Commentary Magazine


Posts For: September 14, 2012

What’s Wrong with U.S. Intelligence?

Shortly before protestors poured into the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to put the final nail into the coffin of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the headline on the Presidential Daily Brief produced by the Central Intelligence Agency for the president was, according to word among administration officials, something to the effect of “Tunisian Unrest Unlikely to Spread to Egypt.”

It is no secret that the Arab Spring uprisings took not only the United States by surprise, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamists as well. The Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum but, in recent days, the radicals appear to be unfurling a deliberate plan to whip up fervor and seize the initiative. The Bolsheviks are now supplanting the Mensheviks. This, too, appears to have caught the CIA and many of our diplomats stationed in the Middle East by surprise.  It shouldn’t have: During the Iranian crisis 33-years ago, radicals seized the US Embassy as much to rally the hardliners for domestic reasons as they did out of animus toward the United States.

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Shortly before protestors poured into the streets of Cairo’s Tahrir Square to put the final nail into the coffin of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the headline on the Presidential Daily Brief produced by the Central Intelligence Agency for the president was, according to word among administration officials, something to the effect of “Tunisian Unrest Unlikely to Spread to Egypt.”

It is no secret that the Arab Spring uprisings took not only the United States by surprise, but also the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamists as well. The Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum but, in recent days, the radicals appear to be unfurling a deliberate plan to whip up fervor and seize the initiative. The Bolsheviks are now supplanting the Mensheviks. This, too, appears to have caught the CIA and many of our diplomats stationed in the Middle East by surprise.  It shouldn’t have: During the Iranian crisis 33-years ago, radicals seized the US Embassy as much to rally the hardliners for domestic reasons as they did out of animus toward the United States.

The notion that this was a spontaneous reaction to a provocative film is inane. After all, someone dubbed that film and distributed it widely with nary a U.S. official aware. Facebook was used to inflame tensions and call for rallies. Perhaps, once again, diplomats are spending too much time engaging with high level officials to the detriment of spending time on the street, not with intellectuals, but taking the pulse of more disgruntled segments of society. A recent traveler to Tunisia told me a few days ago that many young people there were listless, just waiting for something to happen.

In subsequent days, the contradictions about whether the United States had warning ahead of time will get resolved. It would be tragic if, more than a decade after 9/11, some in the administration had foreknowledge but could not get that information to the right people in time.

Congress was correct to investigate the intelligence failures that colored the George W. Bush administration decision to intervene in Iraq. Intelligence failures under the Obama administration may be different, but their implications could be just as profound. Perhaps it is time—in a serious, non-partisan way—to examine why it is that the CIA and State Department continue to be caught so flat-footed in the Arab world.

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WH Asks YouTube to Pull Anti-Islam Video

The White House will obviously argue that it’s not asking YouTube to censor the anti-Islam video per say, but simply asking it to review its policies and see if the video can be construed as a terms of use violation. But that’s a distinction without a difference. “Hey, can you remove this video?” is pretty much undistinguishable from “Hey, can you remove this video as a violation of your terms of services?” — after all, it’s not like the White House can force YouTube to pull the film, and whatever the website does is its own prerogative:

The White House has asked YouTube to review an anti-Muslim film posted to the site that has been blamed for igniting the violent protests this week in the Middle East.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House has “reached out to YouTube to call the video to their attention and ask them to review whether it violates their terms of use.”

WaPo reports that YouTube already said the video didn’t violate its terms of services on Wednesday, but it has restricted access to the film in Libya and Egypt.

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The White House will obviously argue that it’s not asking YouTube to censor the anti-Islam video per say, but simply asking it to review its policies and see if the video can be construed as a terms of use violation. But that’s a distinction without a difference. “Hey, can you remove this video?” is pretty much undistinguishable from “Hey, can you remove this video as a violation of your terms of services?” — after all, it’s not like the White House can force YouTube to pull the film, and whatever the website does is its own prerogative:

The White House has asked YouTube to review an anti-Muslim film posted to the site that has been blamed for igniting the violent protests this week in the Middle East.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the White House has “reached out to YouTube to call the video to their attention and ask them to review whether it violates their terms of use.”

WaPo reports that YouTube already said the video didn’t violate its terms of services on Wednesday, but it has restricted access to the film in Libya and Egypt.

The spokesperson added, however, that the site restricted access in Libya and Egypt because of the unrest. “We work hard to create a community everyone can enjoy and which also enables people to express different opinions. This can be a challenge because what’s OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere,” the spokesperson said.

Earlier today, White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated that the administration found the video “offensive and reprehensible and disgusting,” but added, “we cannot and will not squelch freedom of expression in this country.” When a reporter asked whether the White House ever asked YouTube to remove the video, he said that he wasn’t sure and punted on the question.

If the White House believes the video is “freedom of expression” that it “cannot and will not squelch,” then why is it asking YouTube to see if it can remove the film from its website?

This is a result of the dangerous precedent the Obama administration has set. Last year, administration officials personally petitioned a fringe pastor in Florida not to carry out a Koran burning they said would endanger our troops. There was a small public outcry, but not much — probably because many Americans are instinctively uncomfortable with book-burnings, even if they are protected expression.

But now the administration’s efforts to suppress free speech have spread to a YouTube video. A video that is admittedly moronic and offensive, but certainly no more so than thousands of other clips on the website.

Where does this lead? The list of things that offend radical Islamists is long. What happens next time fanatics riot and murder innocents over a film or a picture or a book? Is the White House going to make it a policy to condemn any mockery of Islam that radical clerics exploit to gin up outrage across the Muslim world?

By trying to get the video pulled, the White House isn’t just acknowledging that the film is offensive. It’s taking the posture that the film is illegitimate expression because it offends — and that violent rioting is a logical response to simply viewing the film. That U.S. policy has the potential to become a dangerous tool in the hands of Islamists.

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Shakil Afridi: The Man We Left Behind

Lost in the headlines out of the Middle East was this amazing interview Fox News conducted with Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani medical doctor who helped the United States confirm Osama bin Laden’s compound. Even though Pakistani authorities said they were unaware of bin Laden’s residence in Abbottabad, a town that hosts Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, they arrested Afridi, accusing him of treason. How one can commit treason without betraying state secrets is something that someone ought to ask the Pakistani government.

At any rate, after his arrest, Afridi says he was interrogated and tortured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. He relates:

“They said ‘The Americans are our worst enemies, worse than the Indians,’” Afridi, who spoke from inside Peshawar Central Jail, said as he recalled the brutal interrogation and torture he suffered after he was initially detained. “I tried to argue that America was Pakistan’s biggest supporter – billions and billions of dollars in aid, social and military assistance — but all they said was, ‘These are our worst enemies. You helped our enemies….’ It is now indisputable that militancy in Pakistan is supported by the ISI […] Pakistan’s fight against militancy is bogus. It’s just to extract money from America,” Afridi said, referring to the $23 billion Pakistan has received largely in military aid since 9/11.

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Lost in the headlines out of the Middle East was this amazing interview Fox News conducted with Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani medical doctor who helped the United States confirm Osama bin Laden’s compound. Even though Pakistani authorities said they were unaware of bin Laden’s residence in Abbottabad, a town that hosts Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point, they arrested Afridi, accusing him of treason. How one can commit treason without betraying state secrets is something that someone ought to ask the Pakistani government.

At any rate, after his arrest, Afridi says he was interrogated and tortured by the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. He relates:

“They said ‘The Americans are our worst enemies, worse than the Indians,’” Afridi, who spoke from inside Peshawar Central Jail, said as he recalled the brutal interrogation and torture he suffered after he was initially detained. “I tried to argue that America was Pakistan’s biggest supporter – billions and billions of dollars in aid, social and military assistance — but all they said was, ‘These are our worst enemies. You helped our enemies….’ It is now indisputable that militancy in Pakistan is supported by the ISI […] Pakistan’s fight against militancy is bogus. It’s just to extract money from America,” Afridi said, referring to the $23 billion Pakistan has received largely in military aid since 9/11.

The Obama administration continues to work with Pakistan as a partner, and U.S. officials continue to consult with the ISI, even as that organization funds terrorist groups like the Haqqani network. Once again, it appears, Obama does not fully conceive the nature of U.S. enemies, the ideology that motivates them, and the idea that money and concessions cannot buy them off.

As for Afridi, let us hope that one day, a U.S. president will welcome him to the White House and pin upon him the Medal of Freedom he so richly deserves.

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Carney: Anti-Islam Video Completely to Blame for ‘Unrest’

White House spokesman Jay Carney just held a press briefing that was equal parts absurd and horrifying. Even as American embassies are mobbed by radicals, and our flags are torched and replaced with Islamist banners, Carney continued to repeat — almost as if he were trying to convince himself — that the riots are purely a reaction to a low-budget anti-Islam Youtube film. Nothing to do with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Nothing to do with anti-American sentiment. Nothing to do with support for al-Qaeda or Islamic terrorism.

“Let’s be clear: these protests were in reaction to a video that had spread to the region,” said Carney. “We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack.”

“The unrest we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that many Muslims find offensive,” added Carney. “It is not a response to 9/11.”

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White House spokesman Jay Carney just held a press briefing that was equal parts absurd and horrifying. Even as American embassies are mobbed by radicals, and our flags are torched and replaced with Islamist banners, Carney continued to repeat — almost as if he were trying to convince himself — that the riots are purely a reaction to a low-budget anti-Islam Youtube film. Nothing to do with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Nothing to do with anti-American sentiment. Nothing to do with support for al-Qaeda or Islamic terrorism.

“Let’s be clear: these protests were in reaction to a video that had spread to the region,” said Carney. “We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack.”

“The unrest we’ve seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that many Muslims find offensive,” added Carney. “It is not a response to 9/11.”

And it continued on like that for the rest of the briefing:

“The unrest around the region has been in response to the video.”

“What we have seen is unrest around the region in response to a video that Muslims find offensive.”

“We are working to ensure that our diplomatic personnel and our diplomatic facilities are secure as we deal with the response to this video, which we believe is offensive and disgusting.”

“The cause of the unrest was a video. And that continues today, as you know, as we anticipated. And it may continue for some time.”

“The reason why there’s unrest is because of the film. This is in response to the film… this is not a film that the United States government had anything to do with. We reject its message and its contents we find it both reprehensible.”

“My point was simply that we are responding to and coping with and dealing with…unrest brought about by this offensive video.”

“The unrest we’ve seen is a reaction to a film with which the U.S. government has had no involvement, which we’ve denounced as offensive. As I said yesterday, it can be difficult to see in some countries why the U.S. can’t simply eliminate this expression…but as you know…it’s one of our fundamental principles.”

“We find the video reprehensible and disgusting…This video has nothing to do, has nothing to do with the American government. It has nothing to do with who we are or what we believe.”

Even if the video fueled the protests, how did a low-budget Youtube film that nobody had heard of before last week get dubbed into Arabic and distributed around Muslim countries? The answer is fanatical Islamist leaders who used the film to incite outrage on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks.

And if you believe the video was the sole drive behind the protests, then why were U.S. flags replaced with the flags of al-Qaeda? Why were terrorists groups reportedly involved in organizing the protests weeks in advance — before the film even came to light?

The Obama administration does not want to talk about terrorism, because it wants to pretend it defeated terrorism by killing Osama bin Laden. They don’t want to mention al-Qaeda, unless of course it’s in the context of a drone our military dropped on one of its leaders. But as the embassy attacks illustrate, the Islamic terror threat has not disappeared. It hasn’t been vanquished by the lofty speeches of a Nobel Peace Prize-winning president, or eradicated by his policy of covert assassinations. The fact that the White House hasn’t seemed to grasp this is what made today’s briefing so tone-deaf, and so startling.

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Get Ready for Obama’s Great Recession

As John Steele Gordon rightly points out, Ben Bernanke’s latest attempt to bail out a failing economy by manipulating interest rates isn’t likely to be met with any more success than his first two tries. Some Democrats may think the Federal Reserve’s decision to print more money will inflate the economy enough to get President Obama re-elected. The assumption is that it will cause a rise in the stock market that will be interpreted as a sign that the recovery has finally succeeded. However, the result of another dose of inflationary economics, compounded by growing debt, unemployment and less than 2 percent growth may be another recession that will come on the heels of the current anemic recovery.

The constant refrain coming from the administration and its defenders has been that a change of course away from the president’s reliance on trying to spend our way out of the economic ditch would be a return to the failed Republican policies of the past that created the problem in the first place. But as James Pethokoukis writes at the American Enterprise Institute blog, it is cheap money and too much debt that caused the so-called Great Recession that the president inherits. That recession ended in the summer of 2009. It was followed by a recovery for which the president once took credit. But the feeble nature of that revival is something he still blames on his predecessor. Thanks to the continuation of the spending and debt binge that took place over the last four years, the country may soon be faced with another Great Recession no matter who wins in November. But it is not likely that most Americans will be willing to blame that one on George W. Bush.

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As John Steele Gordon rightly points out, Ben Bernanke’s latest attempt to bail out a failing economy by manipulating interest rates isn’t likely to be met with any more success than his first two tries. Some Democrats may think the Federal Reserve’s decision to print more money will inflate the economy enough to get President Obama re-elected. The assumption is that it will cause a rise in the stock market that will be interpreted as a sign that the recovery has finally succeeded. However, the result of another dose of inflationary economics, compounded by growing debt, unemployment and less than 2 percent growth may be another recession that will come on the heels of the current anemic recovery.

The constant refrain coming from the administration and its defenders has been that a change of course away from the president’s reliance on trying to spend our way out of the economic ditch would be a return to the failed Republican policies of the past that created the problem in the first place. But as James Pethokoukis writes at the American Enterprise Institute blog, it is cheap money and too much debt that caused the so-called Great Recession that the president inherits. That recession ended in the summer of 2009. It was followed by a recovery for which the president once took credit. But the feeble nature of that revival is something he still blames on his predecessor. Thanks to the continuation of the spending and debt binge that took place over the last four years, the country may soon be faced with another Great Recession no matter who wins in November. But it is not likely that most Americans will be willing to blame that one on George W. Bush.

Bernanke’s third chorus of interest rate cuts is a last-ditch attempt to save Obama’s recovery. But we may look back on it next year as the moment when the next Great Recession became inevitable. In the long run, only a program that aims to reform our out-of-control spending, tax cuts to fuel real economic growth and to create wealth, and sound money policies from the Fed will create a genuine recovery.

But a steady diet of more spending, debt and cheap money has set the stage for a transition from a weak recovery to another collapse. Indeed, the bad employment numbers show that the recovery never reached some sectors of the economy or the army of unemployed Americans. That means that for many Americans the downturn we may have to face next year will feel more like the tail end of a double dip recession than a fresh downturn.

President Obama is hoping Bernanke’s latest stunt will give him the boost he needs to stay ahead of Mitt Romney in the final weeks of the campaign. But the long-term impact of the Fed chairman’s QE3 may merely pave the path for a poor economy that will make a second term a misery for both Obama and the American people.

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Bernanke’s Hammer

It’s an old saying that if your only tool is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has now decided to take a third whack at unemployment by another round of “quantitative easing,” using “open market operations” to manipulate interest rates.

In March 2009, the Fed launched a $1.25 trillion program to buy up mortgage backed securities in hopes of jump-starting the economy. This massive injection of liquidity into the economy certainly helped the stock market (which bottomed that month) and stabilized the economy. The second bout of qualitative easing, however, in November 2010, when the Fed began buying $600 billion in treasuries, had far less effect. Will this one help? The promise to buy $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities a month for the indeterminate future has already sent stocks soaring around the world, but anything that tends to lower interest rates and increase the money supply sends investors out of bonds and dollars and into commodities and stocks. The theory is that higher stock prices will have a “wealth effect,” making people think they’re richer and therefore more willing to spend money. But since the move is likely to make commodities costs more (both oil and gold rose yesterday) it’s at best doubtful that it will work.

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It’s an old saying that if your only tool is a hammer everything begins to look like a nail. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, has now decided to take a third whack at unemployment by another round of “quantitative easing,” using “open market operations” to manipulate interest rates.

In March 2009, the Fed launched a $1.25 trillion program to buy up mortgage backed securities in hopes of jump-starting the economy. This massive injection of liquidity into the economy certainly helped the stock market (which bottomed that month) and stabilized the economy. The second bout of qualitative easing, however, in November 2010, when the Fed began buying $600 billion in treasuries, had far less effect. Will this one help? The promise to buy $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities a month for the indeterminate future has already sent stocks soaring around the world, but anything that tends to lower interest rates and increase the money supply sends investors out of bonds and dollars and into commodities and stocks. The theory is that higher stock prices will have a “wealth effect,” making people think they’re richer and therefore more willing to spend money. But since the move is likely to make commodities costs more (both oil and gold rose yesterday) it’s at best doubtful that it will work.

And how much lower can interest rates go? Mortgage rates were at 3.55 percent on Wednesday, down from 4.09 a year ago. That’s the lowest rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage in memory. The ten-year treasury bond is paying a piddly 1.86 percent. Interest rates cannot go below zero, after all. Banks won’t pay you to borrow their money.

And all this is storing up big trouble in the future. The Fed has increased its balance sheet enormously by buying up assets and, in effect, printing the money to pay for them. Getting that money back is going to be very, very difficult to accomplish without slowing the economy once again or setting off a nasty bout of inflation.

Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing. Unfortunately, it is very difficult for politicians (and while Bernanke is not, strictly speaking, a politician, it’s close enough for government work) to do nothing.

 

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Dems Okay With Any Source, Even Beijing, that Trashes Romney

At their convention last week, the Democrats went out of their way to treat Mitt Romney’s tough talk about Russia as evidence of his unsuitability for the White House. But at least when John Kerry was mocking the GOP candidate, he didn’t cite Vladimir Putin. But when the deputy campaign manager of the president’s re-election effort sought to take a shot at the Republican over his attitude toward China, her source was the official state news agency of the Chinese Communist Party.

Stephanie Cutter has been a prominent spokesperson for the Democrats on cable news channels this year, but she may be taking a slightly lower profile in the future as a result of a tweet in which she linked to a Reuters story that quoted at length an editorial in the Xinhua service that serves as the mouthpiece for the dictatorial Beijing regime. According to Xinhua, Romney is a hypocritical trade war-mongerer. One would think that an insult directed at an American from such a source would be considered to be a badge of honor by most voters, Democrat or Republican, but in the current atmosphere of partisan warfare, Cutter and the Obama campaign seem to think that anyone who has anything bad to say about Romney deserves a pat on the back or at least a re-tweet.

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At their convention last week, the Democrats went out of their way to treat Mitt Romney’s tough talk about Russia as evidence of his unsuitability for the White House. But at least when John Kerry was mocking the GOP candidate, he didn’t cite Vladimir Putin. But when the deputy campaign manager of the president’s re-election effort sought to take a shot at the Republican over his attitude toward China, her source was the official state news agency of the Chinese Communist Party.

Stephanie Cutter has been a prominent spokesperson for the Democrats on cable news channels this year, but she may be taking a slightly lower profile in the future as a result of a tweet in which she linked to a Reuters story that quoted at length an editorial in the Xinhua service that serves as the mouthpiece for the dictatorial Beijing regime. According to Xinhua, Romney is a hypocritical trade war-mongerer. One would think that an insult directed at an American from such a source would be considered to be a badge of honor by most voters, Democrat or Republican, but in the current atmosphere of partisan warfare, Cutter and the Obama campaign seem to think that anyone who has anything bad to say about Romney deserves a pat on the back or at least a re-tweet.

According to Politico, Cutter isn’t retreating on this point and was quoted as doubling down on Xinhua’s accusation that Romney became wealthy from dealing with China and therefore can’t be trusted to get tough with them over trade violations.

This is a weak argument since virtually anyone involved in business in these days is in some degree connected with China. If Cutter’s rules were to apply, no one, save perhaps for community activists and lawyers, would be eligible to discuss relations with China.

But there is something particularly unseemly about a representative of the president’s campaign quoting a Communist rag as an authority about Romney’s position on China. It’s pretty much the moral equivalent of Jimmy Carter’s campaign quoting Pravda as to the inadvisability of Americans voting for Ronald Reagan.

Cutter’s citing of Xinhua tells us a lot about her lack of understanding how China is governed. The wire service is not a source of independent news or opinion but slavishly reflects the views of an authoritarian state that is intolerant of opposing views either at home or abroad.

Just as Russia really is a geopolitical foe of the United States (though not the only or principle one), Romney’s straight talk about China is needed. The Obama administration has spent four years showing us how little they care about human rights. But in one tweet, Stephanie Cutter illustrated the moral blindness that is at the core of their indifference.

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To Defend Obama, U.S. Media Goes Global

Yesterday, I wrote about how the liberal establishment’s ignorance of Israeli politics and history has severely hampered their ability understand the words and actions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, resulting in some serious and unfounded accusations against him that he’s trying to meddle in the American presidential election. David Frum points readers to a good post by Michael Koplow in which he makes a similar point but adds another element: the American media’s tendency to think everything is about the U.S.

Koplow writes that Netanyahu’s recent spate of comments about the Iranian nuclear program were about Israeli domestic politics, amid concerns that he may not have everyone he needs on board should he feel the window on stopping Iran is closing and the U.S. balks at military action. Koplow notes some of the more sensational outbursts from the media, including David Remnick’s accusation that Netanyahu is attempting to be a one-man super-PAC in Mitt Romney’s corner. This morning, the Associated Press has followed up with another perfect example of this problem. After scanning an interview Netanyahu conducted with the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, the AP writes:

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Yesterday, I wrote about how the liberal establishment’s ignorance of Israeli politics and history has severely hampered their ability understand the words and actions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, resulting in some serious and unfounded accusations against him that he’s trying to meddle in the American presidential election. David Frum points readers to a good post by Michael Koplow in which he makes a similar point but adds another element: the American media’s tendency to think everything is about the U.S.

Koplow writes that Netanyahu’s recent spate of comments about the Iranian nuclear program were about Israeli domestic politics, amid concerns that he may not have everyone he needs on board should he feel the window on stopping Iran is closing and the U.S. balks at military action. Koplow notes some of the more sensational outbursts from the media, including David Remnick’s accusation that Netanyahu is attempting to be a one-man super-PAC in Mitt Romney’s corner. This morning, the Associated Press has followed up with another perfect example of this problem. After scanning an interview Netanyahu conducted with the Israeli newspaper Israel Hayom, the AP writes:

In an interview published Friday, Netanyahu hinted Israel may have to strike Iran even without U.S. support to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear weapon.

The comments indicate Netanyahu is not backing down from his thinly-veiled criticism of the Obama administration, despite a phone call from the U.S. president this week that was meant to smooth over their differences.

The errors here are all quite obvious. First of all, Netanyahu doesn’t speak to Obama through Israeli newspapers, especially when–as the AP reports in that same sentence–the two talk on the phone. Second, the idea that Israel may have to act on its own, while no one’s ideal conclusion to the Iran crisis, is not criticism of Obama, “veiled” or otherwise. It is simply one of the options on the table, and Netanyahu has to test the waters of public opinion and prepare his country for any eventuality–not to mention the political needle he would have to thread to keep a coalition together and unite, if possible, the political class.

This whole episode is reminiscent of the Obama administration’s frantic and unseemly tantrum over plans to build more homes in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, Ramat Shlomo. The announcement in 2010 by the housing ministry concerning Ramat Shlomo coincided with Joe Biden’s visit to Israel. If it was meant to embarrass anyone it was Netanyahu, not Biden or Obama, but in all likelihood it was not aimed at anyone since building there has become commonplace and uncontroversial to residents of Jerusalem–Jewish and Arab alike.

But the Obama administration assumed it was all about them, in part because Obama has such a weak understanding of Israeli politics and culture and has not made an effort to expand his very limited frame of reference on the subject. So Netanyahu, who was probably just as surprised as Biden by the announcement, was yelled at for 45 minutes on the phone by Hillary Clinton, who also seemed not to know what was going on.

The hysteria of the media has been on full display this week, with reporters expressing their outrage that Romney dared criticize Obama on foreign policy. But that tells you that what is actually happening is a sort of inverse of what is being reported. It is not that Netanyahu is trying to intervene in a presidential election, but rather that the American media’s sense of defensiveness about Obama is heightened during the home stretch of the election, causing them not just to attack Obama’s opponents at home but to take their cause global and go looking for enemies abroad as well.

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Did U.S. Know About Embassy Attack Threat in Advance?

The Independent reports that the U.S. State Department was warned about threats to its embassies 48 hours before the attack in Benghazi, but did not respond with heightened security:

According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and “lockdown”, under which movement is severely restricted.

The Obama administration denies this, telling Politico there’s no intelligence indicating the attacks were planned in advance. While there were clearly breakdowns in State Department security, it’s hard to believe the Obama administration would have intelligence of an attack and not respond by heightening security.

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The Independent reports that the U.S. State Department was warned about threats to its embassies 48 hours before the attack in Benghazi, but did not respond with heightened security:

According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and “lockdown”, under which movement is severely restricted.

The Obama administration denies this, telling Politico there’s no intelligence indicating the attacks were planned in advance. While there were clearly breakdowns in State Department security, it’s hard to believe the Obama administration would have intelligence of an attack and not respond by heightening security.

Whether or not the Obama administration was aware of the threat, it seems more likely by the day that these attacks were planned in advance. The simultaneous embassy breaches in Cairo and Benghazi, the fact that both were reportedly instigated by terrorist groups, the precision of the mortar attacks in Benghazi, and the militants’ apparent knowledge of the embassy safehouse all point to advance planning.

Captain Fathi al-Obeidi, commander of a special operations force for the February 17 brigade, who responded to the attack that night, said it appeared to be a two-pronged operation that was plotted beforehand.

“I don’t know how they found the place to carry out the attack. It was planned, the accuracy with which the mortars hit us was too good for any ordinary revolutionaries,” Obeidi told the Independent. “It began to rain down on us, about six mortars fell directly on the path to the villa.”

Another indication that these weren’t just instances of spontaneous mob violence: sensitive documents were reportedly stolen from the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, which is something that you would expect from a terrorist cell, but not a crowd of rampaging religious zealots. The Independent reports:

The US administration is now facing a crisis in Libya. Sensitive documents have gone missing from the consulate in Benghazi and the supposedly secret location of the “safe house” in the city, where the staff had retreated, came under sustained mortar attack. Other such refuges across the country are no longer deemed “safe”.

Some of the missing papers from the consulate are said to list names of Libyans who are working with Americans, putting them potentially at risk from extremist groups, while some of the other documents are said to relate to oil contracts.

At Powerline, John Hinderaker calls for a Congressional investigation. That certainly seems necessary. In the best case, this was a devastating security bungle by the State Department. In the worst case, the U.S. government failed to respond to red flags of a looming terrorist attack.

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The Unanswered Questions on Libya Attack

As Americans mourn the loss of our ambassador in Libya and three of his colleagues, the circumstances of their demise remain murky. Some accounts suggest there was a spontaneous demonstration at the Benghazi consulate followed by a well-executed ambush against consulate personnel while they were being evacuated; other accounts suggest that the initial assault was not the result of demonstrations but planned by a jihadist group in advance. Whatever the case, the situation raises an obvious question: Why didn’t the consulate have better protection, especially given the presence there of Ambassador Chris Stevens? Was there an intelligence failure, a failure of security, or simply a “perfect storm” that could not have reasonably been anticipated? These are all questions that both the State Department and Congress need to probe, and urgently, because of the continuing threat against American outposts in the Middle East.

In general, the State Department has done an excellent job of protecting its ambassadors and other diplomatic personnel–not a single senior diplomat has been killed so far in either Iraq or Afghanistan, notwithstanding numerous plots aimed at doing just that. Partly this is a matter of serendipity, but it’s also a tribute to the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and to the private security contractors it has hired, including the now-notorious Blackwater. In my experience traveling around the Middle East, Regional Security Officers–the officials responsible for security in each embassy–tend to err on the side of caution, so much so that their desire to protect their charges often makes it hard to conduct the outreach with the local community needed for successful diplomatic initiatives. That makes it all the more surprising that Ambassador Stevens did not have more protection.

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As Americans mourn the loss of our ambassador in Libya and three of his colleagues, the circumstances of their demise remain murky. Some accounts suggest there was a spontaneous demonstration at the Benghazi consulate followed by a well-executed ambush against consulate personnel while they were being evacuated; other accounts suggest that the initial assault was not the result of demonstrations but planned by a jihadist group in advance. Whatever the case, the situation raises an obvious question: Why didn’t the consulate have better protection, especially given the presence there of Ambassador Chris Stevens? Was there an intelligence failure, a failure of security, or simply a “perfect storm” that could not have reasonably been anticipated? These are all questions that both the State Department and Congress need to probe, and urgently, because of the continuing threat against American outposts in the Middle East.

In general, the State Department has done an excellent job of protecting its ambassadors and other diplomatic personnel–not a single senior diplomat has been killed so far in either Iraq or Afghanistan, notwithstanding numerous plots aimed at doing just that. Partly this is a matter of serendipity, but it’s also a tribute to the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and to the private security contractors it has hired, including the now-notorious Blackwater. In my experience traveling around the Middle East, Regional Security Officers–the officials responsible for security in each embassy–tend to err on the side of caution, so much so that their desire to protect their charges often makes it hard to conduct the outreach with the local community needed for successful diplomatic initiatives. That makes it all the more surprising that Ambassador Stevens did not have more protection.

The decision to deploy some extra Marines to Yemen and Libya, among other places, is a good one but that’s only a temporary fix since, contrary to myth, Marines are seldom the main security force at a diplomatic installation and they seldom if ever provide personal security to the “principals,” such as Ambassadors. The Marine presence is important but in most cases symbolic since the bulk of exterior security is normally provided by local contractors and local security forces and personal security details for the ambassador and other senior figures are provided by diplomatic security agents and foreign contractors. Those are the areas that need examination, including examining the possibility that Libyan jihadists may have infiltrated either the consulate’s guard force or the local security establishment. Washington needs to figure out why the Benghazi security setup was so flawed and fix the shortcomings ASAP

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Confirmed: Obama Stiffed Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stepped back a bit from the confrontational tone he had taken earlier this week when he characterized his phone call with President Obama on Tuesday night as a “good conversation.” But lest anyone construe that as the administration giving the Israeli the assurances about Iran that he was looking for, the White House dispatched a “senior administration official” to their favorite newspaper to spill the beans about how not “good” the talk was for the Jewish state.

According to the leak published in the New York Times, Obama did repeat his promise about not letting Iran produce a nuclear weapon. But over the course of what must have been a tense hour on the phone, it appears that the president stiffed Netanyahu on every aspect of the issue. He absolutely refused to set any red lines about Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material. Nor would he set any limits on the amount of time an already failed diplomatic track would be allowed to linger before action was taken.

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Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stepped back a bit from the confrontational tone he had taken earlier this week when he characterized his phone call with President Obama on Tuesday night as a “good conversation.” But lest anyone construe that as the administration giving the Israeli the assurances about Iran that he was looking for, the White House dispatched a “senior administration official” to their favorite newspaper to spill the beans about how not “good” the talk was for the Jewish state.

According to the leak published in the New York Times, Obama did repeat his promise about not letting Iran produce a nuclear weapon. But over the course of what must have been a tense hour on the phone, it appears that the president stiffed Netanyahu on every aspect of the issue. He absolutely refused to set any red lines about Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material. Nor would he set any limits on the amount of time an already failed diplomatic track would be allowed to linger before action was taken.

All of which is to say that the president has outlined a policy goal without giving himself — or Israel — any reasonable means for achieving it. If the position of the United States is that it will do nothing about Iran until the moment when the ayatollahs order their technicians to assemble a weapon from all of the enriched uranium that they have been amassing in the months and years that Obama has wasted on feckless diplomacy and weak, unenforced sanctions, then that is the equivalent of saying that the administration has no interest in actually stopping the threat.

The lengthy ordeal on the phone was necessitated by the outrage in Israel about the president’s refusal to meet with Netanyahu later this month when both men will be in New York for the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. The fact that Obama will meet with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi but not Netanyahu speaks volumes about the current state of relations between two nations that even the president is willing to describe as “allies.” Many in Israel had assumed that this meeting would be the occasion of some sort of gesture on Obama’s part to reassure Netanyahu that there was reason to believe that at some point the Americans would concede that diplomacy and sanctions were getting them nowhere and that action of some sort would follow.

But not only was Obama not interested in any such gesture, he was not prepared to tell him this to his face. This snub may stem from the open dislike the two men have for each other, but as I wrote earlier this week, this is about more than personalities. The message from Washington was clear: Israel has no leverage over Obama on this issue even during the presidential campaign and will have even less in a second term.

Netanyahu has been accused of trying to play politics with Obama during the last months of the presidential campaign or of favoring Mitt Romney. But whatever Netanyahu thinks privately, it should be understood that his concern transcends any misgivings about Obama’s penchant for picking fights with Israel during the past four years. If he really thought Romney might win, he would be showing more, not less patience with Obama since presumably Israel would only have a few months to wait before getting a different answer from a more sympathetic White House.

With the most recent report of the International Atomic Energy Agency showing that Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges enriching its uranium and that they are now operating in bunkers that are invulnerable to air attack, the Israelis know that there may be very little time before it is too late to do anything about the problem.

President Obama specifically pledged earlier this year during his speech to the annual AIPAC conference that the United States would not seek to contain a nuclear Iran but would prevent it from ever getting that capability. But the longer the president sticks with his current policy of reliance on dead-end diplomacy and sanctions that are doing nothing to halt Iran, it’s becoming clear that sooner or later he will change his mind about containment.

The phone call on Tuesday was intended to calm the storm that had arisen over the New York snub, but the leak to the Times is also a message that no one should mistake. While his surrogates are still trying to reassure wavering Jewish voters that he backs Israel, the administration isn’t interested in doing anything about Iran and the president doesn’t care who knows it.

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A Deafening Silence over Sinai

The attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian government’s lame response have understandably drawn international attention. But the same isn’t true for Egypt’s other provocative moves of the last month. And given that American and European officials have been claiming for years that Mideast peace is one of their top foreign policy priorities, their deafening silence over these moves is incomprehensible.

During this month, Egypt first violated the cardinal principle of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty by remilitarizing the Sinai, and then announced plans to spend a significant chunk of the international aid it is seeking on state-of-the-art submarines rather than its shattered economy. Both the treaty violation and the purchase of weaponry that has no conceivable use except against Israel clearly make the prospect of another Israeli-Egyptian war more likely, which ought to be reason enough to object: Of all the times Israel has tried ceding land for peace, the deal with Egypt is the only case in which it actually worked, so if the peace with Egypt goes, even doves like Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor have warned that Israelis will never sign another land-for-peace deal.

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The attack on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian government’s lame response have understandably drawn international attention. But the same isn’t true for Egypt’s other provocative moves of the last month. And given that American and European officials have been claiming for years that Mideast peace is one of their top foreign policy priorities, their deafening silence over these moves is incomprehensible.

During this month, Egypt first violated the cardinal principle of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty by remilitarizing the Sinai, and then announced plans to spend a significant chunk of the international aid it is seeking on state-of-the-art submarines rather than its shattered economy. Both the treaty violation and the purchase of weaponry that has no conceivable use except against Israel clearly make the prospect of another Israeli-Egyptian war more likely, which ought to be reason enough to object: Of all the times Israel has tried ceding land for peace, the deal with Egypt is the only case in which it actually worked, so if the peace with Egypt goes, even doves like Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor have warned that Israelis will never sign another land-for-peace deal.

But as political scientist Amiel Ungar pointed out last week, the remilitarization of Sinai may be enough to quash any future peace deal even if it doesn’t lead to war — because demilitarization has always been a crucial element of other proposed peace deals as well. So if it turns out that demilitarization can be reversed whenever the other party pleases without the world doing anything to stop it, Israelis will think long and hard about entrusting their security to any demilitarization agreement in the future.

Ungar focused specifically on the Palestinian track, given that every serious proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian deal has called for a demilitarized Palestinian state. But what he says is equally true for the Syrian track, since demilitarizing the Golan Heights has been a cardinal element of every Israeli-Syrian deal ever proposed.

Indeed, demilitarization would in some ways be even more crucial on the Palestinian and Syrian fronts than it was with Egypt. The approximately 50 tanks Egypt moved into the border region near Israel last month aren’t a threat in themselves; they are a threat only because they show that Egypt can violate the treaty with impunity, thereby giving it a green light to move more substantial military forces into Sinai in the future. But 50 tanks on either the Golan Heights or the West Bank mountain ridge would be a threat in and of themselves. From the Golan, Syrian tanks could shell much of Israel’s north — which is exactly what they did from 1948 until Israel captured the heights in 1967. And from the West Bank mountain ridge, tanks could shell the entire Israeli heartland, which is home to most of Israel’s population, most of its commercial activity and its only international airport.

Thus if the international community actually considers Arab-Israeli peace a priority, stopping the remilitarization of Sinai is essential. And on this issue, Washington can’t afford to “lead from behind” — because so far, there’s nobody to follow.

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The Political Value of Novelists

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

Pauls Toutonghi was in San Francisco the other day to promote his new novel Evel Knievel Days when he spotted a sign above a tire store:

THE FOUR SADDEST WORDS
IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
ARE
GORE VIDAL IS DEAD

Toutonghi was immediately provoked into reflection. At a time when the “political rifts” between Americans are “both deep and intransigent,” at a time when (quoting the Pew Center) “their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years,” why aren’t our novelists bringing Americans together? What our politicians seem incapable of doing, the novelist does in his writing on a daily basis:

The novelist is comfortable with the cognitive dissonance created by considering two opposing points of view. Anger, after all, arises from our own inability to imagine that our opponent’s view might be correct. But novelists — good novelists — are ceaselessly imaginative. They have to be. They are always considering opposing views and possibilities; they have trained their imaginations to voyage into the bleakest places, to voyage into the territory of the irrational and the wildly passionate.

So why, Toutonghi asks, are American novelists not to be found in “the mainstream of political discourse”? The short answer is that few of them are as generous to their opponents as Pauls Toutonghi. Anyone who reads much contemporary fiction — I am condemned by professional responsibilities to do so — would be hard-pressed to name more than two or three American novelists who have put any effort at all into imagining that political conservatives’ view of the world might be correct.

The locus classicus, of course, as I’ve written elsewhere, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a celebrated novel in which George W. Bush is relentlessly bashed (even his twin daughters come in for a bashing) and the dangerous view of freedom, the evil view the novel is written to reject, is espoused by a neoconservative bogeyman.

The neocon explains that it is ethically acceptable to manipulate the media — to lie to them about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example — “in the service of a greater truth.” You have to resort to the expedient of lying with people “who are not only unable but unwilling to admit certain truths whose logic is self-evident to you,” he says. But don’t even those people have the right to think whatever they want? Isn’t that precisely what freedom means, even if it means that freedom is a pain in the ass?

“That’s exactly right,” [the neocon] said. “Freedom is a pain in the ass. And that’s precisely why it’s so imperative that we seize the opportunity that’s been presented to us this fall [after 9/11]. To get a nation of free people to let go of their bad logic and sign on with better logic, by whatever means necessary.”

So much for considering opposing views and possibilities. In Point Omega, Don DeLillo does not even try to imagine the interior workings of a foreign-policy neoconservative’s mind — the neocon lies about the “haiku” war in Iraq, the “war in three lines,” by silence and omission. Franzen, DeLillo, and their peers in the American literati belong to the party of Pauline Kael: they can’t believe that a Republican ever wins an election, because they don’t know anyone who has ever voted for a Republican.

In Second Sight, the seventh novel by Charles McCarry (one of the scarce American novelists on the right), a famous TV journalist finds himself at a dinner party where, during the conversation over dessert, Richard Nixon is defended. The left has “made Mr. Nixon stand for evil and they think that all it takes to be virtuous is to hate him,” his hostess says. It is “the politics of self-congratulation.” The journalist is “visibly shocked and offended.” Never before in his life has he ever heard anyone defend Richard Nixon. “It’s a good thing you only sound like that in the privacy of your own home,” he says stiffly.

How many contemporary American novelists, I wonder, are willing to voyage imaginatively into a defense of Richard Nixon? Or even George W. Bush? As I have pointed out repeatedly (here and here and here and here), Bush-bashing has become one of the most reliable conventions of American fiction. Imaginative, though? I can think of other things to call it.

The first condition of lowering the temperature on political discourse in America (that is, the assumption of good faith on the part of your opponents) is missing from any contemporary American fiction that dips into politics. Until American novelists are capable of believing that a political conservative might just be telling the truth as he understands it (or even that a political conservative might actually read them), they will continue to be, as Pauls Toutonghi laments, “relegated to the farthest margins of society — to its asylums and barrooms, where they squabble over increasingly small scraps, interrogating each other about whether or not they believe in MFA programs.” And deservedly so.

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