Commentary Magazine


Posts For: December 12, 2013

Kerry’s Peace Framework Versus Reality

Even before he became secretary of state earlier this year, John Kerry’s high opinion of his own talents was not exactly a secret. Thus, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that he embarked on two quests that diplomats less affected by hubris (i.e. his cautious predecessor Hillary Clinton) shied away from. Both the renewed effort to craft a nuclear deal with Iran and the decision to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were long shots at best. But now that he has achieved, at least in theory, one of his two goals, Kerry seems even more confident of accomplishing the second as well. Skeptics abound about the value of the interim deal signed last month in Geneva with Iran. But the applause the accord has won him from the foreign establishment that was always more worried about the possibility that the West would have to actually do something to stop a nuclear Iran has renewed his confidence that he can do something even more unlikely than bring the ayatollahs to the table: achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Thus, Kerry is back in Israel and demanding that both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority accept the security provisions he has envisioned for the aftermath of a peace deal. Even more, reports say he is telling both the Netanyahu government and Mahmoud Abbas’s PA regime he expects them both to accept a framework for an accord by the end of January. When critics point out the obstacles to peace, Kerry merely reiterates his optimism that seems rooted more in ego than a coherent vision for solving a problem that almost no one else thinks is capable of resolution. But the problem here goes deeper than Kerry’s self-regard. Kerry’s achievement on Iran is fool’s gold that is not comparable to the challenge between Israel and the Palestinians.

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Even before he became secretary of state earlier this year, John Kerry’s high opinion of his own talents was not exactly a secret. Thus, it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that he embarked on two quests that diplomats less affected by hubris (i.e. his cautious predecessor Hillary Clinton) shied away from. Both the renewed effort to craft a nuclear deal with Iran and the decision to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians were long shots at best. But now that he has achieved, at least in theory, one of his two goals, Kerry seems even more confident of accomplishing the second as well. Skeptics abound about the value of the interim deal signed last month in Geneva with Iran. But the applause the accord has won him from the foreign establishment that was always more worried about the possibility that the West would have to actually do something to stop a nuclear Iran has renewed his confidence that he can do something even more unlikely than bring the ayatollahs to the table: achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Thus, Kerry is back in Israel and demanding that both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority accept the security provisions he has envisioned for the aftermath of a peace deal. Even more, reports say he is telling both the Netanyahu government and Mahmoud Abbas’s PA regime he expects them both to accept a framework for an accord by the end of January. When critics point out the obstacles to peace, Kerry merely reiterates his optimism that seems rooted more in ego than a coherent vision for solving a problem that almost no one else thinks is capable of resolution. But the problem here goes deeper than Kerry’s self-regard. Kerry’s achievement on Iran is fool’s gold that is not comparable to the challenge between Israel and the Palestinians.

The deal with Iran was possible because both the Obama administration and the Iranian regime were interested in avoiding a conflict. Had Kerry insisted on real progress toward eliminating the Iranian nuclear program, he would not have discarded the impressive economic and military leverage the U.S. held over Tehran. He accepted Iran’s refusal to give up enriching uranium and dismantle its facilities, demands rooted in years of United Nations Security Council resolutions, and settled for an agreement on the ayatollahs’ terms simply because his priority was on preserving the process, not getting rid of their nuclear program.

However, that common desire for a deal simply isn’t present between Israel and the Palestinians and no amount of U.S. pressure can manufacture it. Even worse, Kerry’s predisposition to pressure Israel and to regard its positions as the prime obstacle to peace rather than focusing on the real problem in the form of Palestinian nationalism renders an already difficult task virtually impossible.

Let’s specify that the problem here isn’t that Kerry is an enemy of Israel. Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg devoted a column this week to the proposition that Kerry is really Israel’s best friend and to the extent that he discusses the secretary’s motives, he’s not entirely wrong. Kerry believes everything he is doing, whether on appeasing Iran or pushing for a deal that will empower the PA, is in the Jewish state’s best interests. Kerry’s belief that Israel needs peace and would benefit from a two-state solution in which the Palestinians renounce the conflict for all time would is largely correct. Moreover, he thinks the security arrangements he has brought with him are so ingenious that they will in effect disarm Netanyahu’s concerns about giving up all of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem to Abbas.

But unfortunately his assumption that Abbas has made such a decision to give up the conflict is not based in fact. The PA continues to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. It also won’t or can’t give up its demand for the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Both show that while Abbas would accept more territory, he won’t pay for it with genuine peace.

Moreover, the emphasis on the Jordan River border crossings in Kerry’s security scheme misses the point about the threat to Israel from a complete withdrawal from the West Bank. Israel must not let anyone else control entry in the territories from the east lest it recreate the pre-1967 scenario in which Arab armies could invade Israel from the high ground of Judea and Samaria. But it is the real possibility that a PA state will simply repeat the fiasco of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza in land directly adjacent to the country’s heartland that is the real security issue.

Israeli settlements do complicate the theoretical peace map but as Gaza showed, Israel will give up land and even places where Jews live if peace is on the line. But Gaza remains under the control of the Islamists of Hamas and despite their economic and political problems, that group is still a mortal threat to Abbas and his Fatah Party. Abbas knows if he signs a peace with Israel that means real peace it will endanger his rule, a point that is significant for a man currently serving the ninth year of the four-year term to which he was elected.

Israel desires peace as much as Kerry. Contrary to his stand, it has already taken many risks for the sake of an accord. But reality is Kerry’s problem here, not a small-minded Israeli government. By that I mean the reality of a Palestinian political culture that regards Israel as an illegitimate intrusion into the region. Until a sea change in that culture occurs, it will remain the real obstacle to Kerry being able to claim another diplomatic triumph or the Nobel Peace Prize he covets. And no amount of pressure on Israel or concessions made by Netanyahu can change that. 

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Did Yanukovych Relent? Does it Matter?

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton made news today by declaring that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “intends” to finally sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union after weeks of protests. It’s unclear, however, if Yanukovych can end the standoff.

If the message was intended to get the protesters to back off, it might not be nearly enough. As the Washington Post reports, “protesters weren’t buying it and spent the day bolstering the five formidable snow and ice barricades that protect their long-running encampment.” No surprise there: Yanukovych has been too fickle to be trusted, having spent years gesturing toward Europe and working toward an agreement only to bail at the eleventh hour. Yet that’s exactly what his government is asking for: trust. As the Post reports:

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EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton made news today by declaring that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “intends” to finally sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union after weeks of protests. It’s unclear, however, if Yanukovych can end the standoff.

If the message was intended to get the protesters to back off, it might not be nearly enough. As the Washington Post reports, “protesters weren’t buying it and spent the day bolstering the five formidable snow and ice barricades that protect their long-running encampment.” No surprise there: Yanukovych has been too fickle to be trusted, having spent years gesturing toward Europe and working toward an agreement only to bail at the eleventh hour. Yet that’s exactly what his government is asking for: trust. As the Post reports:

“This is real, this is absolutely real,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, told the Interfax news agency Thursday, adding that Ukraine might sign on with Europe as early as next spring.

That suggests a long winter ahead for the opposition, which has shown no signs of flagging. “Both sides are playing on time and trying to wear the other side down,” Jan Techau, an analyst with the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, said during a conference call Thursday.

In fact, the climb-down from Yanukovych shows just how much trouble he found himself in when he spurned Europe seemingly for Putin’s Eurasian customs union. To wit: if his agreement to sign with the EU some time next year was intended for Putin as a hardball negotiating tactic, he’s probably not scaring anyone in the Kremlin. Ukraine is heading into the winter now without a deal with either side and in debt, still dependent on Russian gas. Where’s Yanukovych’s leverage with Russia?

If, on the other hand, the pronouncement that he’s ready to deal with Europe was intended for the West in general and the United States in particular to ward off American sanctions, it won’t matter much either. The U.S. raised the issue of sanctions (with the State Department’s Victoria Nuland conspicuously on the ground in Kiev) in response to Yanukovych’s heavyhanded deployment of riot police to attempt to clear the protests. If he wants to avoid sanctions, he should resist the use of force against the opposition. If he doesn’t, vague promises to one day sign a deal with the EU won’t change anybody’s mind.

Similarly, if he was trying to get Ukraine a better deal from the EU, his sudden determination to reopen negotiations reeks of desperation and will most likely be greeted with the reminder that beggars cannot be choosers. One suspects that Yanukovych knows all this, and that the prevailing explanations for Yanukovych’s behavior are just a bit too pat. Maybe it’s not really about Russia, or Europe, or the U.S., or even Ukraine; maybe it’s about Viktor Yanukovych.

Now you’re getting somewhere, says the Kiev-based Andrey Slivka:

With Yanukovych, it’s always best to assume the worst. Ukraine has always been a kleptocracy, but “the family,” as it is known, has raised the thievery to new heights. The President’s older son, Oleksandr, a dentist, has become one of Ukraine’s richest men since the start of his father’s Presidency. Yanukovych himself—an actual ex-con, who did jail time in his youth for robbery and assault—has built himself an estate the size of Monaco on the outskirts of Kiev; access to the area is now restricted. “Raider” attacks, in which regime-connected businessmen deploy extortion to literally steal other people’s businesses, are notorious. Leery of mixing with the population, Yanukovych has taken to helicoptering into work from his estate, landing at a helipad he built in one of Kiev’s lovely riverside parks.

None of independent Ukraine’s earlier Presidents were prizewinners, but Yanukovych has been particularly brazen in his provocations. In addition to the theft, he’s centralized power according to a system that one political scientist has termed “sultanism,” and he has harassed the media. So when the beatings on the Maidan gave Ukrainians an excuse to come out on the streets, the protests turned from a cry against the loss of the “European choice” into something far more visceral: an expression of hatred for Yanukovych and everything he represents—basically, the mean reality of life in a post-Soviet strongman state.

Yanukovych’s decision to spurn Europe wasn’t a betrayal so much as a confirmation. Ukrainians did not think they were being governed by European-style democrat. Yanukovych’s reversal was simply a product of what Ukrainians who didn’t like him already didn’t like about him.

In that light, a new turn back to the EU won’t change much. It may help the country–though if a deal doesn’t happen until mid-2014 at the earliest it will first come at great cost. Yanukovych has misread his country’s mood–as Slivka notes, Kiev’s statue of Lenin survived the Orange Revolution, but didn’t survive this populist outburst. Perhaps Yanukovych will have better luck, but he increasingly can’t count on being thrown a lifeline from abroad.

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Is Congress Bailing on More Iran Sanctions?

Prior to the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, Congress seemed set to raise the pressure on Tehran with a new round of sanctions that will make it even tougher for the rogue regime to sell its oil. But in the weeks since Secretary of State John Kerry announced what he has claimed is a deal that is making both Israel and the United States safer, momentum for measures that would actually strengthen his hand in the follow-up negotiations has slipped. The administration’s pleas to hold off on sanctions make no sense since what created any sort of a window for diplomacy were the sanctions Congress already passed over the fierce objections of the White House and the State Department. Making them stricter to create a genuine embargo on Iranian oil (sales of which went up in November in part as a result of the sense that sanctions are on the way out after the deal) would be a perfect companion to talks. But while few in Congress seem to accept the logic of the arguments made by both Kerry and President Obama against sanctions, the number of those willing to directly challenge them on the issue seems to be dwindling, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle.

The latest evidence of this trend is the announcement today that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer will not back an effort by Majority Leader Eric Cantor to create a nonbinding resolution calling for sterner measures against Iran. Up until this point, the Democrat had been as ardent an advocate of sanctions as any member, but his decision seems to illustrate that he has drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on Iran. By saying “the time is not right” for even an expression of support for more sanctions (the Senate is now considering the tough sanctions already passed by the House), Hoyer had adopted the same wait-and-see approach Kerry and his aides have been selling on Capitol Hill. While some prominent Democrats, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez, have stuck to their guns on the need for more sanctions, others, like Chuck Schumer, have been either ominously silent or indicating, like Hoyer, that they want no part of this fight. This is troubling not just because the argument for more sanctions is solid but because the defection of significant Democratic support will transform the issue into just one more partisan battle with Republicans rather than a reflection of a bipartisan consensus.

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Prior to the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran, Congress seemed set to raise the pressure on Tehran with a new round of sanctions that will make it even tougher for the rogue regime to sell its oil. But in the weeks since Secretary of State John Kerry announced what he has claimed is a deal that is making both Israel and the United States safer, momentum for measures that would actually strengthen his hand in the follow-up negotiations has slipped. The administration’s pleas to hold off on sanctions make no sense since what created any sort of a window for diplomacy were the sanctions Congress already passed over the fierce objections of the White House and the State Department. Making them stricter to create a genuine embargo on Iranian oil (sales of which went up in November in part as a result of the sense that sanctions are on the way out after the deal) would be a perfect companion to talks. But while few in Congress seem to accept the logic of the arguments made by both Kerry and President Obama against sanctions, the number of those willing to directly challenge them on the issue seems to be dwindling, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle.

The latest evidence of this trend is the announcement today that House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer will not back an effort by Majority Leader Eric Cantor to create a nonbinding resolution calling for sterner measures against Iran. Up until this point, the Democrat had been as ardent an advocate of sanctions as any member, but his decision seems to illustrate that he has drunk the administration’s Kool-Aid on Iran. By saying “the time is not right” for even an expression of support for more sanctions (the Senate is now considering the tough sanctions already passed by the House), Hoyer had adopted the same wait-and-see approach Kerry and his aides have been selling on Capitol Hill. While some prominent Democrats, like Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez, have stuck to their guns on the need for more sanctions, others, like Chuck Schumer, have been either ominously silent or indicating, like Hoyer, that they want no part of this fight. This is troubling not just because the argument for more sanctions is solid but because the defection of significant Democratic support will transform the issue into just one more partisan battle with Republicans rather than a reflection of a bipartisan consensus.

While some senators such as John McCain are still pushing hard for a bill that would authorize the next round of sanctions, the discussion appears to be shifting away from that possibility to vague promises from the Senate leadership about considering a new bill only once it has been proved that Kerry’s diplomatic gambit has collapsed. The problems with such statements, such as the one coming out of the Banking Committee led by Democrat Tim Johnson and Republican Mike Crapo, is that they appear to be depending on the administration for an admission of failure that will never be forthcoming no matter what the Iranians do.

With support ebbing for a direct challenge to the administration, the idea of conditional measures that would put more sanctions into effect if Iran violates Kerry’s deal or the follow-up negotiations stall seems like an attractive alternative to many senators, especially those, like Schumer, who like to keep their image as stalwart friends of Israel and opponents of Iran intact.

But judging such violations or even the failure of the talks is bound to be subjective. This administration is not only heading in the direction of détente with Iran, it is also clearly besotted with the idea of diplomacy with the ayatollahs in principle. Expecting it to be honest about Iranian violations of a freeze of its efforts to enrich uranium at weapons-grade levels (even while the deal grants absolution to low-level enrichment, the product of which could be quickly converted to weapons-grade level in a nuclear breakout) is a stretch. But it is even more of a stretch given the fact that there is no way to know just how effective inspections of Iranian facilities will be and the consensus among intelligence agencies that Tehran has other secret installations at its disposal.

If the president and Kerry think even the talk about imposing more sanctions only after the six-month interim period envisaged in the deal would be a sign of “bad faith” on the part of the United States, what are the odds that they will risk telling the truth about Iranian behavior if it meant that such honesty would mean the end of their treasured diplomatic endeavor?

Even so, Johnson seems determined to protect the administration from any measure that would, even in theory, limit their ability to go on talking to Iran, no matter what the Iranians do. As such, he seems to be indicating that the principle of “Western unity” against more sanctions as well as political ties to the president trump doing the right thing to hold the Islamist regime accountable. While some senators may go on fighting, right now it appears the Iranians have nothing to worry about. So long as the president is willing to treat support for more sanctions as an act of betrayal against the White House, Iran can be assured that there will be no more pressure on them to give up their nuclear dreams.

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Oil Sales Boost Shows Obama’s Iran Shift

Administration officials have gotten a pasting this week as they’ve tried to convince Congress not to pass another round of even tougher sanctions on Iran. Try as they might to persuade both Democrats and Republicans to table efforts to squeeze the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambition, many members of both the Senate and the House don’t see the logic in a stand that sees any further pressure as weakening the chances of diplomatic success. So in an effort to bolster their dubious position, the administration announced today that it would expand the list of individuals and businesses targeted by the existing sanctions. The New York Times billed the measure as “new sanctions,” which is not true. What the government is doing is merely following existing laws that have not been zealously enforced.

The decision to crack down on companies that have helped facilitate Iran’s oil sales or collaborated on its nuclear and missile programs is welcome. But it is also a belated recognition that despite the bragging about the impact of sanctions that has been heard from both the State Department and the White House, economic restrictions on doing business with Iran have not been uniformly effective. The Times reported three years ago that over 10,000 exemptions had been granted by the Treasury Department to do business with Iran, a number that has certainly grown in the interim. And the Daily Beast reported recently that this year the same department had slowed down its work opening investigations of possible sanctions violators.

But the problem for the White House is not just a Congress that is dubious about a policy that seems aimed more at achieving some kind of détente with Iran than in shutting down its nuclear program. Yesterday, the International Energy Agency announced that Iran’s oil sales went up 10 percent in November as a result of a sense on the part of the world’s oil consumers and brokers that sanctions were easing. Though Obama’s point man on the sanctions, Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. is determined to hold down Iran’s oil sales, the news about the increase in November gives the lie to the notion that Washington’s efforts have been as determined as we’ve been led to believe.

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Administration officials have gotten a pasting this week as they’ve tried to convince Congress not to pass another round of even tougher sanctions on Iran. Try as they might to persuade both Democrats and Republicans to table efforts to squeeze the Islamist regime to give up their nuclear ambition, many members of both the Senate and the House don’t see the logic in a stand that sees any further pressure as weakening the chances of diplomatic success. So in an effort to bolster their dubious position, the administration announced today that it would expand the list of individuals and businesses targeted by the existing sanctions. The New York Times billed the measure as “new sanctions,” which is not true. What the government is doing is merely following existing laws that have not been zealously enforced.

The decision to crack down on companies that have helped facilitate Iran’s oil sales or collaborated on its nuclear and missile programs is welcome. But it is also a belated recognition that despite the bragging about the impact of sanctions that has been heard from both the State Department and the White House, economic restrictions on doing business with Iran have not been uniformly effective. The Times reported three years ago that over 10,000 exemptions had been granted by the Treasury Department to do business with Iran, a number that has certainly grown in the interim. And the Daily Beast reported recently that this year the same department had slowed down its work opening investigations of possible sanctions violators.

But the problem for the White House is not just a Congress that is dubious about a policy that seems aimed more at achieving some kind of détente with Iran than in shutting down its nuclear program. Yesterday, the International Energy Agency announced that Iran’s oil sales went up 10 percent in November as a result of a sense on the part of the world’s oil consumers and brokers that sanctions were easing. Though Obama’s point man on the sanctions, Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen wrote yesterday in the Wall Street Journal that the U.S. is determined to hold down Iran’s oil sales, the news about the increase in November gives the lie to the notion that Washington’s efforts have been as determined as we’ve been led to believe.

This impression was reinforced by President Obama’s comments at the Saban Forum last weekend when he defended a policy of granting sanctions relief as being aimed at creating a political constituency inside Iran for nuclear concessions. It’s hard to know just how seriously to take such pronouncements. Does the president really believe that the Islamist regime cares about public opinion given its complete indifference to it on every issue, especially regarding the suppression of dissent? Moreover, given the fact that he has already discarded the considerable economic and political leverage he holds over the ayatollahs in exchange for virtually nothing, it’s difficult to believe holding off on more sanctions will make them more rather than less amenable to giving up their nuclear dreams.

Even more to the point, the statements from Obama and Kerry that demonstrate how afraid they are of Iranian displeasure and the desire to appease their anger about sanctions make the promise of tougher enforcement in the future even less credible. Kerry told the Senate on Tuesday that he didn’t think companies would plan to do business with Iran given the possibility of the U.S. imposing tougher sanctions in the future. But what the November oil statistics and the administration’s full-court press against tougher sanctions demonstrate is that it is unlikely that anyone in Iran, Asia, Europe, or the United States believes for a moment that Obama and Kerry will do just that. The first weakening of the sanctions was the signal Iran’s oil customers were waiting for and the coming months will likely see even more economic activity with Iran conducted on the premise that once the regulations start to unravel, they will never be re-imposed. If Congress is serious about stopping Iran, that’s something they need to consider when listening to administration pleas for inaction on more sanctions legislation.

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Another NY Times Misfire on Gun Rights

In the lead-up to the high-stakes 2010 Senate election between Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican challenger Sharron Angle, a curious drama unfolded within the National Rifle Association. The NRA was, reportedly, considering endorsing Reid, incurring pushback from its conservative-leaning membership. Why would the NRA endorse a Democrat, even one more friendly to gun rights than most Democrats? Because, the logic went, a Reid loss coupled with the Democrats holding the Senate could elevate Chuck Schumer to lead the Senate.

Schumer is not just anti-gun, but the worst kind of anti-gun extremist: an East Coast liberal elitist who doesn’t know anything about guns or gun culture but hates them anyway. This propensity by Schumer to allow ignorance and prejudice to set his legislative agenda made the NRA understandably nervous. The NRA eventually chose to stay neutral in the race. This episode is worth keeping in mind when reading the New York Times Magazine’s lengthy article recreating the failure of the Manchin-Toomey gun-control legislation earlier this year. The bill was aimed at beefing up background checks amid the “do-something” rush of activity following the Newtown massacre.

The effort was almost torpedoed by Schumer immediately; the tragic news of the shooting gave Schumer the opportunity he craved to punish law-abiding gun owners–people who, according to Schumer, only existed in theory anyway. As the Times reports:

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In the lead-up to the high-stakes 2010 Senate election between Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and his Republican challenger Sharron Angle, a curious drama unfolded within the National Rifle Association. The NRA was, reportedly, considering endorsing Reid, incurring pushback from its conservative-leaning membership. Why would the NRA endorse a Democrat, even one more friendly to gun rights than most Democrats? Because, the logic went, a Reid loss coupled with the Democrats holding the Senate could elevate Chuck Schumer to lead the Senate.

Schumer is not just anti-gun, but the worst kind of anti-gun extremist: an East Coast liberal elitist who doesn’t know anything about guns or gun culture but hates them anyway. This propensity by Schumer to allow ignorance and prejudice to set his legislative agenda made the NRA understandably nervous. The NRA eventually chose to stay neutral in the race. This episode is worth keeping in mind when reading the New York Times Magazine’s lengthy article recreating the failure of the Manchin-Toomey gun-control legislation earlier this year. The bill was aimed at beefing up background checks amid the “do-something” rush of activity following the Newtown massacre.

The effort was almost torpedoed by Schumer immediately; the tragic news of the shooting gave Schumer the opportunity he craved to punish law-abiding gun owners–people who, according to Schumer, only existed in theory anyway. As the Times reports:

Joe Manchin shared the concern that the Democrats who were leading the charge on gun legislation didn’t understand how deeply people care about guns and needed to if they were ever to get anything passed. By January the universal background-checks legislation was being spearheaded in the Senate by Charles Schumer, a liberal from New York City. “Joe, I didn’t know anybody who owned a gun when I grew up,” Schumer said to Manchin, who replied, “Chuck, I didn’t know anybody who didn’t own a gun.” Schumer’s bill contained no provisions that might attract the support of gun owners, a fatal omission in Manchin’s view. “The bill Chuck Schumer dropped was one that I didn’t think anyone from a gun state would or should support,” Manchin told me. “So I reached out to the N.R.A. and said, ‘Let’s have an alternative.’ ”

That is, the Democratic effort on a major issue was being led by a man who was proud of his total lack of knowledge about the issue. It’s unclear whether Schumer realized his bill would never pass and therefore just wanted an opportunity to grandstand, or just wasn’t capable of leading a serious legislative effort. Manchin ended up nearly saving the effort by getting actual gun owners and experts involved, and crafting a quite reasonable bill that combined modest increases in restrictions in areas that arguably needed them with additional protections for gun rights.

In the end, the bill still didn’t quite make it, but it’s instructive to look at why that happened. Robert Draper, the author of the Times piece, says anti-gun activists must learn to better “break down the barriers of fear and mistrust from which the N.R.A. derives much of its power.” He then says this:

Yet even as the votes in the chambers still favor the N.R.A., gun-control advocates have some cause for optimism. Time does not seem to be on the N.R.A.’s side. According to data compiled by the nonpartisan National Opinion Research Center, between 1977 and 2012 the percentage of American households possessing one or more guns declined by 36 percent. That decline should not be surprising. Tom W. Smith, director of the research center, says: “There are two main reasons, if you ask people, why they have firearms: hunting and personal protection. Now, from external sources like the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, we know the proportion of adults who hunt has declined over the decades. And since the ‘90s, the crime rate has fallen. So the two main reasons people might want to have a gun have both decreased.”

On the issue of “fear and mistrust,” Draper throughout the article seems to ignore his own reporting. He notes, for example, that Anita Dunn spoke to a gathering of anti-gun Democrats and kept using “the R-word,” registration. This makes gun owners fear–wrongly according to Democrats–that the goal is to keep a registry of firearms owners to better confiscate them when the time comes. But as J.D. Tuccille recently pointed out at Reason, gun owners have been receiving confiscation notices from state government officials even as such moves are dismissed by lawmakers. “The problem for gun control advocates,” Tuccille writes, “is that they keep promising that no way will registration lead to confiscation of firearms, even as it does just that.”

And on Draper’s claim that time isn’t on the NRA’s side, it’s worth looking at the polling. It’s true that gun ownership rates have dropped, but that in no way means support for gun owners will drop. Here is Gallup’s detailed, long-term trend polling on gun rights, the most recent of which was taken in early October. It finds that household gun possession is at its lowest point since 1999. And yet, support for making gun-sale laws “more strict” is nearly twenty points lower than it was twenty years ago, and nearly thirty points lower than in 1990.

Support for a handgun ban has been dropping for decades, from 60 percent in 1959 to 25 percent today. The Gallup polling shows broad support for the expansion of background checks in the Manchin-Toomey legislation–regulation initially supported by the NRA as well. But when asked for some reasons respondents didn’t want the legislation to pass, 40 percent named Second Amendment rights.

The fact is, Americans take their constitutional rights quite seriously, even when they don’t directly impact them. Schumer and Co. seem to think rights of which they don’t avail themselves are irrelevant. It is to the American public’s great credit that they disagree.

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The Utter Failure of Obama’s Syria Policy

That sound you hear is President Obama’s Syria policy shattering into a million pieces. The latest sign of the ongoing catastrophe is the administration’s decision to suspend nonlethal aid to the mainstream Syrian resistance after fighters from the Islamic Front seized warehouses in northern Syria belonging to the Supreme Military Council, as the moderate rebel faction is known. The head of the council’s military wing, Gen. Salim Idris, had to beat a hasty retreat to Turkey and Qatar.

That the non-Islamist opposition is collapsing is utterly predictable given the administration’s hesitancy to provide it with more backing. The Islamic radicals are the obvious winners on the rebel side, while Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force grow stronger on the other end.

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That sound you hear is President Obama’s Syria policy shattering into a million pieces. The latest sign of the ongoing catastrophe is the administration’s decision to suspend nonlethal aid to the mainstream Syrian resistance after fighters from the Islamic Front seized warehouses in northern Syria belonging to the Supreme Military Council, as the moderate rebel faction is known. The head of the council’s military wing, Gen. Salim Idris, had to beat a hasty retreat to Turkey and Qatar.

That the non-Islamist opposition is collapsing is utterly predictable given the administration’s hesitancy to provide it with more backing. The Islamic radicals are the obvious winners on the rebel side, while Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force grow stronger on the other end.

Yet somehow the administration, and in particular Secretary of State John Kerry, is still hoping to cobble together a Syria peace conference on January 22 in Switzerland. How, one wonders, is a deal going to be reached between an increasingly powerless and disjointed moderate opposition and a Syrian president who is growing increasingly confident in his ability to hold onto power?

This is so crazy that it makes you wonder whether the administration policy is on the level. Is it a total coincidence that Obama is trying to reach a deal with Iran and at the same time he is suspending aid to the Syria rebels fighting an Iranian-backed regime in Damascus? Is there perhaps a quid pro quo involved here?

That may, however, be giving the administration more credit than it deserves for strategic thinking. The Occam’s razor explanation here is that the administration has simply been incompetent and incoherent when it comes to Syria. The costs of its policy failures are, unfortunately, being paid by the poor Syrian people: more than 100,000 have already died and more are dying all the time. The war shows little sign of ending, and as it goes on extremists grow stronger, to the detriment of the U.S. and its moderate allies in the region.

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Has John Boehner Learned His Lesson?

It was a short sound bite but it was replayed endlessly yesterday, angering some conservatives and leaving liberals chortling. When House Speaker John Boehner was asked during a press conference with other Republican leaders about criticisms from conservative activist groups of the budget deal struck by Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, he exploded:

REPORTER: Mr. Speaking, most major conservative groups have put out statements blasting this deal. Are you –

BOEHNER: You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?

REPORTER: Are you worried –

BOEHNER: They are using our members and they are using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous. Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.

This is not the first time Boehner has responded to criticism with anger and frustration. But it was a dramatic change of tone on the part of the convivial and often-teary-eyed and sentimental House speaker when it came to the conservative groups and their Tea Party supporters within his caucus. After all, it was only three months ago that Boehner was dragged reluctantly into a damaging government shutdown by the same organizations and members who were carping about the Ryan deal yesterday. Though no one should expect Boehner to be a changed man from the indecisive speaker of the shutdown crisis, he may have learned at least a couple of important lessons from that difficult experience. The days of the Tea Party tale wagging the House Republican big dog appear to be over.

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It was a short sound bite but it was replayed endlessly yesterday, angering some conservatives and leaving liberals chortling. When House Speaker John Boehner was asked during a press conference with other Republican leaders about criticisms from conservative activist groups of the budget deal struck by Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, he exploded:

REPORTER: Mr. Speaking, most major conservative groups have put out statements blasting this deal. Are you –

BOEHNER: You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it?

REPORTER: Are you worried –

BOEHNER: They are using our members and they are using the American people for their own goals. This is ridiculous. Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.

This is not the first time Boehner has responded to criticism with anger and frustration. But it was a dramatic change of tone on the part of the convivial and often-teary-eyed and sentimental House speaker when it came to the conservative groups and their Tea Party supporters within his caucus. After all, it was only three months ago that Boehner was dragged reluctantly into a damaging government shutdown by the same organizations and members who were carping about the Ryan deal yesterday. Though no one should expect Boehner to be a changed man from the indecisive speaker of the shutdown crisis, he may have learned at least a couple of important lessons from that difficult experience. The days of the Tea Party tale wagging the House Republican big dog appear to be over.

The incident and the debate about the budget deal are bringing out into the open a conservative civil war that had previously been conducted behind closed doors, at least as far as the House leadership was concerned. Prior to the shutdown there was little doubt that Boehner wasn’t happy about the way some House conservatives and, even more importantly, advocacy groups like Heritage Action and FreedomWorks were helping to limit his options in negotiations with the Democrats. Though he made it clear enough that he knew the decision to try and force the defunding of ObamaCare was doomed to failure and that it would hurt his party, Boehner wound up bowing to the demands of Heritage, Ted Cruz, and the rest of the suicide caucus in the House.

The thinking then was that Boehner worried that if he thwarted those who believed such radical tactics were the only possible response to the health-care law’s implementation, the House Republican membership would be irretrievably split and his speakership might be threatened. What followed was a disaster that not only materially damaged the Republican Party but, just as importantly, served to obscure the ObamaCare rollout fiasco for three weeks as the mainstream media focused instead on those who had warned him against letting himself be buffaloed into a futile shutdown. After 17 days of a shutdown, Republicans were forced to give in having accomplished nothing other than to make his party and congressional Republicans look just like the extremist caricature Democrats had tried to paint them as being.

However, the conclusion of this drama also exploded the myth that Heritage and company really had the power to thwart any effort to pull back from the brink. When Boehner finally concluded a deal that was little more than a face-saving surrender to end the shutdown, the activists screamed bloody murder and warned they would back primary challenges against any Republican who went along. But the tide had shifted against them and few heeded their threats. By the time the dust settled, even some on the right like Senator Rand Paul were admitting the whole thing had been a mistake.

The speaker emerged from this trial chastened by the experience but perhaps also realizing that the bark of the Tea Party caucus was worse than its bite. Many Republicans will oppose the Ryan deal that more or less formalizes a truce with the Democrats on budget issues for the next year and Heritage and others will, as they did with the shutdown, try and make it a litmus test of conservative bona fides. But Boehner and even a conservative deep thinker like Ryan have rightly come to the conclusion that the agreement with Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray is not only as much as they can reasonably hope to get. Even more to the point, they understand that paralyzing the government and Congress with manufactured crises, in order to push for more deficit reduction and the entitlement reform the nation needs but won’t get so long as control of Congress is split between the two parties, is a critical mistake. The nation as a whole and even most rank-and-file Republicans have had enough of the shutdown mentality. Three months ago, it may have seemed as if Boehner had no choice but to accede to the demands of the Tea Partiers. The shutdown may have convinced him that he doesn’t have to do that anymore.

Having methodically worked his way to the leadership over the course of a long career in the House, Boehner is no pushover. But during his time as speaker he hasn’t exactly come across as the sort of politician whom challengers cross at their peril. But the events of the last few months may mean that he will never again be bullied into taking a course of action that he knows is mistaken. This week he has called the Tea Party’s bluff in exactly the manner that many in his party wish he had done back in September. If he sticks to this resolve, both the Congress and the Republican Party will be better off for it.

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Marco Rubio and the Perils of Opportunism

The opponents of the bipartisan budget deal oppose it for different reasons, and some of the opposition is undoubtedly based on principle. But some of the opposition, it appears, is based on something rather less admirable.  

Take Senator Marco Rubio. He originally voted against the sequester, in part, he said, because it cut defense too much. “Defense funding should be driven by our national security needs, not by arbitrary fiscal arithmetic,” he said in a joint statement with other senators. “We cannot responsibly allow across-the-board, draconian defense cuts to go forward at the expense of our national security.”

Now he’s criticizing a budget deal that would increase spending on defense while also slightly cutting the deficit, arguing that we shouldn’t give up the sequestration deal he initially opposed. And he’s the one complaining about the lack of “long-term thinking.”

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The opponents of the bipartisan budget deal oppose it for different reasons, and some of the opposition is undoubtedly based on principle. But some of the opposition, it appears, is based on something rather less admirable.  

Take Senator Marco Rubio. He originally voted against the sequester, in part, he said, because it cut defense too much. “Defense funding should be driven by our national security needs, not by arbitrary fiscal arithmetic,” he said in a joint statement with other senators. “We cannot responsibly allow across-the-board, draconian defense cuts to go forward at the expense of our national security.”

Now he’s criticizing a budget deal that would increase spending on defense while also slightly cutting the deficit, arguing that we shouldn’t give up the sequestration deal he initially opposed. And he’s the one complaining about the lack of “long-term thinking.”

I’ve said favorable things about Senator Rubio in the past. He’s a likeable figure, and often a persuasive one. But some worrisome patterns are emerging.

Senator Rubio voted against the Budget Control Act in 2011 that paved the path toward the sequester–and now he’s blasting a defensible, if far from perfect, deal by Representative Ryan and Senator Murray on the grounds that it undoes the sequester (which is a simplistic and incomplete argument in itself, for reasons I lay out here). And Senator Rubio showed a massive error in judgment in championing the effort to shut down the federal government if the Affordable Care Act wasn’t de-funded–a gambit that did absolutely no good and in fact inflicted a fair amount of harm on his party.

Senator Rubio strikes me as a person not only highly attuned to criticisms of him from the base, but overly reactive to them, adjusting and responding moment by moment. One senses that believing he badly hurt himself with the base because of his stand on immigration, he’s now scrambling to ingratiate himself with it. It isn’t a particularly impressive thing to watch.

Senator Rubio is young, talented, and, I think, has a lot to contribute to conservatism. But he might take to heart the words of St. Paul, who in the book of Ephesians warned about those “tossed like waves and blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

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Venezuela Rebuffs John Kerry

As far as Secretary of State John Kerry is concerned, last Sunday’s municipal elections in Venezuela resulted in an uncomplicated endorsement of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Interviewed by the Miami Herald, Kerry remarked that “there are some questions of irregularities,” before adding that “they [the elections] didn’t produce the kind of change that I think a number of people thought they might.”

Then came the inevitable attempt to revive the bilateral talks that were first held last June. These were unilaterally shut down by the Venezuelan government one month later, when Maduro, angered by the criticisms of Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, over his “crackdown on civil society,” declared a “zero-tolerance” policy “for gringo aggression against Venezuela.” But Kerry evidently thinks a further attempt to soothe chavista anxieties is warranted. As he told the Herald:

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As far as Secretary of State John Kerry is concerned, last Sunday’s municipal elections in Venezuela resulted in an uncomplicated endorsement of Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Interviewed by the Miami Herald, Kerry remarked that “there are some questions of irregularities,” before adding that “they [the elections] didn’t produce the kind of change that I think a number of people thought they might.”

Then came the inevitable attempt to revive the bilateral talks that were first held last June. These were unilaterally shut down by the Venezuelan government one month later, when Maduro, angered by the criticisms of Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, over his “crackdown on civil society,” declared a “zero-tolerance” policy “for gringo aggression against Venezuela.” But Kerry evidently thinks a further attempt to soothe chavista anxieties is warranted. As he told the Herald:

“We are ready and willing, and we are open to improving that relationship. Our hope is that the government will stop using our relationship as an excuse for not doing other things internally, and really opening up more to the people. We’ve been disappointed that the Maduro government has not been as ready to move with us and to engage, and that it seems to take more pleasure in perpetuating the sort of differences that we don’t think really exist.”

Those “differences” include the accusation that the U.S. poisoned the now deceased comandante, Hugo Chavez, and that American diplomats stationed in the country were encouraging “acts of sabotage.” And going by Foreign Minister Elia Jaua’s response to the Kerry interview, the belief that the U.S. is trying to bring down Maduro’s regime remains deeply-held:

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua stated on Wednesday that in order to bring US-Venezuela relations back to normal, the United States must “once and for all” end “financing Venezuelan opposition organizations” and stop former officials allegedly plotting against the country.

“For the purpose of advancing in the normalization of relations with the United States, once and for all that Government must stop financing opposition groups and purported non-governmental organizations in Venezuela,” Jaua said in a press conference.

The “former officials” referred to are Bush administration appointees Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, whom Maduro, in September, described as a “mafia” that derailed his visit to the United Nations by planning an unspecified “crazy, terrible provocation.” And nothing Kerry says will sway Jaua’s conviction that there is a seamless connection between the previous administration, the Obama administration, and Venezuela’s struggling opposition.

Crucially, what is lost in Kerry’s fruitless overtures is an honest assessment of Sunday’s election results. It is true that the ambition of the opposition MUD coalition to turn the elections into a national referendum on Maduro was frustrated by an abstention rate of around 40 percent. But that number, which suggests a lack of faith in the electoral process in the wake of last April’s fraud-stained presidential poll, is hardly a resounding success for Maduro either.

In addition, the MUD made important gains in the cities. Antonio Ledezma, the feisty mayor of Metropolitan Caracas, was reelected to his post, and opposition candidates were victorious in major municipalities in Maracaibo, Valencia and–notably–Barinas, the home state of Hugo Chavez, where his brother Adan serves as governor. These are no mean achievements, given the context: in the weeks leading up to the election, Maduro received a much-needed boost by forcing merchants to sell luxury consumer goods at prices slashed by up to 1,000 percent, while his near-total control of the Venezuelan media led Vicente Diaz, the sole independent member of the regime-controlled National Electoral Council (CNE,) to denounce the election campaign as “the most outrageous” in the country’s history.

Now that the municipal elections are over, the opposition finds itself with a near-impossible challenge. Parliamentary elections aren’t scheduled until 2015; meanwhile, Maduro has amassed the powers of a dictator, thanks to an Enabling Act that allows him to bypass the National Assembly and rule by decree. By not even mentioning the opposition’s successes last weekend, John Kerry has bolstered Maduro’s sense of his invincibility, thus ensuring that Venezuela has taken another step along the road to a one-party state.

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Why the Budget Deal Deserves Conservative Support

Good grief. 

Reacting to the budget deal agreed to by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, Senator Rand Paul referred to it as “shameful.” Senator Ted Cruz informed us he found it to be “deeply concerning.” And Senator Marco Rubio said it would “make it harder for Americans to achieve the American dream.” 

So the geniuses who engineered the disastrous budget shutdown are now attacking an agreement that is  substantively defensible and politically wise.

To be sure, the budget deal is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the structural fiscal problems we face. But of course achieving such a thing is impossible so long as Barack Obama is president and Harry Reid is Senate majority leader. The issue is whether the deal is, on the margins, better than no deal. Answer: It is.

Basically the Ryan-Murray agreement allows minor increases in domestic discretionary spending in exchange for minor mandatory cuts in entitlement programs. To be specific: the deal gives back $63 billion over the next two years in domestic discretionary spending (including half of which goes for defense) in exchange for $85 billion in modest entitlement reforms over 10 years. The cuts are not as immediate as the spending increases–but they are cuts that are very likely to materialize and would not be easy to reverse. 

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Good grief. 

Reacting to the budget deal agreed to by Representative Paul Ryan and Senator Patty Murray, Senator Rand Paul referred to it as “shameful.” Senator Ted Cruz informed us he found it to be “deeply concerning.” And Senator Marco Rubio said it would “make it harder for Americans to achieve the American dream.” 

So the geniuses who engineered the disastrous budget shutdown are now attacking an agreement that is  substantively defensible and politically wise.

To be sure, the budget deal is far from perfect. It doesn’t address the structural fiscal problems we face. But of course achieving such a thing is impossible so long as Barack Obama is president and Harry Reid is Senate majority leader. The issue is whether the deal is, on the margins, better than no deal. Answer: It is.

Basically the Ryan-Murray agreement allows minor increases in domestic discretionary spending in exchange for minor mandatory cuts in entitlement programs. To be specific: the deal gives back $63 billion over the next two years in domestic discretionary spending (including half of which goes for defense) in exchange for $85 billion in modest entitlement reforms over 10 years. The cuts are not as immediate as the spending increases–but they are cuts that are very likely to materialize and would not be easy to reverse. 

My Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Yuval Levin, writing on NRO, makes the following points: Mandatory spending out-year cuts actually tend to go into effect, unlike discretionary spending out-year cuts, because mandatory programs remain in place since they are on auto-pilot. The Ryan-Murray deal would say that about 30 percent of the sequester over the next two years will be replaced with modest (and much more sensible) longer-term entitlement savings and other small reforms. Fully 70 percent of the sequester remains in place in this two years, and after those two years the entire sequester remains in place. And this is important to note, too: this proposed deal would put discretionary spending in 2014 and 2015, even with the temporary two-year increase in spending, below that of the first House Republican budget, which was passed in 2011 to the praise of conservatives. In addition, this deal prevents additional deep cuts to the Department of Defense, it doesn’t involve any increase in tax rates, and it restores the normal appropriations process (which will allow Congress to set priorities). And just for the sake of context: the $63 billion increase over two years amounts to less than nine-tenths of one percent of projected federal spending over that period.

Where Ryan did a huge favor for the GOP politically is striking a deal that avoids a government shutdown, which (as we saw last October) would only damage the Republican Party and the conservative cause, in part by deflecting attention away from the rolling disaster of ObamaCare.

The deal also takes into account political reality: It’s quite possible House Republicans–in part because of Republicans who are worried about deep cuts in defense, in part because of Republicans who want to spend more–might not have had the votes in their own conference to have kept the sequester in place. Ryan, knowing this, pushed for the best deal he could to keep limits on spending rather than have the whole thing fall apart later.

On substance this budget deal, even if one supports it, isn’t worth getting all that excited about. (Similarly, if one opposes it, it isn’t worth getting all that excited about.) But the GOP and the conservative cause are better served with it than without it. Which is why it deserves support.

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From 2007: Norman Podhoretz’s “The Case for Bombing Iran”

Norman Podhoretz, who has been writing for Commentary since 1953, has an op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal called “Strike Iran Now to Avert Disaster Later.” The piece, which is already much discussed, reminded us here that we, and he, first discussed this topic at length in June 2007—six and a half years ago. The article in question was called “The Case for Bombing Iran.” We reprint it below.

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The Case for Bombing Iran—June 2007

Although many persist in denying it, I continue to believe that what September 11, 2001 did was to plunge us headlong into nothing less than another world war. I call this new war World War IV, because I also believe that what is generally known as the cold war was actually World War III, and that this one bears a closer resemblance to that great conflict than it does to World War II. Like the cold war, as the military historian Eliot Cohen was the first to recognize, the one we are now in has ideological roots, pitting us against Islamofascism, yet another mutation of the totalitarian disease we defeated first in the shape of Nazism and fascism and then in the shape of Communism; it is global in scope; it is being fought with a variety of weapons, not all of them military; and it is likely to go on for decades.

What follows from this way of looking at the last five years is that the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be understood if they are regarded as self-contained wars in their own right. Instead we have to see them as fronts or theaters that have been opened up in the early stages of a protracted global struggle. The same thing is true of Iran. As the currently main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11, and as (according to the State Department’s latest annual report on the subject) the main sponsor of the terrorism that is Islamofascism’s weapon of choice, Iran too is a front in World War IV. Moreover, its effort to build a nuclear arsenal makes it the potentially most dangerous one of all.

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Norman Podhoretz, who has been writing for Commentary since 1953, has an op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal called “Strike Iran Now to Avert Disaster Later.” The piece, which is already much discussed, reminded us here that we, and he, first discussed this topic at length in June 2007—six and a half years ago. The article in question was called “The Case for Bombing Iran.” We reprint it below.

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The Case for Bombing Iran—June 2007

Although many persist in denying it, I continue to believe that what September 11, 2001 did was to plunge us headlong into nothing less than another world war. I call this new war World War IV, because I also believe that what is generally known as the cold war was actually World War III, and that this one bears a closer resemblance to that great conflict than it does to World War II. Like the cold war, as the military historian Eliot Cohen was the first to recognize, the one we are now in has ideological roots, pitting us against Islamofascism, yet another mutation of the totalitarian disease we defeated first in the shape of Nazism and fascism and then in the shape of Communism; it is global in scope; it is being fought with a variety of weapons, not all of them military; and it is likely to go on for decades.

What follows from this way of looking at the last five years is that the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be understood if they are regarded as self-contained wars in their own right. Instead we have to see them as fronts or theaters that have been opened up in the early stages of a protracted global struggle. The same thing is true of Iran. As the currently main center of the Islamofascist ideology against which we have been fighting since 9/11, and as (according to the State Department’s latest annual report on the subject) the main sponsor of the terrorism that is Islamofascism’s weapon of choice, Iran too is a front in World War IV. Moreover, its effort to build a nuclear arsenal makes it the potentially most dangerous one of all.

The Iranians, of course, never cease denying that they intend to build a nuclear arsenal, and yet in the same breath they openly tell us what they intend to do with it. Their first priority, as repeatedly and unequivocally announced by their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is to “wipe Israel off the map”—a feat that could not be accomplished by conventional weapons alone.

But Ahmadinejad’s ambitions are not confined to the destruction of Israel. He also wishes to dominate the greater Middle East, and thereby to control the oilfields of the region and the flow of oil out of it through the Persian Gulf. If he acquired a nuclear capability, he would not even have to use it in order to put all this within his reach. Intimidation and blackmail by themselves would do the trick.

Nor are Ahmadinejad’s ambitions merely regional in scope. He has a larger dream of extending the power and influence of Islam throughout Europe, and this too he hopes to accomplish by playing on the fear that resistance to Iran would lead to a nuclear war. And then, finally, comes the largest dream of all: what Ahmadinejad does not shrink from describing as “a world without America.” Demented though he may be, I doubt that Ahmadinejad is so crazy as to imagine that he could wipe America off the map even if he had nuclear weapons. But what he probably does envisage is a diminution of the American will to oppose him: that is, if not a world without America, he will settle, at least in the short run, for a world without much American influence.

Not surprisingly, the old American foreign-policy establishment and many others say that these dreams are nothing more than the fantasies of a madman. They also dismiss those who think otherwise as neoconservative alarmists trying to drag this country into another senseless war that is in the interest not of the United States but only of Israel. But the irony is that Ahmadinejad’s dreams are more realistic than the dismissal of those dreams as merely insane delusions. To understand why, an analogy with World War III may help.

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At certain points in that earlier war, some of us feared that the Soviets might seize control of the oil fields of the Middle East, and that the West, faced with a choice between surrendering to their dominance or trying to stop them at the risk of a nuclear exchange, would choose surrender. In that case, we thought, the result would be what in those days went by the name of Finlandization.

In Europe, where there were large Communist parties, Finlandization would take the form of bringing these parties to power so that they could establish “Red Vichy” regimes like the one already in place in Finland—regimes whose subservience to the Soviet will in all things, domestic and foreign alike, would make military occupation unnecessary and would therefore preserve a minimal degree of national independence.

In the United States, where there was no Communist party to speak of, we speculated that Finlandization would take a subtler form. In the realm of foreign affairs, politicians and pundits would arise to celebrate the arrival of a new era of peace and friendship in which the cold-war policy of containment would be scrapped, thus giving the Soviets complete freedom to expand without encountering any significant obstacles. And in the realm of domestic affairs, Finlandization would mean that the only candidates running for office with a prayer of being elected would be those who promised to work toward a sociopolitical system more in harmony with the Soviet model than the unjust capitalist plutocracy under which we had been living.

Of course, by the grace of God, the dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, and Ronald Reagan, we won World War III and were therefore spared the depredations that Finlandization would have brought. Alas, we are far from knowing what the outcome of World War IV will be. But in the meantime, looking at Europe today, we already see the unfolding of a process analogous to Finlandization: it has been called, rightly, Islamization. Consider, for example, what happened when, only a few weeks ago, the Iranians captured fifteen British sailors and marines and held them hostage. Did the Royal Navy, which once boasted that it ruled the waves, immediately retaliate against this blatant act of aggression, or even threaten to do so unless the captives were immediately released? Not by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, using force was the last thing in the world the British contemplated doing, as they made sure to announce. Instead they relied on the “soft power” so beloved of “sophisticated” Europeans and their American fellow travelers.

But then, as if this show of impotence were not humiliating enough, the British were unable even to mobilize any of that soft power. The European Union, of which they are a member, turned down their request to threaten Iran with a freeze of imports. As for the UN, under whose very auspices they were patrolling the international waters in which the sailors were kidnapped, it once again showed its true colors by refusing even to condemn the Iranians. The most the Security Council could bring itself to do was to express “grave concern.” Meanwhile, a member of the British cabinet was going the Security Council one better. While registering no objection to propaganda pictures of the one woman hostage, who had been forced to shed her uniform and dress for the cameras in Muslim clothing, Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt pronounced it “deplorable” that she should have permitted herself to be photographed with a cigarette in her mouth. “This,” said Hewitt, “sends completely the wrong message to our young people.”

According to John Bolton, our former ambassador to the UN, the Iranians were testing the British to see if there would be any price to pay for committing what would once have been considered an act of war. Having received his answer, Ahmadinejad could now reap the additional benefit of, as the British commentator Daniel Johnson puts it, “posing as a benefactor” by releasing the hostages, even while ordering more attacks in Iraq and even while continuing to arm terrorist organizations, whether Shiite (Hizballah) or Sunni (Hamas). For fanatical Shiites though Ahmadinejad and his ilk assuredly are, they are obviously willing to set sectarian differences aside when it comes to forging jihadist alliances against the infidels.

If, then, under present circumstances Ahmadinejad could bring about the extraordinary degree of kowtowing that resulted from the kidnapping of the British sailors, what might he not accomplish with a nuclear arsenal behind him—nuclear bombs that could be fitted on missiles capable of reaching Europe? As to such a capability, Robert G. Joseph, the U.S. Special Envoy for Nuclear Non-Proliferation, tells us that Iran is “expanding what is already the largest offensive missile force in the region. Moreover, it is reported to be working closely with North Korea, the world’s number-one missile proliferator, to develop even more capable ballistic missiles.” This, Joseph goes on, is why “analysts agree that in the foreseeable future Iran will be armed with medium- and long-range ballistic missiles,” and it is also why “we could wake up one morning to find that Iran is holding Berlin, Paris or London hostage to whatever its demands are then.”

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As with Finlandization, Islamization extends to the domestic realm, too. In one recent illustration of this process, as reported in the British press, “schools in England are dropping the Holocaust from history lessons to avoid offending Muslim pupils . . . whose beliefs include Holocaust denial.” But this is an equal-opportunity capitulation, since the schools are also eliminating lessons about the Crusades because “such lessons often contradict what is taught in local mosques.”

But why single out England? If anything, much more, and worse, has been going on in other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands. All of these countries have large and growing Muslim populations demanding that their religious values and sensibilities be accommodated at the expense of the traditional values of the West, and even in some instances of the law. Yet rather than insisting that, like all immigrant groups before them, they assimilate to Western norms, almost all European politicians have been cravenly giving in to the Muslims’ outrageous demands.

As in the realm of foreign affairs, if this much can be accomplished under present circumstances, what might not be done if the process were being backed by Iranian nuclear blackmail? Already some observers are warning that by the end of the 21st century the whole of Europe will be transformed into a place to which they give the name Eurabia. Whatever chance there may still be of heading off this eventuality would surely be lessened by the menacing shadow of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, and only too ready to put them into the hands of the terrorist groups to whom it is even now supplying rockets and other explosive devices.

And the United States? As would have been the case with Finlandization, we would experience a milder form of Islamization here at home. But not in the area of foreign policy. Like the Europeans, confronted by Islamofascists armed by Iran with nuclear weapons, we would become more and more hesitant to risk resisting the emergence of a world shaped by their will and tailored to their wishes. For even if Ahmadinejad did not yet have missiles with a long enough range to hit the United States, he would certainly be able to unleash a wave of nuclear terror against us. If he did, he would in all likelihood act through proxies, for whom he would with characteristic brazenness disclaim any responsibility even if the weapons used by the terrorists were to bear telltale markings identifying them as of Iranian origin. At the same time, the opponents of retaliation and other antiwar forces would rush to point out that there was good reason to accept this disclaimer and, markings or no markings (could they not have been forged?), no really solid evidence to refute it.

In any event, in these same centers of opinion, such a scenario is regarded as utter nonsense. In their view, none of the things it envisages would follow even if Ahmadinejad should get the bomb, because the fear of retaliation would deter him from attacking us just as it deterred the Soviets in World War III. For our part, moreover, the knowledge that we were safe from attack would preclude any danger of our falling into anything like Islamization.

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But listen to what Bernard Lewis, the greatest authority of our time on the Islamic world, has to say in this context on the subject of deterrence:

MAD, mutual assured destruction, [was effective] right through the cold war. Both sides had nuclear weapons. Neither side used them, because both sides knew the other would retaliate in kind. This will not work with a religious fanatic [like Ahmadinejad]. For him, mutual assured destruction is not a deterrent, it is an inducement. We know already that [Iran’s leaders] do not give a damn about killing their own people in great numbers. We have seen it again and again. In the final scenario, and this applies all the more strongly if they kill large numbers of their own people, they are doing them a favor. They are giving them a quick free pass to heaven and all its delights.

Nor are they inhibited by a love of country:

We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.

These were the words of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who ruled Iran from 1979 to 1989, and there is no reason to suppose that his disciple Ahmadinejad feels any differently.

Still less would deterrence work where Israel was concerned. For as the Ayatollah Rafsanjani (who is supposedly a “pragmatic conservative”) has declared:

If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession. . . application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.

In other words, Israel would be destroyed in a nuclear exchange, but Iran would survive.

In spite of all this, we keep hearing that all would be well if only we agreed—in the currently fashionable lingo—to “engage” with Iran, and that even if the worst came to the worst we could—to revert to the same lingo—“live” with a nuclear Iran. It is when such things are being said that, alongside the resemblance between now and World War III, a parallel also becomes evident between now and the eve of World War II.

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By 1938, Germany under Adolf Hitler had for some years been rearming in defiance of its obligations under the Versailles treaty and other international agreements. Yet even though Hitler in Mein Kampf had explicitly spelled out the goals he was now preparing to pursue, scarcely anyone took him seriously. To the imminent victims of the war he was soon to start, Hitler’s book and his inflammatory speeches were nothing more than braggadocio or, to use the more colorful word Hannah Arendt once applied to Adolf Eichmann, rodomontade: the kind of red meat any politician might throw to his constituents at home. Hitler might sound at times like a madman, but in reality he was a shrewd operator with whom one could—in the notorious term coined by the London Times—“do business.” The business that was done under this assumption was the Munich Agreement of 1938, which the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared had brought “peace in our time.”

It was thanks to Munich that “appeasement” became one of the dirtiest words in the whole of our political vocabulary. Yet appeasement had always been an important and entirely respectable tool of diplomacy, signifying the avoidance of war through the alleviation of the other side’s grievances. If Hitler had been what his eventual victims imagined he was—that is, a conventional statesman pursuing limited aims and using the threat of war only as a way of strengthening his bargaining position—it would indeed have been possible to appease him and thereby to head off the outbreak of another war.

But Hitler was not a conventional statesman and, although for tactical reasons he would sometimes pretend otherwise, he did not have limited aims. He was a revolutionary seeking to overturn the going international system and to replace it with a new order dominated by Germany, which also meant the political culture of Nazism. As such, he offered only two choices: resistance or submission. Finding this reality unbearable, the world persuaded itself that there was a way out, a third alternative, in negotiations. But given Hitler’s objectives, and his barely concealed lust for war, negotiating with him could not conceivably have led to peace. It could have had only one outcome, which was to buy him more time to start a war under more favorable conditions. As most historians now agree, if he had been taken at his own word about his true intentions, he could have been stopped earlier and defeated at an infinitely lower cost.

Which brings us back to Ahmadinejad. Like Hitler, he is a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism. Like Hitler, too, he is entirely open about his intentions, although—again like Hitler—he sometimes pretends that he wants nothing more than his country’s just due. In the case of Hitler in 1938, this pretense took the form of claiming that no further demands would be made if sovereignty over the Sudetenland were transferred from Czechoslovakia to Germany. In the case of Ahmadinejad, the pretense takes the form of claiming that Iran is building nuclear facilities only for peaceful purposes and not for the production of bombs.

But here we come upon an interesting difference between then and now. Whereas in the late 1930’s almost everyone believed, or talked himself into believing, that Hitler was telling the truth when he said he had no further demands to make after Munich, no one believes that Ahmadinejad is telling the truth when he says that Iran has no wish to develop a nuclear arsenal. In addition, virtually everyone agrees that it would be best if he were stopped, only not, God forbid, with military force—not now, and not ever.

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But if military force is ruled out, what is supposed to do the job?

Well, to begin with, there is that good old standby, diplomacy. And so, for three-and-a-half years, even pre-dating the accession of Ahmadinejad to the presidency, the diplomatic gavotte has been danced with Iran, in negotiations whose carrot-and-stick details no one can remember—not even, I suspect, the parties involved. But since, to say it again, Ahmadinejad is a revolutionary with unlimited aims and not a statesman with whom we can “do business,” all this negotiating has had the same result as Munich had with Hitler. That is, it has bought the Iranians more time in which they have moved closer and closer to developing nuclear weapons.

Then there are sanctions. As it happens, sanctions have very rarely worked in the past. Worse yet, they have usually ended up hurting the hapless people of the targeted country while leaving the leadership unscathed. Nevertheless, much hope has been invested in them as a way of bringing Ahmadinejad to heel. Yet thanks to the resistance of Russia and China, both of which have reasons of their own to go easy on Iran, it has proved enormously difficult for the Security Council to impose sanctions that could even conceivably be effective. At first, the only measures to which Russia and China would agree were much too limited even to bite. Then, as Iran continued to defy Security Council resolutions and to block inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it was bound by treaty to permit, not even the Russians and the Chinese were able to hold out against stronger sanctions. Once more, however, these have had little or no effect on the progress Iran is making toward the development of a nuclear arsenal. On the contrary: they, too, have bought the Iranians additional time in which to move ahead.

Since hope springs eternal, some now believe that the answer lies in more punishing sanctions. This time, however, their purpose would be not to force Iran into compliance, but to provoke an internal uprising against Ahmadinejad and the regime as a whole. Those who advocate this course tell us that the “mullocracy” is very unpopular, especially with young people, who make up a majority of Iran’s population. They tell us that these young people would like nothing better than to get rid of the oppressive and repressive and corrupt regime under which they now live and to replace it with a democratic system. And they tell us, finally, that if Iran were so transformed, we would have nothing to fear from it even if it were to acquire nuclear weapons.

Once upon a time, under the influence of Bernard Lewis and others I respect, I too subscribed to this school of thought. But after three years and more of waiting for the insurrection they assured us back then was on the verge of erupting, I have lost confidence in their prediction. Some of them blame the Bush administration for not doing enough to encourage an uprising, which is why they have now transferred their hopes to sanctions that would inflict so much damage on the Iranian economy that the entire populace would rise up against the rulers. Yet whether or not this might happen under such circumstances, there is simply no chance of getting Russia and China, or the Europeans for that matter, to agree to the kind of sanctions that are the necessary precondition.

_____________

 

At the outset I stipulated that the weapons with which we are fighting World War IV are not all military—that they also include economic, diplomatic, and other nonmilitary instruments of power. In exerting pressure for reform on countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, these nonmilitary instruments are the right ones to use. But it should be clear by now to any observer not in denial that Iran is not such a country. As we know from Iran’s defiance of the Security Council and the IAEA even while the United States has been warning Ahmadinejad that “all options” remain on the table, ultimatums and threats of force can no more stop him than negotiations and sanctions have managed to do. Like them, all they accomplish is to buy him more time.

In short, the plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force—any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938.

Since a ground invasion of Iran must be ruled out for many different reasons, the job would have to be done, if it is to be done at all, by a campaign of air strikes. Furthermore, because Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed, and because some of them are underground, many sorties and bunker-busting munitions would be required. And because such a campaign is beyond the capabilities of Israel, and the will, let alone the courage, of any of our other allies, it could be carried out only by the United States.* Even then, we would probably be unable to get at all the underground facilities, which means that, if Iran were still intent on going nuclear, it would not have to start over again from scratch. But a bombing campaign would without question set back its nuclear program for years to come, and might even lead to the overthrow of the mullahs.

The opponents of bombing—not just the usual suspects but many both here and in Israel who have no illusions about the nature and intentions and potential capabilities of the Iranian regime—disagree that it might end in the overthrow of the mullocracy. On the contrary, they are certain that all Iranians, even the democratic dissidents, would be impelled to rally around the flag. And this is only one of the worst-case scenarios they envisage. To wit: Iran would retaliate by increasing the trouble it is already making for us in Iraq. It would attack Israel with missiles armed with non-nuclear warheads but possibly containing biological and/or chemical weapons. There would be a vast increase in the price of oil, with catastrophic consequences for every economy in the world, very much including our own. The worldwide outcry against the inevitable civilian casualties would make the anti-Americanism of today look like a love-fest.

I readily admit that it would be foolish to discount any or all of these scenarios. Each of them is, alas, only too plausible. Nevertheless, there is a good response to them, and it is the one given by John McCain. The only thing worse than bombing Iran, McCain has declared, is allowing Iran to get the bomb.

And yet those of us who agree with McCain are left with the question of whether there is still time. If we believe the Iranians, the answer is no. In early April, at Iran’s Nuclear Day festivities, Ahmadinejad announced that the point of no return in the nuclearization process had been reached. If this is true, it means that Iran is only a small step away from producing nuclear weapons. But even supposing that Ahmadinejad is bluffing, in order to convince the world that it is already too late to stop him, how long will it take before he actually turns out to have a winning hand?

If we believe the CIA, perhaps as much as ten years. But CIA estimates have so often been wrong that they are hardly more credible than the boasts of Ahmadinejad. Other estimates by other experts fall within the range of a few months to six years. Which is to say that no one really knows. And because no one really knows, the only prudent—indeed, the only responsible—course is to assume that Ahmadinejad may not be bluffing, or may only be exaggerating a bit, and to strike at him as soon as it is logistically possible.

_____________

 

In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush made a promise:

We’ll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.

In that speech, the President was referring to Iraq, but he has made it clear on a number of subsequent occasions that the same principle applies to Iran. Indeed, he has gone so far as to say that if we permit Iran to build a nuclear arsenal, people 50 years from now will look back and wonder how we of this generation could have allowed such a thing to happen, and they will rightly judge us as harshly as we today judge the British and the French for what they did and what they failed to do at Munich in 1938. I find it hard to understand why George W. Bush would have put himself so squarely in the dock of history on this issue if he were resigned to leaving office with Iran in possession of nuclear weapons, or with the ability to build them. Accordingly, my guess is that he intends, within the next 21 months, to order air strikes against the Iranian nuclear facilities from the three U.S. aircraft carriers already sitting nearby.

But if that is what he has in mind, why is he spending all this time doing the diplomatic dance and wasting so much energy on getting the Russians and the Chinese to sign on to sanctions? The reason, I suspect, is that—to borrow a phrase from Robert Kagan—he has been “giving futility its chance.” Not that this is necessarily a cynical ploy. For it may well be that he has entertained the remote possibility of a diplomatic solution under which Iran would follow the example of Libya in voluntarily giving up its nuclear program. Besides, once having played out the diplomatic string, and thereby having demonstrated that to him force is truly a last resort, Bush would be in a stronger political position to endorse John McCain’s formula that the only thing worse than bombing Iran would be allowing Iran to build a nuclear bomb—and not just to endorse that assessment, but to act on it.

_____________

 

If this is what Bush intends to do, it goes, or should go, without saying that his overriding purpose is to ensure the security of this country in accordance with the vow he took upon becoming President, and in line with his pledge not to stand by while one of the world’s most dangerous regimes threatens us with one of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

But there is, it has been reported, another consideration that is driving Bush. According to a recent news story in the New York Times, for example, Bush has taken to heart what “[o]fficials from 21 governments in and around the Middle East warned at a meeting of Arab leaders in March”—namely, “that Iran’s drive for atomic technology could result in the beginning of ‘a grave and destructive nuclear arms race in the region.’” Which is to say that he fears that local resistance to Iran’s bid for hegemony in the greater Middle East through the acquisition of nuclear weapons could have even more dangerous consequences than a passive capitulation to that bid by the Arab countries. For resistance would spell the doom of all efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and it would vastly increase the chances of their use.

I have no doubt that this ominous prospect figures prominently in the President’s calculations. But it seems evident to me that the survival of Israel, a country to which George W. Bush has been friendlier than any President before him, is also of major concern to him—a concern fully coincident with his worries over a Middle Eastern arms race.

Much of the world has greeted Ahmadinejad’s promise to wipe Israel off the map with something close to insouciance. In fact, it could almost be said of the Europeans that they have been more upset by Ahmadinejad’s denial that a Holocaust took place 60 years ago than by his determination to set off one of his own as soon as he acquires the means to do so. In a number of European countries, Holocaust denial is a crime, and the European Union only recently endorsed that position. Yet for all their retrospective remorse over the wholesale slaughter of Jews back then, the Europeans seem no readier to lift a finger to prevent a second Holocaust than they were the first time around.

Not so George W. Bush, a man who knows evil when he sees it and who has demonstrated an unfailingly courageous willingness to endure vilification and contumely in setting his face against it. It now remains to be seen whether this President, battered more mercilessly and with less justification than any other in living memory, and weakened politically by the enemies of his policy in the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular, will find it possible to take the only action that can stop Iran from following through on its evil intentions both toward us and toward Israel. As an American and as a Jew, I pray with all my heart that he will.

 

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