Commentary Magazine


Posts For: May 8, 2008

About That “Smear”

Jennifer is too modest to mention it, but she played a considerable role in the “smear” to which Obama today referred. It was during a blogger conference call on April 25 that she, in fact, asked John McCain to comment on Hamas’s preference for Obama above the other presidential candidates. As it happens, I was on that call as well. And it’s worth noting the nature of McCain’s response to Jennifer. He began his reply by saying, “All I can tell you, Jennifer, is that I think it’s very clear who Hamas wants to be the next President of the United States.”

Considering the situation, this is about the most delicately phrased response that one could have expected. It was not in the least a smear. Jennifer introduced Hamas’s very real preference into the conversation. John McCain essentially chose to let the facts speak for themselves. He did go on to mention Obama’s willingness to talk to hostile players like Iran. But that’s not only a highly relevant point, it also speaks to a crucial policy difference between Obama and McCain. Any smear, I’d say, is decidedly in Obama’s recasting of John McCain’s comment.

Jennifer is too modest to mention it, but she played a considerable role in the “smear” to which Obama today referred. It was during a blogger conference call on April 25 that she, in fact, asked John McCain to comment on Hamas’s preference for Obama above the other presidential candidates. As it happens, I was on that call as well. And it’s worth noting the nature of McCain’s response to Jennifer. He began his reply by saying, “All I can tell you, Jennifer, is that I think it’s very clear who Hamas wants to be the next President of the United States.”

Considering the situation, this is about the most delicately phrased response that one could have expected. It was not in the least a smear. Jennifer introduced Hamas’s very real preference into the conversation. John McCain essentially chose to let the facts speak for themselves. He did go on to mention Obama’s willingness to talk to hostile players like Iran. But that’s not only a highly relevant point, it also speaks to a crucial policy difference between Obama and McCain. Any smear, I’d say, is decidedly in Obama’s recasting of John McCain’s comment.

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Abu Lughod’s Little Fib

In a panel discussion in Columbia University last week, commemorating “60 Years of Nakba – The Catastrophe of Palestine 1948-2008,” Lila Abu Lughod, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at the university, emotively told the audience how her father, Ibrhaim, had been expelled from his hometown of Jaffa in Palestine in May 1948.

Expelled? This is not exactly how Ibrhaim Abu Lughod himself described the circumstances of his flight in a 1990’s television documentary he prepared and presented with his friend and colleague Edward Said:

There was a Belgian ship, and one of the sailors, a young man, looked at us – and the ship was full of people from Jaffa, some of us were young adults – and he said: “Why don’t you stay and fight?” I have never forgotten his face and I have never had one good answer for him.

In a panel discussion in Columbia University last week, commemorating “60 Years of Nakba – The Catastrophe of Palestine 1948-2008,” Lila Abu Lughod, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at the university, emotively told the audience how her father, Ibrhaim, had been expelled from his hometown of Jaffa in Palestine in May 1948.

Expelled? This is not exactly how Ibrhaim Abu Lughod himself described the circumstances of his flight in a 1990’s television documentary he prepared and presented with his friend and colleague Edward Said:

There was a Belgian ship, and one of the sailors, a young man, looked at us – and the ship was full of people from Jaffa, some of us were young adults – and he said: “Why don’t you stay and fight?” I have never forgotten his face and I have never had one good answer for him.

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A Peek At What We’ll See

Barack Obama accused John McCain of “smearing him” by claiming that Hamas wants Obama to be President. But this isn’t a smear, it is fact. A spokesman for Hamas, you will recall, did endorse Obama. This report is fairly straightforward:

During an interview on WABC radio Sunday, top Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef said the terrorist group supports Obama’s foreign policy vision. “We don’t mind – actually we like Mr. Obama. We hope he will [win] the election and I do believe he is like John Kennedy, great man with great principle, and he has a vision to change America to make it in a position to lead the world community but not with domination and arrogance,” Yousef said in response to a question about the group’s willingness to meet with either of the Democratic presidential candidates.

Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition had this comment:

It’s understandable that Obama would like to make this go away. However, the reality is, Hamas is comfortable with Obama and they endorsed him. It’s the truth, not a ‘smear.’

As for the McCain camp, this will be an early test of their willingness to go toe-to-toe with Obama. Will they let this Obama remark pass? Or set the record straight and make clear Obama is, as he did in the “100 year” fight, fudging the facts? And we can expect more of this. Every bad fact for Obama or questionable association is a “smear” and every attempt by the McCain camp to set the record straight is “gutter politics.” It is up to McCain’s team to decide whether they will play along or call foul.

Barack Obama accused John McCain of “smearing him” by claiming that Hamas wants Obama to be President. But this isn’t a smear, it is fact. A spokesman for Hamas, you will recall, did endorse Obama. This report is fairly straightforward:

During an interview on WABC radio Sunday, top Hamas political adviser Ahmed Yousef said the terrorist group supports Obama’s foreign policy vision. “We don’t mind – actually we like Mr. Obama. We hope he will [win] the election and I do believe he is like John Kennedy, great man with great principle, and he has a vision to change America to make it in a position to lead the world community but not with domination and arrogance,” Yousef said in response to a question about the group’s willingness to meet with either of the Democratic presidential candidates.

Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition had this comment:

It’s understandable that Obama would like to make this go away. However, the reality is, Hamas is comfortable with Obama and they endorsed him. It’s the truth, not a ‘smear.’

As for the McCain camp, this will be an early test of their willingness to go toe-to-toe with Obama. Will they let this Obama remark pass? Or set the record straight and make clear Obama is, as he did in the “100 year” fight, fudging the facts? And we can expect more of this. Every bad fact for Obama or questionable association is a “smear” and every attempt by the McCain camp to set the record straight is “gutter politics.” It is up to McCain’s team to decide whether they will play along or call foul.

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McCain’s Four Quarters

Although I loathe sports analogies in politics, this one seems irresistible: For John McCain, the presidential season has four quarters. He will lose the first three. Will he be able to make it up in the fourth?

The first quarter began when the Republican race became a fait accompli and the Democratic battle between Clinton and Obama got more interesting. This started in earnest soon after New Hampshire. Obama took it simply because he has been involved in a more exciting race that garnered constant media attention while McCain and the Republicans became predictable and tedious. With Obama now certain to be the Democratic nominee, the second quarter has begun. Obama has more money, a new gust of wind in his sails, and a cheerleading press corps that will boost him up all summer. Without a real issue or a heavy ad buy, McCain will find it very difficult to penetrate voters consciousness over the summer. He will lose the second quarter.

The third quarter will begin and end with the two conventions, the Democrats in late August and the Republicans in early September. The Democratic convention will be a Hollywood studio boss’s dream, what with Obama’s gorgeous family, the spectacular videos, the unity theme that has been presaged since January, the lineup of celebrities walking the convention floor, Oprah’s opening night speech. Held in Denver — the New West — it will be young, full of Camelot references, and more racially and ethnically diverse than a Benetton commercial.

The Republican Convention, by contrast, will be held in Minneapolis, during the week that the entire country is focused on what time they can leave work Thursday to start Labor Day weekend. The third quarter goes to Obama in a walk.

The fourth quarter, after the conventions, and during the fall debates, is McCain’s only chance. This will be the first time that country really sees the two candidates directly going after one another. It will be the first time McCain will feel he is on a level playing field. The narrative of the first three quarters is the young and new vs. the old and tired. McCain has to reframe the debate around ideas–on Iraq, the economy, bipartisanship, taxes, and experience. No one looks or sounds better in victory than Obama. He is a lot less attractive, as we have now seen, when he is confronted or put on defense. When the country is paying attention in October, McCain will have his chance to knock Obama on his heels.

The meaning of all this: Republicans need to gird themselves for a long summer of horrendous polls and deepening despair. Obama will keep putting points on the board through early September. It will look hopeless. Until the fourth quarter.

Although I loathe sports analogies in politics, this one seems irresistible: For John McCain, the presidential season has four quarters. He will lose the first three. Will he be able to make it up in the fourth?

The first quarter began when the Republican race became a fait accompli and the Democratic battle between Clinton and Obama got more interesting. This started in earnest soon after New Hampshire. Obama took it simply because he has been involved in a more exciting race that garnered constant media attention while McCain and the Republicans became predictable and tedious. With Obama now certain to be the Democratic nominee, the second quarter has begun. Obama has more money, a new gust of wind in his sails, and a cheerleading press corps that will boost him up all summer. Without a real issue or a heavy ad buy, McCain will find it very difficult to penetrate voters consciousness over the summer. He will lose the second quarter.

The third quarter will begin and end with the two conventions, the Democrats in late August and the Republicans in early September. The Democratic convention will be a Hollywood studio boss’s dream, what with Obama’s gorgeous family, the spectacular videos, the unity theme that has been presaged since January, the lineup of celebrities walking the convention floor, Oprah’s opening night speech. Held in Denver — the New West — it will be young, full of Camelot references, and more racially and ethnically diverse than a Benetton commercial.

The Republican Convention, by contrast, will be held in Minneapolis, during the week that the entire country is focused on what time they can leave work Thursday to start Labor Day weekend. The third quarter goes to Obama in a walk.

The fourth quarter, after the conventions, and during the fall debates, is McCain’s only chance. This will be the first time that country really sees the two candidates directly going after one another. It will be the first time McCain will feel he is on a level playing field. The narrative of the first three quarters is the young and new vs. the old and tired. McCain has to reframe the debate around ideas–on Iraq, the economy, bipartisanship, taxes, and experience. No one looks or sounds better in victory than Obama. He is a lot less attractive, as we have now seen, when he is confronted or put on defense. When the country is paying attention in October, McCain will have his chance to knock Obama on his heels.

The meaning of all this: Republicans need to gird themselves for a long summer of horrendous polls and deepening despair. Obama will keep putting points on the board through early September. It will look hopeless. Until the fourth quarter.

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Didn’t They Listen To Tim Russert?

Perhaps the news hasn’t sunk in that the media declared the race over, but for now Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers are holding up quite nicely. It will be a tad embarrassing for Barack Obama if Clinton thumps him in a couple of primaries. (This may explain why he’s off the trail for awhile and focusing on the general election–no use giving her the satisfaction of a spirited defense or depriving himself of a built-in excuse.)

Truth be told, lots and lots of Democrats are devoted to her, which makes her leaving the race that much harder. And it makes it all the more important that Obama settle the Michigan and Florida delegate fight with excessive care, do everything he can to refrain from unduly embarrassing her, and ignore her jibes about electability. No use arguing with poll numbers and giving visibility to her (annoyingly accurate) perception that the composition of Obama’s base, at least for now, is a recipe for problems in the fall.

Perhaps the news hasn’t sunk in that the media declared the race over, but for now Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers are holding up quite nicely. It will be a tad embarrassing for Barack Obama if Clinton thumps him in a couple of primaries. (This may explain why he’s off the trail for awhile and focusing on the general election–no use giving her the satisfaction of a spirited defense or depriving himself of a built-in excuse.)

Truth be told, lots and lots of Democrats are devoted to her, which makes her leaving the race that much harder. And it makes it all the more important that Obama settle the Michigan and Florida delegate fight with excessive care, do everything he can to refrain from unduly embarrassing her, and ignore her jibes about electability. No use arguing with poll numbers and giving visibility to her (annoyingly accurate) perception that the composition of Obama’s base, at least for now, is a recipe for problems in the fall.

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Losing After Losing

Kevin Drum, over at the lefty Washington Monthly:

Hillary Clinton insists, unsurprisingly, that she’s going to press on, but I wonder if the rest of us have to press on as well? Instead of continuing the internecine warfare of the past couple of months, maybe the best thing to do is to start ignoring her–perhaps the worst fate of all for someone who seems to gain strength via umbrage. So if she says something outrageous, who cares? Just shrug and move on. After all, Barack Obama is, at this point, the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, so why not start treating him that way?

I’m not so sure the Democrats are correct in worrying that further Hillary shenanigans are a boost for McCain. This post-loss leg of her campaign may serve to drive a fair portion of the 30% of Democrats who vowed to vote for McCain over Obama right into Obama’s camp. Not only has Obama robustly outraised Hillary, but he might have just received a $6.4 million campaign donation directly from her.

Kevin Drum, over at the lefty Washington Monthly:

Hillary Clinton insists, unsurprisingly, that she’s going to press on, but I wonder if the rest of us have to press on as well? Instead of continuing the internecine warfare of the past couple of months, maybe the best thing to do is to start ignoring her–perhaps the worst fate of all for someone who seems to gain strength via umbrage. So if she says something outrageous, who cares? Just shrug and move on. After all, Barack Obama is, at this point, the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, so why not start treating him that way?

I’m not so sure the Democrats are correct in worrying that further Hillary shenanigans are a boost for McCain. This post-loss leg of her campaign may serve to drive a fair portion of the 30% of Democrats who vowed to vote for McCain over Obama right into Obama’s camp. Not only has Obama robustly outraised Hillary, but he might have just received a $6.4 million campaign donation directly from her.

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Brownout

Things are looking bad for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The man who spent ten years plotting, complaining about and backstabbing his boss Tony Blair has now achieved the lowest approval ratings for a Prime Minister in the history of polling on the subject. 55% of Labour’s own supporters believe that their party will have a better chance of winning the country’s next general election (which will have to be held on or before June 3, 2010) if Brown steps down to make way for a new leader. Brown also trails David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, and even the leader of the third-party Liberal Democrats, in approval ratings.

Brown’s fall from grace has been sweet to witness. For so long he believed that the job of Prime Minister was rightfully his, yanked away by a conniving Tony Blair. Now, it seems that the tactics he used to launch an internal coup against Blair two years ago are coming back to haunt him from all sides. Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s Questions, a Conservative MP asked Brown

As you are the only person in the House with experience of unseating a sitting Prime Minister, what is your own estimate as to how long you’ve got?

Even Tony Blair’s opponents in the left wing of the Labor Party respected him for his political cunning and ability to mainstream Labour into a workable political majority. Brown can’t even accomplish that, and has earned the enmity of many within his own ranks for his recent decision to eliminate the 10 percent income tax rate for the country’s lowest-income citizens, a decision that would have forced over 5 million people into a tax bracket of 20 percent, double what they’re used to paying. Brown had to amend the policy change after a backbench revolt among his party.

I was in London a few weeks ago and attended Prime Minister’s Questions, where I witnessed Conservative leader David Cameron lay into Brown, telling the Prime Minister that he was “a loser, not a leader.” This was a stunning rebuke, even by the normally heated standards of British parliamentary debate. Somewhere from the political depths you could hear Tony Blair laughing, not least because he delivered a similar rhetorical sting to then-Prime Minister John Major in 1995: “I lead my party. He follows his.”

Things are looking bad for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The man who spent ten years plotting, complaining about and backstabbing his boss Tony Blair has now achieved the lowest approval ratings for a Prime Minister in the history of polling on the subject. 55% of Labour’s own supporters believe that their party will have a better chance of winning the country’s next general election (which will have to be held on or before June 3, 2010) if Brown steps down to make way for a new leader. Brown also trails David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, and even the leader of the third-party Liberal Democrats, in approval ratings.

Brown’s fall from grace has been sweet to witness. For so long he believed that the job of Prime Minister was rightfully his, yanked away by a conniving Tony Blair. Now, it seems that the tactics he used to launch an internal coup against Blair two years ago are coming back to haunt him from all sides. Yesterday, at Prime Minister’s Questions, a Conservative MP asked Brown

As you are the only person in the House with experience of unseating a sitting Prime Minister, what is your own estimate as to how long you’ve got?

Even Tony Blair’s opponents in the left wing of the Labor Party respected him for his political cunning and ability to mainstream Labour into a workable political majority. Brown can’t even accomplish that, and has earned the enmity of many within his own ranks for his recent decision to eliminate the 10 percent income tax rate for the country’s lowest-income citizens, a decision that would have forced over 5 million people into a tax bracket of 20 percent, double what they’re used to paying. Brown had to amend the policy change after a backbench revolt among his party.

I was in London a few weeks ago and attended Prime Minister’s Questions, where I witnessed Conservative leader David Cameron lay into Brown, telling the Prime Minister that he was “a loser, not a leader.” This was a stunning rebuke, even by the normally heated standards of British parliamentary debate. Somewhere from the political depths you could hear Tony Blair laughing, not least because he delivered a similar rhetorical sting to then-Prime Minister John Major in 1995: “I lead my party. He follows his.”

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His First Test

Some believe that Hillary Clinton is angling to be Barack Obama’s VP. His netroot cheering section in the blogosphere would no doubt have a meltdown if that came to pass. After all, his “change” and “turn the page” messages were premised in large part on the notion that people were sick of Clintonian politics. To put Hillary back in power would reveal that Obama’s words were all, well, empty. And the prospect of the now nearly universally reviled–or at least lampooned–Bill Clinton out loose in a general election (and then lurking the halls of the White House) is enough to make many Democrats break out in hives.

But would Obama do it? After all, he’s a great advocate of reconciliation. And what better way to heal the party and demonstrate his unifying powers? The reality is that he is going to win the nomination outright and won’t be compelled to put her on the ticket. And he seems unlikely to volunteer for a world of political trouble, with so little to gain by it. It’s a truism that voters don’t vote for VP’s anyway. So if Obama is going to win over her voters, he’ll likely have to do it on his own. Soon enough we’ll find out if there are some reconciliations too great to imagine even for Obama.

Some believe that Hillary Clinton is angling to be Barack Obama’s VP. His netroot cheering section in the blogosphere would no doubt have a meltdown if that came to pass. After all, his “change” and “turn the page” messages were premised in large part on the notion that people were sick of Clintonian politics. To put Hillary back in power would reveal that Obama’s words were all, well, empty. And the prospect of the now nearly universally reviled–or at least lampooned–Bill Clinton out loose in a general election (and then lurking the halls of the White House) is enough to make many Democrats break out in hives.

But would Obama do it? After all, he’s a great advocate of reconciliation. And what better way to heal the party and demonstrate his unifying powers? The reality is that he is going to win the nomination outright and won’t be compelled to put her on the ticket. And he seems unlikely to volunteer for a world of political trouble, with so little to gain by it. It’s a truism that voters don’t vote for VP’s anyway. So if Obama is going to win over her voters, he’ll likely have to do it on his own. Soon enough we’ll find out if there are some reconciliations too great to imagine even for Obama.

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Nasrallah Speaks

Hezbollah’s thug-in-chief, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed Lebanon today. What he said is not promising. You can read the entire transcript here, but it’s not necessary. The following snippet tells you everything you need to know:

I said . . . that any hand that reaches for the resistance [i.e., Hezbollah] and its arms will be cut off. Israel tried that in the July War, and we cut its hand off. We do not advise you to try us. Whoever is going to target us will be targeted by us. Whoever is going to shoot at us will be shot by us.

Nasrallah has one rhetorical tactic that he deploys every time Hezbollah experiences internal pressure in Lebanon: he accuses his opponents of working for the CIA, the Mossad, the Jews, or the Americans. Thus he said today that “there is an American plan that we are fighting against. This is the nature of the crisis.” And: “This struggle is between an honorable resistance, which is endorsed by Arabs and Muslims, and the United States and its allies.”

Well, it’s tough times for Nasrallah — the Sunni Arabs do not, alas, endorse what he’s doing, and in fact would like to see Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, dealt a serious blow. Nasrallah isn’t fooling anyone. The Sunni mufti of Lebanon harshly condemned Nasrallah last night, calling Hezbollah an “armed gang of outlaws.” The Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers have done so as well, albeit in more diplomatic terms. The Israel-Hezbollah war two years ago exposed to a limited degree Sunni outrage at Hezbollah and Iran. This time, without the common Israeli enemy involved, such anger is going to be expressed much more forcefully.

Hezbollah’s thug-in-chief, Hassan Nasrallah, addressed Lebanon today. What he said is not promising. You can read the entire transcript here, but it’s not necessary. The following snippet tells you everything you need to know:

I said . . . that any hand that reaches for the resistance [i.e., Hezbollah] and its arms will be cut off. Israel tried that in the July War, and we cut its hand off. We do not advise you to try us. Whoever is going to target us will be targeted by us. Whoever is going to shoot at us will be shot by us.

Nasrallah has one rhetorical tactic that he deploys every time Hezbollah experiences internal pressure in Lebanon: he accuses his opponents of working for the CIA, the Mossad, the Jews, or the Americans. Thus he said today that “there is an American plan that we are fighting against. This is the nature of the crisis.” And: “This struggle is between an honorable resistance, which is endorsed by Arabs and Muslims, and the United States and its allies.”

Well, it’s tough times for Nasrallah — the Sunni Arabs do not, alas, endorse what he’s doing, and in fact would like to see Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, dealt a serious blow. Nasrallah isn’t fooling anyone. The Sunni mufti of Lebanon harshly condemned Nasrallah last night, calling Hezbollah an “armed gang of outlaws.” The Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers have done so as well, albeit in more diplomatic terms. The Israel-Hezbollah war two years ago exposed to a limited degree Sunni outrage at Hezbollah and Iran. This time, without the common Israeli enemy involved, such anger is going to be expressed much more forcefully.

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Broadcasting Obama

Barack Obama supporters often argue that a black U.S. president, such as Obama, will be welcomed by the world as a sign of American­ progress and inclusiveness, a signal to all nations that the U.S. is open to the talents and contributions of diverse peoples. But the idea that the rest of the world shares Americans’ faith in redemption through diversity is itself an unwitting exercise in American solipsism. The perception of the globe as a collection of integrated, post-racial states just speaks to Americans’ capacity to see the entire world as a reflection of our values and standards.

Is it an accident that the rest of the Western world has yet to produce anything approaching a black head of state? In France, for example, only one of approximately 600 members of Parliament is a member of a racial minority. England fares slightly better with fifteen out of 645. Germany’s largest minority, ethnic Turks, make up ten percent of the population, yet they hold less than one percent of the seats in Parliament. Spain’s number are worse than any of the above. Italy is poised to appoint as deputy prime minister a man from the racist Northern League party, who once said that France had “sacrificed its identity by fielding [in the World Cup] niggers, Muslims and communists.”

As you read this, Europe grows less tolerant still, with far-right nationalists making their way to higher and higher office. Still, Europe is a hippie musical compared to Asia and Africa, where ethnic and religious segregation is not only institutional, but fatal. Moving east to west: There are frequent, sometimes deadly, clashes between Hui Muslims and Han Chinese. Throughout the Arab world, racism against blacks is rampant, and in Mauritania pockets of Arab-on-black chattel slavery still exist. Then backtrack a little to the Levant. In 2006, when Condoleezza Rice was on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East, the daily Palestinian Authority periodical, Al Hayat Al Jadida consistently referred to her in racist terms and ran a cartoon of the Secretary of State pregnant with a monkey.

Yet Jimmy Carter, who’s made the Palestinian cause his pet project, insists that, in the eyes of the world, Barack Obama “will bring to the presidency a brand new picture of what the White House and Washington and the United States ought to be.” And he’s not alone. The refrain is constant.

With Obama’s nomination a lock, there’s been increasing discussion of what his Presidency might produce. Time and again, conversation comes back to this question of a black president and America’s image abroad. Yet, no one can name a single country that isn’t ages behind the U.S. in terms of diversity and integration. The notion that there’s a soft and cuddly world just waiting for America to catch up is not “global consciousness” but the very opposite: it is an American fantasy born of prosperity and isolation. If neoconservatives are criticized for their arrogance in assuming the universality of American ideals, how will Obama supporters of this stripe answer similar charges?

Barack Obama supporters often argue that a black U.S. president, such as Obama, will be welcomed by the world as a sign of American­ progress and inclusiveness, a signal to all nations that the U.S. is open to the talents and contributions of diverse peoples. But the idea that the rest of the world shares Americans’ faith in redemption through diversity is itself an unwitting exercise in American solipsism. The perception of the globe as a collection of integrated, post-racial states just speaks to Americans’ capacity to see the entire world as a reflection of our values and standards.

Is it an accident that the rest of the Western world has yet to produce anything approaching a black head of state? In France, for example, only one of approximately 600 members of Parliament is a member of a racial minority. England fares slightly better with fifteen out of 645. Germany’s largest minority, ethnic Turks, make up ten percent of the population, yet they hold less than one percent of the seats in Parliament. Spain’s number are worse than any of the above. Italy is poised to appoint as deputy prime minister a man from the racist Northern League party, who once said that France had “sacrificed its identity by fielding [in the World Cup] niggers, Muslims and communists.”

As you read this, Europe grows less tolerant still, with far-right nationalists making their way to higher and higher office. Still, Europe is a hippie musical compared to Asia and Africa, where ethnic and religious segregation is not only institutional, but fatal. Moving east to west: There are frequent, sometimes deadly, clashes between Hui Muslims and Han Chinese. Throughout the Arab world, racism against blacks is rampant, and in Mauritania pockets of Arab-on-black chattel slavery still exist. Then backtrack a little to the Levant. In 2006, when Condoleezza Rice was on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East, the daily Palestinian Authority periodical, Al Hayat Al Jadida consistently referred to her in racist terms and ran a cartoon of the Secretary of State pregnant with a monkey.

Yet Jimmy Carter, who’s made the Palestinian cause his pet project, insists that, in the eyes of the world, Barack Obama “will bring to the presidency a brand new picture of what the White House and Washington and the United States ought to be.” And he’s not alone. The refrain is constant.

With Obama’s nomination a lock, there’s been increasing discussion of what his Presidency might produce. Time and again, conversation comes back to this question of a black president and America’s image abroad. Yet, no one can name a single country that isn’t ages behind the U.S. in terms of diversity and integration. The notion that there’s a soft and cuddly world just waiting for America to catch up is not “global consciousness” but the very opposite: it is an American fantasy born of prosperity and isolation. If neoconservatives are criticized for their arrogance in assuming the universality of American ideals, how will Obama supporters of this stripe answer similar charges?

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Coming In at No. 1

Keith Olbermann, the bloviating sportscaster turned bloviating chat show host (or is that redundant?), paid me a signal honor by making me the No. 1 story last night on his list of the “headlines breaking in the administration’s 50 running scandals.” What did I do to deserve this honor? I’ll let Keith explain:

And number one: We got ya, coming and going-gate. Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, one of administration’s consulting dumb asses who got us into the quagmire of Iraq, and is now pushing hard for a twin disaster in Iran. In an online debate yesterday, he insisted that the surge has worked because, quoting, “civilian deaths were down more than 80 percent, U.S. deaths down more than 60 percent between December of 2006 and March of 2008.”

But it appears he wrote for Rupert Murdoch’s “Wall Street Journal” on Monday, in that, Max Boot claimed that in the huge jump in American fatalities last month, 54, the most lost since last August. It, quote, “could be a sign that tough combat is under way that will lead to the enemy’s defeat and the creation of a more peaceful environment in the future. Unfortunate as the latest deaths are, they are in all likelihood, a sign of things getting worse before they get better.”

And there it is in all its beautiful elliptical, symmetrical, asinine Bushian glory. If fewer Americans die in Iraq, that’s because the surge is working. If more Americans die in Iraq, that’s also because the surge is working. And if the surge is working the troops have to stay longer to solidify its gains, and if the surge isn’t working, the troops have to stay longer to make sure it starts working.

And the point of the war in Iraq is to make sure there is a war in Iraq.

Aside from some invective uniquely his own, Olbermann’s attack was lifted almost word for word from a posting on Think Progress, the website of the Center for American Progress, a left-wing attack machine masquerading as a think tank.

I realize that both Olbermann and the Think Progress bloggers are interested in scoring points regardless of the facts. But I’m still having trouble grasping the supposed contradiction between saying that things are getting better because the long-term trend has been a reduction in casualties, while admitting that things are temporarily worse because of a short-term spike in casualties.

In my piece I went on to point out that sometimes an increase in casualties precedes a military victory. That’s what happened last year, when Olbermann and the Center for American Progress were writing off the surge as a failure before it had begun. You would think they might have learned something from that experience. But I guess not. I could think of a two-word term to describe their mindset (the first word starts with a “d,” the second with an “a”) but, hey, I don’t want to stoop to their level.

Keith Olbermann, the bloviating sportscaster turned bloviating chat show host (or is that redundant?), paid me a signal honor by making me the No. 1 story last night on his list of the “headlines breaking in the administration’s 50 running scandals.” What did I do to deserve this honor? I’ll let Keith explain:

And number one: We got ya, coming and going-gate. Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, one of administration’s consulting dumb asses who got us into the quagmire of Iraq, and is now pushing hard for a twin disaster in Iran. In an online debate yesterday, he insisted that the surge has worked because, quoting, “civilian deaths were down more than 80 percent, U.S. deaths down more than 60 percent between December of 2006 and March of 2008.”

But it appears he wrote for Rupert Murdoch’s “Wall Street Journal” on Monday, in that, Max Boot claimed that in the huge jump in American fatalities last month, 54, the most lost since last August. It, quote, “could be a sign that tough combat is under way that will lead to the enemy’s defeat and the creation of a more peaceful environment in the future. Unfortunate as the latest deaths are, they are in all likelihood, a sign of things getting worse before they get better.”

And there it is in all its beautiful elliptical, symmetrical, asinine Bushian glory. If fewer Americans die in Iraq, that’s because the surge is working. If more Americans die in Iraq, that’s also because the surge is working. And if the surge is working the troops have to stay longer to solidify its gains, and if the surge isn’t working, the troops have to stay longer to make sure it starts working.

And the point of the war in Iraq is to make sure there is a war in Iraq.

Aside from some invective uniquely his own, Olbermann’s attack was lifted almost word for word from a posting on Think Progress, the website of the Center for American Progress, a left-wing attack machine masquerading as a think tank.

I realize that both Olbermann and the Think Progress bloggers are interested in scoring points regardless of the facts. But I’m still having trouble grasping the supposed contradiction between saying that things are getting better because the long-term trend has been a reduction in casualties, while admitting that things are temporarily worse because of a short-term spike in casualties.

In my piece I went on to point out that sometimes an increase in casualties precedes a military victory. That’s what happened last year, when Olbermann and the Center for American Progress were writing off the surge as a failure before it had begun. You would think they might have learned something from that experience. But I guess not. I could think of a two-word term to describe their mindset (the first word starts with a “d,” the second with an “a”) but, hey, I don’t want to stoop to their level.

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She Goes There

There has been a lot chatter (and some indications from her staffers) that Hillary Clinton isn’t going to fight to the bitter end and burn down the Democratic Party along the way. But then there is this interview with Clinton herself:

“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article “that found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me . . . There’s a pattern emerging here,” she said.

Has she ever come right out like this and said “Whites aren’t voting for him” before? She’s talked about “working-class” voters and women seniors, of course. But not once, in my recollection, has she spoken openly of any racial divide.

Why on earth would she do this if she’s not still committed to trying to scare superdelegates and whip up the vote in West Virginia?  There doesn’t seem much point, if she actually has the Democrats’ best interests at heart. (And it won’t help her get the VP slot, either.) Frankly, it makes about as much sense as her “3 a.m.” ad or her remarks touting John McCain’s preparedness as commander-in-chief. All those suspicions about her preference for a potential one-term McCain presidency rather than a two-term Obama one are only going to increase with comments like this.

There has been a lot chatter (and some indications from her staffers) that Hillary Clinton isn’t going to fight to the bitter end and burn down the Democratic Party along the way. But then there is this interview with Clinton herself:

“I have a much broader base to build a winning coalition on,” she said in an interview with USA TODAY. As evidence, Clinton cited an Associated Press article “that found how Sen. Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again, and how whites in both states who had not completed college were supporting me . . . There’s a pattern emerging here,” she said.

Has she ever come right out like this and said “Whites aren’t voting for him” before? She’s talked about “working-class” voters and women seniors, of course. But not once, in my recollection, has she spoken openly of any racial divide.

Why on earth would she do this if she’s not still committed to trying to scare superdelegates and whip up the vote in West Virginia?  There doesn’t seem much point, if she actually has the Democrats’ best interests at heart. (And it won’t help her get the VP slot, either.) Frankly, it makes about as much sense as her “3 a.m.” ad or her remarks touting John McCain’s preparedness as commander-in-chief. All those suspicions about her preference for a potential one-term McCain presidency rather than a two-term Obama one are only going to increase with comments like this.

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Statehood for Hezbollah?

Michael Young has a characteristically terrific column in the Beirut Daily Star about Hezbollah’s latest power play.

Since last January, when Hizbullah and Amal [a Hezbollah-aligned Shia group–NP] used the pretense of social dissatisfaction to obstruct roads in and around Beirut, the opposition has, quite openly, shown itself to be limited to Hizbullah. Michel Aoun, once a useful fig leaf to lend cross-communal diversity to the opposition, has since become an afterthought with hardly any pull in Christian streets. . . .

Aoun will doubtless find an excuse to explain why the calls for a strike were ignored in predominantly Christian areas. But Hizbullah has to be careful. Now the party’s every move is one of the Shiites against the rest. The sharp decline in Aoun’s popularity, not to mention the pressure being felt by other Hizbullah allies like Elie Skaff in Zahleh, all emanate from a single source: Most Christians, not to mention vast majorities of Sunnis and Druze, see no possible coexistence between the idea of the Lebanese state and a Hizbullah that insists on demanding veto power over any decision that might limit its political and military margin of maneuver.

Exactly right. Hezbollah has been attempting to increase its power — and hence Iranian-Syrian power — in Lebanon with great urgency since the March 14 triumph and the 2006 war with Israel. Until now, it has been able to do so with a sectarian flourish through its alliance with Michel Aoun, and to pretend that it was merely fighting for its fair share of political influence. This was always a cynical charade, but it was one that a lot of people were willing to believe, and it gave Hezbollah (and its foreign patrons) cover and talking points to deflect attention from their real agenda.

There are now three messy options: capitulate to Hezbollah; fight Hezbollah by force of arms; or seek the separation of Shia Lebanon from Christian, Sunni, and Druze Lebanon. Young ends his column on the latter note:

If [Hezbollah] wants its semi-independent entity, it is now obliged to state this plainly. The masks have fallen. And if Hizbullah does decide to reject Lebanon, then we shouldn’t be surprised if some start speaking of an amicable divorce between Shiites and the rest of Lebanon.

The problem with this thinking is that it is hard to imagine a divorce between the Shia and the rest of Lebanon taking place amicable. It would actually be a bloodbath — a horrendous, awful war, involving extensive intervention from outside powers and the transfer of entire populations between regions within Lebanon.

War would be required because the last thing Hezbollah and its sponsors want is a divorce. The dysfunctional marriage protects Hezbollah, insofar as to go to war against Hezbollah requires going to war against Lebanon itself. And Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanese politics, however cynical and manipulative it may be, gives the group one of the major justifications of its existence — that it is a legitimate political party representing the Shia of Lebanon. Being pushed into sovereignty is one of the last things that Hezbollah, Syria, or Iran want, and they will fight hard to prevent it from happening.

Michael Young has a characteristically terrific column in the Beirut Daily Star about Hezbollah’s latest power play.

Since last January, when Hizbullah and Amal [a Hezbollah-aligned Shia group–NP] used the pretense of social dissatisfaction to obstruct roads in and around Beirut, the opposition has, quite openly, shown itself to be limited to Hizbullah. Michel Aoun, once a useful fig leaf to lend cross-communal diversity to the opposition, has since become an afterthought with hardly any pull in Christian streets. . . .

Aoun will doubtless find an excuse to explain why the calls for a strike were ignored in predominantly Christian areas. But Hizbullah has to be careful. Now the party’s every move is one of the Shiites against the rest. The sharp decline in Aoun’s popularity, not to mention the pressure being felt by other Hizbullah allies like Elie Skaff in Zahleh, all emanate from a single source: Most Christians, not to mention vast majorities of Sunnis and Druze, see no possible coexistence between the idea of the Lebanese state and a Hizbullah that insists on demanding veto power over any decision that might limit its political and military margin of maneuver.

Exactly right. Hezbollah has been attempting to increase its power — and hence Iranian-Syrian power — in Lebanon with great urgency since the March 14 triumph and the 2006 war with Israel. Until now, it has been able to do so with a sectarian flourish through its alliance with Michel Aoun, and to pretend that it was merely fighting for its fair share of political influence. This was always a cynical charade, but it was one that a lot of people were willing to believe, and it gave Hezbollah (and its foreign patrons) cover and talking points to deflect attention from their real agenda.

There are now three messy options: capitulate to Hezbollah; fight Hezbollah by force of arms; or seek the separation of Shia Lebanon from Christian, Sunni, and Druze Lebanon. Young ends his column on the latter note:

If [Hezbollah] wants its semi-independent entity, it is now obliged to state this plainly. The masks have fallen. And if Hizbullah does decide to reject Lebanon, then we shouldn’t be surprised if some start speaking of an amicable divorce between Shiites and the rest of Lebanon.

The problem with this thinking is that it is hard to imagine a divorce between the Shia and the rest of Lebanon taking place amicable. It would actually be a bloodbath — a horrendous, awful war, involving extensive intervention from outside powers and the transfer of entire populations between regions within Lebanon.

War would be required because the last thing Hezbollah and its sponsors want is a divorce. The dysfunctional marriage protects Hezbollah, insofar as to go to war against Hezbollah requires going to war against Lebanon itself. And Hezbollah’s involvement in Lebanese politics, however cynical and manipulative it may be, gives the group one of the major justifications of its existence — that it is a legitimate political party representing the Shia of Lebanon. Being pushed into sovereignty is one of the last things that Hezbollah, Syria, or Iran want, and they will fight hard to prevent it from happening.

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Bookshelf

Is it possible for one person to write a first-rate large-scale reference book? Of course–if he’s Samuel Johnson. But even Dr. Johnson found it famously difficult to bring his Dictionary into being, and though there have been any number of noble successors to that great work, most of the significant reference books to be published in modern and postmodern times have been group efforts. The principal exceptions to this rule are books which, like H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations, or David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, intentionally reflect the idiosyncratic personalities of their authors, and one normally turns to books such as these in search of illumination or amusement, not information.

When it comes to works of pure reference, the opposite rule holds true, and the wider the field of interest, the harder it is for an individual author, no matter how well informed he may be, to produce a book that is both comprehensive and trustworthy. Hence I was more than a little bit surprised to discover that The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (Oxford, 923 pp., $39.95) is the work of a single scholar, Thomas Hischak, and not surprised at all that it isn’t nearly as good as it ought to be.

Unearthing mistakes in a reference book is the sport of pedants, but the whole point of such tomes is that they should be scrupulously accurate, and I regret to say that I didn’t have to dig too deeply in the new Oxford Companion to pick nits, starting with an unacceptably high number of misspelled names (Sherie Rene Scott, Michel Legrand, Casey Nicolaw), missing persons (Conrad Salinger, Twyla Tharp) and mangled song titles (“Public Melody No. 1″). Nor does Hischak have the gift of writing the crisp, informative definitional prose that is indispensable to the lexicographer’s craft. Far more often than not he settles for flabby, anodyne boilerplate, especially when musical matters are involved. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about Leonard Bernstein’s compositional style: “His theatre music uses a variety of forms, from jazz to Latin to classical, and can be explosive and thrilling as well as tender and reflective.” True enough, I suppose, but does it tell you anything about Bernstein’s music beyond the immediately obvious? Another glaring example of his limp descriptive powers is the first sentence of his entry on Cabaret: “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s, the powerful music-drama made few concessions to escapist entertainment, yet it was and remains very popular.” Again, this is true as far as it goes, but it is neither notably insightful nor memorably written.

In recent years Oxford University Press has acquired a reputation for publishing ill-edited books, and this one is-to put it very, very mildly-no exception. Somebody really should have stopped Hischak from describing Irving Caesar’s lyrics as “simple, direct, and sometimes contagious,” or referring to An American in Paris as a “symphonic suite.” At times his syntax comes totally unstuck: “Baxter’s career fell apart in the 1940s, suffered a nervous breakdown, and underwent a lobotomy before dying of pneumonia.” Poor career!

All these problems notwithstanding, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical is for the most part a reliable, fact-crammed reference tool, and I expect to keep my copy handy for some time to come. But it isn’t the vade mecum I’d hoped for, not by a long shot.

Is it possible for one person to write a first-rate large-scale reference book? Of course–if he’s Samuel Johnson. But even Dr. Johnson found it famously difficult to bring his Dictionary into being, and though there have been any number of noble successors to that great work, most of the significant reference books to be published in modern and postmodern times have been group efforts. The principal exceptions to this rule are books which, like H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage, H.L. Mencken’s New Dictionary of Quotations, or David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, intentionally reflect the idiosyncratic personalities of their authors, and one normally turns to books such as these in search of illumination or amusement, not information.

When it comes to works of pure reference, the opposite rule holds true, and the wider the field of interest, the harder it is for an individual author, no matter how well informed he may be, to produce a book that is both comprehensive and trustworthy. Hence I was more than a little bit surprised to discover that The Oxford Companion to the American Musical: Theatre, Film, and Television (Oxford, 923 pp., $39.95) is the work of a single scholar, Thomas Hischak, and not surprised at all that it isn’t nearly as good as it ought to be.

Unearthing mistakes in a reference book is the sport of pedants, but the whole point of such tomes is that they should be scrupulously accurate, and I regret to say that I didn’t have to dig too deeply in the new Oxford Companion to pick nits, starting with an unacceptably high number of misspelled names (Sherie Rene Scott, Michel Legrand, Casey Nicolaw), missing persons (Conrad Salinger, Twyla Tharp) and mangled song titles (“Public Melody No. 1″). Nor does Hischak have the gift of writing the crisp, informative definitional prose that is indispensable to the lexicographer’s craft. Far more often than not he settles for flabby, anodyne boilerplate, especially when musical matters are involved. Here, for instance, is what he has to say about Leonard Bernstein’s compositional style: “His theatre music uses a variety of forms, from jazz to Latin to classical, and can be explosive and thrilling as well as tender and reflective.” True enough, I suppose, but does it tell you anything about Bernstein’s music beyond the immediately obvious? Another glaring example of his limp descriptive powers is the first sentence of his entry on Cabaret: “Arguably the most innovative, hard-hitting, and uncompromising musical of the 1960s, the powerful music-drama made few concessions to escapist entertainment, yet it was and remains very popular.” Again, this is true as far as it goes, but it is neither notably insightful nor memorably written.

In recent years Oxford University Press has acquired a reputation for publishing ill-edited books, and this one is-to put it very, very mildly-no exception. Somebody really should have stopped Hischak from describing Irving Caesar’s lyrics as “simple, direct, and sometimes contagious,” or referring to An American in Paris as a “symphonic suite.” At times his syntax comes totally unstuck: “Baxter’s career fell apart in the 1940s, suffered a nervous breakdown, and underwent a lobotomy before dying of pneumonia.” Poor career!

All these problems notwithstanding, The Oxford Companion to the American Musical is for the most part a reliable, fact-crammed reference tool, and I expect to keep my copy handy for some time to come. But it isn’t the vade mecum I’d hoped for, not by a long shot.

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Get Rid of the Clowns

We’ve returned time and again to the National Intelligence Estimate of last December, which declared flatly, and misleadingly, that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003.

How did this intelligence fiasco happen? Leonard Spector and Avner Cohen, two close students of nuclear-proliferation, recently co-chaired a “roundtable” composed of intelligence officials and outside experts. According to what they learned, the Bush White House itself played a significant role in the botched nature of the declassified summary:

those responsible for the NIE on Iran knew that the heads of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies had agreed that its key findings would not be declassified. But the White House, fearful that the findings might leak to the media without any official explanation of their significance, overruled the agencies.

By the time the White House decided to release an unclassified summary, the classified version had been produced and was about to be handed over to the congressional intelligence committees. That created a problem. Even though the estimate’s “key findings” were originally intended to be understood in the context of the whole classified report, the intelligence community and the White House felt that they needed to repeat them almost verbatim in the unclassified summary. They worried that any rephrasing of the findings would open them up to accusations of playing politics with the estimate.

That still leaves the question of why the intelligence community spotlighted the finding on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We know that important new evidence on Iran’s nuclear activities in 2003 had been obtained and that it had required changing a 2005 estimate that the country was pursuing a nuclear weapon. In highlighting the new data, the authors of the 2007 unclassified summary unfortunately left out the context of the previous estimate — that a rogue Iran remained well on course to developing a nuclear capability.

All in all, Spector and Cohen offer an alarming glimpse of serious disarray at the upper levels of the intelligence community. The Iran NIE, they note, is not the only thing it has recently botched.

Last month’s unclassified congressional briefing on Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israel on Sept. 6, 2007, was yet another reminder of the challenges confronting the U.S. intelligence community. Still smarting from its gross overestimation of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the community bent over backward to avoid overstating its case against Syria — and in doing so, it stumbled badly.

In the Syrian case (as with the release last year of part of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program) the intelligence community was unnecessarily cautious, and thereby underestimated the threats posed by Syria and Iran. Its efforts to improve precision have only created new confusion and uncertainty.

The key problem has been the intelligence community’s astonishing awkwardness in making clear what’s a fact and what’s an inference. In the case of Iraq, there were few facts on which to build a convincing case that Saddam Hussein was arming himself with weapons of mass destruction. But Hussein’s past pursuit of them, coupled with the anxieties unleashed by 9/11, led U.S. intelligence analysts and many policymakers to infer the worst and leap to conclusions unsupported by the facts.

The intelligence community has now jumped to the opposite extreme with respect to Iran’s and Syria’s nuclear ambitions, where there are more than a few facts. Yet it has virtually refused to draw any conclusions, no matter how obvious, about the two countries’ nuclear programs. The effect has been to seriously understate the dangers Iran and Syria pose and to distort the policy options available to the U.S. to manage them.

The more we learn about the performance of our intelligence agencies, the darker the picture grows. The intelligence community was subject to a radically reform after 9/11. Perhaps some good came of that, including better interagency coordination of counterterrorism operations. Clearly, however, some fundamental problems have not been solved. The analytic side of the house is simply is not up to the job of understanding the outside world, including matters of fundamental importance to our security.

What should be done? Repeatedly discovering that the CIA’s “info is worthless,” Richard Nixon came up with the right idea: His instructions were: “Get rid of the clowns.  — cut personnel 40 percent.”

We’ve returned time and again to the National Intelligence Estimate of last December, which declared flatly, and misleadingly, that Iran’s nuclear-weapons program came to a halt in 2003.

How did this intelligence fiasco happen? Leonard Spector and Avner Cohen, two close students of nuclear-proliferation, recently co-chaired a “roundtable” composed of intelligence officials and outside experts. According to what they learned, the Bush White House itself played a significant role in the botched nature of the declassified summary:

those responsible for the NIE on Iran knew that the heads of the 16 U.S. intelligence agencies had agreed that its key findings would not be declassified. But the White House, fearful that the findings might leak to the media without any official explanation of their significance, overruled the agencies.

By the time the White House decided to release an unclassified summary, the classified version had been produced and was about to be handed over to the congressional intelligence committees. That created a problem. Even though the estimate’s “key findings” were originally intended to be understood in the context of the whole classified report, the intelligence community and the White House felt that they needed to repeat them almost verbatim in the unclassified summary. They worried that any rephrasing of the findings would open them up to accusations of playing politics with the estimate.

That still leaves the question of why the intelligence community spotlighted the finding on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. We know that important new evidence on Iran’s nuclear activities in 2003 had been obtained and that it had required changing a 2005 estimate that the country was pursuing a nuclear weapon. In highlighting the new data, the authors of the 2007 unclassified summary unfortunately left out the context of the previous estimate — that a rogue Iran remained well on course to developing a nuclear capability.

All in all, Spector and Cohen offer an alarming glimpse of serious disarray at the upper levels of the intelligence community. The Iran NIE, they note, is not the only thing it has recently botched.

Last month’s unclassified congressional briefing on Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor, which was destroyed by Israel on Sept. 6, 2007, was yet another reminder of the challenges confronting the U.S. intelligence community. Still smarting from its gross overestimation of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the community bent over backward to avoid overstating its case against Syria — and in doing so, it stumbled badly.

In the Syrian case (as with the release last year of part of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear program) the intelligence community was unnecessarily cautious, and thereby underestimated the threats posed by Syria and Iran. Its efforts to improve precision have only created new confusion and uncertainty.

The key problem has been the intelligence community’s astonishing awkwardness in making clear what’s a fact and what’s an inference. In the case of Iraq, there were few facts on which to build a convincing case that Saddam Hussein was arming himself with weapons of mass destruction. But Hussein’s past pursuit of them, coupled with the anxieties unleashed by 9/11, led U.S. intelligence analysts and many policymakers to infer the worst and leap to conclusions unsupported by the facts.

The intelligence community has now jumped to the opposite extreme with respect to Iran’s and Syria’s nuclear ambitions, where there are more than a few facts. Yet it has virtually refused to draw any conclusions, no matter how obvious, about the two countries’ nuclear programs. The effect has been to seriously understate the dangers Iran and Syria pose and to distort the policy options available to the U.S. to manage them.

The more we learn about the performance of our intelligence agencies, the darker the picture grows. The intelligence community was subject to a radically reform after 9/11. Perhaps some good came of that, including better interagency coordination of counterterrorism operations. Clearly, however, some fundamental problems have not been solved. The analytic side of the house is simply is not up to the job of understanding the outside world, including matters of fundamental importance to our security.

What should be done? Repeatedly discovering that the CIA’s “info is worthless,” Richard Nixon came up with the right idea: His instructions were: “Get rid of the clowns.  — cut personnel 40 percent.”

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Now They Tell Us

The Washington Post, a bit late for Democratic primary voters to consider, notes that despite Barack Obama’s high-minded talk about rising above the Red state-Blue state divide, “his political program and his legislative record are almost entirely blue.” Wait: he’s really liberal? Who knew! Then the Post confesses that

he has done his share and then some of telling people what they want to hear: on middle-class tax cuts, on trade, on how easy it will be “to end a war that isn’t making us safer.” There’s been a lot less in the way of straight talk about tough choices.

Well, come to think of it ,we haven’t heard him explain the economic impact of large tax increases during a recession or how exactly visiting with dictators and withdrawing from Iraq won’t embolden our enemies. (He might even wade through to page 18 of the same newspaper, look over the story of the latest Guantanamo releasee who engaged in a suicide bombing and explain how one of his party’s favorite ideas–shutting down the reviled Guantanamo–won’t endanger more lives.)

It’s nice to know these are real concerns, but curious none the less that we didn’t see more op-eds remarking on how Obama’s rhetoric hasn’t matched up with his own record or with domestic and international realities. But I’m sure the mainstream media will rise to the occasion and give him a thorough grilling in the general election. They’ve never failed in their journalistic obligations before, have they?

The Washington Post, a bit late for Democratic primary voters to consider, notes that despite Barack Obama’s high-minded talk about rising above the Red state-Blue state divide, “his political program and his legislative record are almost entirely blue.” Wait: he’s really liberal? Who knew! Then the Post confesses that

he has done his share and then some of telling people what they want to hear: on middle-class tax cuts, on trade, on how easy it will be “to end a war that isn’t making us safer.” There’s been a lot less in the way of straight talk about tough choices.

Well, come to think of it ,we haven’t heard him explain the economic impact of large tax increases during a recession or how exactly visiting with dictators and withdrawing from Iraq won’t embolden our enemies. (He might even wade through to page 18 of the same newspaper, look over the story of the latest Guantanamo releasee who engaged in a suicide bombing and explain how one of his party’s favorite ideas–shutting down the reviled Guantanamo–won’t endanger more lives.)

It’s nice to know these are real concerns, but curious none the less that we didn’t see more op-eds remarking on how Obama’s rhetoric hasn’t matched up with his own record or with domestic and international realities. But I’m sure the mainstream media will rise to the occasion and give him a thorough grilling in the general election. They’ve never failed in their journalistic obligations before, have they?

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Israel at 60

Today is Israel’s independence day, and the country has taken two days off from everything–the war, the corruption, the politics–to celebrate six decades of Jewish sovereignty. The unofficial theme this year, I believe, is “warts and all”: Yes, we haven’t yet found a way either to defeat our enemies or make peace with them. Yes, we elected a President who appears to have been a thoroughbred sleazeball, and our Prime Minister is now in the thick of his fifth criminal investigation. But hey, we’re alive, our economy is very strong, our democracy works, and even if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re still standing, and that’s a lot given what’s happening around us.

The unlikely hero of the hour is Shimon Peres. After a career of political opportunism and ideological naivete culminating in the somewhat delusional and not-entirely-uncatastrophic Oslo Accords, Peres has emerged as the elder statesman, the last remaining leader from the founding generation, a dignified President who has served as a much-needed corrective to Moshe Katzav, who is about to be put on trial for rape. Peres has managed to stay out of controversy and represent the nation, both as a Zionist and as a man who understands the weight of his largely-symbolic post. His speech to the nation on Remembrance Day Tuesday night, honoring the fallen soldiers of Israel’s wars, was not merely uniting, it was deeply moving.

No-one could be further from Peres than Ehud Olmert. For a week his political life has been put entirely on hold, as a sudden and intense new criminal investigation has opened up, so serious that the police have slapped a far-reaching gag order on the whole thing. You won’t find details in the Israeli press, though the New York Post broke it open on Tuesday, with the New York Times following yesterday. If the rumors are true, then there is a good chance he’s finished as Prime Minister. Either a new coalition will emerge with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking Olmert’s place, or we will head to elections. The choice will be mostly in the hands of Labor party leader Ehud Barak. My bet is that he takes his chances on elections. I can hear Netanyahu’s engines revving.

Today is Israel’s independence day, and the country has taken two days off from everything–the war, the corruption, the politics–to celebrate six decades of Jewish sovereignty. The unofficial theme this year, I believe, is “warts and all”: Yes, we haven’t yet found a way either to defeat our enemies or make peace with them. Yes, we elected a President who appears to have been a thoroughbred sleazeball, and our Prime Minister is now in the thick of his fifth criminal investigation. But hey, we’re alive, our economy is very strong, our democracy works, and even if we don’t know where we’re going, we’re still standing, and that’s a lot given what’s happening around us.

The unlikely hero of the hour is Shimon Peres. After a career of political opportunism and ideological naivete culminating in the somewhat delusional and not-entirely-uncatastrophic Oslo Accords, Peres has emerged as the elder statesman, the last remaining leader from the founding generation, a dignified President who has served as a much-needed corrective to Moshe Katzav, who is about to be put on trial for rape. Peres has managed to stay out of controversy and represent the nation, both as a Zionist and as a man who understands the weight of his largely-symbolic post. His speech to the nation on Remembrance Day Tuesday night, honoring the fallen soldiers of Israel’s wars, was not merely uniting, it was deeply moving.

No-one could be further from Peres than Ehud Olmert. For a week his political life has been put entirely on hold, as a sudden and intense new criminal investigation has opened up, so serious that the police have slapped a far-reaching gag order on the whole thing. You won’t find details in the Israeli press, though the New York Post broke it open on Tuesday, with the New York Times following yesterday. If the rumors are true, then there is a good chance he’s finished as Prime Minister. Either a new coalition will emerge with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni taking Olmert’s place, or we will head to elections. The choice will be mostly in the hands of Labor party leader Ehud Barak. My bet is that he takes his chances on elections. I can hear Netanyahu’s engines revving.

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An Example

Every major newspaper and every TV news network is replete with “it’s over” and “she’s keeping up a good front but looking for options” stories about Hillary Clinton’s impending exit. There is something both admirable and pathetic about the entire spectacle. Campaign advisers with no involvement in the current race might be ruing the “campaign will never die” Clinton mantra for another reason: candidates, over the advice of supporters and well-wishers telling them to pack it in, will be saying for years to come “But Hillary didn’t quit.” She’s raised the bar for the financial distress and personal embarrassment required to eject losing candidates from the race. (Mitt Romney’s exit seems downright premature by comparison.)

But like so many things associated with Clinton, many of the lessons will be attributed to gender. Gail Collins writes:

Privately, she says she does not intend to go home and tell Chelsea that she’s a quitter, and this is a side of her that even many Clinton-haters have really come to appreciate. After this campaign, nobody in America can ever seriously argue that women aren’t capable of being in armed combat. She is strong. She is invincible. Or, at minimum, extremely hard to discourage.

Well, yes: women will be taken seriously as Presidential candidates–if they are serious candidates. But if we learned anything about Clinton during the campaign it is that, for better or worse, there is no one quite like her. (Future female candidates couldn’t possibly duplicate her experience.) Her exit, or lack of it, proves that once again.

Every major newspaper and every TV news network is replete with “it’s over” and “she’s keeping up a good front but looking for options” stories about Hillary Clinton’s impending exit. There is something both admirable and pathetic about the entire spectacle. Campaign advisers with no involvement in the current race might be ruing the “campaign will never die” Clinton mantra for another reason: candidates, over the advice of supporters and well-wishers telling them to pack it in, will be saying for years to come “But Hillary didn’t quit.” She’s raised the bar for the financial distress and personal embarrassment required to eject losing candidates from the race. (Mitt Romney’s exit seems downright premature by comparison.)

But like so many things associated with Clinton, many of the lessons will be attributed to gender. Gail Collins writes:

Privately, she says she does not intend to go home and tell Chelsea that she’s a quitter, and this is a side of her that even many Clinton-haters have really come to appreciate. After this campaign, nobody in America can ever seriously argue that women aren’t capable of being in armed combat. She is strong. She is invincible. Or, at minimum, extremely hard to discourage.

Well, yes: women will be taken seriously as Presidential candidates–if they are serious candidates. But if we learned anything about Clinton during the campaign it is that, for better or worse, there is no one quite like her. (Future female candidates couldn’t possibly duplicate her experience.) Her exit, or lack of it, proves that once again.

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