Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 28, 2010

What the Assange Book Deal Supports

In a previous post, I expressed outrage that two supposedly reputable publishers–Random House and Canongate–were planning to fork over more than a million bucks to the odious Julian Assange to write his memoirs. I’d like to emphasize the sort of sleazy action they are subsidizing by drawing attention to this Guardian story, alluded to in today’s Afternoon Commentary:

Zimbabwe is to investigate bringing treason charges against the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and other individuals over confidential talks with US diplomats revealed by Wikileaks….. A cable dated 24 December 2009 suggested Tsvangirai privately insisted sanctions “must be kept in place”.

High treason in Zimbabwe can result in the death penalty.

This is typical of WikiLeaks’ impact. Far from showing any nefarious doings by the U.S. government, which Assange seems to hate so much, his stolen documents actually show U.S. diplomats simply doing their jobs by meeting with various people around the world–including people who would rather not see their dealings with America revealed to their enemies. Yet reveal them Assange does, not caring, apparently, about the impact of his revelations, whether they cause embarrassment or imprisonment or even death.

Perhaps with December 31 approaching Bertelesmann execs might make a New Year’s resolution: We resolve next year not to subsidize evil authors. That might even be easier to keep than the usual weight-loss resolutions.

In a previous post, I expressed outrage that two supposedly reputable publishers–Random House and Canongate–were planning to fork over more than a million bucks to the odious Julian Assange to write his memoirs. I’d like to emphasize the sort of sleazy action they are subsidizing by drawing attention to this Guardian story, alluded to in today’s Afternoon Commentary:

Zimbabwe is to investigate bringing treason charges against the prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and other individuals over confidential talks with US diplomats revealed by Wikileaks….. A cable dated 24 December 2009 suggested Tsvangirai privately insisted sanctions “must be kept in place”.

High treason in Zimbabwe can result in the death penalty.

This is typical of WikiLeaks’ impact. Far from showing any nefarious doings by the U.S. government, which Assange seems to hate so much, his stolen documents actually show U.S. diplomats simply doing their jobs by meeting with various people around the world–including people who would rather not see their dealings with America revealed to their enemies. Yet reveal them Assange does, not caring, apparently, about the impact of his revelations, whether they cause embarrassment or imprisonment or even death.

Perhaps with December 31 approaching Bertelesmann execs might make a New Year’s resolution: We resolve next year not to subsidize evil authors. That might even be easier to keep than the usual weight-loss resolutions.

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Open Minds Open Wallets

The AP has a story about how American businesses are now looking to market products to Muslim consumers:

The worldwide market for Islamically permitted goods, called halal, has grown to more than half a billion dollars annually. Ritually slaughtered meat is a mainstay, but the halal industry is much broader, including foods and seasoning that omit alcohol, pork products and other forbidden ingredients, along with cosmetics, finance and clothing.

Corporations have been courting immigrant Muslim communities in Europe for several years. Nestle, for example, has about 20 factories in Europe with halal-certified production lines and advertises to Western Muslims through its marketing campaign called “Taste of Home.” Nestle plans to increase its ethnic and halal offerings in Europe in coming years.

In the United States, iconic American companies such as McDonald’s (which already has a popular halal menu overseas) and Wal-Mart have entered the halal arena. In August, the natural grocery giant Whole Foods began selling its first nationally distributed halal food product — frozen Indian entrees called Saffron Road.

There is no reason to think that Muslims, in themselves, represent a uniquely promising niche market. What’s happening here is subtler. It’s about branding, not selling. Companies want to be seen by all potential consumers as being socially aware, on the side of the good guys, and behind fashionable causes. Four years ago, with An Inconvenient Truth dominating the culture, this meant offering bottles with 20 percent less plastic or toilet paper made from 100 percent recycled paper. But the market is turbulent and with the increased discrediting of global-warming alarmism, the popularity of green brands has taken a measurable hit.  Today, with cover stories apologizing for American Islamophobia, being a compassionate corporation means offering halal frozen dinners and Islamic themed fabric patterns. In case it escapes the average consumer that these companies are brave and compassionate beyond measure, the AP story is peppered with ridiculous allusions to the “risks” these right-thinking businesses are incurring. It goes without saying that the planet was no more doomed to heat up than American Muslims are threatened by their neighbors. Under the guise of the great American tradition of equality, these companies are capitalizing on the great American tradition of PR. They got this story out of it, didn’t they?

The AP has a story about how American businesses are now looking to market products to Muslim consumers:

The worldwide market for Islamically permitted goods, called halal, has grown to more than half a billion dollars annually. Ritually slaughtered meat is a mainstay, but the halal industry is much broader, including foods and seasoning that omit alcohol, pork products and other forbidden ingredients, along with cosmetics, finance and clothing.

Corporations have been courting immigrant Muslim communities in Europe for several years. Nestle, for example, has about 20 factories in Europe with halal-certified production lines and advertises to Western Muslims through its marketing campaign called “Taste of Home.” Nestle plans to increase its ethnic and halal offerings in Europe in coming years.

In the United States, iconic American companies such as McDonald’s (which already has a popular halal menu overseas) and Wal-Mart have entered the halal arena. In August, the natural grocery giant Whole Foods began selling its first nationally distributed halal food product — frozen Indian entrees called Saffron Road.

There is no reason to think that Muslims, in themselves, represent a uniquely promising niche market. What’s happening here is subtler. It’s about branding, not selling. Companies want to be seen by all potential consumers as being socially aware, on the side of the good guys, and behind fashionable causes. Four years ago, with An Inconvenient Truth dominating the culture, this meant offering bottles with 20 percent less plastic or toilet paper made from 100 percent recycled paper. But the market is turbulent and with the increased discrediting of global-warming alarmism, the popularity of green brands has taken a measurable hit.  Today, with cover stories apologizing for American Islamophobia, being a compassionate corporation means offering halal frozen dinners and Islamic themed fabric patterns. In case it escapes the average consumer that these companies are brave and compassionate beyond measure, the AP story is peppered with ridiculous allusions to the “risks” these right-thinking businesses are incurring. It goes without saying that the planet was no more doomed to heat up than American Muslims are threatened by their neighbors. Under the guise of the great American tradition of equality, these companies are capitalizing on the great American tradition of PR. They got this story out of it, didn’t they?

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Good Thing Bush the Unilateralist Is Gone

Now the Democrats can focus on rebuilding all those broken international alliances. Here’s Barney Frank doing his part, earlier today: “And the liberal community’s got to focus more on Afghanistan, Iraq, NATO,” he said. “NATO is a great drain on our treasury and serves no strategic purpose.”

Does he know how to reassure our skittish friends or what?

Now the Democrats can focus on rebuilding all those broken international alliances. Here’s Barney Frank doing his part, earlier today: “And the liberal community’s got to focus more on Afghanistan, Iraq, NATO,” he said. “NATO is a great drain on our treasury and serves no strategic purpose.”

Does he know how to reassure our skittish friends or what?

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Maliki’s Confidence

I am not terribly surprised that Prime Minister Maliki says in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he doesn’t want U.S. troops in Iraq after 2010. He has never been particularly keen on the American military presence and he has long had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to control the country on their own. He was at best a reluctant supporter of the surge in 2007, and that mainly because of all the pressure applied to him by President Bush, General Petraeus, and Ambassador Crocker.

If he is anything Maliki is a staunch Iraqi nationalist, which suggests that he is right that an American departure will not simply allow Iran to dominate Iraq — but Iranian influence will certainly grow without an American counterbalance.

In fairness, Maliki’s faith in his country has been to some extent vindicated since 2008. The original plan for Iraq — as they stand up, we will stand down — was misguided as violence climbed from 2003 to 2007, but it has actually worked out pretty well since the success of the surge. But there are still 50,000 U.S. troops in the country. Will the Iraqi Security Forces get the support and training they need if the figure is down to zero, or close to it, by the end of 2010? And, more importantly, will the various sectarian groups avoid clashes in the absence of American peacekeepers? I don’t know the answer to those questions but I do know that the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad, Jim Jeffrey, is painting an overly rosey scenario with this claim reported in the Journal:

In a briefing for Western reporters last week, Mr. Jeffrey said that despite the requirement to pull out all American troops at the end of 2011, the framework document and other agreements between Baghdad and Washington contain “a very robust security agenda.”

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad will house a “significantly sized” office aimed at security cooperation, Mr. Jeffrey said, comprised of about 80 to 90 military personnel that would take over most of the current functions of the U.S. military in advising, assisting, training and equipping Iraqi forces.

Will 80-90 military personnel, plus an unspecified number of contractors, really be able to fill the gap left by the departure of 50,000 U.S. troops? Count me as skeptical. If such a wholesale departure of U.S. troops does occur, Iraq will face stiff challenges. It may very well surmount those obstacles, but I would be more confident in its future, as I have said before, if there were a substantial and longterm American presence just as there has been in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

I am not terribly surprised that Prime Minister Maliki says in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he doesn’t want U.S. troops in Iraq after 2010. He has never been particularly keen on the American military presence and he has long had exaggerated ideas about the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces to control the country on their own. He was at best a reluctant supporter of the surge in 2007, and that mainly because of all the pressure applied to him by President Bush, General Petraeus, and Ambassador Crocker.

If he is anything Maliki is a staunch Iraqi nationalist, which suggests that he is right that an American departure will not simply allow Iran to dominate Iraq — but Iranian influence will certainly grow without an American counterbalance.

In fairness, Maliki’s faith in his country has been to some extent vindicated since 2008. The original plan for Iraq — as they stand up, we will stand down — was misguided as violence climbed from 2003 to 2007, but it has actually worked out pretty well since the success of the surge. But there are still 50,000 U.S. troops in the country. Will the Iraqi Security Forces get the support and training they need if the figure is down to zero, or close to it, by the end of 2010? And, more importantly, will the various sectarian groups avoid clashes in the absence of American peacekeepers? I don’t know the answer to those questions but I do know that the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad, Jim Jeffrey, is painting an overly rosey scenario with this claim reported in the Journal:

In a briefing for Western reporters last week, Mr. Jeffrey said that despite the requirement to pull out all American troops at the end of 2011, the framework document and other agreements between Baghdad and Washington contain “a very robust security agenda.”

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad will house a “significantly sized” office aimed at security cooperation, Mr. Jeffrey said, comprised of about 80 to 90 military personnel that would take over most of the current functions of the U.S. military in advising, assisting, training and equipping Iraqi forces.

Will 80-90 military personnel, plus an unspecified number of contractors, really be able to fill the gap left by the departure of 50,000 U.S. troops? Count me as skeptical. If such a wholesale departure of U.S. troops does occur, Iraq will face stiff challenges. It may very well surmount those obstacles, but I would be more confident in its future, as I have said before, if there were a substantial and longterm American presence just as there has been in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

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Afternoon Commentary

Vladmir Putin’s political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted of money laundering and embezzlement yesterday in what many have denounced as a show-trial. The verdict came as no surprise to Khodorkovsky, who calmly read a book as the judge issued the decision. U.S. officials have offered some token condemnations of the conviction, but clearly the Obama administration is unwilling to take any action that might disrupt the “reset” process with Russia just days after the New START treaty was ratified by Congress.

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai may be brought up on treason charges, after WikiLeaks cables revealed that he privately asked the U.S. to keep sanctions against his country in place: “State media reports have said hardline supporters of the president, Robert Mugabe, want an official inquiry into Tsvangirai’s discussion of international sanctions with the US ambassador in Harare. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party said last week the government should draft a law that makes it a treasonable offence to call for sanctions.” The punishment for high treason is the death penalty in Zimbabwe. Tsvangarai, a longtime foe of the dictatorial Mugabe, has discovered that being inside his government may be as dangerous as being outside of it.

President Obama continues to use the argument that Guantanamo Bay is al Qaeda’s “number one recruitment tool.” But how often do terror leaders actually mention Gitmo? At the Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn scours the transcripts of the public speeches of al Qaeda leaders since 2009, and finds that very few refer to the detention facility.

The unwillingness of many libertarians to compromise ideological principles – even among themselves – prevents the movement from gaining any serious political power, writes Christopher Beam in New York magazine: “It’s no coincidence that most libertarians discover the philosophy as teenagers. At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. ‘Man’s first duty is to himself,’ says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. ‘His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.’ Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise.”

In case you needed a reminder on what a joke the UN is, Mary Katharine Ham rounded up the top 10 most “UN-believable” moments of 2010. Number 4: “The UN narrowly avoided putting Iran on its Commission on the Status of Women — a sort of sop to the Islamic Republic in the wake of its rejection for the Human Rights Council — thanks to loud push-back from the U.S. and human-rights groups. Perhaps stoning was a bridge too far. But it does now boast Saudi Arabia as a member of the commission. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, must always wear abaya in public, and are punished for being in public without a male relative as an escort.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas criticizes Israel as an obstacle to peace, and promises that an independent state of Palestine won’t allow a single Israeli within its borders. “We have frankly said, and always will say: If there is an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it,” Abbas told reporters on Saturday. (Cue crickets chirping from the left).

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg groundlessly worries about whether Israel will soon cease being a democracy: “Let’s just say, as a hypothetical, that one day in the near future, Prime Minister [Avigdor] Lieberman’s government (don’t laugh, it’s not funny) proposes a bill that echoes the recent call by some rabbis to discourage Jews from selling their homes to Arabs. Or let’s say that Lieberman’s government annexes swaths of the West Bank in order to take in Jewish settlements, but announces summarily that the Arabs in the annexed territory are in fact citizens of Jordan, and can vote there if they want to, but they won’t be voting in Israel. What happens then?” Say what you will about Lieberman but, actually, his position has always been that some Arab towns and villages that are part of Israel should be given to a Palestinian state while Jewish settlement blocs are annexed to Israel. That may not be what the Palestinians want or even what many Israelis want but the outcome Lieberman desires would be a democratic and Jewish state.

Vladmir Putin’s political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky was convicted of money laundering and embezzlement yesterday in what many have denounced as a show-trial. The verdict came as no surprise to Khodorkovsky, who calmly read a book as the judge issued the decision. U.S. officials have offered some token condemnations of the conviction, but clearly the Obama administration is unwilling to take any action that might disrupt the “reset” process with Russia just days after the New START treaty was ratified by Congress.

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangarai may be brought up on treason charges, after WikiLeaks cables revealed that he privately asked the U.S. to keep sanctions against his country in place: “State media reports have said hardline supporters of the president, Robert Mugabe, want an official inquiry into Tsvangirai’s discussion of international sanctions with the US ambassador in Harare. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party said last week the government should draft a law that makes it a treasonable offence to call for sanctions.” The punishment for high treason is the death penalty in Zimbabwe. Tsvangarai, a longtime foe of the dictatorial Mugabe, has discovered that being inside his government may be as dangerous as being outside of it.

President Obama continues to use the argument that Guantanamo Bay is al Qaeda’s “number one recruitment tool.” But how often do terror leaders actually mention Gitmo? At the Weekly Standard, Thomas Joscelyn scours the transcripts of the public speeches of al Qaeda leaders since 2009, and finds that very few refer to the detention facility.

The unwillingness of many libertarians to compromise ideological principles – even among themselves – prevents the movement from gaining any serious political power, writes Christopher Beam in New York magazine: “It’s no coincidence that most libertarians discover the philosophy as teenagers. At best, libertarianism means pursuing your own self-interest, as long as you don’t hurt anyone else. At worst, as in Ayn Rand’s teachings, it’s an explicit celebration of narcissism. ‘Man’s first duty is to himself,’ says the young architect Howard Roark in his climactic speech in The Fountainhead. ‘His moral obligation is to do what he wishes.’ Roark utters these words after dynamiting his own project, since his vision for the structure had been altered without his permission. The message: Never compromise.”

In case you needed a reminder on what a joke the UN is, Mary Katharine Ham rounded up the top 10 most “UN-believable” moments of 2010. Number 4: “The UN narrowly avoided putting Iran on its Commission on the Status of Women — a sort of sop to the Islamic Republic in the wake of its rejection for the Human Rights Council — thanks to loud push-back from the U.S. and human-rights groups. Perhaps stoning was a bridge too far. But it does now boast Saudi Arabia as a member of the commission. Women are not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia, must always wear abaya in public, and are punished for being in public without a male relative as an escort.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas criticizes Israel as an obstacle to peace, and promises that an independent state of Palestine won’t allow a single Israeli within its borders. “We have frankly said, and always will say: If there is an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, we won’t agree to the presence of one Israeli in it,” Abbas told reporters on Saturday. (Cue crickets chirping from the left).

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Goldberg groundlessly worries about whether Israel will soon cease being a democracy: “Let’s just say, as a hypothetical, that one day in the near future, Prime Minister [Avigdor] Lieberman’s government (don’t laugh, it’s not funny) proposes a bill that echoes the recent call by some rabbis to discourage Jews from selling their homes to Arabs. Or let’s say that Lieberman’s government annexes swaths of the West Bank in order to take in Jewish settlements, but announces summarily that the Arabs in the annexed territory are in fact citizens of Jordan, and can vote there if they want to, but they won’t be voting in Israel. What happens then?” Say what you will about Lieberman but, actually, his position has always been that some Arab towns and villages that are part of Israel should be given to a Palestinian state while Jewish settlement blocs are annexed to Israel. That may not be what the Palestinians want or even what many Israelis want but the outcome Lieberman desires would be a democratic and Jewish state.

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Chris Christie Makes His First Mistake

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has led a largely charmed life since taking office in January. In the year since he defeated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, he has become the darling of conservatives who applaud his take-no-prisoners style in dealing with all comers and become a hit on YouTube with videos showing him taking on the press and the teachers unions. Last week he was afforded a star turn on 60 Minutes, where he was able to lambast his predecessors and highlight the fact that contracts with public sector workers are bankrupting his state. Despite being a magnet for confrontation and controversy, Christie has avoided mistakes. That is, he did up until this past weekend when he left the state Sunday morning for a trip with his family to Disney World — just as a massive snowstorm was about to bury the state — and decided to stay there instead of coming home to direct the recovery.

Apparently, Christie has never heard of Tom Meskill, the Republican governor of Connecticut who decided to stay in Vermont on a ski vacation in 1974 while his state was slammed by a blizzard. Meskill never recovered from the hit to his reputation. And there are many other examples of political careers being buried in snow. But the statement issued by Christie’s office about his absence seemed not to realize that the governor had blundered:

Snow in the Northeast happens often, which is why the response was handled expeditiously between the acting governor, secretary of transportation, state police and governor’s staff with all the appropriate and necessary coordination. And like every other day, the governor was and continues to be in regular contact with his staff and cabinet officers.

While it’s true that “snow happens,” people expect their elected leaders to be on the scene and stay there during emergencies, whether it’s a snowstorm or a terror attack. While Christie’s “so what” attitude may be consistent with his general demeanor in office, it’s not enough to be on the phone coordinating things. The symbolism of sharing the experiences of other citizens and being on hand to show concern is an important aspect of leadership. Telling off your critics and not being intimidated by powerful groups is one thing. Acting as if the normal rules of political life don’t apply to you is quite another. It might be unfair to ask anyone to abandon what was, no doubt, a planned family vacation, just to be around during a snow emergency. But that comes with the territory when you choose to be governor of a state.

Christie also needs to take responsibility for the fact that his lieutenant governor was out of the state at the same time he was in Florida. While this was obviously a scheduling snafu, it left the state in the hands of the president of the State Senate, a Democrat, who behaved appropriately while in charge. New Jersey didn’t used to have a lieutenant governor but residents of the state are probably wondering why they bothered creating the post if they aren’t going to be around in the governor’s absence.

Fortunately for Christie, nothing terribly bad happened during the storm so perhaps this incident will not alter his image as a rising star. For all of the plaudits that have rightly come his way during the past year, we need to remember that this is Christie’s first major elected office and that he is, for all of his natural talent, still something of a novice. Rather than just arrogantly tossing this off as not his problem, he needs to recognize that he made a rookie mistake and that the next time he puts his personal agenda above his official responsibilities, he might not be so lucky.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has led a largely charmed life since taking office in January. In the year since he defeated incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine, he has become the darling of conservatives who applaud his take-no-prisoners style in dealing with all comers and become a hit on YouTube with videos showing him taking on the press and the teachers unions. Last week he was afforded a star turn on 60 Minutes, where he was able to lambast his predecessors and highlight the fact that contracts with public sector workers are bankrupting his state. Despite being a magnet for confrontation and controversy, Christie has avoided mistakes. That is, he did up until this past weekend when he left the state Sunday morning for a trip with his family to Disney World — just as a massive snowstorm was about to bury the state — and decided to stay there instead of coming home to direct the recovery.

Apparently, Christie has never heard of Tom Meskill, the Republican governor of Connecticut who decided to stay in Vermont on a ski vacation in 1974 while his state was slammed by a blizzard. Meskill never recovered from the hit to his reputation. And there are many other examples of political careers being buried in snow. But the statement issued by Christie’s office about his absence seemed not to realize that the governor had blundered:

Snow in the Northeast happens often, which is why the response was handled expeditiously between the acting governor, secretary of transportation, state police and governor’s staff with all the appropriate and necessary coordination. And like every other day, the governor was and continues to be in regular contact with his staff and cabinet officers.

While it’s true that “snow happens,” people expect their elected leaders to be on the scene and stay there during emergencies, whether it’s a snowstorm or a terror attack. While Christie’s “so what” attitude may be consistent with his general demeanor in office, it’s not enough to be on the phone coordinating things. The symbolism of sharing the experiences of other citizens and being on hand to show concern is an important aspect of leadership. Telling off your critics and not being intimidated by powerful groups is one thing. Acting as if the normal rules of political life don’t apply to you is quite another. It might be unfair to ask anyone to abandon what was, no doubt, a planned family vacation, just to be around during a snow emergency. But that comes with the territory when you choose to be governor of a state.

Christie also needs to take responsibility for the fact that his lieutenant governor was out of the state at the same time he was in Florida. While this was obviously a scheduling snafu, it left the state in the hands of the president of the State Senate, a Democrat, who behaved appropriately while in charge. New Jersey didn’t used to have a lieutenant governor but residents of the state are probably wondering why they bothered creating the post if they aren’t going to be around in the governor’s absence.

Fortunately for Christie, nothing terribly bad happened during the storm so perhaps this incident will not alter his image as a rising star. For all of the plaudits that have rightly come his way during the past year, we need to remember that this is Christie’s first major elected office and that he is, for all of his natural talent, still something of a novice. Rather than just arrogantly tossing this off as not his problem, he needs to recognize that he made a rookie mistake and that the next time he puts his personal agenda above his official responsibilities, he might not be so lucky.

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How Obama Could Louse Up the Obama-Comeback Story

We are going to hear, over the next few months, that Barack Obama has staged a dramatic comeback. The story line began last week, with his string of bill signings, and will continue when the fourth-quarter economic numbers show an improved growth rate (maybe up to 3 percent) with expectations of more to come in the first quarter of next year. He has now established, whether honestly or not, that he can work with Republicans, etc. etc. It will be the mainstream media meme to end all mainstream media memes.

That’s fine, and good for him, but here’s the truth: We also judge presidents based on how they react in unexpected and unanticipated situations — when the oil well explodes in the waters off Louisiana, when the Republican is elected in Massachusetts to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, when somebody announces something about apartment construction in East Jerusalem, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians take to the streets. Nothing that’s happened since the election should give us any reason to believe that the gut-instinct way Obama reacts to difficulties, setbacks, or disappointments has changed. He seems split between remaining almost affectless (as in the month or so post-Deepwater) and overly angry (his post-election press conference, and the press conference after the tax-cut deal in which he called Republicans hostage takers and Democrats sanctimonious).

Sure, when he gets his way, he’s all smiles and bonhomie, but that’s not going to be the hand he’s dealt next year either domestically or in foreign affairs. He managed to pull off a few weeks of last-minute triumphs that have made him feel good and that do set him up far better than failure would have done. But he’s going to have to fight against his own nature to cope with the kinds of troubles that will be coming at him in the next year, and usually, troubles only deepen people’s core personalities, they don’t alter them.

We are going to hear, over the next few months, that Barack Obama has staged a dramatic comeback. The story line began last week, with his string of bill signings, and will continue when the fourth-quarter economic numbers show an improved growth rate (maybe up to 3 percent) with expectations of more to come in the first quarter of next year. He has now established, whether honestly or not, that he can work with Republicans, etc. etc. It will be the mainstream media meme to end all mainstream media memes.

That’s fine, and good for him, but here’s the truth: We also judge presidents based on how they react in unexpected and unanticipated situations — when the oil well explodes in the waters off Louisiana, when the Republican is elected in Massachusetts to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, when somebody announces something about apartment construction in East Jerusalem, when hundreds of thousands of Iranians take to the streets. Nothing that’s happened since the election should give us any reason to believe that the gut-instinct way Obama reacts to difficulties, setbacks, or disappointments has changed. He seems split between remaining almost affectless (as in the month or so post-Deepwater) and overly angry (his post-election press conference, and the press conference after the tax-cut deal in which he called Republicans hostage takers and Democrats sanctimonious).

Sure, when he gets his way, he’s all smiles and bonhomie, but that’s not going to be the hand he’s dealt next year either domestically or in foreign affairs. He managed to pull off a few weeks of last-minute triumphs that have made him feel good and that do set him up far better than failure would have done. But he’s going to have to fight against his own nature to cope with the kinds of troubles that will be coming at him in the next year, and usually, troubles only deepen people’s core personalities, they don’t alter them.

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Iran: Calculus Changing for the “Force Option”?

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.

There’s more than one way to undermine America’s ability to conduct military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has been working hard on one of those methods over the last six months: denying us our use of regional military bases for the attack.

Of the bases we use in the Persian Gulf region, the most significant to an attack campaign are in the small kingdoms of Bahrain and Qatar, which host, respectively, our fleet headquarters and a very large multi-use facility at Al-Udeid Air Base. For security operations in the Strait of Hormuz, we also rely on the use of airfields and ports in Oman.  We have additional facilities in Kuwait and the UAE, but for waging an offensive campaign in any part of the Gulf region, the necessary bases are the ones in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.

These are the nations Iran has been concentrating on. The approaches are different for the different nations: in Bahrain, where a majority of the Arab population is Shia and the emir’s government is justifiably concerned about unrest fomented by Tehran, the Iranians have alternated between threats and cajolery. In August their intimidation campaign paid off: the Bahraini foreign minister announced that Bahrain would not allow its territory to be used as a base for offensive operations. Because the U.S. military doesn’t usually operate strike aircraft out of Bahrain, the impact of this is uncertain – but it could well jeopardize the U.S. Navy’s ability to command and supply its fleet during an air campaign.

With Qatar and Oman, Iran has sought bilateral defense-cooperation agreements. That approach introduces ambivalence in the host nation’s strategic orientation – and hence in the status and purpose of the U.S. forces on its territory. Last week, for example, Qatar hosted a visit by three Iranian warships and a military delegation. The unprecedented event concluded with an announcement of Qatar’s readiness for joint military exercises with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

And in August, Oman signed a defense-cooperation agreement with Iran. The pretext focused on by the media was the explosion that rocked a Japanese oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz on July 28, an event that remains unexplained. But the agreement, ratified by the Iranian parliament in December, portends joint defense drills, intelligence sharing, and cooperative administration of security in the Strait of Hormuz. This is no mere technicality: Oman has signed up to make difficult choices if Iran seeks to shut down the strait in response to a U.S. strike. The new agreement posits a definition of security in the strait that excludes U.S. oversight. At the very least, Oman is now more likely to deny the use of its airfields and port refueling facilities to American forces.

These consequences are not inevitable. But Washington’s latitude to “calibrate” force against Iran is effectively gone. If we hope to operate from bases in Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman now, we will have to be “all in”: we will almost certainly have to guarantee to our hosts – who would be breaking agreements by siding with us – that they won’t be caught in a protracted cycle of retaliation from a still-dangerous Iran. Perceiving that prospect themselves, they have started hedging their bets. We may validly perceive benefits in waiting to take action, but doing so always carries costs. This is one of them.

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More Progress in Afghanistan

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

The New York Times yesterday highlighted one of the more unsung good-news stories out of Afghanistan: the success that U.S. troops have been having in preventing catastrophic terrorist attacks in Kabul by the Haqqani Network. As reporter Eric Schmitt notes, the Haqqanis have been linked to the 2008 attacks against the Serena Hotel (which killed six) and Indian Embassy (which killed 58), but they “have not conducted a complicated attack in Kabul since a suicide bomber steered his explosives-laden Toyota minibus into an American convoy on May 18.”

U.S. commanders are naturally reluctant to publicly claim any kind of victory because they know that an attack could occur tomorrow but this is a testament to how effective the Joint Special Operations Command has been in targeting the Haqqani network with assistance of conventional American units. We should also not underestimate the contribution being made by Afghan security forces which police Kabul largely on their own. It has not gotten much attention but Gen. Petraeus has emphasized the need to secure the capital, where the largest concentration of the country’s population may be found, and then to expand the security zone outward. So far that plan is meeting with considerable success.

Which stands at odds with the UN findings, reported by the Wall Street Journal, which “show a marked deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan during this year’s fighting season.” I am at a loss to explain how the UN can claim that things are getting worse when not only is Kabul much safer but so also are most of the key districts in Kandahar and Helmand provinces targeted by coalition forces. Yes, there has been some deterioration in the north but it is nowhere as bad as the south had become–and it will never get as bad because the Taliban appeal only to Pashtuns and there are precious few in the north.

One partial explanation may be that the UN findings were made in October, thus ignoring at least two months of solid progress in the south. Another partial explanation may be that the UN is focusing on the uptick in fighting as coalition troops go into insurgent strong havens–rather than the result, which is less Taliban control. The early stages of any offensive always look messy; they certainly did in Iraq. And no doubt the UN was reporting in 2007 that the security situation was deteriorating in Iraq. But that was the price of breaking the insurgent grip. Something similar is happening now in Afghanistan. We can only hope the results will be as positive as they were in Iraq.

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Investing in Assange

Julian Assange, out of jail on bail in England and last seen, deliciously, complaining that someone was unfairly leaking details of his rape case in Sweden, has now made news for another reason: He has reportedly received $1.3 million from Random House and a British publishing company, Canongate, to write his memoirs. He has pledged to use the money “to keep Wikileaks afloat.” That means that Canongate (an independenet publisher) and Random House (a division of the German giant Bertelesmann) are helping to subsidize WikiLeaks, an organization that traffics in stolen documents designed to hurt American foreign policy and anyone who cooperates with American officials–including British and German officials.

Their actions stand in sharp distinction to more responsible corporations such as Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, Facebook and Twitter that have cut off WikiLeaks because they do not want to be associated with its irresponsible and possibly criminal activities.

Where is the outrage? These publishers deserve, at the very least, considerable opprobrium for throwing a lifeline to the odious Julian Assange, an Internet vandal pursuing, by his own admission, an anti-American agenda. They should certainly be in the sights of the Justice Department as it contemplates legal action against Assange. At the very least prosecutors should plan to freeze and seize any payments to him. I wonder if there might not be a civil suit possible by one of Assange’s victims–someone who has been hurt by the publication of these confidential communications–who might be able to go after the publishers for a substantial award? That may only be wishful thinking on my part but certainly it would be nice if these publishing houses did not get away with their amoral decision to try to make money out of this scandal and in the process to enrich one of the world’s most disgusting cyber-preeners and -saboteurs.

Julian Assange, out of jail on bail in England and last seen, deliciously, complaining that someone was unfairly leaking details of his rape case in Sweden, has now made news for another reason: He has reportedly received $1.3 million from Random House and a British publishing company, Canongate, to write his memoirs. He has pledged to use the money “to keep Wikileaks afloat.” That means that Canongate (an independenet publisher) and Random House (a division of the German giant Bertelesmann) are helping to subsidize WikiLeaks, an organization that traffics in stolen documents designed to hurt American foreign policy and anyone who cooperates with American officials–including British and German officials.

Their actions stand in sharp distinction to more responsible corporations such as Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, Facebook and Twitter that have cut off WikiLeaks because they do not want to be associated with its irresponsible and possibly criminal activities.

Where is the outrage? These publishers deserve, at the very least, considerable opprobrium for throwing a lifeline to the odious Julian Assange, an Internet vandal pursuing, by his own admission, an anti-American agenda. They should certainly be in the sights of the Justice Department as it contemplates legal action against Assange. At the very least prosecutors should plan to freeze and seize any payments to him. I wonder if there might not be a civil suit possible by one of Assange’s victims–someone who has been hurt by the publication of these confidential communications–who might be able to go after the publishers for a substantial award? That may only be wishful thinking on my part but certainly it would be nice if these publishing houses did not get away with their amoral decision to try to make money out of this scandal and in the process to enrich one of the world’s most disgusting cyber-preeners and -saboteurs.

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It’s Lucky for the Federal Government That It Isn’t a Corporation

If it were, a lot of people who work for it would be in serious trouble with . . . the federal government.

Corporations are required to have their books audited and certified by independent accountants as being complete and honest.  But the Government Accountability Office, whose job it is to do just that with the government’s books, “said it could not render an opinion on the 2010 consolidated financial statements of the federal government, because of widespread material internal control weaknesses, significant uncertainties, and other limitations, ” according to Accounting Today.

The main obstacles to a GAO opinion were: (1) serious  financial management problems at the Department of Defense that made its  financial statements unauditable, (2) the federal government’s inability to  adequately account for and reconcile intragovernmental activity and balances  between federal agencies, and (3) the federal government’s ineffective process  for preparing the consolidated financial statements.

If a corporation failed an audit like this, its credit lines would vanish, the NYSE would suspend trading in its securities, and the SEC would be down on it like a wolf on the fold. The CEO and CFO would be lucky if all they lost were their jobs. But when the government fails, it’s apparently of interest only to the accounting profession.

But the rest of the country had better get interested, and soon, because there’s an avalanche of government fiscal problems on the way. It’s starting at the bottom, but it’s going to very soon involve the top.

If it were, a lot of people who work for it would be in serious trouble with . . . the federal government.

Corporations are required to have their books audited and certified by independent accountants as being complete and honest.  But the Government Accountability Office, whose job it is to do just that with the government’s books, “said it could not render an opinion on the 2010 consolidated financial statements of the federal government, because of widespread material internal control weaknesses, significant uncertainties, and other limitations, ” according to Accounting Today.

The main obstacles to a GAO opinion were: (1) serious  financial management problems at the Department of Defense that made its  financial statements unauditable, (2) the federal government’s inability to  adequately account for and reconcile intragovernmental activity and balances  between federal agencies, and (3) the federal government’s ineffective process  for preparing the consolidated financial statements.

If a corporation failed an audit like this, its credit lines would vanish, the NYSE would suspend trading in its securities, and the SEC would be down on it like a wolf on the fold. The CEO and CFO would be lucky if all they lost were their jobs. But when the government fails, it’s apparently of interest only to the accounting profession.

But the rest of the country had better get interested, and soon, because there’s an avalanche of government fiscal problems on the way. It’s starting at the bottom, but it’s going to very soon involve the top.

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A Modest Middle East Proposal

In an article published in Al-Hayat, the Washington Institute’s David Schenker analyzes “President Obama’s First Two Years in the Middle East.” He says it is hard to avoid the conclusion Obama has been ineffective or worse: (1) the mishandling of Israeli-Palestinian talks produced a complete cessation of them; (2) the attempted dialogue with Iran and Syria produced predictable failures; and (3) the uncertain support for U.S. allies in Lebanon produced dramatic setbacks for them. Schenker reverses Samuel Johnson’s remark about remarriage and hopes the next two years produce a more realistic vision — the triumph of experience over hope.

Here is a realistic appraisal of the Middle East situation, followed by a modest proposal:

In the case of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, one cannot effect a two-state solution when (a) half the putative Palestinian state is run by a terrorist group allied with Iran, and (b) the other half is run by an unelected regime with no ability to make peace. In one half, there is no one to negotiate with; in the other, the one to negotiate with is unwilling to negotiate — and thus rejects seriatim offers of a state in favor of unrealistic demands for a “right of return,” indefensible borders, and the division of Israel’s capital on the 1949 armistice lines.

In the case of Iran, if crippling sanctions did not produce results in Cuba, Iraq, or North Korea, Swiss-cheese sanctions are not going to produce them in Iran. American allies will gravitate toward Iran (they already are), unless they soon hear a public commitment from the U.S. president to deal with the problem by whatever means necessary. Talks with Iran cannot succeed absent its belief such means will, if necessary, be used.

The time and place for the president to return to realism is a trip to Israel in the first part of 2011. Obama was invited by Netanyahu six months ago and pronounced himself “ready”; the continued failure to schedule it sends another unfortunate signal to the Middle East. The trip offers the opportunity to reassert in the Knesset the commitment to America’s democratic ally; to issue a long-overdue call for Arab states to “tear down those camps” and make peace possible; and to state, in a place where the statement will be noticed, that the U.S. will not participate indefinitely in unproductive talks nor rely only on sanctions if sanctions do not work.

If he wants to “reset” the situation in the Middle East, President Obama should take that trip and make that speech.

In an article published in Al-Hayat, the Washington Institute’s David Schenker analyzes “President Obama’s First Two Years in the Middle East.” He says it is hard to avoid the conclusion Obama has been ineffective or worse: (1) the mishandling of Israeli-Palestinian talks produced a complete cessation of them; (2) the attempted dialogue with Iran and Syria produced predictable failures; and (3) the uncertain support for U.S. allies in Lebanon produced dramatic setbacks for them. Schenker reverses Samuel Johnson’s remark about remarriage and hopes the next two years produce a more realistic vision — the triumph of experience over hope.

Here is a realistic appraisal of the Middle East situation, followed by a modest proposal:

In the case of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, one cannot effect a two-state solution when (a) half the putative Palestinian state is run by a terrorist group allied with Iran, and (b) the other half is run by an unelected regime with no ability to make peace. In one half, there is no one to negotiate with; in the other, the one to negotiate with is unwilling to negotiate — and thus rejects seriatim offers of a state in favor of unrealistic demands for a “right of return,” indefensible borders, and the division of Israel’s capital on the 1949 armistice lines.

In the case of Iran, if crippling sanctions did not produce results in Cuba, Iraq, or North Korea, Swiss-cheese sanctions are not going to produce them in Iran. American allies will gravitate toward Iran (they already are), unless they soon hear a public commitment from the U.S. president to deal with the problem by whatever means necessary. Talks with Iran cannot succeed absent its belief such means will, if necessary, be used.

The time and place for the president to return to realism is a trip to Israel in the first part of 2011. Obama was invited by Netanyahu six months ago and pronounced himself “ready”; the continued failure to schedule it sends another unfortunate signal to the Middle East. The trip offers the opportunity to reassert in the Knesset the commitment to America’s democratic ally; to issue a long-overdue call for Arab states to “tear down those camps” and make peace possible; and to state, in a place where the statement will be noticed, that the U.S. will not participate indefinitely in unproductive talks nor rely only on sanctions if sanctions do not work.

If he wants to “reset” the situation in the Middle East, President Obama should take that trip and make that speech.

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