Commentary Magazine


Posts For: November 6, 2011

Iran Threat Can’t Be Ignored or Delayed

With the International Atomic Energy Agency about to release a new report detailing the military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, the ground is slipping away underneath the feet of those claiming there is no reason for alarm about the issue. As a “news analysis” by David E. Sanger in today’s New York Times points ou,t recent developments undercut the arguments of those who say that a nuclear Iran can be contained. Even more troubling for Washington is, as Sanger writes, time may also be running out for covert efforts aimed at sabotaging Iran’s program.

Though Barack Obama has pledged that he will never allow Iran to go nuclear, the question today is what the U.S. is prepared to do about it even once the IAEA makes it clear there is no longer any doubt about Tehran’s intentions. That leaves Washington with a few unpalatable choices.

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With the International Atomic Energy Agency about to release a new report detailing the military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, the ground is slipping away underneath the feet of those claiming there is no reason for alarm about the issue. As a “news analysis” by David E. Sanger in today’s New York Times points ou,t recent developments undercut the arguments of those who say that a nuclear Iran can be contained. Even more troubling for Washington is, as Sanger writes, time may also be running out for covert efforts aimed at sabotaging Iran’s program.

Though Barack Obama has pledged that he will never allow Iran to go nuclear, the question today is what the U.S. is prepared to do about it even once the IAEA makes it clear there is no longer any doubt about Tehran’s intentions. That leaves Washington with a few unpalatable choices.

The tough international sanctions needed to stop Iran are certain to be blocked by Russia and China. The United States could enact more unilateral sanctions such as a ban on transactions with Iran’s central bank. But even that move, which should be done, won’t be enough. Sanger is right to note that the only measure that could actually force the ayatollahs’ hands is a ban on oil imports from Iran. But with good reason, he doubts that an administration already worried about a shaky economy will do anything that could raise oil prices in an election year.

The idea that covert activities such as the Stuxnet virus could solve the problem was also always an illusion. So, too, is the hope that assassinations of Iranian scientists could stop Iran. In both cases, such efforts may have delayed Iran’s progress, but the clock is still counting down toward the moment when the Islamist regime will be able to announce their first successful test of a nuclear device.

It is this dilemma that has given rise to another round of rumors about Israel taking military action to deal with this threat. No one believes for a minute Obama will ever use force to stop Iran even if he has promised that it would not get a bomb on his watch. And with Iran taking defensive measures that will make it harder in the future for their nuclear facilities to be attacked, the pressure to act sooner rather than later is clear. Iranian actions, such as the Washington terrorist plot, also undermine the notion that they are a stable regime that can be successfully contained.

Both Republicans and Democrats have paid lip service to the idea of stopping Iran from getting nukes. But in the coming 12 months, as Americans prepare to choose a president in an election in which economic issues will predominate, the country may be ignoring a critical threat that cannot be delayed or ignored much longer.

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Post-U.S. Iraq Narrative: Will Anyone Care?

With the last American troops being pulled out of Iraq by the end of the year, the consequences of President Obama’s decision will soon be apparent. As the New York Times reports on its front page this morning, there is every expectation the New Year will bring with it a surge of attacks from al-Qaeda. The absence of U.S. forces will embolden the terrorists as well as make the tribal forces that allied themselves with us as a result of the surge wonder whether it is time to switch sides again.

Military analysts such as our Max Boot have discussed this issue in detail. But the administration has proved impervious to such arguments and is following through on its vow to bug out of Iraq. While we should not entirely despair of the ability of the fledgling democracy that America has helped to install in Iraq to defend itself, the possibility now exists for Obama to have squandered all the hard-won gains those U.S. troops won since the surge turned the tide in that war. But the question we must ask is whether or not anyone here will care if Obama’s fecklessness snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. No matter what horrors await the Iraqis, Obama may be counting on the indifference of Americans to what happens there once the last American soldier leaves.

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With the last American troops being pulled out of Iraq by the end of the year, the consequences of President Obama’s decision will soon be apparent. As the New York Times reports on its front page this morning, there is every expectation the New Year will bring with it a surge of attacks from al-Qaeda. The absence of U.S. forces will embolden the terrorists as well as make the tribal forces that allied themselves with us as a result of the surge wonder whether it is time to switch sides again.

Military analysts such as our Max Boot have discussed this issue in detail. But the administration has proved impervious to such arguments and is following through on its vow to bug out of Iraq. While we should not entirely despair of the ability of the fledgling democracy that America has helped to install in Iraq to defend itself, the possibility now exists for Obama to have squandered all the hard-won gains those U.S. troops won since the surge turned the tide in that war. But the question we must ask is whether or not anyone here will care if Obama’s fecklessness snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. No matter what horrors await the Iraqis, Obama may be counting on the indifference of Americans to what happens there once the last American soldier leaves.

The problem facing Iraq’s democratic leaders hoping to maintain U.S. support for their efforts goes deeper than American disillusionment with the corruption and incompetence in Baghdad that is a staple of Western reporting from the country. The fact that the current government is clearly better than the Saddam Hussein dictatorship or what would follow an al-Qaeda victory doesn’t seem to worry most Americans. The equanimity with which the possibility of catastrophe in Iraq after the pullout is received here is due in large measure to the fact the narrative of the Iraq war in the minds of many, if not most, Americans seems frozen in 2006 at the height of the insurgency before the surge.

At that time, most Americans believed the war in Iraq was largely lost. That was an exaggeration, but it stuck, and even now it is not uncommon to hear people speak of the conflict as if the last five years had never happened. Despite the subsequent reversal of fortune that the surge accomplished, the notion of Iraq as an American victory and not a fiasco has yet to penetrate the popular imagination of our culture. So if the pullout allows the situation there to disintegrate, a lot of Americans are going to think it was inevitable anyway and not worry too much about it.

Nor can we expect most Americans to care very much about the fate of the people we leave behind. This was the tragedy of Vietnam. For most of us that war ended when the last helicopter took off from the embassy roof in Saigon. Few raised an eyebrow when the victorious communists took revenge on the allies we abandoned. The re-education camps and the deaths, even the boat people, went largely unnoticed in the United States. The only thing about that country that interested most Americans after 1975 was the possibility that some U.S. soldiers had been left behind, spawning a wave of conspiracy theories and popular entertainment based on that notion.

Iraqis should expect the same thing once the last American leaves their country. If the worst happens, conservatives will blame Obama, but liberals will say that the whole conflict was unnecessary and wrongly insist that it was all a matter of Bush lying. But the message to Iraqis is clear. Once we leave, you’re on your own.

For the United States to allow Iraq to go down the drain after all we’ve done there would be a tragedy. But it will also signal Afghans and anyone else that is paying attention that being a U.S. ally is a bad long-term investment. Though Americans may not care what happens to Iraqis after we leave, that’s a problem that will haunt us in the decades to come.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: James Q. Wilson

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

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Many years ago, I confidently published an essay in which I made a prediction. It was hopelessly, embarrassingly wrong. Since then I have embraced the view that social scientists should never predict; leave that job to pundits. If you doubt me, make a list of the economists who predicted the 2008 recession, political scientists who predicted the Arab Spring, or criminologists who said that this recession would be accompanied by falling crime rates. A few names may make the list, but very few.

Historians may do a better job than other scholars in making generalizations, but that is because the good ones never predict, they generalize from past experiences. Those experiences suggest that this country has been extraordinarily lucky, and they hint at some reasons for that good fortune: an adaptable government, an optimistic national character—and extraordinary good fortune (we won the Revolutionary War against a superior enemy, defeated the Confederacy despite a series of terrible northern generals, overcame the Great Depression because the Second World War increased the demand for goods and services, sent transports to confront Germany just at the time when the Nazi code had been broken, confronted an armed Japan that made every conceivable tactical mistake, and defeated Saddam Hussein by discovering that he was an incompetent military leader). We had some bad luck as well (racism and Vietnam, for example), but the good outweighed it. Read More

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

Many years ago, I confidently published an essay in which I made a prediction. It was hopelessly, embarrassingly wrong. Since then I have embraced the view that social scientists should never predict; leave that job to pundits. If you doubt me, make a list of the economists who predicted the 2008 recession, political scientists who predicted the Arab Spring, or criminologists who said that this recession would be accompanied by falling crime rates. A few names may make the list, but very few.

Historians may do a better job than other scholars in making generalizations, but that is because the good ones never predict, they generalize from past experiences. Those experiences suggest that this country has been extraordinarily lucky, and they hint at some reasons for that good fortune: an adaptable government, an optimistic national character—and extraordinary good fortune (we won the Revolutionary War against a superior enemy, defeated the Confederacy despite a series of terrible northern generals, overcame the Great Depression because the Second World War increased the demand for goods and services, sent transports to confront Germany just at the time when the Nazi code had been broken, confronted an armed Japan that made every conceivable tactical mistake, and defeated Saddam Hussein by discovering that he was an incompetent military leader). We had some bad luck as well (racism and Vietnam, for example), but the good outweighed it.

It is easy to understand why Commentary would ask whether one is optimistic or pessimistic. We remain in the depths of a major recession, the nation’s deficit grew by more than $4 trillion in the first three years of the current administration, our military faces unjustified cuts in its budget, many people who want to vote against President Obama feel they lack a suitable Republican alternative, the federal government (except for the military) lacks any public confidence, and most Americans think the country is on the wrong track.

It would be easy to be grumpy, but it also would not be hard to be optimistic. We face serious problems, but this recession like all before it will end, something will probably be done to reduce the growth in the deficit, international reality will require the maintenance of a serious military force, and somebody will run against Obama and may well defeat him. Dislike of government institutions will no doubt persist (but without any reduction in American patriotism), and the meaning of answers to the poll question about whether the country is on the right track will remain, as it is now, obscure. Take your pick.

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James Q. Wilson teaches at Pepperdine University and is the coauthor ofAmerican Government: Institutions and Policies (Wadsworth).

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Moore’s “Deep Interest” in Truth

The filmmaker Michael Moore spoke at an Occupy Denver event. He was also in Denver to promote a book on his life, from which he presumably receives proceeds. But what Moore said to the crowd was less interesting than what he said to the press. When asked by a local Denver reporter about his net worth and whether he was part of the so-called one percent, Moore merely responded, “I do very well.”

When the reporter then asked Moore how he was using his purported $50 million to assist the Occupy movement, Moore became aggressive and angry.  “You’re just punk media, is all you are,” Moore said. “You lie. You lie to people. Stop lying. Stop lying. Just don’t lie, okay?”

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The filmmaker Michael Moore spoke at an Occupy Denver event. He was also in Denver to promote a book on his life, from which he presumably receives proceeds. But what Moore said to the crowd was less interesting than what he said to the press. When asked by a local Denver reporter about his net worth and whether he was part of the so-called one percent, Moore merely responded, “I do very well.”

When the reporter then asked Moore how he was using his purported $50 million to assist the Occupy movement, Moore became aggressive and angry.  “You’re just punk media, is all you are,” Moore said. “You lie. You lie to people. Stop lying. Stop lying. Just don’t lie, okay?”

Moore’s deep interest in truth is both touching and rather recent. After all, last week I showed that Michael Moore himself lied repeatedly to CNN’s Piers Morgan about his wealth and station in life. He insisted he wasn’t part of the one percent for whom he has such deep contempt. In fact, Moore is much closer to being in the top one percent of the top one percent. He’s a very rich man — and he’s become rich off the system for which he has a burning hatred.

Now Moore, who has been outed as a liar, is himself preaching against lying.

Can a Michael Moore-led campaign against obesity be far behind?

 

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Asking Cain About Accuser Isn’t Unethical

Last night after his so-called Lincoln-Douglas debate with Newt Gingrich (unlike the “rail splitter” and the “little giant”) during which they disagreed about very little, reporters asked Herman Cain about the public statement of one of the women who alleged that he harassed them while he was CEO of the National Restaurant Association. His response was to say, “Don’t go there.” Later he stopped and told them to read “the other accounts” and that he was “back on message.” After that, his campaign manager Mark Block, who earlier in the week made scurrilous and unsubstantiated allegations about the Perry campaign being responsible for the story coming out, scolded journalists about whether they knew the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Block’s attempt to brand the entire inquiry as unethical is geared toward appealing to the sentiments of conservatives who view the media as a hostile liberal entity that cannot be trusted on any issue. But those who bother to read the Code, would easily see there was nothing unethical about the original Politico story that broke the news. Nor is there anything unethical about asking Cain to respond to the public statement released by one of the women who charged him harassment alleging that his version of events was false. But you don’t have to be a critic of Cain to know that there is something fishy about a campaign that refuses to address these questions and chooses instead to attack the press.

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Last night after his so-called Lincoln-Douglas debate with Newt Gingrich (unlike the “rail splitter” and the “little giant”) during which they disagreed about very little, reporters asked Herman Cain about the public statement of one of the women who alleged that he harassed them while he was CEO of the National Restaurant Association. His response was to say, “Don’t go there.” Later he stopped and told them to read “the other accounts” and that he was “back on message.” After that, his campaign manager Mark Block, who earlier in the week made scurrilous and unsubstantiated allegations about the Perry campaign being responsible for the story coming out, scolded journalists about whether they knew the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Block’s attempt to brand the entire inquiry as unethical is geared toward appealing to the sentiments of conservatives who view the media as a hostile liberal entity that cannot be trusted on any issue. But those who bother to read the Code, would easily see there was nothing unethical about the original Politico story that broke the news. Nor is there anything unethical about asking Cain to respond to the public statement released by one of the women who charged him harassment alleging that his version of events was false. But you don’t have to be a critic of Cain to know that there is something fishy about a campaign that refuses to address these questions and chooses instead to attack the press.

Indeed, as subsequent developments proved, Politico’s contention that Cain was the subject of formal complaints of sexual harassment turned out to be true, as even the candidate was forced to admit. Other stories have also surfaced alleging misbehavior on his part. We don’t know who is telling the truth here, and it is possible Cain is completely innocent. But the paranoid manner in which Cain and his minion Block have behaved in the past week doesn’t enhance their credibility. To imagine a Cain White House dealing with the press in this manner is to envision a Republican version of the thin-skinned arrogance that has characterized Barack Obama’s presidency.

Conservatives are understandably inclined to believe the worst of the press. But with the release of the statement from one of his accusers, this is now more than “gossip.” The issue here is real, and to ask voters to pretend these allegations don’t exist or to blame reporters for writing about them is tantamount to demanding they demonstrate a bias for Cain that they would not want them to apply to liberal politicians. Many of the same grass roots conservatives were cheering on those reporters who pursued the story of Bill Clinton’s harassment of women. For them to say the same standard doesn’t apply to a former Washington lobbyist like Cain is pure hypocrisy.

Much has been made over the fact that Cain’s poll numbers have not declined over the course of the last week due to the scandal. Like his unflappable personality, his support has remained steady despite his appalling gaffes and inability to defend his 9-9-9-tax plan. Those who have decided to back him appear to be loyal and will stick with him through thick and thin.

But the odds of his poll numbers rising beyond their current level in the low 20s are slim and none. Few who hadn’t already committed to Cain are likely to do so in the wake of this scandal and the bizarre, even Nixonian or Obamaesque manner in which his campaign has responded to it. Cain’s support may hold steady for a while, but his already slim chances of winning the nomination have been lowered considerably by these revelations and Cain’s response.

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U.S. Policy and Democratic Transitions in the Mideast

Once upon a time, in what seems to be a different world, the U.S. actually engaged in political warfare. Whether it was in the 1950s, when the CIA supported Christian Democratic parties in Europe, or in the 1980s, when the CIA helped to supply Solidarity, the U.S. used covert action to promote our political interests—in that case, helping to topple Communism. Since the end of the Cold War, political warfare has largely morphed into more toothless “democracy promotion.” The result is what we see today in Egypt. As Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports:

U.S. assistance to Egypt is helping political parties of all ideologies prepare for the upcoming elections — even Islamic parties that may have anti-Western agendas.

“We don’t do party support. What we do is party training…. And we do it to whoever comes,” William Taylor, the State Department’s director of its new office for Middle East Transitions, said in a briefing with reporters today. “Sometimes, Islamist parties show up, sometimes they don’t. But it has been provided on a nonpartisan basis, not to individual parties.”

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Once upon a time, in what seems to be a different world, the U.S. actually engaged in political warfare. Whether it was in the 1950s, when the CIA supported Christian Democratic parties in Europe, or in the 1980s, when the CIA helped to supply Solidarity, the U.S. used covert action to promote our political interests—in that case, helping to topple Communism. Since the end of the Cold War, political warfare has largely morphed into more toothless “democracy promotion.” The result is what we see today in Egypt. As Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reports:

U.S. assistance to Egypt is helping political parties of all ideologies prepare for the upcoming elections — even Islamic parties that may have anti-Western agendas.

“We don’t do party support. What we do is party training…. And we do it to whoever comes,” William Taylor, the State Department’s director of its new office for Middle East Transitions, said in a briefing with reporters today. “Sometimes, Islamist parties show up, sometimes they don’t. But it has been provided on a nonpartisan basis, not to individual parties.”

This is noble, selfless—and utterly daft. Why are we helping anti-American parties? So that we can preserve a reputation for fairness? Surely Islamists will give us no credit for our help; more likely it will only increase their contempt for us—they will decide we are too stupid to know who our enemies are. Instead of helping all sides, we should be helping our side—both covertly and overtly. Other actors—whether Saudi Arabia, Qatar or Iran—are not shy about picking horses in the political process; we need to do the same if we are to shape the Arab Spring into a movement that will flower into full democracy.

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Optimistic or Pessimistic About America: John Yoo

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

Optimism is the very lodestar of the American experiment. We are a nation of immigrants who left behind everyone and everything we knew to take a chance for a better future. Pessimists stayed home in Europe or Asia, pulled by a history of thousands of years of living in one place as one people. Those who became Americans leapt toward a dynamic society that rewards individual talent and hard work—not social class, religion, racial differences, or proximity to government power.

We as Americans have optimism programmed into our DNA. Where others might see cause for doubt, we see opportunity. Even as the economy remains mired in recession, entrepreneurs continue to conjure forth inventions that bring the knowledge of the Library of Congress to our fingertips, cure once deadly diseases, and deliver almost any product to our doorstep in days. Even as our elected leaders overreacted to the downturn with massive spending programs and the nationalization of financial firms, car companies, and the health-care sector, a great political movement rose up to shake the establishment with demands for a return to frugality and modesty. Even as our armed forces have encountered stiff resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have killed off the leadership of al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden), midwifed an Arab democracy in the center of the Middle East, and hastened the overthrow of despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Despite the rise of China and the return of Russia, the United States protects the peace among the great powers, keeps the channels of global commerce open, and spreads the freedom to think and worship to distant lands. Read More

The following is from our November issue. Forty-one symposium contributors were asked to respond to the question: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s future?

_____________

Optimism is the very lodestar of the American experiment. We are a nation of immigrants who left behind everyone and everything we knew to take a chance for a better future. Pessimists stayed home in Europe or Asia, pulled by a history of thousands of years of living in one place as one people. Those who became Americans leapt toward a dynamic society that rewards individual talent and hard work—not social class, religion, racial differences, or proximity to government power.

We as Americans have optimism programmed into our DNA. Where others might see cause for doubt, we see opportunity. Even as the economy remains mired in recession, entrepreneurs continue to conjure forth inventions that bring the knowledge of the Library of Congress to our fingertips, cure once deadly diseases, and deliver almost any product to our doorstep in days. Even as our elected leaders overreacted to the downturn with massive spending programs and the nationalization of financial firms, car companies, and the health-care sector, a great political movement rose up to shake the establishment with demands for a return to frugality and modesty. Even as our armed forces have encountered stiff resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have killed off the leadership of al Qaeda (including Osama bin Laden), midwifed an Arab democracy in the center of the Middle East, and hastened the overthrow of despots in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Despite the rise of China and the return of Russia, the United States protects the peace among the great powers, keeps the channels of global commerce open, and spreads the freedom to think and worship to distant lands.

It is harder still not to be an optimist during this, the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. When president-elect Abraham Lincoln left his home of Springfield, Illinois, for Washington, D.C., seven Southern states had already seceded. Acknowledging that he “had a task before [him] greater than that which rested upon Washington,” Lincoln still declared, with the “assistance [of God], I can not fail” and called upon a thousand well-wishers to “let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.” Four years later, after a bloody civil war that cost 600,000 American lives, Lincoln was still an optimist. At his second inaugural, Lincoln could report his “high hope for the future,” though he would venture “no prediction” on the war’s final outcome. Still, he finished with an optimistic vision of the nation’s character:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

After the most devastating war in our nation’s history, Lincoln could foresee the national greatness that lay just beyond the horizon. With this example before us, we the living can overcome temporary setbacks to continue the American experiment.

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John Yoo is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is coeditor of Confronting Terror (Encounter).

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