Commentary Magazine


Posts For: August 8, 2014

The Gaza War Has Changed the Way the World Talks About Hamas

Amid all the metrics commentators propose to determine “who won” Operation Protective Edge, one is staring everyone in the face: the international community’s attitude toward a postwar (if and when the war is over) Gaza. And on that score, Israel seems to have won a convincing victory. The Gaza war has changed the way the world is talking about Hamas and the Gaza Strip–and, despite all their tut-tutting at Jerusalem, they sound quite a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu.

Read More

Amid all the metrics commentators propose to determine “who won” Operation Protective Edge, one is staring everyone in the face: the international community’s attitude toward a postwar (if and when the war is over) Gaza. And on that score, Israel seems to have won a convincing victory. The Gaza war has changed the way the world is talking about Hamas and the Gaza Strip–and, despite all their tut-tutting at Jerusalem, they sound quite a bit like Benjamin Netanyahu.

I wrote last week of the Netanyahu government’s informal proposal for a sort of “economic peace” for Gaza in return for its demilitarization. Despite its record of success, economic peace has never really been embraced by the international community–and when Netanyahu proposes it, it’s usually met with anger and derision. But not this time. This time Hamas seems to have overplayed its hand.

It’s possible that this is Hamas being a victim of its own morbid “success” with regard to the propaganda war. That is, maybe the international community is so torn up by the violence in Gaza that they want more than ever to prevent its recurrence. And no matter how often they try to blame Israel, they seem to understand that there’s only one way to prevent future bloodshed: demilitarize, at least to a significant degree, the Gaza Strip.

Take, for example, the Obama administration. While President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and their staffers and advisors have been intent on criticizing Israel in public and in harsh terms, the president’s loyal defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, reportedly spoke as though he took the need to disarm Hamas for granted last week. And it’s even more significant to hear of European leaders joining that bandwagon. As Foreign Policy reported last night:

Major European powers have outlined a detailed plan for a European-backed U.N. mission to monitor the lifting of an Israeli and Egyptian blockade of the Gaza Strip and the dismantling of Hamas’s military tunnel network and rocket arsenals, according to a copy of the plan obtained by Foreign Policy.

The European initiative aims to reinforce wide-ranging cease-fire talks underway in Cairo. The Europeans are hoping to take advantage of this week’s 72-hour humanitarian cease-fire to cobble a more durable plan addressing underlying issues that could reignite violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

It remains unclear whether the European plan has the support of Hamas, Israel, or the United States. It does, however, include several elements the Obama administration believes are essential, including the need to ease Gazans’ plight, strengthen the role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and ensure the demilitarization of the Gaza Strip.

The plan — described in a so-called non-paper titled “Gaza: Supporting a Sustainable Ceasefire” — envisions the creation of a U.N.-mandated “monitoring and verification” mission, possibly drawing peacekeepers from the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), which has monitored a series of Israeli-Arab truces in the region since the late 1940s. The mission “should cover military and security aspects, such as the dismantling of tunnels between Gaza and Israel, and the lifting of restrictions on movement and access,” according to the document. “It could have a role in monitoring imports of construction and dual use materials allowed in the Gaza Strip, and the re-introduction of the Palestinian Authority.”

The plan’s existence is in many ways more important than its details, for it shows Europe to be embracing Netanyahu’s idea for an economic peace for Gaza. Removing the import and export restrictions (or most of them) in return for real demilitarization would be an obvious win for everyone–except Hamas. In fact, it would give a major boost to the peace process overall, because it would discredit armed “resistance” as an effective method to win Palestinians their autonomy.

It would be quite a turnaround if Gaza somehow became the prime example of peaceful state building with the international community’s help. It’s also not an easy task, to say the least. But the fact that even Europe is on board, and expects to get the UN to agree to such a plan, shows that the principle of disarming Hamas and demilitarizing the Gaza Strip has gone mainstream.

Whether it happens is another question, of course, and no one should get their hopes up, especially while Hamas is breaking even temporary ceasefires. Additionally, the UN’s record in policing such zones of conflict, especially in the Middle East, is not cause for optimism. But talk of Hamas “winning” this war is made all the more ridiculous when the topic of conversation in the capitals of the Middle East and throughout the West is how to permanently disarm Hamas and dismantle any infrastructure they can use against Israel.

Read Less

Is Putin’s Next Move Against Azerbaijan?

Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

Read More

Azerbaijan is a key American ally. The only country to border both Iran and Russia, it has angered both with its consistent efforts to orient itself to the United States. While many Americans point out Azerbaijan’s democratic deficit, President Ilham Aliyev’s strategy of building up the middle class first has merit: To force reforms prior to establishing a strong, stable middle class would play into the hands of both Iran and Russia, neither of which care an iota about democracy.

As much as Azerbaijan orients itself toward the West, neighboring Armenia has planted itself firmly in Russia’s orbit. Indeed, Armenians are perhaps the only people who would willingly vote to embrace Russia rather than the West even if Russia did not lift a finger to influence or force them. Culturally, Russians and Armenians have much in common, and Russia remains Armenia’s chief patron.

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into hot conflict almost immediately upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence by both states. In December 1991, Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh declared their own republic, one of those fictional states that the Kremlin has helped prop up with increasing frequency—for example, Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and more recently Crimea and Donetsk in the Ukraine.

Visiting Georgetown University Professor Brenda Shaffer is right when she writes in the Wall Street Journal that “Freezing lawless regions invites conflicts.” Nagorno-Karabakh has become a center for money laundering, weapons trafficking, and general instability. In sum, it has become the typical Putin proxy.

With the West distracted by events in Iraq, it seems Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh sought to make their move against a pro-Western ally which has moved to become an energy hub outside Russia’s orbit. Clashes began last week, and have escalated over subsequent days.

When it comes to the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, there’s a tendency by American policymakers to engage in moral equivalence or simply to seek quiet, regardless of principle. This is wrong on four counts:

First, while Western policymakers see diplomacy as a means to conflict resolution, Russian Present Putin sees international relations as a zero-sum game in which for Russia and its client states to win, the United States and its allies must lose.

Second, whatever the emotional commitment many in the Armenian Diaspora in the United States have toward Armenia and their desire to seek acknowledgement for the events of a century ago, the fact of the matter is that the Armenian government has repeatedly undercut U.S. interests, even going so far as ship Iranian weaponry to be used to kill American soldiers in Iraq.

Third, it’s time the White House recognize that friendship and alliance go two ways. We cannot expect Azerbaijan to so continuously align itself with the United States and promote American interests if we turn our back on its friendship in its hour of need.

And fourth, there is no longer any excuse to not see Putin for what he is. No more Bush-era soul gazing, or Obama-era reset. That Bush and Obama hardly reacted when Russian forces invaded Georgia surely contributed to Putin’s willingness to invade Ukraine. That Obama fiddled and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to appease in the aftermath of that crisis only encouraged Putin to move once again to destabilize the South Caucasus, and its most consistent pro-Western republic. If the United States does not stand up for Azerbaijan, then Putin will understand that we are neither serious about freedom or liberty, friendship or alliance. In such a case, beware Kazakhstan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Poland.

Read Less

The Uncritical and Intemperate Partisans of the Boycott-Israel Movement

In a case that has roiled the academic community, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has rescinded an offer to Stephen Salaita, who had, for reasons unknown, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech before his new appointment had been confirmed. Salaita, now out of a job, is a leading figure in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.

Read More

In a case that has roiled the academic community, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has rescinded an offer to Stephen Salaita, who had, for reasons unknown, resigned his tenured position at Virginia Tech before his new appointment had been confirmed. Salaita, now out of a job, is a leading figure in the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement.

I do not want to weigh in here on the question of whether the Chancellor at UIUC did right to refuse to forward Salaita’s appointment to the Board of Trustees. Salaita was reportedly undone by a series of comments he made on Twitter. In one, he says that “too much of Israeli society is cheering the bloodletting in [Gaza] for me to make a firm distinction between the government and the people.” In another, responding to the kidnapping of Israeli boys, he says, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.” In another, he asks, “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” He also reposted this statement, in a context that left no doubt he endorsed it, on journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, who has evidently been too critical of Hamas: “Jeffrey Goldberg’s story should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv.” William Jacobson of Legal Insurrection has done us the service of collecting these and other statements.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether refusing to hire Salaita on the basis of statements like these is a threat to academic freedom. The excellent Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is worried about it. Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors and an authority on academic freedom argues that the chancellor made the right call.

But speaking of authority, a number of pro-boycott professors, have signed on to a letter demanding that the UIUC hire Salaita. Their argument is that administrators have no business interfering with scholarly “experts”: “It seems that popular knowledge about the Israel Palestine conflict in the US public space has overwhelmed what is well known by academic experts. This cannot be allowed to happen in a serious university.” They go on to quote the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure to the effect that boards of trustees should stay out of matters “in which the conclusions expressed are the tested conclusions of trained scholars.”

That’s rich. First, Salaita, like a number of the letter’s signers, is a scholar of literature with no special claim to expertise in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Second, the boycott movement in academia has been engaged primarily in getting scholarly organizations with no claim to expertise in the conflict, including the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, and (unsuccessfully) the Modern Language Association, to declare their opposition to Israel. The 1915 Declaration is based on a separation between expertise and political action that academics in the boycott movement emphatically do not endorse. The authors of that Declaration anticipated that those who politicized the academy could expect precisely the reaction the BDS movement is now complaining about: “if this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”

Salaita is, his public utterances suggest, an uncritical and intemperate partisan, and the letter I have referred to, which, among other things, declares it a matter of settled expert opinion that Israel is targeting Palestinian civilians, is itself an example of uncritical and intemperate partisanship masquerading as a deference to expertise.

Academics are right to be concerned about threats to academic freedom because academic freedom is, as the 1915 Declaration tells us, is an essential defender “not of a propaganda [institution], but of a non-partisan institution of learning.” But their concern should be directed at the professors who have for decades worked to efface the distinction between scholarship and politics and who have more recently worked to persuade scholars who know next to nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to use their scholarly credentials to advance their personal conceptions of justice.

It is a wonder that the backlash has not been more pronounced.

Read Less

Explain Failures or Abandon Training Missions

The evaporation of the Iraqi army in Mosul earlier this summer, followed more recently by the failure of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s peshmerga in northern Iraq, and the “green-on-blue” violence in Afghanistan as well as the Afghan army’s uncertain cohesion against the backdrop of the U.S. retreat—let’s call it what is actually is—from that country should raise serious questions about the efficacy of missions to train foreign militaries, especially when seeking to train them from scratch.

Read More

The evaporation of the Iraqi army in Mosul earlier this summer, followed more recently by the failure of the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s peshmerga in northern Iraq, and the “green-on-blue” violence in Afghanistan as well as the Afghan army’s uncertain cohesion against the backdrop of the U.S. retreat—let’s call it what is actually is—from that country should raise serious questions about the efficacy of missions to train foreign militaries, especially when seeking to train them from scratch.

From the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom until September 2012, the United States spent approximately $25 billion to train the Iraqi army. Some of the most prominent (and press hungry) American generals took the job and spoke of their success. Martin Dempsey, currently chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq between 2005 and 2007. Bush administration officials often exaggerated the numbers of competent trained forces (full disclosure: I served briefly in the Bush administration’s Pentagon but not in a capacity that involved troop training) and generals did not clarify. Part of the reason for this, it seems, is that some generals have either become too sensitive to political winds thereby corrupting their willingness to assess honestly, or that they self-censor in order to make themselves look more successful. In a way, it’s a return to the U.S. Army’s Cold War-era “zero defects” policy which at times contributed to inaccurately positive assessments.

American special forces trained the Kurdish peshmerga as well. Unlike with the Iraqi or Afghan armies, the peshmerga’s recent failures cannot be written off as the result of ethnic or sectarian discord within the ranks. Perhaps the problem here is hagiography: Kurdish leaders and the peshmerga itself have built up such a (well-deserved, admittedly) mythology about their prowess as mountain guerrillas that they have no tolerance for anyone who points out that the peshmerga of the 1980s is not the same as the peshmerga of the 2010s. Almost 15 years ago, Col. Norvell B. De Atkine penned a seminal article, “Why Arabs Lose Wars” in which, bringing years of experience as a military trainer to bear, he identified Middle Eastern notions of shame as an impediment most regional militaries have yet to overcome: If any criticism is a slight against personal honor and dishonoring commanders is disallowed, then it is impossible to learn from mistakes. The peshmerga, of course, are not Arab but the same factors come into play.

So too does corruption as well as nepotism. For Kurdish President Masud Barzani’s son Mansour, how nice it must be to have become a general in your 30s and command the region’s Special Forces. When nepotism trumps competence and experience, any training is a waste. Throw corruption into the mix, and the result is a disaster: If Kurds had spent on arms and training what they spend on real estate in London and Washington D.C., they might not be begging for assistance right now. Indeed, the word from Erbil is that many rank-and-file peshmerga are quipping that the “ones who took the money” should fight, and that ordinary fighters should not die so that others can enjoy their siphoned-off cash. Perhaps a red flag should have gone up a decade ago when American forces first saw that Kurdish authorities prioritized family over professionalism in their military.

In Afghanistan, the situation is no better. Afghans have never lost a war; they simply defect to the winning side. Already, defection rates are high within the Afghan security forces, and will grow higher as Afghans see the West abandon them. It’s all well and good to have the competence to fight alongside and with the support of foreign partners, but if training focused more on fighting than on logistics and intelligence, then failure will be just as inevitable. If the basis of partnership is trust, then the Taliban could find no better strategy than the green-on-blue attacks in which they now engage. And, of course, let us not forget that while the Western media looks at green-on-blue violence, the rate of green-on-green attacks is three times has high.

Now, certainly, some elite units in Iraq and Afghanistan remain coherent and effective. But then the danger becomes that these become little more than militias serving warlords, and predatory rather than peaceful.

Perhaps I am too harsh in my assessments. Or perhaps I am wrong in the reasons for the multiple failures of the forces American officials have trained at tremendous cost in blood and treasure. But, with training security forces a cornerstone of American strategy in the region, and with the results of those efforts dubious at best, perhaps it is time for the Pentagon—and Congress—to have a serious discussion about whether this is a mission the United States should undertake. Addressing the problem is more important than preserving the reputation of officials who sought to paper it over. The answer may lie within the military. Or it may also be found outside: When America shows a lack of staying power and the president shows commitments to American allies to be ephemeral, perhaps no amount of training could compensate. Regardless of the reason, however, the failure of American training programs is no longer a problem the United States can afford to ignore.

Read Less

We Now Know: Gaza Edition

The fog of war often means the first draft of history makes the greatest impact but needs to be corrected by later drafts. After the Cold War was over, historian John Lewis Gaddis called his updated book on the conflict “We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History.” More famous is Kinglsey Amis’s suggestion that Robert Conquest call his new edition of The Great Terror “I Told You So, You F—ing Fools.” Yet now we have a rare opportunity in Gaza to apply what we now know to additional fighting in a war thought to be over.

Read More

The fog of war often means the first draft of history makes the greatest impact but needs to be corrected by later drafts. After the Cold War was over, historian John Lewis Gaddis called his updated book on the conflict “We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History.” More famous is Kinglsey Amis’s suggestion that Robert Conquest call his new edition of The Great Terror “I Told You So, You F—ing Fools.” Yet now we have a rare opportunity in Gaza to apply what we now know to additional fighting in a war thought to be over.

With no deal reached for a permanent truce between Israel and Hamas, the terrorist organization in Gaza wasted no time in renewing its attacks on Israel today. And it’s worth wondering if the atrocious media coverage of the war, which abided by Hamas’s threats and only showed what Hamas wanted the world to see, will be any different for this round of fighting. After all, as Israeli ground troops left Gaza and journalists went with them, reporters began to admit: we now know.

We now know, that is, that Hamas was firing rockets from civilian areas and among neighborhoods where journalists were staying. That meant they were getting a twofer: reporters wouldn’t expose their war crimes and they would draw return fire from Israel that would endanger foreign journalists and Palestinian civilians. As we know from the Tet Offensive, if you can spook the reporters you can get your sky-is-falling coverage made to order.

The political world was transfixed earlier this week by a New Delhi Television (NDTV) visual report on Hamas firing from outside the reporters’ hotel. This was a broadcast that American and other Western media didn’t have–in fact, major Western media spent the war explaining why you could follow their coverage for weeks of war reporting and not see a single Hamas fighter. The NDTV correspondent has written about the experience of filming the dramatic rocket launching:

There is an important detail about that spot which I mention in our video report which may not have fully registered – this was the exact location from where a rocket was fired five days prior. It happened around midnight, so it was impossible to film. Panic ensued. The Israel Defence Force (IDF) sent a warning to two hotels across the road to evacuate; within minutes they were empty. Those in our building slept in a safe room on the ground floor. And so that spot was seared in our memory.

So when we saw the tent on the same location with two men (later three) moving in and out, working on something inside which they seemed to be burying into the ground, it wasn’t hard to conclude what this was. When they started running wires out of the tent, the final steps before covering the earth with a spade, moving some shrubbery on top and then slinking away, it was even clearer.

We had all of it on tape, but wrestled with the dilemma of what to do with it. Two considerations weighed on our mind. One, the fear which hobbles the reporting such material: fear of reprisals from Hamas against us and those who worked with us, fear of inviting an Israeli response on the spot (these have been known to miss). Two, we needed to be 100 % sure that this was a rocket launch site. So we did nothing, setting off on our assignment for the day, mulling over the material in our possession.

The concern over Hamas reprisals is real and legitimate. There has been some pushback against the criticism of reporters in Gaza for not showing an accurate picture of the war. Much of that pushback is misplaced. The argument is not that journalists are wimps for not risking their lives to fill out the narrative for the public at home, but that the media have been using the inaccurate reporting without adding the appropriate context.

It’s understandable, I suppose, why they don’t add that context. In practice what they are doing is abiding by Hamas’s rules, which require them to basically broadcast a steady stream of Hamas propaganda footage. Adding the context–explaining that they are just showing the folks at home what Hamas wants them to see–would be admitting their own lack of credibility.

We will also see–as Evelyn points out this morning–that the statistics used by international organizations, human-rights groups, and UN monitors are completely unreliable. That means the accusations against Israel are generally bunk as well. We now know. And we’ll know more. But now that we see the war might not be over after all, everyone should keep that in mind.

Read Less

Action Against ISIS Still Needs a Strategy

The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.

Read More

The hardest thing for anyone to do–including a president of the United States–is to admit that he was wrong. Yet that is just what President Obama is doing, at least implicitly, by sending U.S. aircraft back into action in Iraq. He is sotto voce admitting that he was wrong to pull U.S. troops out in the first place. He deserves credit for acting now even if his actions make a mockery of the claims he made, in justifying the pullout of U.S. forces in 2011, about how supposedly stable Iraq had become.

And his actions provide much-needed relief for the besieged Yazidis who were in danger of dying under siege from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as well as for the Kurdish peshmerga which were reeling under ISIS assaults.

But Obama’s directives raise more questions than they answer. One obvious question is why the humanitarian imperative in Iraq is compelling enough to justify American military action but not in Syria, where at least 170,000 people have been killed since 2011 and where ISIS is just as oppressive and threatening as it is in Iraq? One suspects that the answer is that it is easier to drop food and water to 40,000 Yazidis stuck on one mountaintop than it is to alleviate the more monumental scale of suffering in Syria. Yet how can we justify turning our backs of the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, which is so much worse?

Even in Iraq the Yazidis are hardly the only victims of ISIS. This group of fundamentalist savages is terrorizing all of northern and western Iraq, and while minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians are its targets so are Shiites and Kurds. Even Sunnis are being oppressed and murdered. Indeed all of northern Iraq could be in grave danger if ISIS were to blow the Mosul Dam, which it has just captured. Don’t Iraqis other than Yazidis deserve some relief from this monstrous threat too?

It is still unclear how far Obama is willing to go in fighting back against ISIS. He drew an implicit red line by suggesting, in essence, that the U.S. would not allow ISIS to take Erbil or Baghdad–a red line that, one hopes, he will do more to enforce than previous red lines in Syria. And today two US Navy F-18s did bomb an ISIS position near Erbil, which suggests that Obama’s words are not entirely empty. But what is the logic of telling ISIS to stay out of Erbil and Baghdad but implicitly allowing it to consolidate its hold on western and northern Iraq and eastern and northern Syria? Is the president basically saying that the U.S. is OK with a terrorist state as it now exists as long as it does not expand any further? Surely that is not the message the White House wants to send, yet it is the message that, I fear, is being received in the Middle East.

What is needed now is more than a few symbolic air strikes or food drops. What is needed is a strategy to roll back ISIS. In congressional testimony on July 29, I offered a few thoughts about what such a strategy should look like. I suggested that we need to send many more advisers and Special Operations Forces to Iraq, backed up by airpower, to aid not only the Iraqi security forces but also the Kurdish peshmerga and the Sunni tribes to fight back against ISIS–and that we should also step up our aid to the Free Syrian Army to put pressure on ISIS on the other side of the border. It is possible that the events of this week are a small step in this direction, but it is also quite possible, even likely, that President Obama will not go nearly as far.

The danger in what he is doing now is that a few symbolic air strikes could actually bolster ISIS’s standing in the Muslim world as a fighter against the Great Satan without doing it serious damage. In for a penny, in for a pound: If we’re going to attack ISIS, let’s do it right. Let’s do it as part of a comprehensive, adequately sourced strategy that has a decent chance of breaking the group’s grip.

Read Less

Nixon Resigns

Saturday will mark the 40th anniversary of the only presidential resignation in American history, at the end of the country’s greatest scandal.

Read More

Saturday will mark the 40th anniversary of the only presidential resignation in American history, at the end of the country’s greatest scandal.

Indeed, Watergate became the archetype of political scandals and even added a suffix to the English language. Scandals ever since have often been given names like Monicagate. Words such as firestorm acquired their political meanings thanks to Watergate, phrases such as “modified, limited hangout,” “expletive deleted,” and “What did he know and when did he know it?” were coined during Watergate.

The scandal began with a comically inept burglary of the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate building complex, not far from the Lincoln Memorial, on June 17, 1972. But the White House denied any connection and dismissed it as a “third-rate burglary.” It managed to keep the lid on long enough for Nixon to win a 49-state landslide over Senator George McGovern that November.

But the next spring the scandal broke wide open when John Dean, the White House counsel, began talking to congressional investigators and U.S. attorneys. The whole world watched in fascination. (I happened to be in Manaus, Brazil, in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and I don’t speak Portuguese. But the headline in the local paper, in war type, proclaiming “O Escândolo Watergate!” told me it was time to get home and watch the fun.)

It was the greatest political theater one can imagine as Nixon fought with all the considerable cunning at his disposal as the Senate Watergate hearings and a special prosecutor burrowed in. The three networks carried the hearings live (one network carried them every day, alternating among them) and the ratings were huge. I doubt there have ever been so many banner headlines in a 15-month period in the New York Times, not a paper known for big headlines, except possibly in wartime. The revelation of the White House taping system, the Saturday Night Massacre, the 18 1/2 minute gap in the tapes, the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein, Judge Sirica, the ever-growing list of indictments of Nixon officials. Political junkies never had it so good.

By the next summer Nixon was on the ropes. The House was preparing articles of impeachment and the Supreme Court, in a rare summer meeting, ruled 9-0 that the tapes had to be turned over. Knowing that his impeachment was imminent and his conviction in the Senate likely, Nixon resigned. The new president, Gerald Ford, said that “our long national nightmare is over,” and soon gave Nixon a blanket pardon, largely ending the investigation. It is highly likely that the pardon cost Ford election in his own right in 1976.

At the center of it all, of course, was Richard Nixon, a character of Shakespearean proportions. He had few political gifts. He wasn’t handsome, he was at best a mediocre speaker, he had no gift of gab and lacked sociability. He was a bundle of psychological tics with more than a whiff of paranoia. With good reason, he was nicknamed “Tricky Dick.” What he did have was an utter determination to rise to the top of American politics, and an irresistible urge to ruin himself. Nearly kicked off the Republican ticket as vice president in 1952 in a scandal over a slush fund, he saved himself with the maudlin, but highly effective “Checkers speech.” When he lost the race for governor of California in 1962, he told the press, “You won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.” But six years later he became the first failed presidential candidate (having lost to Kennedy in 1960) to win the White House. Even after the disaster of Watergate, Nixon managed to make himself into a respected elder statesman on foreign affairs. Most presidential failures have few biographies written about them. Nixon will have an endless stream.

For the sake of the country, I hope we never have another Watergate, but I confess I enjoyed the one we had.

Read Less

Exposing the UN’s Unreliable Data on Gaza Casualties

Okay, it’s official: Even the BBC now admits the UN has been essentially collaborating with a terrorist organization to libel Israel. Of course, the venerable British broadcaster doesn’t say so explicitly; it even assures its readers that UN officials aren’t to blame for the misinformation they’ve been propagating. But it’s hard to reach any other conclusion after reading this analysis of Gaza’s casualty figures by the station’s head of statistics, Anthony Reuben.

Read More

Okay, it’s official: Even the BBC now admits the UN has been essentially collaborating with a terrorist organization to libel Israel. Of course, the venerable British broadcaster doesn’t say so explicitly; it even assures its readers that UN officials aren’t to blame for the misinformation they’ve been propagating. But it’s hard to reach any other conclusion after reading this analysis of Gaza’s casualty figures by the station’s head of statistics, Anthony Reuben.

As Reuben notes, the figures on Palestinian casualties cited by most news organizations come from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. As of August 6, this agency was reporting 1,843 Palestinian fatalities, including at least 1,354 civilians; 279 hadn’t yet been identified. Thus civilians ostensibly comprise at least 73 percent of total fatalities, and since the UN excludes unidentified casualties from its calculations, it usually cites an even higher figure–currently 86 percent.

But as Reuben writes, “if the Israeli attacks have been ‘indiscriminate’, as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women.” Quoting a New York Times analysis, he noted that men aged 20-29, who are the most likely to be combatants, are “also the most overrepresented in the death toll,” comprising 9 percent of Gazans but 34 percent of identified fatalities. In contrast, “women and children under 15, the least likely to be legitimate targets, were the most underrepresented, making up 71 percent of the population and 33 percent of the known-age casualties.”

So Reuben asked the high commissioner’s office how it explains this statistical anomaly. Here’s the mind-boggling response: “Matthias Behnk, from OHCHR, told BBC News that the organisation would not want to speculate about why there had been so many adult male casualties.”

In other words, confronted with a glaring statistical anomaly, the UN opted “not to speculate” about whether this cast doubt on the credibility of its claim that over 80 percent of fatalities were civilians. Instead, it kept right on feeding that number to journalists–most of whom promptly regurgitated it with no questions asked.

The statistical anomaly is compounded by other known facts: Terrorists don’t usually fight in uniform, so they arrive at the morgue in civilian clothing; the Hamas Interior Ministry explicitly ordered Gazans to identify all casualties as “innocent civilians” even if they aren’t; and Hamas has a history of mislabeling militants as civilian casualties: It did so during the 2009 war in Gaza as well, only admitting years later that, just as Israel claimed, most of the dead were militants rather than civilians. All this provides further grounds for suspecting that many male combat-age “civilians” were actually militants, and thus for caution about declaring them civilians. But the UN evinced no such qualms.

Finally, there’s the minor detail that some civilian casualties were caused by Hamas’s own misfired rockets. We know for certain about some such cases; for instance, an Italian journalist confirmed (after leaving Gaza) that one Palestinian rocket killed 10 Palestinians, including eight children, in a park in al-Shati. But there are undoubtedly many more that we don’t yet know about, because according to IDF data, almost a sixth of all Palestinian rockets launched–475 out of 3,137–landed in Gaza rather than Israel. That statistic is highly credible, because the Iron Dome system tracks every rocket’s trajectory to determine whether it needs intercepting, and couldn’t have achieved the success it did if its trajectory tracking system weren’t extremely accurate. And since Gaza has neither Iron Dome nor bomb shelters, Hamas rockets would be far more lethal there than they were in Israel. Yet the UN unhesitatingly blames Israel for all Palestinian casualties.

Reuben insists the UN shouldn’t be blamed for its misleading data, since “their statistics are accompanied by caveats and described as preliminary and subject to revision.” But that’s ridiculous. If the UN had doubts about the data’s veracity, it should have told the media it “would not want to speculate” about the civilian-to-combatant ratio. Instead, it opted to publish wildly exaggerated civilian casualty counts as unqualified fact while declining “to speculate” about the glaring statistical anomalies in its data.

In short, it collaborated wittingly and willingly with Hamas’s strategy to smear Israel by accusing it of massacring civilians. And most of the world’s media unhesitatingly played along.

Read Less

Back the Syrian Peshmerga

With the recent victories of the Islamic State in Sinjar and other northern Iraqi towns, and the Islamist radicals’ efforts to cleanse their region of any non-Muslims, there is renewed debate about what to do.

Read More

With the recent victories of the Islamic State in Sinjar and other northern Iraqi towns, and the Islamist radicals’ efforts to cleanse their region of any non-Muslims, there is renewed debate about what to do.

Many suggest arming the Kurds. While there are merits and drawbacks to that proposal, the problem is that the image of the Kurdish peshmerga does not necessarily correlate to the reality of their capabilities. The peshmerga of a generation ago were adept at mountain fighting and gave Saddam a run for his money. Two decades of corrosive politics, however, have undercut the peshmerga as political loyalty trumped competence. Masud Barzani appointed his second son a general, even though he had little if any military experience to back that rank. Hagiography toward the peshmerga also distorts reality: it is hard for the peshmerga to correct its mistakes if any criticism is met with umbrage and a slight to honor.

The simple fact is that as ISIS advanced on Sinjar and other towns in northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)’s peshmerga failed. Indeed, the peshmerga’s poor performance has shaken Erbil, which counts on the peshmerga’s image of strength to keep any Kurdish frustration at Barzani in check. It’s not clear that the peshmerga even need weaponry, nor is it certain that the KDP peshmerga have the skill to fight ISIS effectively. This is why I argue that it would be more effective for the United States to tackle the job themselves via forces hosted in Iraqi Kurdistan, perhaps in conjunction with a contingent based in southern Iraq. Kirkuk and Al-Tallil Airbases already have infrastructure to support U.S. forces, aircraft, and drones as need be. Bases need not be a dirty word, and returning jointly to both Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq will bypass the sovereignty issue that Iraqis rightly brought up when I suggested a base in Kurdistan.

ISIS, however, is not just an Iraqi problem and the Iraqi Kurds are not the only community to have a peshmerga. Indeed, if the KDP peshmerga have disappointed, the opposite is true for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) formed in Rojava, as Syrian Kurds call the region they have carved out in northeastern Syria. The YPG has been the only group in Syria which has been consistently victorious against ISIS and the Nusra Front inside Syria. It has not fought over just a town or so, but has waged pitched battles against incredible odds and won. Their victory has come at a high cost—when I was in Syrian Kurdistan earlier this year, YPG graves were both fresh and numerous, and family members regularly visited shrines set up in towns like Qamishli to commemorate loved ones killed in battle.

If the Iraqi Kurdish government was so short on resources, the son of Masoud Barzani would not have purchased a $10 million residence in northern Virginia. There is both more need and fewer resources available in Syrian Kurdistan. Perhaps a better strategy would be not only to take advantage of Masud Barzani’s longstanding offer of a base in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to utilize weaponry Kurdish peshmerga are untrained to use and untrusted to possess, but also to provide more basic weaponry and ammunition to the YPG, effectively rewarding that group’s success.

Indeed, the YPG break the conundrum American policymakers currently face in Syria: the opposition with which we deal diplomatically has little sway on the ground, while the opposition on the ground are far from moderate. The YPG is not only moderate, but controls significant territory. The YPG’s relationship with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey should be immaterial. After all, the PKK poses no threat to the United States, is secular, and has reached a truce with the Turkish government. Regardless, American interests should trump Turkey’s obsession. It’s time to start arming the Syrian peshmerga. If the YPG—properly armed—can cut ISIS supply routes into Iraq, then they should be rewarded with recognition of Syrian Kurdistan’s federal status, recognition which is already long overdue.

Read Less

Iraqi Sunnis Too Clever by Half

Last month, in the wake of the Sunni uprising in Iraq, I had the opportunity to meet with tribal representatives and former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s military for several hours. They were not upset with the unrest: ISIS could kill Shi‘ite policemen, force government officials out, and expunge Mosul and surrounding areas of outsiders. Once that was complete, they said, they were confident that the tribes and former regime elements would hold the territory as ISIS moved on. When the time was ripe, they would turn on any remaining ISIS members and run their territory themselves or use their control and leverage to negotiate a new compact with a central government they despise and whose legitimacy they question.

Read More

Last month, in the wake of the Sunni uprising in Iraq, I had the opportunity to meet with tribal representatives and former senior members of Saddam Hussein’s military for several hours. They were not upset with the unrest: ISIS could kill Shi‘ite policemen, force government officials out, and expunge Mosul and surrounding areas of outsiders. Once that was complete, they said, they were confident that the tribes and former regime elements would hold the territory as ISIS moved on. When the time was ripe, they would turn on any remaining ISIS members and run their territory themselves or use their control and leverage to negotiate a new compact with a central government they despise and whose legitimacy they question.

Their strategy was analogous to releasing Ebola in a crowded room and assuming that they themselves would be immune. ISIS may be a lot of things, but it is not stupid: The group was not going to allow the tribes to turn on them as they did during the surge. Now, with their advance toward Baghdad checked, ISIS has set about consolidating its control. The destruction of the tomb of Nabi Yunus was the shot across the bow showing ISIS to be in control, and the Baathists and tribal elements to be in retreat. The former regime officials and Baathists might have flirted with Islamism, but they were more ethnic and sectarian chauvinists than iconoclastic, and had no desire to see the shrines and churches of their territory razed.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki may be flawed and he may have lost any mandate for a third term, but the Baathist and Sunni tribes’ flirtation with ISIS in the run-up to the uprising affirms that Maliki’s paranoia was not without some basis. The problem with negotiating with nihilists is they are happy to pocket any concessions made or forced, but then simply continue to pursue their goal which is to overthrow the constitutional order. Some in Washington—especially in military circles—lose all dispassion when Maliki’s name is raised. They blame him for unwillingness to meet the expectations of some Sunni Islamists and Baathists whose expectations were raised by the appeasement inherent in the surge. But even if Maliki was not a forward-looking, progressive leader, it should not be Maliki who bears primary responsibility for the situation in which Iraq now finds itself, but rather the former regime elements and tribal figures who believed they could gain through force what they could not at the ballot box, and who were willing to flirt with the worst elements in society to achieve their aims.

Unfortunately, the ISIS contagion is spreading out of control. The group is motivated by ideology, not grievance–unless, of course, the grievance is the existence of any dissenting opinion or belief. It is essential that ISIS be quarantined, rolled back, and eradicated and it may take outside help to do so. But whenever that is done, let us hope policymakers do not misunderstand the genesis of the current problem. It was less Baghdad’s sectarianism than blowback from a shortsighted strategy among his sectarian opponents.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.