinated any peace efforts”—a statement clearly aimed at Israel. Critically, al-Moallem seemingly echoed Mottaki, who had proclaimed at Mughniyeh’s funeral earlier in the day, “The freedom-seeking nations … have millions of such fighters, who are ready to join the fight against the terrorists who perpetrate such the unmanly crimes.” Following the funeral, Mottaki had arrived in Damascus for “brotherly talks,” meeting with al-Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to discuss the developing situation in Lebanon.

In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important to monitor whether Hezbollah-Syrian cooperation is strengthened as a result of their unified defiance in the wake of Mughniyeh’s assassination. Of course, sustained Iranian involvement makes this quite likely.

Still, domestic Lebanese politics could intervene and force Hezbollah to downplay its Damascus contacts. At a massive rally held to commemorate the third anniversary of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination yesterday, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri castigated the Syrian regime as an “Israeli product.” Yet even as he lashed out against Syria—the regime that murdered his father—Hariri showed rare respect for Hezbollah, ending his rally at 2 PM so as to not interfere with Mughniyeh’s 2:30 funeral. Hariri further appealed to Hezbollah to negotiate a peaceful solution to the ongoing presidential crisis—a sharp break from his comments last week, when he accused the Hezbollah-led opposition of “destroying Lebanon.”

The big question is thus whether Hezbollah might see itself as having enough popular Lebanese support in the aftermath of Mughniyeh’s assassination to avoid relying on Damascus, a regime that is still reviled by a substantial portion of the population. Or, alternatively, Hezbollah could quickly return to Levantine politics as usual, taking its cues from Iran with Syria’s active consent.

Hezbollah’s very public display of affection for assassinated terrorist Imad Mughniyeh represents a stunning about-face. As Martin Kramer notes on the Middle East Strategy at Harvard blog, Hezbollah has broken from previous denials regarding its connections to Mughniyeh, with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah eulogizing him and a Hezbollah flag draping his coffin—clear symbols that Mughniyeh ranked highly in the Hezbollah chain. Indeed, its ties to Mughniyeh were so profound that Hezbollah appears prepared to fight Israel in response to his killing, hinting that it will attack Israeli interests abroad.

But Hezbollah isn’t the only Levantine player willing to engage Israel over Mughniyeh’s death. Yesterday, at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem declared, “Whoever assassinated Imad Mughniyeh has assassinated any peace efforts”—a statement clearly aimed at Israel. Critically, al-Moallem seemingly echoed Mottaki, who had proclaimed at Mughniyeh’s funeral earlier in the day, “The freedom-seeking nations … have millions of such fighters, who are ready to join the fight against the terrorists who perpetrate such the unmanly crimes.” Following the funeral, Mottaki had arrived in Damascus for “brotherly talks,” meeting with al-Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to discuss the developing situation in Lebanon.

In the days and weeks ahead, it will be important to monitor whether Hezbollah-Syrian cooperation is strengthened as a result of their unified defiance in the wake of Mughniyeh’s assassination. Of course, sustained Iranian involvement makes this quite likely.

Still, domestic Lebanese politics could intervene and force Hezbollah to downplay its Damascus contacts. At a massive rally held to commemorate the third anniversary of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination yesterday, Future Movement leader Saad Hariri castigated the Syrian regime as an “Israeli product.” Yet even as he lashed out against Syria—the regime that murdered his father—Hariri showed rare respect for Hezbollah, ending his rally at 2 PM so as to not interfere with Mughniyeh’s 2:30 funeral. Hariri further appealed to Hezbollah to negotiate a peaceful solution to the ongoing presidential crisis—a sharp break from his comments last week, when he accused the Hezbollah-led opposition of “destroying Lebanon.”

The big question is thus whether Hezbollah might see itself as having enough popular Lebanese support in the aftermath of Mughniyeh’s assassination to avoid relying on Damascus, a regime that is still reviled by a substantial portion of the population. Or, alternatively, Hezbollah could quickly return to Levantine politics as usual, taking its cues from Iran with Syria’s active consent.

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Loose Nukes

One of the many things that keep me up at night — and anyone who thinks about the future of terrorism —  is the possibility of a nuclear detonation in New York or some other American city.  North Korea has a small arsenal of nuclear bombs, and tested one in October 2006. It did not explode; it merely fizzled, but perhaps its scientists have learned from the experience and future tests will be more successful. In any case, the cash-strapped country has both indicated and demonstrated a willingness to disseminate its nuclear technology to other rogue states, most recently, some evidence suggests, to Syria. (For a discussion of North Korean proliferation, see the pertinent section in this report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.)

Our own arsenal, of course, offers reason to worry, as the recent breakdown in control revealed in the Broken Arrow incident of last August makes clear. But the problem is of a different order of magnitude; preventing mishaps is vitally important, but the possibility of an authorized detonation, either deliberately or by accident, appears to be close to nil.

In response to my recent post on the surety of U.S. nuclear weapons, one of my sources in Washington pointed me to a Pentagon document summarizing dozens of accidents with U.S. nuclear weapons that occurred in the period 1950-1980.

The bad news is that even when great care is exercised, major accidents have happened. The good news is that even when these fearsome devices are subjected to unexpected shocks and the heat generated in fiery airplane crashes and the detonation of their high-explosive triggering devices, the nuclear core of these babies has never once exploded.�

One of the many things that keep me up at night — and anyone who thinks about the future of terrorism —  is the possibility of a nuclear detonation in New York or some other American city.  North Korea has a small arsenal of nuclear bombs, and tested one in October 2006. It did not explode; it merely fizzled, but perhaps its scientists have learned from the experience and future tests will be more successful. In any case, the cash-strapped country has both indicated and demonstrated a willingness to disseminate its nuclear technology to other rogue states, most recently, some evidence suggests, to Syria. (For a discussion of North Korean proliferation, see the pertinent section in this report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.)

Our own arsenal, of course, offers reason to worry, as the recent breakdown in control revealed in the Broken Arrow incident of last August makes clear. But the problem is of a different order of magnitude; preventing mishaps is vitally important, but the possibility of an authorized detonation, either deliberately or by accident, appears to be close to nil.

In response to my recent post on the surety of U.S. nuclear weapons, one of my sources in Washington pointed me to a Pentagon document summarizing dozens of accidents with U.S. nuclear weapons that occurred in the period 1950-1980.

The bad news is that even when great care is exercised, major accidents have happened. The good news is that even when these fearsome devices are subjected to unexpected shocks and the heat generated in fiery airplane crashes and the detonation of their high-explosive triggering devices, the nuclear core of these babies has never once exploded.�

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Nagl and Yingling

Lieutenant Colonels Paul Yingling and John Nagl are two of the most interesting and provocative strategists in the armed forces today. Both Iraq veterans, they have been critical of the armed forces for not adapting quickly enough to the demands of counterinsurgency, and Nagl has put forward a controversial proposal to create a new advisory unit within the Army. Their outspokenness comes at considerable personal cost (Nagl is leaving the army and Yingling has given up hope of promotion), but they are performing a valuable service by speaking out in the hope of reforming the institution they love.

They recently spoke to members of the Council on Foreign Relations at a packed meeting in New York which I helped put together along with my colleague Michael Scavelli. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the meeting, so another CFR fellow, Stephen Biddle, graciously stepped in as moderator. To hear some of what they had to say, I listened to a cfr.org podcast interview conducted by Greg Bruno. You can too by clicking here.

Lieutenant Colonels Paul Yingling and John Nagl are two of the most interesting and provocative strategists in the armed forces today. Both Iraq veterans, they have been critical of the armed forces for not adapting quickly enough to the demands of counterinsurgency, and Nagl has put forward a controversial proposal to create a new advisory unit within the Army. Their outspokenness comes at considerable personal cost (Nagl is leaving the army and Yingling has given up hope of promotion), but they are performing a valuable service by speaking out in the hope of reforming the institution they love.

They recently spoke to members of the Council on Foreign Relations at a packed meeting in New York which I helped put together along with my colleague Michael Scavelli. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the meeting, so another CFR fellow, Stephen Biddle, graciously stepped in as moderator. To hear some of what they had to say, I listened to a cfr.org podcast interview conducted by Greg Bruno. You can too by clicking here.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I sometimes think that the GOP is just better at being in the minority. Here is why. (I confess I have a soft spot for political stunts.)

This sounds like a bad movie and reason to make sure your bike helmet fits.

When Hillary Clinton loses African American lawmakers and the SEIU, you can bet the ad wars are going to get ugly and there will be more columns (although perhaps not as devastatingly insightful) like this.

I sometimes think that the GOP is just better at being in the minority. Here is why. (I confess I have a soft spot for political stunts.)

This sounds like a bad movie and reason to make sure your bike helmet fits.

When Hillary Clinton loses African American lawmakers and the SEIU, you can bet the ad wars are going to get ugly and there will be more columns (although perhaps not as devastatingly insightful) like this.

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Adrift

It’s broken and toxic, full of dirty secrets, cut off from its base and due to crash the first week of March. I’m referring, of course, to that pesky U.S. spy satellite.

It’s broken and toxic, full of dirty secrets, cut off from its base and due to crash the first week of March. I’m referring, of course, to that pesky U.S. spy satellite.

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No More Mr. Nice Guy

Well, Mike Huckabee has not had a good couple of days. First, came the Cayman Islands speech making jaunt. Then there was the nasty rejoinder to Mitt Romney’s endorsement (and to Romney himself) followed by the defensive press release yesterday declaring: “I know all about the rumors swirling around. [Ed: What rumors?] That’s why I just went on national news show this afternoon, to knock those rumors down. I am still in this race. As I have said all along, I am in this race until someone gets to 1,191 delegates. That has not happened yet, and so I will keep campaigning for the Republican nomination. Period. That’s my ironclad commitment to my supporters.” Next came the fundraising letter pleading for more money to continue the fight. (“Before we get to a brokered convention however we will need to win Texas and seize the momentum. For this to happen however, we must have your immediate financial support. We are laying it all on the field in Texas and we need you to join us.”)
So far he is not impressing pundits or making more conservative friends. But he apparently is trying to make the most of his financial opportunities.
Well, Mike Huckabee has not had a good couple of days. First, came the Cayman Islands speech making jaunt. Then there was the nasty rejoinder to Mitt Romney’s endorsement (and to Romney himself) followed by the defensive press release yesterday declaring: “I know all about the rumors swirling around. [Ed: What rumors?] That’s why I just went on national news show this afternoon, to knock those rumors down. I am still in this race. As I have said all along, I am in this race until someone gets to 1,191 delegates. That has not happened yet, and so I will keep campaigning for the Republican nomination. Period. That’s my ironclad commitment to my supporters.” Next came the fundraising letter pleading for more money to continue the fight. (“Before we get to a brokered convention however we will need to win Texas and seize the momentum. For this to happen however, we must have your immediate financial support. We are laying it all on the field in Texas and we need you to join us.”)
So far he is not impressing pundits or making more conservative friends. But he apparently is trying to make the most of his financial opportunities.

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