Commentary Magazine


Topic: officer

Our Military Personnel System Is in Definite Need of Reform

A snow day (which is what today is in the New York suburb where I live) is the perfect day to catch up on some reading. For those interested in military affairs, I recommend this intriguing article in the Atlantic, which argues that the armed forces are plagued by an antiquated personnel system which drives the best young officers out of the service.

The weakest part of the article, written by Kauffman Foundation fellow Tim Kane (a former Air Force officer), is its claim that “many of the most talented officers are now abandoning military life for the private sector.” There is little evidence that this is the fact; Kane cites the example of counterinsurgency strategist John Nagl, who left the Army as a lieutenant-colonel, and no doubt he was an outstanding officer; but the officers I meet still on active duty are no slouches either. Nevertheless, Kane makes a cogent critique of the out-of-date, top-down, industrial-era, one-size-fits-all personnel system that is an enduring source of frustration for most career officers. He writes:

The military’s problem is a deeply anti-entrepreneurial personnel structure. From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy. …

[T]he military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day—regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.

Some of these complaints echo issues I raised in a Foreign Affairs article in 2005. I wrote:

Soldiers shuttle through units with dizzying rapidity: two-thirds of army personnel change stations every year, and the average officer spends only 18 months at each assignment over the course of a 25-year career. This system is designed to create a cadre of generalists who will be qualified for the upper echelons of command, but it prevents the kind of unit cohesion and inspired leadership that characterizes the highest-quality armies. Even the best troop leaders do not get to spend very much time with the troops: the average officer spends no more than 30 percent of his or her career in the field, with the rest spent in staff jobs and schools. Ordinary soldiers shuffle in and out of units just as rapidly.

This personnel system makes it especially difficult to cultivate the kind of cultural and linguistic expertise we need in today’s world, where most wars are fought against insurgents who blend into the population. Read More

A snow day (which is what today is in the New York suburb where I live) is the perfect day to catch up on some reading. For those interested in military affairs, I recommend this intriguing article in the Atlantic, which argues that the armed forces are plagued by an antiquated personnel system which drives the best young officers out of the service.

The weakest part of the article, written by Kauffman Foundation fellow Tim Kane (a former Air Force officer), is its claim that “many of the most talented officers are now abandoning military life for the private sector.” There is little evidence that this is the fact; Kane cites the example of counterinsurgency strategist John Nagl, who left the Army as a lieutenant-colonel, and no doubt he was an outstanding officer; but the officers I meet still on active duty are no slouches either. Nevertheless, Kane makes a cogent critique of the out-of-date, top-down, industrial-era, one-size-fits-all personnel system that is an enduring source of frustration for most career officers. He writes:

The military’s problem is a deeply anti-entrepreneurial personnel structure. From officer evaluations to promotions to job assignments, all branches of the military operate more like a government bureaucracy with a unionized workforce than like a cutting-edge meritocracy. …

[T]he military personnel system—every aspect of it—is nearly blind to merit. Performance evaluations emphasize a zero-defect mentality, meaning that risk-avoidance trickles down the chain of command. Promotions can be anticipated almost to the day—regardless of an officer’s competence—so that there is essentially no difference in rank among officers the same age, even after 15 years of service. Job assignments are managed by a faceless, centralized bureaucracy that keeps everyone guessing where they might be shipped next.

Some of these complaints echo issues I raised in a Foreign Affairs article in 2005. I wrote:

Soldiers shuttle through units with dizzying rapidity: two-thirds of army personnel change stations every year, and the average officer spends only 18 months at each assignment over the course of a 25-year career. This system is designed to create a cadre of generalists who will be qualified for the upper echelons of command, but it prevents the kind of unit cohesion and inspired leadership that characterizes the highest-quality armies. Even the best troop leaders do not get to spend very much time with the troops: the average officer spends no more than 30 percent of his or her career in the field, with the rest spent in staff jobs and schools. Ordinary soldiers shuffle in and out of units just as rapidly.

This personnel system makes it especially difficult to cultivate the kind of cultural and linguistic expertise we need in today’s world, where most wars are fought against insurgents who blend into the population.

Kane suggests that the answer is to borrow personnel practices from the private sector, giving officers more power to choose their own assignments and commanders more power to choose their subordinates, rather than delegating these tasks to some faceless, far-off bureaucracy. He suggests:

Each commander would have sole hiring authority over the people in his unit. Officers would be free to apply for any job opening. If a major applied for an opening above his pay grade, the commander at that unit could hire him (and bear the consequences). Coordination could be done through existing online tools such as monster.com or careerbuilder.com (presumably those companies would be interested in offering rebranded versions for the military). If an officer chose to stay in a job longer than “normal” (“I just want to fly fighter jets, sir”), that would be solely between him and his commander.

I am intrigued by these ideas and hope that at least one of the services will experiment with them. Even if the “best and brightest” aren’t necessarily leaving, and even if the services are hardly broken (in fact the armed forces are as good as they have ever been), there is always room for improvement, and the personnel system, which dates back to World War II, is a prime candidate for reform.

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Judging Captain Honors

The Navy has just relieved Capt. Owen Honors, skipper of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, of his command. His offense? When he was XO (executive officer) of the ship, he made some comedic videos intended for the entertainment of the crew, and now those videos have surfaced, leading to complaints that they were raunchy and offensive.

Having viewed one of the videos in question, I found it pretty mild by the standards of typical TV and movie fare circa 2011; certainly there is nothing in it remotely as offensive as in The Hangover, one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. On the other hand, Honors isn’t a Hollywood comedian; he is a senior Navy officer who is supposed to set a standard of decorum and behavior well above that found in the civilian world. He failed in that task and is now paying the price.

His real mistake was to miss decades’ worth of signals that the worst sin any officer can commit is to do anything even tangentially wrong related to sex. Ever since the Tailhook scandal in 1991, it has been obvious that sex-related offenses would be judged far more harshly than other screw-ups. Honors seems to have not gotten the message, which calls his judgment into question. On the other hand, the military’s judgment is open to question, too, when it is far easier to relieve an officer of his command for a sexual imbroglio of even the mildest sort than it is for losing a battle or even a war.

Obviously, it’s important to police the military workplace against sexual harassment, but I can’t help think that we’ve elevated this issue above somewhat more important considerations — such as winning wars.

The Navy has just relieved Capt. Owen Honors, skipper of the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, of his command. His offense? When he was XO (executive officer) of the ship, he made some comedic videos intended for the entertainment of the crew, and now those videos have surfaced, leading to complaints that they were raunchy and offensive.

Having viewed one of the videos in question, I found it pretty mild by the standards of typical TV and movie fare circa 2011; certainly there is nothing in it remotely as offensive as in The Hangover, one of the funniest movies I have ever seen. On the other hand, Honors isn’t a Hollywood comedian; he is a senior Navy officer who is supposed to set a standard of decorum and behavior well above that found in the civilian world. He failed in that task and is now paying the price.

His real mistake was to miss decades’ worth of signals that the worst sin any officer can commit is to do anything even tangentially wrong related to sex. Ever since the Tailhook scandal in 1991, it has been obvious that sex-related offenses would be judged far more harshly than other screw-ups. Honors seems to have not gotten the message, which calls his judgment into question. On the other hand, the military’s judgment is open to question, too, when it is far easier to relieve an officer of his command for a sexual imbroglio of even the mildest sort than it is for losing a battle or even a war.

Obviously, it’s important to police the military workplace against sexual harassment, but I can’t help think that we’ve elevated this issue above somewhat more important considerations — such as winning wars.

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Evening Commentary

Libertarians often look to the Founding Fathers as political role models, but would the Founders have actually fit the modern definition of a libertarian? David Frum argues no — and writes that those who attribute this ideology to the Founders are simply ignoring history: “[I]f the libertarian impulse summons us to take action to contain and constrain that government, very well let us take up the task. But we can do that task without duping ourselves with a false history that denies the reality of the past and — ironically — belittles the Founders’ actual achievements by measuring them against standards they would surely have rejected, if they had ever understood them.”

A church in Egypt was bombed during New Year’s Mass, killing 21 and injuring dozens more. Authorities believe the attack was carried out by extremist Muslims who were inspired by al-Qaeda but not necessarily associated with the terror group.

Good news: A new “groundbreaking” research project has found that conservative brains are structured to be “fearful” and “reflexive,” while liberal brains are structured to be “courageous” and “optimistic.” Over at the New York Post, Kyle Smith discovers that this important study has cleared up some confusing discrepancies in his own life: “[Professor] Rees has the answer to why, in my Army career, I kept running into so many conceptual performance artists from San Francisco and Chelsea. Seldom did I do a push-up or clean my M16 without finding myself amid heated debate from the officer class about whether Walter Mondale or Eugene McCarthy was the most inspiring American political leader of our era.”

Government spending can actually help stimulate economic growth, argues George Will. But in order for progress to occur, this spending needs to fund the projects of society’s top scientific innovators and pioneers. “With populism rampant, this is not a propitious moment to defend elites, even scientific ones. Nevertheless, the nation depends on nourishing them and the institutions that sustain them,” writes Will.

Well, this was bound to happen eventually. Leftists at the Guardian are now openly opposing human rights: “[Human-rights groups] promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call ‘universal.’ In some cases, their work, far from saving lives, actually causes more death, more repression, more brutality and an absolute weakening of human rights.” Yeah, who are we to oppress the people of Saudi Arabia and Iran with our imperialist idea that women shouldn’t be stoned for adultery?

Five members of Hamas have been charged in a plot to bomb a major Israeli stadium during a soccer game. Authorities say that the attack was meant to be in retaliation for Operation Cast Lead in 2008: “According to a statement from Israel’s security service, the Shin Bet, the two main suspects were identified as Mussa Hamada of East Jerusalem, and Bassem Omri, an Israeli citizen living in Beit Tzafafa. Both are members of Hamas and the ‘Muslim Brothers’ movement in Jerusalem, the Shin Bet said.”

Libertarians often look to the Founding Fathers as political role models, but would the Founders have actually fit the modern definition of a libertarian? David Frum argues no — and writes that those who attribute this ideology to the Founders are simply ignoring history: “[I]f the libertarian impulse summons us to take action to contain and constrain that government, very well let us take up the task. But we can do that task without duping ourselves with a false history that denies the reality of the past and — ironically — belittles the Founders’ actual achievements by measuring them against standards they would surely have rejected, if they had ever understood them.”

A church in Egypt was bombed during New Year’s Mass, killing 21 and injuring dozens more. Authorities believe the attack was carried out by extremist Muslims who were inspired by al-Qaeda but not necessarily associated with the terror group.

Good news: A new “groundbreaking” research project has found that conservative brains are structured to be “fearful” and “reflexive,” while liberal brains are structured to be “courageous” and “optimistic.” Over at the New York Post, Kyle Smith discovers that this important study has cleared up some confusing discrepancies in his own life: “[Professor] Rees has the answer to why, in my Army career, I kept running into so many conceptual performance artists from San Francisco and Chelsea. Seldom did I do a push-up or clean my M16 without finding myself amid heated debate from the officer class about whether Walter Mondale or Eugene McCarthy was the most inspiring American political leader of our era.”

Government spending can actually help stimulate economic growth, argues George Will. But in order for progress to occur, this spending needs to fund the projects of society’s top scientific innovators and pioneers. “With populism rampant, this is not a propitious moment to defend elites, even scientific ones. Nevertheless, the nation depends on nourishing them and the institutions that sustain them,” writes Will.

Well, this was bound to happen eventually. Leftists at the Guardian are now openly opposing human rights: “[Human-rights groups] promote an absolutist view of human rights permeated by modern western ideas that westerners mistakenly call ‘universal.’ In some cases, their work, far from saving lives, actually causes more death, more repression, more brutality and an absolute weakening of human rights.” Yeah, who are we to oppress the people of Saudi Arabia and Iran with our imperialist idea that women shouldn’t be stoned for adultery?

Five members of Hamas have been charged in a plot to bomb a major Israeli stadium during a soccer game. Authorities say that the attack was meant to be in retaliation for Operation Cast Lead in 2008: “According to a statement from Israel’s security service, the Shin Bet, the two main suspects were identified as Mussa Hamada of East Jerusalem, and Bassem Omri, an Israeli citizen living in Beit Tzafafa. Both are members of Hamas and the ‘Muslim Brothers’ movement in Jerusalem, the Shin Bet said.”

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The War in Afghanistan Is Part of the Larger Struggle Against Global Terrorism

When I recently participated in an Intelligence Squared US debate about Afghanistan, my debate partner, terrorism expert Peter Bergen (who, like me, argued that it’s not a lost cause), was practically hooted off the stage by a skeptical audience when he said there was not much difference between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Now his insight is confirmed by U.S. intelligence reporting.

As described in the New York Times, “New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like ‘a syndicate,’ joining forces in ways not seen before.” The elements of the “syndicate” cited are the Quetta Shura Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani Network, and HiG (Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin), which are increasingly cooperating to stage attacks in Afghanistan from their safe havens in Pakistan. But all three have close links to other jihadist groups based in Pakistan, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban (aka the Pakistan Taliban), and, lest we forget, al-Qaeda. An American officer quoted by the Times does a good job of summing up the state of play among the jihadists:

“This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks, Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.”

If that’s the case — and the preponderance of intelligence reporting certainly points in that direction — then it’s silly to disassociate the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as so many critics of the war effort do, from the broader struggle against jihadist groups bent on inflicting serious harm on America and on our allies. There are real differences among the jihadist groups, but there is also a growing commonality of tactics and purpose. The war in Afghanistan is part of a broader struggle — a global war — that we must win not only to safeguard distant allies but also our own territory.

When I recently participated in an Intelligence Squared US debate about Afghanistan, my debate partner, terrorism expert Peter Bergen (who, like me, argued that it’s not a lost cause), was practically hooted off the stage by a skeptical audience when he said there was not much difference between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban. Now his insight is confirmed by U.S. intelligence reporting.

As described in the New York Times, “New intelligence assessments from the region assert that insurgent factions now are setting aside their historic rivalries to behave like ‘a syndicate,’ joining forces in ways not seen before.” The elements of the “syndicate” cited are the Quetta Shura Taliban led by Mullah Omar, the Haqqani Network, and HiG (Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin), which are increasingly cooperating to stage attacks in Afghanistan from their safe havens in Pakistan. But all three have close links to other jihadist groups based in Pakistan, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban (aka the Pakistan Taliban), and, lest we forget, al-Qaeda. An American officer quoted by the Times does a good job of summing up the state of play among the jihadists:

“This is actually a syndicate of related and associated militant groups and networks, Trying to parse them, as if they have firewalls in between them, is really kind of silly. They cooperate with each other. They franchise work with each other.”

If that’s the case — and the preponderance of intelligence reporting certainly points in that direction — then it’s silly to disassociate the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan, as so many critics of the war effort do, from the broader struggle against jihadist groups bent on inflicting serious harm on America and on our allies. There are real differences among the jihadist groups, but there is also a growing commonality of tactics and purpose. The war in Afghanistan is part of a broader struggle — a global war — that we must win not only to safeguard distant allies but also our own territory.

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Ben Smith Spills the Beans: Obama’s Middle East Policy Is a Disaster

Ben Smith reveals what nearly every serious Middle East observer already knows: Obama has made things worse, not better, in that volatile region. He reports:

Instead of becoming a heady triumph of his diplomatic skill and special insight, Obama’s peace process is viewed almost universally in Israel as a mistake-riddled fantasy. And far from becoming the transcendent figure in a centuries-old drama, Obama has become just another frustrated player on a hardened Mideast landscape. …

Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders have refused American demands to hold peace talks with the Israelis before the freeze is extended. Talks with Arab states over gestures intended to build Israeli confidence – a key part of Obama’s early plan — have long since been scrapped.

The political peace process to which Obama committed so much energy is considered a failure so far. And in the world’s most pro-American state, the public and its leaders have lost any faith in Obama and – increasingly — even in the notion of a politically negotiated peace.

Obama naturally blames everyone else. But the criticism is biting and personal: it is Obama and his misguided ideology that are at the root of the problem: Read More

Ben Smith reveals what nearly every serious Middle East observer already knows: Obama has made things worse, not better, in that volatile region. He reports:

Instead of becoming a heady triumph of his diplomatic skill and special insight, Obama’s peace process is viewed almost universally in Israel as a mistake-riddled fantasy. And far from becoming the transcendent figure in a centuries-old drama, Obama has become just another frustrated player on a hardened Mideast landscape. …

Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders have refused American demands to hold peace talks with the Israelis before the freeze is extended. Talks with Arab states over gestures intended to build Israeli confidence – a key part of Obama’s early plan — have long since been scrapped.

The political peace process to which Obama committed so much energy is considered a failure so far. And in the world’s most pro-American state, the public and its leaders have lost any faith in Obama and – increasingly — even in the notion of a politically negotiated peace.

Obama naturally blames everyone else. But the criticism is biting and personal: it is Obama and his misguided ideology that are at the root of the problem:

[T]he American president has been diminished, even in an era without active hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians. His demands on the parties appear to shrink each month, with the path to a grand peace settlement narrowing to the vanishing point. The lack of Israeli faith in him and his process has them using the talks to extract more tangible security assurances – the jets. And though America remains beloved, Obama is about as popular here as he is in Oklahoma. A Jerusalem Post poll in May found 9 percent of Israelis consider Obama “pro-Israel,” while 48 percent say he’s “pro-Palestinian.” …

“Israelis really hate Obama’s guts,” said Shmuel Rosner, a columnist for two leading Israeli newspapers. “We used to trust Americans to act like Americans, and this guy is like a European leader.”

Many senior Israeli leaders have concluded that Hillary Clinton and John McCain were right about Obama’s naivete and inexperience.

“The naïve liberals who are at the heart of the administration really believe in all the misconceptions the Palestinians and all their friends all over the world are trying to place,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former high-ranking military intelligence officer who is now deputy director general of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

But in some sense, Ben Smith’s account is too generous. It is not merely that Obama has made hash out of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; it is that he has undermined American stature more broadly in the Middle East. Yes, the Israelis and the PA regard him as foolish, but what’s even more important is that so do the Syrians, Saudis, and Iranians. He has wasted time on the non-peace process and in fact exacerbated tensions as the other nations looked on. The aging Sunni leaders regard him with alarm: has he no idea what to do about Iran? The mullahs regard him with contempt: he has already told them that they need not worry about military action.

Obama is right — there is such a thing as linkage, but not in the way he imagined. The progress of the Middle East non-peace talks is irrelevant to the threat of an Iranian nuclear power. But what is highly relevant, and deeply troubling, is the perception of an American administration in over its head, disloyal to friends, and anxious to make a deal at any cost to preserve the patina of competency it is struggling to maintain. And to make matters worse, it’s fair to conclude that beyond the Middle East — in China, Russia, and North Korea — they are learning the same lesson.

One final note. The well-sourced and dead-on report comes from Ben Smith, not the nominal foreign affairs reporter for Politico. This is because the latter, a former Journo-list member, is among the worse and least-informative foreign affairs “reporters” out there. In fact, she’s no more than a scribe for the Obami and the J Street crowd. And that explains why none of the material, widely available to followers of the mainstream media, was ever reported by her. Maybe it’s time to get a full-time person on the foreign affairs beat who actually reports rather than regurgitates the left’s take on American foreign policy.

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A Voice of Moderation in the Fray

I second Peter Wehner’s point that Bill O’Reilly was in error to speak of “Muslims killing us on 9/11.” Islamist extremists killed us on 9/11. The ensuing protest walkout by two of The View’s co-hosts was unhelpful – surely the ladies understand that O’Reilly’s comment was a regrettable error of truncation, from which, if pressed, he would have properly retreated. Unfortunately, the ill-considered comment and the co-host walkout are emblematic of the escalatory mode of much public debate on the topics of Islam, Muslims in America, and the Park 51 mosque.

I’m convinced that neither disputant in this latest confrontation represents a monolithic opinion bloc. Simply restating O’Reilly’s proposition as “Islamist extremists killed us on 9/11” would have engaged the concurrence of the overwhelming majority of Americans. But the confrontational drama of the walkout, which cut off discussion and clarification, hardened attitudes and thus made reconciling the positions more unlikely.

The episode forms an irresistible counterpoint to this opinion piece on the Park 51 mosque, written in late September by a retired Saudi naval officer and translated this week by MEMRI. Published in Arabic in the Arab News, it was meant for Saudi consumption. Many Americans would be surprised by the simple friendliness of its sentiments. The retired commodore’s affection for America, where he underwent training and served as a liaison officer, comes through clearly. He speaks of his American friends from flight training and his tears on visiting the site of the World Trade Center in 2005. “The U.S.,” he says, “is the most tolerant country regarding building an Islamic center. But why [did] Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf choose Ground Zero?”

He continues:

On Sept. 11, 2001, some terrorists not only hijacked four airplanes, but they hijacked Islam and the reputation of over one billion Muslims, and caused the total destruction of two Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq).

In terms of hortatory persuasiveness, this officer’s essay and the dust-up on The View land at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Saudi commodore’s views don’t surprise me; the experience of American officers with their Middle Eastern counterparts is usually more positive than the average American might think. There’s a level of liaison between militaries that is often more real, pragmatic, and fraternal than the contacts enjoyed by foreign-service diplomats or mainstream journalists. Warriors have the luxury of focusing on the practical requirements of their profession and leaving politics to the politicians. Their appreciation of each other’s individual personalities and cultures develops at what the U.S. Navy calls the “deck-plate level.”

And that is a level the ordinary American of any background is culturally predisposed to understand. Although people instinctively regard the little melodrama on The View as tiresome – and for good reason – I suspect that those who read the Saudi officer’s letter will find it striking a chord that resonates with them. Its direct simplicity does more good than a hundred stagy walkouts and a thousand elaborate exegeses.

I second Peter Wehner’s point that Bill O’Reilly was in error to speak of “Muslims killing us on 9/11.” Islamist extremists killed us on 9/11. The ensuing protest walkout by two of The View’s co-hosts was unhelpful – surely the ladies understand that O’Reilly’s comment was a regrettable error of truncation, from which, if pressed, he would have properly retreated. Unfortunately, the ill-considered comment and the co-host walkout are emblematic of the escalatory mode of much public debate on the topics of Islam, Muslims in America, and the Park 51 mosque.

I’m convinced that neither disputant in this latest confrontation represents a monolithic opinion bloc. Simply restating O’Reilly’s proposition as “Islamist extremists killed us on 9/11” would have engaged the concurrence of the overwhelming majority of Americans. But the confrontational drama of the walkout, which cut off discussion and clarification, hardened attitudes and thus made reconciling the positions more unlikely.

The episode forms an irresistible counterpoint to this opinion piece on the Park 51 mosque, written in late September by a retired Saudi naval officer and translated this week by MEMRI. Published in Arabic in the Arab News, it was meant for Saudi consumption. Many Americans would be surprised by the simple friendliness of its sentiments. The retired commodore’s affection for America, where he underwent training and served as a liaison officer, comes through clearly. He speaks of his American friends from flight training and his tears on visiting the site of the World Trade Center in 2005. “The U.S.,” he says, “is the most tolerant country regarding building an Islamic center. But why [did] Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf choose Ground Zero?”

He continues:

On Sept. 11, 2001, some terrorists not only hijacked four airplanes, but they hijacked Islam and the reputation of over one billion Muslims, and caused the total destruction of two Muslim countries (Afghanistan and Iraq).

In terms of hortatory persuasiveness, this officer’s essay and the dust-up on The View land at opposite ends of the spectrum. The Saudi commodore’s views don’t surprise me; the experience of American officers with their Middle Eastern counterparts is usually more positive than the average American might think. There’s a level of liaison between militaries that is often more real, pragmatic, and fraternal than the contacts enjoyed by foreign-service diplomats or mainstream journalists. Warriors have the luxury of focusing on the practical requirements of their profession and leaving politics to the politicians. Their appreciation of each other’s individual personalities and cultures develops at what the U.S. Navy calls the “deck-plate level.”

And that is a level the ordinary American of any background is culturally predisposed to understand. Although people instinctively regard the little melodrama on The View as tiresome – and for good reason – I suspect that those who read the Saudi officer’s letter will find it striking a chord that resonates with them. Its direct simplicity does more good than a hundred stagy walkouts and a thousand elaborate exegeses.

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The Pakistan Problem

There are many “problems from hell” that confront U.S. policymakers, but none is more complicated or more important than our relationship with Pakistan. It is once again in the news because of Pakistan’s harsh reaction to a NATO helicopter firing a couple of missiles into Pakistani territory after it came under fire from across the border. The result has been the closing of Torkham Gate, one of the main supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the torching of a number of trucks carrying NATO supplies through Pakistan. This is Islamabad’s way of signaling its displeasure with what it views as a violation of its sovereignty. American officials, for their part, are growing increasingly and understandably exasperated with Pakistan’s double game: while receiving copious American aid and turning a blind eye to American drone strikes primarily directed against foreign jihadists, it is also continuing to support the Taliban and the Haqqani network as they target American and allied troops in Afghanistan.

I wish I knew how to solve this conundrum, but I don’t. No one does. We can’t simply cut off Pakistan, because its government does provide vital assistance in the war against terrorism, and we cannot permit a jihadist takeover of a nuclear-armed state. But nor can we simply live with Pakistan’s continuing role as supporter of terrorist groups that we (and other nations, including India) are fighting. That means we are stuck in a muddle — as we have been for a decade or more. We provide aid to the Pakistani military and try to bolster more moderate elements while realizing that we cannot press too hard because we lack sufficient leverage and risk sparking a destructive backlash.

The Obama administration has gotten slightly more muscular in its approach by stepping up drone strikes — a good idea. But at the same time, the president has made it harder to woo Pakistan because he has given credence to the notion that we are on our way out of Afghanistan. If that’s in fact the case — and I don’t believe it is — then Pakistan has no choice but to look after its own interests, and in the view of the Pakistani military, that means supporting jihadist proxy forces such as the Taliban. There is probably no way to wean the Pakistanis entirely off this strategy in the foreseeable future, but at least if Obama were to clarify his muddled rhetoric regarding a deadline for withdrawal and make it clear that the U.S. is in the region for the long term, he may change the incentive structure for the Pakistani officer corps and make it more palatable for them to take tougher action against terrorist groups, secure in the knowledge that we will not leave them in the lurch.

There are many “problems from hell” that confront U.S. policymakers, but none is more complicated or more important than our relationship with Pakistan. It is once again in the news because of Pakistan’s harsh reaction to a NATO helicopter firing a couple of missiles into Pakistani territory after it came under fire from across the border. The result has been the closing of Torkham Gate, one of the main supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan, and the torching of a number of trucks carrying NATO supplies through Pakistan. This is Islamabad’s way of signaling its displeasure with what it views as a violation of its sovereignty. American officials, for their part, are growing increasingly and understandably exasperated with Pakistan’s double game: while receiving copious American aid and turning a blind eye to American drone strikes primarily directed against foreign jihadists, it is also continuing to support the Taliban and the Haqqani network as they target American and allied troops in Afghanistan.

I wish I knew how to solve this conundrum, but I don’t. No one does. We can’t simply cut off Pakistan, because its government does provide vital assistance in the war against terrorism, and we cannot permit a jihadist takeover of a nuclear-armed state. But nor can we simply live with Pakistan’s continuing role as supporter of terrorist groups that we (and other nations, including India) are fighting. That means we are stuck in a muddle — as we have been for a decade or more. We provide aid to the Pakistani military and try to bolster more moderate elements while realizing that we cannot press too hard because we lack sufficient leverage and risk sparking a destructive backlash.

The Obama administration has gotten slightly more muscular in its approach by stepping up drone strikes — a good idea. But at the same time, the president has made it harder to woo Pakistan because he has given credence to the notion that we are on our way out of Afghanistan. If that’s in fact the case — and I don’t believe it is — then Pakistan has no choice but to look after its own interests, and in the view of the Pakistani military, that means supporting jihadist proxy forces such as the Taliban. There is probably no way to wean the Pakistanis entirely off this strategy in the foreseeable future, but at least if Obama were to clarify his muddled rhetoric regarding a deadline for withdrawal and make it clear that the U.S. is in the region for the long term, he may change the incentive structure for the Pakistani officer corps and make it more palatable for them to take tougher action against terrorist groups, secure in the knowledge that we will not leave them in the lurch.

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Bill Clinton: Giving Carter a Run for His Money

Bill Clinton’s noxious comments, complaining that Russian immigrants to Israel pose an obstacle to peace, sounded like the utterances of xenophobes in America who lament that our country is being “overrun” by outsiders. Clinton’s comments were cringe-inducing:

“An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem,” Clinton said. “It’s a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian.”

And then to prove that decency and discretion were never Clinton’s strong suits, he cited a conversation between him and Natan Sharansky:

“I said, ‘Natan, what is the deal [about not supporting the peace deal],'” Clinton recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t vote for this, I’m Russian… I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.'”

Clinton responded, “Don’t give me this, you came here from a jail cell. It’s a lot bigger than your jail cell.”

Classy, Bill. Maybe next he’ll go after Elie Wiesel.

As you can imagine, Israelis were not too pleased. Bibi, demonstrating the art of understatement which has marked his political maturation, had this to say:

As a friend of Israel, Clinton should know that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed and are making a great contribution to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel. Only a strong Israel can establish solid and safe peace.

Now with Bill Clinton — it’s always a safe bet that he’s making stuff up. Sharansky’s associates hinted as much. (“Sharansky’s associates were surprised by Clinton’s remarks. The Jewish Agency chairman said, ‘I wasn’t even at Camp David. Clinton may have gotten confused with our conversations three years earlier, when I expressed my doubts over the dictatorial nature of the Palestinian Authority regime.'”)

But, as a colleague observed, the best retort was this:

Coalition Chairman Zeev Elkin said he felt “great pride” following Clinton’s remarks. Elkin, who a Russian immigrant himself, told Ynet, “I am proud of former President Clinton’s distinctions. He made the right distinction that the Russian speakers and settlers have been carrying the Zionism banner in the State of Israel in recent years. “We see this in the number of people graduating from IDF officer courses, and unfortunately, in the Second Lebanon War obituaries. We also see it in the struggle for our right to settle in all of the Land of Israel.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another, as detailed in Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, is that Russians have provided much of the brainpower and entrepreneurial risk-taking that has fueled Israel’s technology boom, transforming Israel’s economy from a socialist basket-case to a vibrant, modern economy.

Why does Clinton say these things? Who knows — maybe he’s tired of Jimmy Carter and his wife getting all the headlines. Or maybe he’s just an undisciplined egomaniac who says whatever pops into his head.

Bill Clinton’s noxious comments, complaining that Russian immigrants to Israel pose an obstacle to peace, sounded like the utterances of xenophobes in America who lament that our country is being “overrun” by outsiders. Clinton’s comments were cringe-inducing:

“An increasing number of the young people in the IDF are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem,” Clinton said. “It’s a different Israel. 16 percent of Israelis speak Russian.”

And then to prove that decency and discretion were never Clinton’s strong suits, he cited a conversation between him and Natan Sharansky:

“I said, ‘Natan, what is the deal [about not supporting the peace deal],'” Clinton recalled. “He said, ‘I can’t vote for this, I’m Russian… I come from one of the biggest countries in the world to one of the smallest. You want me to cut it in half. No, thank you.'”

Clinton responded, “Don’t give me this, you came here from a jail cell. It’s a lot bigger than your jail cell.”

Classy, Bill. Maybe next he’ll go after Elie Wiesel.

As you can imagine, Israelis were not too pleased. Bibi, demonstrating the art of understatement which has marked his political maturation, had this to say:

As a friend of Israel, Clinton should know that the immigrants from the former Soviet Union have contributed and are making a great contribution to the advancement, development and strengthening of the IDF and the State of Israel. Only a strong Israel can establish solid and safe peace.

Now with Bill Clinton — it’s always a safe bet that he’s making stuff up. Sharansky’s associates hinted as much. (“Sharansky’s associates were surprised by Clinton’s remarks. The Jewish Agency chairman said, ‘I wasn’t even at Camp David. Clinton may have gotten confused with our conversations three years earlier, when I expressed my doubts over the dictatorial nature of the Palestinian Authority regime.'”)

But, as a colleague observed, the best retort was this:

Coalition Chairman Zeev Elkin said he felt “great pride” following Clinton’s remarks. Elkin, who a Russian immigrant himself, told Ynet, “I am proud of former President Clinton’s distinctions. He made the right distinction that the Russian speakers and settlers have been carrying the Zionism banner in the State of Israel in recent years. “We see this in the number of people graduating from IDF officer courses, and unfortunately, in the Second Lebanon War obituaries. We also see it in the struggle for our right to settle in all of the Land of Israel.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another, as detailed in Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, is that Russians have provided much of the brainpower and entrepreneurial risk-taking that has fueled Israel’s technology boom, transforming Israel’s economy from a socialist basket-case to a vibrant, modern economy.

Why does Clinton say these things? Who knows — maybe he’s tired of Jimmy Carter and his wife getting all the headlines. Or maybe he’s just an undisciplined egomaniac who says whatever pops into his head.

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Dowd vs. Obama

I admit it: I was looking forward to Maureen Dowd’s column today. Nothing quite gets her dander up and her claws out like a reminder that Obama is not merely a disappointment to the left but also an embarrassment. She  seethes:

When the president skittered back from his grandiose declaration at an iftar celebration at the White House Friday that Muslims enjoy freedom of religion in America and have the right to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, he offered a Clintonesque parsing. …

Let me be perfectly clear, Mr. Perfectly Unclear President: You cannot take such a stand on a matter of first principle and then take it back the next morning when, lo and behold, Harry Reid goes craven and the Republicans attack.

Well he can and did, but she’s fit to be tied about it — so much so that’s she’s praising George W. Bush for saying nice things about Muslims, championing AIDS prevention in Africa, and making a real effort on immigration reform. (I was not pleased with his excessive genuflecting on the first, but we’ve certainly entered the Twilight Zone of politics when she throws Bush in Obama’s face. Nothing like a woman scorned.) Anyway, she’s not done with the unflattering comparisons. Bill Clinton, at least, “never presented himself as a moral guide to the country,” so it’s all the more painful when Obama “flops around” on the mosque and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Now this is Maureen Dowd — who is apparently so powerful that fact checkers and editors dare not raise their hands to caution her about lines like this: “By now you have to be willfully blind not to know that the imam in charge of the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is the moderate Muslim we have allegedly been yearning for.” Uh, not really. We’re yearning for a Muslim who specifically condemns Hamas as a terrorist group and doesn’t suggest that the U.S. is responsible for 9/11. We’re yearning for a Muslim who doesn’t use “hallowed ground” — where 3,000 Americans died at the hands of Islamist extremists — to build a “a symbol of victory for militant Muslims around the world.” (That from an American Muslim whose mother was incinerated on 9/11 by those who “believed that all non-Muslims are infidels and that the duty of Muslims is to renounce them.”) We’re yearning for a Muslim who is “desperate to reform his faith” and forthright in his assessment that the placement of the mosque at Ground Zero is based on “a belief that Islamic structures are a political statement and even Ground Zero should be looked upon through the lens of political Islam and not a solely American one.” (That from a Muslim and former U.S. Navy officer.)

So while her fury at the ever-shrinking Obama may be amusing, her analysis is about what you’d expect from someone who thinks women have it pretty good in Saudi Arabia. The most important insight to be gained from her rant-athon is this: if Democrats were depressed and faced a turnout problem before this incident, watch out. There might not be a poll model in use that accurately measures the enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters, nor, as a result, the extent of the electoral damage Obama is about to wreak on his party.

I admit it: I was looking forward to Maureen Dowd’s column today. Nothing quite gets her dander up and her claws out like a reminder that Obama is not merely a disappointment to the left but also an embarrassment. She  seethes:

When the president skittered back from his grandiose declaration at an iftar celebration at the White House Friday that Muslims enjoy freedom of religion in America and have the right to build a mosque and community center in Lower Manhattan, he offered a Clintonesque parsing. …

Let me be perfectly clear, Mr. Perfectly Unclear President: You cannot take such a stand on a matter of first principle and then take it back the next morning when, lo and behold, Harry Reid goes craven and the Republicans attack.

Well he can and did, but she’s fit to be tied about it — so much so that’s she’s praising George W. Bush for saying nice things about Muslims, championing AIDS prevention in Africa, and making a real effort on immigration reform. (I was not pleased with his excessive genuflecting on the first, but we’ve certainly entered the Twilight Zone of politics when she throws Bush in Obama’s face. Nothing like a woman scorned.) Anyway, she’s not done with the unflattering comparisons. Bill Clinton, at least, “never presented himself as a moral guide to the country,” so it’s all the more painful when Obama “flops around” on the mosque and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Now this is Maureen Dowd — who is apparently so powerful that fact checkers and editors dare not raise their hands to caution her about lines like this: “By now you have to be willfully blind not to know that the imam in charge of the project, Feisal Abdul Rauf, is the moderate Muslim we have allegedly been yearning for.” Uh, not really. We’re yearning for a Muslim who specifically condemns Hamas as a terrorist group and doesn’t suggest that the U.S. is responsible for 9/11. We’re yearning for a Muslim who doesn’t use “hallowed ground” — where 3,000 Americans died at the hands of Islamist extremists — to build a “a symbol of victory for militant Muslims around the world.” (That from an American Muslim whose mother was incinerated on 9/11 by those who “believed that all non-Muslims are infidels and that the duty of Muslims is to renounce them.”) We’re yearning for a Muslim who is “desperate to reform his faith” and forthright in his assessment that the placement of the mosque at Ground Zero is based on “a belief that Islamic structures are a political statement and even Ground Zero should be looked upon through the lens of political Islam and not a solely American one.” (That from a Muslim and former U.S. Navy officer.)

So while her fury at the ever-shrinking Obama may be amusing, her analysis is about what you’d expect from someone who thinks women have it pretty good in Saudi Arabia. The most important insight to be gained from her rant-athon is this: if Democrats were depressed and faced a turnout problem before this incident, watch out. There might not be a poll model in use that accurately measures the enthusiasm gap between Democratic and Republican voters, nor, as a result, the extent of the electoral damage Obama is about to wreak on his party.

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RE: JFCOM to Be Shut Down?

Max raises important issues with Secretary Gates’s new proposal to shutter Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in southeastern Virginia. I’m not convinced that Gates thinks JFCOM’s job can be done without JFCOM. I suspect he may think it’s not important enough to justify the organization and expenses of a major combatant command.

Gates’s budgetary de-emphasis on force transformation and future weapon systems has stood in contrast to the Rumsfeld-era environment in which JFCOM flourished. Gates was also the secretary of defense in the summer of 2008, when General Mattis, then the new JFCOM commander, took the unusual but necessary step — all but invisible outside military circles — of repudiating the course on which JFCOM had set the once-pervasive, cutting-edge warfare concept of “effects-based operations” (EBO). EBO had become tied, in the minds of many, to our operational failures in Iraq. A widely read U.S. Army War College paper further implicated EBO in the IDF’s failures in the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. EBO has been a drag on the image of what JFCOM was created to do: look toward the future of joint warfare.

Rumsfeld went too far in the direction of transformation, at the expense of current operations. But Gates may well be going too far in the opposite direction. With Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia all arming up, and Russia and China accelerating their weapons-development programs, now is not a good time to preserve our defense-planning assumptions in amber. I’m not as concerned about the disestablishment of JFCOM as I am about the potential for ignoring the joint-warfighting implications of emerging trends abroad. JFCOM’s utility in that regard has been unique: unlike the Joint Staff in Washington, its principal orientation is theory, application, and the lessons from combat — not on the Defense Department budget or the programming cycle.

One feature of JFCOM is likely to slow down efforts to eliminate it. I don’t see any acknowledgment in the Gates proposal that JFCOM plays a key role with the NATO command in Norfolk, Allied Command Transformation (ACT). In the NATO reorganization of 2002, ACT was assigned a mission of training and doctrine development parallel to that of JFCOM. In fact, until 2009, when a French officer assumed command of ACT, the JFCOM commander headed it as well.

NATO’s latest round of strategic thinking produced a report, issued in May 2010, which highlights ACT’s role and calls for “a bolder mandate, greater authorities [sic], and more resources” for the command, identifying it as the key to an overdue transformation of NATO force organization and doctrine. Disestablishing JFCOM, the U.S. counterpart to ACT — in fact, the model on which ACT was designed — would put us noticeably out of step with the direction currently proposed for the NATO alliance. That’s worth a pause for reflection. There are ways to cut contractor positions and slice fat without pulling the plug on a core nexus with our NATO allies.

Max raises important issues with Secretary Gates’s new proposal to shutter Joint Forces Command (JFCOM) in southeastern Virginia. I’m not convinced that Gates thinks JFCOM’s job can be done without JFCOM. I suspect he may think it’s not important enough to justify the organization and expenses of a major combatant command.

Gates’s budgetary de-emphasis on force transformation and future weapon systems has stood in contrast to the Rumsfeld-era environment in which JFCOM flourished. Gates was also the secretary of defense in the summer of 2008, when General Mattis, then the new JFCOM commander, took the unusual but necessary step — all but invisible outside military circles — of repudiating the course on which JFCOM had set the once-pervasive, cutting-edge warfare concept of “effects-based operations” (EBO). EBO had become tied, in the minds of many, to our operational failures in Iraq. A widely read U.S. Army War College paper further implicated EBO in the IDF’s failures in the 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. EBO has been a drag on the image of what JFCOM was created to do: look toward the future of joint warfare.

Rumsfeld went too far in the direction of transformation, at the expense of current operations. But Gates may well be going too far in the opposite direction. With Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia all arming up, and Russia and China accelerating their weapons-development programs, now is not a good time to preserve our defense-planning assumptions in amber. I’m not as concerned about the disestablishment of JFCOM as I am about the potential for ignoring the joint-warfighting implications of emerging trends abroad. JFCOM’s utility in that regard has been unique: unlike the Joint Staff in Washington, its principal orientation is theory, application, and the lessons from combat — not on the Defense Department budget or the programming cycle.

One feature of JFCOM is likely to slow down efforts to eliminate it. I don’t see any acknowledgment in the Gates proposal that JFCOM plays a key role with the NATO command in Norfolk, Allied Command Transformation (ACT). In the NATO reorganization of 2002, ACT was assigned a mission of training and doctrine development parallel to that of JFCOM. In fact, until 2009, when a French officer assumed command of ACT, the JFCOM commander headed it as well.

NATO’s latest round of strategic thinking produced a report, issued in May 2010, which highlights ACT’s role and calls for “a bolder mandate, greater authorities [sic], and more resources” for the command, identifying it as the key to an overdue transformation of NATO force organization and doctrine. Disestablishing JFCOM, the U.S. counterpart to ACT — in fact, the model on which ACT was designed — would put us noticeably out of step with the direction currently proposed for the NATO alliance. That’s worth a pause for reflection. There are ways to cut contractor positions and slice fat without pulling the plug on a core nexus with our NATO allies.

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No U.S. Cash for Hezbollah’s Lebanese Army Allies

Last week, the Lebanese army, apparently acting in concert with Hezbollah terrorists, launched a sneak attack on Israeli soldiers who were clearing away a tree on their own side of the border. One Israeli officer was killed in cold blood, and another was wounded. Israel’s response to this provocation was restrained; it merely returned fire on the Lebanese army, killing two soldiers and one Hezbollah-affiliated “journalist” who had come to the border specifically to observe the hit on the Israelis. But while even the anti-Israel United Nations peacekeeping force Unifil agreed that the Lebanese fired first and attacked Israelis on Israeli soil, the international community had little to say about this incident. Western nations, including the United States, are worried that speaking up about this will undermine the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Syrian agents murdered Hariri’s father in 2005, and protests against this act led to the Cedar Revolution, in which the Syrians were chucked out of the country. But since that signal victory for the West, the Syrians and their Hezbollah allies have won back control over the country. Hariri is now forced to accept a role that his father rejected: a vassal of Damascus and an ally of Hezbollah, which now has a place in his cabinet. As last week’s incident proved, the Lebanese army, once thought to be the lever by which the country could be pried from the grip of Syria, is now in cahoots with Hezbollah. Yet it is still in line to be the recipient of U.S. aid, approved in the days when Lebanon and its army were thought to be allies of the West against Islamist terrorism.

The State Department says it is still trying to investigate the incident and whether it is true that the Lebanese used weapons sent by the United States to shoot at Israel. But at least some members of Congress are paying attention.

Rep. Nita Lowey, the New York Democrat who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, announced today that she is putting a hold on the $100 million allocated to be sent to the Lebanese army in 2010 but which has not yet been disbursed. Lowey says she wants to see how Lebanon and the Hariri government respond to the incident before this money or the $100 million Lebanon is supposed to get in 2011 is sent to Beirut. House Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor called for the aid pipeline to the Lebanese army to be stopped altogether, noting rightly that the line between that army and the Hezbollah terrorists had become blurred.

Instead of pretending as if the Cedar Revolution had not been annulled while both the Bush and Obama governments slept, the administration should be following the lead of Lowey and Cantor. As Evelyn noted, not only did Hariri falsely claim that Israel fired first but his government is also now not even recognizing the international border with Israel. Rather than playing along with the fiction that U.S. aid to Lebanon would fund an army that would be a check on Hezbollah, under the current arrangement Washington is helping to pay for the terrorist group’s fellow killers. That must end, and Lebanon — and Hariri — must be put on notice that there is a price to be paid for carrying out cross-border murders at Hezbollah’s behest.

Last week, the Lebanese army, apparently acting in concert with Hezbollah terrorists, launched a sneak attack on Israeli soldiers who were clearing away a tree on their own side of the border. One Israeli officer was killed in cold blood, and another was wounded. Israel’s response to this provocation was restrained; it merely returned fire on the Lebanese army, killing two soldiers and one Hezbollah-affiliated “journalist” who had come to the border specifically to observe the hit on the Israelis. But while even the anti-Israel United Nations peacekeeping force Unifil agreed that the Lebanese fired first and attacked Israelis on Israeli soil, the international community had little to say about this incident. Western nations, including the United States, are worried that speaking up about this will undermine the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Syrian agents murdered Hariri’s father in 2005, and protests against this act led to the Cedar Revolution, in which the Syrians were chucked out of the country. But since that signal victory for the West, the Syrians and their Hezbollah allies have won back control over the country. Hariri is now forced to accept a role that his father rejected: a vassal of Damascus and an ally of Hezbollah, which now has a place in his cabinet. As last week’s incident proved, the Lebanese army, once thought to be the lever by which the country could be pried from the grip of Syria, is now in cahoots with Hezbollah. Yet it is still in line to be the recipient of U.S. aid, approved in the days when Lebanon and its army were thought to be allies of the West against Islamist terrorism.

The State Department says it is still trying to investigate the incident and whether it is true that the Lebanese used weapons sent by the United States to shoot at Israel. But at least some members of Congress are paying attention.

Rep. Nita Lowey, the New York Democrat who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign aid, announced today that she is putting a hold on the $100 million allocated to be sent to the Lebanese army in 2010 but which has not yet been disbursed. Lowey says she wants to see how Lebanon and the Hariri government respond to the incident before this money or the $100 million Lebanon is supposed to get in 2011 is sent to Beirut. House Republican Whip Rep. Eric Cantor called for the aid pipeline to the Lebanese army to be stopped altogether, noting rightly that the line between that army and the Hezbollah terrorists had become blurred.

Instead of pretending as if the Cedar Revolution had not been annulled while both the Bush and Obama governments slept, the administration should be following the lead of Lowey and Cantor. As Evelyn noted, not only did Hariri falsely claim that Israel fired first but his government is also now not even recognizing the international border with Israel. Rather than playing along with the fiction that U.S. aid to Lebanon would fund an army that would be a check on Hezbollah, under the current arrangement Washington is helping to pay for the terrorist group’s fellow killers. That must end, and Lebanon — and Hariri — must be put on notice that there is a price to be paid for carrying out cross-border murders at Hezbollah’s behest.

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Defending Our Afghanistan Policy

From the left and the right, this morning’s newspapers bring fundamental challenges to our Afghanistan policy.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that the U.S. war effort is simply too costly. He suggests withdrawing troops and instead building schools. “That,” he argues, “would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.”

Over in the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Jack Devine, a former CIA officer who was involved in efforts to help the mujahideen in the 1980s, also argues for withdrawing U.S. soldiers. His preferred alternative is relying on his former employer, the CIA, to mobilize Afghan proxies on our behalf. He admits that after a troop withdrawal, which he envisions happening in 2012, “Afghanistan will likely enter a period of heightened instability,” including the possible collapse of the government, so he advises “we should figure out now which tribal leaders — and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions — we could establish productive relationships with.”

I’ve written a longer article based on my recent visit to Afghanistan for an upcoming issue of Commentary that explains why the policy we’re currently following offers our best chance of success and why there is no realistic Plan B on the horizon. But let me just point out a few of the more obvious problems with Kristof’s and Devine’s prescriptions.

Take Kristof first: he places an awful lot of faith in the power of education despite the fact that some types of education — like that provided in many madrassas — actually fuels extremism. Presumably, he has in mind secular schools that educate boys and girls. He might ask himself how long such schools would last under a Taliban regime — which would be the inevitable result of an American pullout.

Kristof takes comfort from the fact that some foreign-funded schools are able to operate today in dangerous parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the connivance of local tribes, but the Taliban today don’t exercise absolute control over most parts of Afghanistan. Even in areas of strength, they often must make compromises with local factions and avoid antagonizing the people because they know that if they do, the government of Afghanistan and its foreign allies may take advantage of a popular backlash to push them out. If the U.S. actually left and the Taliban were able to consolidate their rule, it is safe to say they would exercise no such restraint. They certainly didn’t in the 1990s when few schools were operating, and practically none admitted girls.

More broadly, a Taliban takeover would be a nightmare for the people of Afghanistan. How would women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, freedom of speech, and other cherished liberal values fare under those conditions? Perhaps Kristof should ponder those questions a bit before suggesting the withdrawal of the most humane and liberal force in Afghanistan — the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

Devine’s argument appears, on the surface, to be more hardheaded, but actually, it is almost as unrealistic — and not incompatible with Kristof’s fantasy, as I bet Kristof imagines that his “schools for all” option could be supplemented by Special Operations and CIA actions to keep the Taliban in check. Such operations worked well in the past, as Devine notes, when the CIA was helping the mujahideen resist Soviet rule and then again in 2001, when it was helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban. But there is a fundamental disparity between those situations and the one we face today. It’s much easier for a covert force to overthrow a government, especially an unpopular government like the Soviet-backed regime or the Taliban. Altogether more difficult is imposing the rule of law, extending the authority of a new government, and stamping out a tenacious insurgency. Those are the challenges that we face today in Afghanistan, and they can’t be accomplished by a handful of special operators. They require large troop numbers, and because the Afghan National Army still lacks adequate capacity to police the country, its efforts must be supplemented for the short-term by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Devine’s prescription – making common cause with local strongmen — would make the problem worse, not better. Much of the reason the Taliban were able to stage a resurgence beginning around 2005 was that after 2001, we had not sent large troop numbers into Afghanistan. Instead, we relied on unsavory local allies who, with our help, built up vast networks of patronage and corruption that alienated the people and made some of them turn to the Taliban for succor. (For a profile of one of these unsavory characters, turn to the Washington Post today).  As Richard Holbrooke notes, “Rampant corruption in Afghanistan provides the Taliban with their No. 1 recruiting tool.” Devine’s strategy of bolstering local strongmen would make the corruption problem even worse and would thereby make the Taliban even stronger.

POSTSCRIPT: An American working in Afghanistan points out another problem with Kristof’s argument that I should have noted: “How will Kristof’s schools get built if there’s no U.S. presence to make sure they’re done? How many billions have we already had stolen by the locals and local governments, right under our noses?” Good point. The deeper one delves, the more absurdities emerge with Kristof’s “schools rather than troops” daydream.

From the left and the right, this morning’s newspapers bring fundamental challenges to our Afghanistan policy.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof argues that the U.S. war effort is simply too costly. He suggests withdrawing troops and instead building schools. “That,” he argues, “would help build an Afghan economy, civil society and future — all for one-quarter of 1 percent of our military spending in Afghanistan this year.”

Over in the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Jack Devine, a former CIA officer who was involved in efforts to help the mujahideen in the 1980s, also argues for withdrawing U.S. soldiers. His preferred alternative is relying on his former employer, the CIA, to mobilize Afghan proxies on our behalf. He admits that after a troop withdrawal, which he envisions happening in 2012, “Afghanistan will likely enter a period of heightened instability,” including the possible collapse of the government, so he advises “we should figure out now which tribal leaders — and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions — we could establish productive relationships with.”

I’ve written a longer article based on my recent visit to Afghanistan for an upcoming issue of Commentary that explains why the policy we’re currently following offers our best chance of success and why there is no realistic Plan B on the horizon. But let me just point out a few of the more obvious problems with Kristof’s and Devine’s prescriptions.

Take Kristof first: he places an awful lot of faith in the power of education despite the fact that some types of education — like that provided in many madrassas — actually fuels extremism. Presumably, he has in mind secular schools that educate boys and girls. He might ask himself how long such schools would last under a Taliban regime — which would be the inevitable result of an American pullout.

Kristof takes comfort from the fact that some foreign-funded schools are able to operate today in dangerous parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan with the connivance of local tribes, but the Taliban today don’t exercise absolute control over most parts of Afghanistan. Even in areas of strength, they often must make compromises with local factions and avoid antagonizing the people because they know that if they do, the government of Afghanistan and its foreign allies may take advantage of a popular backlash to push them out. If the U.S. actually left and the Taliban were able to consolidate their rule, it is safe to say they would exercise no such restraint. They certainly didn’t in the 1990s when few schools were operating, and practically none admitted girls.

More broadly, a Taliban takeover would be a nightmare for the people of Afghanistan. How would women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, freedom of speech, and other cherished liberal values fare under those conditions? Perhaps Kristof should ponder those questions a bit before suggesting the withdrawal of the most humane and liberal force in Afghanistan — the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

Devine’s argument appears, on the surface, to be more hardheaded, but actually, it is almost as unrealistic — and not incompatible with Kristof’s fantasy, as I bet Kristof imagines that his “schools for all” option could be supplemented by Special Operations and CIA actions to keep the Taliban in check. Such operations worked well in the past, as Devine notes, when the CIA was helping the mujahideen resist Soviet rule and then again in 2001, when it was helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban. But there is a fundamental disparity between those situations and the one we face today. It’s much easier for a covert force to overthrow a government, especially an unpopular government like the Soviet-backed regime or the Taliban. Altogether more difficult is imposing the rule of law, extending the authority of a new government, and stamping out a tenacious insurgency. Those are the challenges that we face today in Afghanistan, and they can’t be accomplished by a handful of special operators. They require large troop numbers, and because the Afghan National Army still lacks adequate capacity to police the country, its efforts must be supplemented for the short-term by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Devine’s prescription – making common cause with local strongmen — would make the problem worse, not better. Much of the reason the Taliban were able to stage a resurgence beginning around 2005 was that after 2001, we had not sent large troop numbers into Afghanistan. Instead, we relied on unsavory local allies who, with our help, built up vast networks of patronage and corruption that alienated the people and made some of them turn to the Taliban for succor. (For a profile of one of these unsavory characters, turn to the Washington Post today).  As Richard Holbrooke notes, “Rampant corruption in Afghanistan provides the Taliban with their No. 1 recruiting tool.” Devine’s strategy of bolstering local strongmen would make the corruption problem even worse and would thereby make the Taliban even stronger.

POSTSCRIPT: An American working in Afghanistan points out another problem with Kristof’s argument that I should have noted: “How will Kristof’s schools get built if there’s no U.S. presence to make sure they’re done? How many billions have we already had stolen by the locals and local governments, right under our noses?” Good point. The deeper one delves, the more absurdities emerge with Kristof’s “schools rather than troops” daydream.

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Shut Up, Joe Sestak Responded

Yes, it’s a trend, apparently. Run an add that hits home and the target wants to make sure viewers can’t see it so they can make up their own minds. The ECI launched its opening salvo against Joe Sestak and Sestak’s lawyer rushes in to respond, as Ben Smith reports:

A lawyer for Rep. Joe Sestak, attesting to the Senate candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides, wrote that Sestak had “put his life on the line to defend Israel” during his years in the Navy. The letter, an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Comcast not to air an attack ad from the Emergency Committee for Israel, aggressively makes Sestak’s case on several fronts, but the suggestion that his naval service* in was performed “to defend Israel” is rarely heard outside conspiracy circles.

“Congressman Joe Sestak is the only candidate in the U.S. Senate race who (as an officer of the Navy) was willing to put his life on the line to defend Israel,” Sestak lawyer Jared Solomon wrote Comcast. “It is offensive and outrageous to suggest that he does not stand with Israel.”

Solomon’s letter, obtained by POLITICO,  challenges several other portions of the attack ad, including a claim that he’d helped fundraise for the Council on American Islamic Relations (his appearance was at “a portion of the event explicitly free of fundraising”) and that the group had been called a Hamas “front group” (“the characterization came a year after the CAIR event”).

This is a bizarre and telling move by Sestak on a number of grounds. First, is Sestak saying that he was in mortal peril as commander of a  naval battle group? Sensing that this is a gross exaggeration, his spokesman piped up with a “clarification”:

Sestak spokesman Jonathan Dworkin says the reference was not to any specific conflict, but to a series of operations with the Israeli Military, including a deployment in 2003 to help protect Israel from Iraqi missiles. “There is no suggestion that he served in the Navy for the purpose of defending Israel, only that he was involved in situations with the Israeli military and while serving the United States, he was willing to lay his life on the line in defense of our ally, Israel,” he writes.

Any military service, in my book, should be commended, but we’ve had enough of puffery lately about military credentials and it sure wasn’t the case that he was crawling on his belly through Gaza to protect the Jewish state. But, frankly, it’s hard to tell precisely what he did, because Sestak has refused to release his military records. If they show that he in fact risked life and limb for Israel and put to rest the controversy as to whether he was relieved of command — or told to resign (for creating a “poor command climate”) — why isn’t he putting out his Navy records?

Nor is the lawyer’s argument compelling, let along intelligible, that Sestak wasn’t really accusing Israel of “resorting to collective punishment” when he signed a letter promoted by J Street along with 53 other Israel-bashers. That letter called on Israel to figure out an approach to Gaza “without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza strip.” Huh? I don’t see how Sestak can escape from the text he signed off on.

But that’s not the weirdest part of the letter. He’s essentially saying: “I didn’t actually raise money for CAIR (although there was an admission fee), I just spoke at an event.” And he’s arguing it wasn’t the whole FBI who called CAIR a Hamas front group — just one agent did. Sheesh. I don’t see how that is going to fly. After all, CAIR officials have been the subject of many a legal investigation and have some rather radical views.

In the campaign Sestak’s going to have some explaining to do. Really, is he going to say it was only after the fundraising event that CAIR got the moniker of “Hamas front group”? They had been under investigation, after all, for years. More to the point, does he now understand that CAIR is in fact a front group?

Also, take a look at the letter and exhibits that the ECI submitted in response to the “shut them up” plea from Sestak’s lawyer. I’m not sure how fair-minded people can look at all that and conclude that Sestak has a pro-Israel track record, unless we are willing to concede that “pro-Israel” has no meaning.

Arlen Specter tried to raise many of these same points during the primary, so this isn’t anything new. What is surprising is that Sestak thinks he can muscle his way through the campaign without revealing his Navy records, without expressing any remorse for speaking at a CAIR event (with a Muslim activist who compared Zionists to Nazis) and without explaining what exactly makes him so attractive to J Street. We’ll see if he can pull it off.

Yes, it’s a trend, apparently. Run an add that hits home and the target wants to make sure viewers can’t see it so they can make up their own minds. The ECI launched its opening salvo against Joe Sestak and Sestak’s lawyer rushes in to respond, as Ben Smith reports:

A lawyer for Rep. Joe Sestak, attesting to the Senate candidate’s pro-Israel bona fides, wrote that Sestak had “put his life on the line to defend Israel” during his years in the Navy. The letter, an unsuccessful attempt to persuade Comcast not to air an attack ad from the Emergency Committee for Israel, aggressively makes Sestak’s case on several fronts, but the suggestion that his naval service* in was performed “to defend Israel” is rarely heard outside conspiracy circles.

“Congressman Joe Sestak is the only candidate in the U.S. Senate race who (as an officer of the Navy) was willing to put his life on the line to defend Israel,” Sestak lawyer Jared Solomon wrote Comcast. “It is offensive and outrageous to suggest that he does not stand with Israel.”

Solomon’s letter, obtained by POLITICO,  challenges several other portions of the attack ad, including a claim that he’d helped fundraise for the Council on American Islamic Relations (his appearance was at “a portion of the event explicitly free of fundraising”) and that the group had been called a Hamas “front group” (“the characterization came a year after the CAIR event”).

This is a bizarre and telling move by Sestak on a number of grounds. First, is Sestak saying that he was in mortal peril as commander of a  naval battle group? Sensing that this is a gross exaggeration, his spokesman piped up with a “clarification”:

Sestak spokesman Jonathan Dworkin says the reference was not to any specific conflict, but to a series of operations with the Israeli Military, including a deployment in 2003 to help protect Israel from Iraqi missiles. “There is no suggestion that he served in the Navy for the purpose of defending Israel, only that he was involved in situations with the Israeli military and while serving the United States, he was willing to lay his life on the line in defense of our ally, Israel,” he writes.

Any military service, in my book, should be commended, but we’ve had enough of puffery lately about military credentials and it sure wasn’t the case that he was crawling on his belly through Gaza to protect the Jewish state. But, frankly, it’s hard to tell precisely what he did, because Sestak has refused to release his military records. If they show that he in fact risked life and limb for Israel and put to rest the controversy as to whether he was relieved of command — or told to resign (for creating a “poor command climate”) — why isn’t he putting out his Navy records?

Nor is the lawyer’s argument compelling, let along intelligible, that Sestak wasn’t really accusing Israel of “resorting to collective punishment” when he signed a letter promoted by J Street along with 53 other Israel-bashers. That letter called on Israel to figure out an approach to Gaza “without resulting in the de facto collective punishment of the Palestinian residents of the Gaza strip.” Huh? I don’t see how Sestak can escape from the text he signed off on.

But that’s not the weirdest part of the letter. He’s essentially saying: “I didn’t actually raise money for CAIR (although there was an admission fee), I just spoke at an event.” And he’s arguing it wasn’t the whole FBI who called CAIR a Hamas front group — just one agent did. Sheesh. I don’t see how that is going to fly. After all, CAIR officials have been the subject of many a legal investigation and have some rather radical views.

In the campaign Sestak’s going to have some explaining to do. Really, is he going to say it was only after the fundraising event that CAIR got the moniker of “Hamas front group”? They had been under investigation, after all, for years. More to the point, does he now understand that CAIR is in fact a front group?

Also, take a look at the letter and exhibits that the ECI submitted in response to the “shut them up” plea from Sestak’s lawyer. I’m not sure how fair-minded people can look at all that and conclude that Sestak has a pro-Israel track record, unless we are willing to concede that “pro-Israel” has no meaning.

Arlen Specter tried to raise many of these same points during the primary, so this isn’t anything new. What is surprising is that Sestak thinks he can muscle his way through the campaign without revealing his Navy records, without expressing any remorse for speaking at a CAIR event (with a Muslim activist who compared Zionists to Nazis) and without explaining what exactly makes him so attractive to J Street. We’ll see if he can pull it off.

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Nuke-Free Yet?

Taking a break from the flotilla, let’s check in on how Obama’s nuke-free-world fetish is coming along. This report suggests that it is not going so well:

Burma has begun secretly acquiring key components for a nuclear weapons program, including specialized equipment used to make uranium metal for nuclear bombs, according to a report that cites documents and photos from a Burmese army officer who recently fled the country. The smuggled evidence shows Burma’s military rulers taking concrete steps toward obtaining atomic weapons, according to an analysis co-written by an independent nuclear expert.

But they are years away from getting the technology right, we are told. Unless Iran gets there first and gives it to them. Or North Korea.

But we had a cheery NPT summit and signed a START agreement. Obama said he wouldn’t nuke non-NPT signatories that hit us with chemical or biological weapons. And that didn’t impress the thugs of Burma? Hmm. But we’ve been engaging the regime, promising to welcome them into the family of nations. And that didn’t impress them either?

Obama’s policies are not simply ineffective; they are dangerous. They encourage thugocracies to pursue their own nuclear weapons and to brutalize their own people, secure in the knowledge that the U.S. will do virtually nothing to stop them. Once Iran gets the bomb, expect more like Burma to follow suit.

Taking a break from the flotilla, let’s check in on how Obama’s nuke-free-world fetish is coming along. This report suggests that it is not going so well:

Burma has begun secretly acquiring key components for a nuclear weapons program, including specialized equipment used to make uranium metal for nuclear bombs, according to a report that cites documents and photos from a Burmese army officer who recently fled the country. The smuggled evidence shows Burma’s military rulers taking concrete steps toward obtaining atomic weapons, according to an analysis co-written by an independent nuclear expert.

But they are years away from getting the technology right, we are told. Unless Iran gets there first and gives it to them. Or North Korea.

But we had a cheery NPT summit and signed a START agreement. Obama said he wouldn’t nuke non-NPT signatories that hit us with chemical or biological weapons. And that didn’t impress the thugs of Burma? Hmm. But we’ve been engaging the regime, promising to welcome them into the family of nations. And that didn’t impress them either?

Obama’s policies are not simply ineffective; they are dangerous. They encourage thugocracies to pursue their own nuclear weapons and to brutalize their own people, secure in the knowledge that the U.S. will do virtually nothing to stop them. Once Iran gets the bomb, expect more like Burma to follow suit.

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Flotilla Incident — Constructive Criticism

When Israel is attacked — physically or rhetorically — the impulse of all friends of Israel (myself included) is to jump immediately and totally to its defense. That is a commendable impulse; certainly far preferable to the knee-jerk anti-Israel animus displayed by much of the world. But unflinching support for Israel’s right to defend itself should not preclude occasional criticism of the manner in which it exercises that right — just as being a supporter of the United States and its armed forces in general should not preclude one from criticizing specific operations, for instance the way in which the Iraq war was conducted from 2003 to 2007. Indeed, one can argue that those of us who were critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war ultimately helped to make possible the turnaround that occurred when President Bush jettisoned his senior war managers (Rumsfeld, Abizaid, Casey) and implemented the surge — a policy they had stubbornly and foolishly opposed.

So Israel is now going through a period of reflection and self-criticism similar to that which occurred after the troubled 2006 campaign against Hezbollah. That resulted in a more successful operation against Hamas (Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009). I hope that the constructive criticisms that I — and other pro-Israel commentators — have lodged of the manner in which the Gaza flotilla was handled will lead Israeli policymakers to be more adept in dealing with similar challenges in the future. My critique (I wrote that the operation was morally and legally justified but handed a public-relations victory to Israel’s enemies) was actually mild compared with many of those heard in Israel itself. For instance, Ari Shavit — a respected Haaretz columnist who is a hawkish liberal – wrote:

During the 2006 war in Lebanon I concluded that my 15-year-old daughter could have conducted it more wisely than the Olmert-Peretz government. We’ve progressed. Today it’s clear to me that my 6-year-old son could do much better than our current government.

As another example, there is this comment made to Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, who is in Israel right now:

I happen to be around a lot of Israeli generals lately, and one I bumped into today said something very smart and self-aware: “Does everybody in the world think we’re bananas?” He did not let me respond before he said, “Wait, I know the answer: The whole world thinks we’re bananas.” I asked this general if this was a good thing or a bad thing. After all, Nixon seemed bananas and he achieved great things internationally. So did Menachem Begin. This is what the general said, however: “It’s one thing for people to think that you’re crazy, but it’s bad when they think you’re incompetent and crazy, and that’s the way we look.”

Unfortunately — and it pains me to say so because I want only the best for Israel — I think that unnamed general is right.

Those who continue to defend the handling of the Gaza flotilla make essentially three points: (a) there was no credible alternative; (b) Israel would get criticized no matter what it did; and (c) Israel cannot give the “international community” a veto over its right of self-defense.

Start with the first point. Knowledgeable Israeli commentators agree with me that there likely were alternative courses of action to stop the flotilla without sending a small group of naval commandos into the middle of a melee — a situation for which they were unprepared. The Jerusalem Post writes:

One question that needs to be asked is why the government approved the IDF’s plan to put troops on the ship via helicopter instead of perhaps sabotaging or diverting them. Flotilla 13, the naval commando unit that raided the ships, is expert in sabotage.

According to one former top navy officer, one option was to use tugboats to push the ships off course. Another option was to damage the ships’ propellers, prevent them from sailing into Gaza and forcing them to be towed to Ashdod.

A third option was to board the ships quietly and not by helicopter.

“There were several options that the IDF had before sending troops onto the ship,” the former senior officer explained, “It is not clear that those options were completely exhausted.”

In the Wall Street Journal today, Israeli security analyst Ronen Bergman (who, like I do, describes the operation as a “fiasco”) reminds us that such alternatives have been employed before:

In 1988, 131 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) who had been deported from the Palestinian Territories following the outbreak of the first intifada intended to set sail to Gaza from Limassol, Cyprus. Their boat, called Al Awda or the Ship of the Return, was accompanied by 200 journalists. ….

On Feb. 15, hours before it was due to set sail, the empty ship was blown up in Limassol harbor by a team of Mossad agents and frogmen from Flotilla 13 (the Israeli equivalent of Navy Seals). The team was led by Yoav Galant, then a young officer and today a major general in the IDF. The operation was a success. There were no casualties on either side and the PLO gave up on the idea of sailing to Gaza.

What about the argument that Israel would get criticized no matter what it did? That even if its agents sabotaged or disabled the pro-Hamas vessels without risking an open confrontation, it would still be pilloried? There is some truth to this, but there is criticism and then there is criticism. It would get a lot less blowback for such a low-profile operation than for a shoot-out on the high seas that left nine “peace activists” (actually pro-Hamas activists) dead.

Israel should be willing to risk international opprobrium when it faces a true existential threat. It needs, for example, to retaliate for Hamas rocket strikes, as it did with Operation Cast Lead. No state can allow its territory to be attacked with impunity. Israel also needs to seriously consider the possibility of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities no matter the denunciations that such an operation would inevitably bring; the potential payoff is worth the public-relations cost. But the Mavi Marmara was not an existential threat; it was not loaded with missiles or other weapons. It was a provocation, an act of political theater — and Israel should have been smart enough to avoid playing the part scripted by its enemies. Even letting the ship dock in Gaza would have done less damage to Israel than the manner in which it was stopped.

The justification for the boarding was that Israel couldn’t allow the Gaza blockade to be broken. I’m sympathetic to the need to maintain the blockade (which Israel has every right to do), but as Ronen Bergman points out, Israel has let other ships breach the blockade before without catastrophic consequences:

In August 2006 two ships carrying peace activists and food aid set out to Gaza, again from Cyprus. Under instructions from then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the vessels were boarded at sea without resistance. After a search uncovered no weapons, the ships were permitted to continue on toward the Strip. The Israeli naval forces went home, Hamas declared victory, and that was that.

The ultimate irony here is that the Israeli boarding was meant to prevent a recurrence of such Hamas aid convoys. Yet the shooting aboard the Mavi Marama has had the opposite effect — by handing an unearned propaganda victory to Israel’s enemies, it is encouraging them to repeat the same tactics. Three more ships are being readied for another Gaza flotilla. If and when they do sail, I trust that the Israeli government will learn from experience and not walk into another trap set by its enemies.

When Israel is attacked — physically or rhetorically — the impulse of all friends of Israel (myself included) is to jump immediately and totally to its defense. That is a commendable impulse; certainly far preferable to the knee-jerk anti-Israel animus displayed by much of the world. But unflinching support for Israel’s right to defend itself should not preclude occasional criticism of the manner in which it exercises that right — just as being a supporter of the United States and its armed forces in general should not preclude one from criticizing specific operations, for instance the way in which the Iraq war was conducted from 2003 to 2007. Indeed, one can argue that those of us who were critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war ultimately helped to make possible the turnaround that occurred when President Bush jettisoned his senior war managers (Rumsfeld, Abizaid, Casey) and implemented the surge — a policy they had stubbornly and foolishly opposed.

So Israel is now going through a period of reflection and self-criticism similar to that which occurred after the troubled 2006 campaign against Hezbollah. That resulted in a more successful operation against Hamas (Operation Cast Lead in December 2008-January 2009). I hope that the constructive criticisms that I — and other pro-Israel commentators — have lodged of the manner in which the Gaza flotilla was handled will lead Israeli policymakers to be more adept in dealing with similar challenges in the future. My critique (I wrote that the operation was morally and legally justified but handed a public-relations victory to Israel’s enemies) was actually mild compared with many of those heard in Israel itself. For instance, Ari Shavit — a respected Haaretz columnist who is a hawkish liberal – wrote:

During the 2006 war in Lebanon I concluded that my 15-year-old daughter could have conducted it more wisely than the Olmert-Peretz government. We’ve progressed. Today it’s clear to me that my 6-year-old son could do much better than our current government.

As another example, there is this comment made to Atlantic blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, who is in Israel right now:

I happen to be around a lot of Israeli generals lately, and one I bumped into today said something very smart and self-aware: “Does everybody in the world think we’re bananas?” He did not let me respond before he said, “Wait, I know the answer: The whole world thinks we’re bananas.” I asked this general if this was a good thing or a bad thing. After all, Nixon seemed bananas and he achieved great things internationally. So did Menachem Begin. This is what the general said, however: “It’s one thing for people to think that you’re crazy, but it’s bad when they think you’re incompetent and crazy, and that’s the way we look.”

Unfortunately — and it pains me to say so because I want only the best for Israel — I think that unnamed general is right.

Those who continue to defend the handling of the Gaza flotilla make essentially three points: (a) there was no credible alternative; (b) Israel would get criticized no matter what it did; and (c) Israel cannot give the “international community” a veto over its right of self-defense.

Start with the first point. Knowledgeable Israeli commentators agree with me that there likely were alternative courses of action to stop the flotilla without sending a small group of naval commandos into the middle of a melee — a situation for which they were unprepared. The Jerusalem Post writes:

One question that needs to be asked is why the government approved the IDF’s plan to put troops on the ship via helicopter instead of perhaps sabotaging or diverting them. Flotilla 13, the naval commando unit that raided the ships, is expert in sabotage.

According to one former top navy officer, one option was to use tugboats to push the ships off course. Another option was to damage the ships’ propellers, prevent them from sailing into Gaza and forcing them to be towed to Ashdod.

A third option was to board the ships quietly and not by helicopter.

“There were several options that the IDF had before sending troops onto the ship,” the former senior officer explained, “It is not clear that those options were completely exhausted.”

In the Wall Street Journal today, Israeli security analyst Ronen Bergman (who, like I do, describes the operation as a “fiasco”) reminds us that such alternatives have been employed before:

In 1988, 131 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) who had been deported from the Palestinian Territories following the outbreak of the first intifada intended to set sail to Gaza from Limassol, Cyprus. Their boat, called Al Awda or the Ship of the Return, was accompanied by 200 journalists. ….

On Feb. 15, hours before it was due to set sail, the empty ship was blown up in Limassol harbor by a team of Mossad agents and frogmen from Flotilla 13 (the Israeli equivalent of Navy Seals). The team was led by Yoav Galant, then a young officer and today a major general in the IDF. The operation was a success. There were no casualties on either side and the PLO gave up on the idea of sailing to Gaza.

What about the argument that Israel would get criticized no matter what it did? That even if its agents sabotaged or disabled the pro-Hamas vessels without risking an open confrontation, it would still be pilloried? There is some truth to this, but there is criticism and then there is criticism. It would get a lot less blowback for such a low-profile operation than for a shoot-out on the high seas that left nine “peace activists” (actually pro-Hamas activists) dead.

Israel should be willing to risk international opprobrium when it faces a true existential threat. It needs, for example, to retaliate for Hamas rocket strikes, as it did with Operation Cast Lead. No state can allow its territory to be attacked with impunity. Israel also needs to seriously consider the possibility of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities no matter the denunciations that such an operation would inevitably bring; the potential payoff is worth the public-relations cost. But the Mavi Marmara was not an existential threat; it was not loaded with missiles or other weapons. It was a provocation, an act of political theater — and Israel should have been smart enough to avoid playing the part scripted by its enemies. Even letting the ship dock in Gaza would have done less damage to Israel than the manner in which it was stopped.

The justification for the boarding was that Israel couldn’t allow the Gaza blockade to be broken. I’m sympathetic to the need to maintain the blockade (which Israel has every right to do), but as Ronen Bergman points out, Israel has let other ships breach the blockade before without catastrophic consequences:

In August 2006 two ships carrying peace activists and food aid set out to Gaza, again from Cyprus. Under instructions from then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the vessels were boarded at sea without resistance. After a search uncovered no weapons, the ships were permitted to continue on toward the Strip. The Israeli naval forces went home, Hamas declared victory, and that was that.

The ultimate irony here is that the Israeli boarding was meant to prevent a recurrence of such Hamas aid convoys. Yet the shooting aboard the Mavi Marama has had the opposite effect — by handing an unearned propaganda victory to Israel’s enemies, it is encouraging them to repeat the same tactics. Three more ships are being readied for another Gaza flotilla. If and when they do sail, I trust that the Israeli government will learn from experience and not walk into another trap set by its enemies.

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Obama’s Want of Staying Power

Dion Nissenbaum of McClatchy Newspapers accompanied General Stanley McChrystal to Marjah and filed an outstanding report on the current state of play in that Helmand Province town three months after the Marines went in. There is general agreement that the operation has not gone as well in recent weeks as it did in the beginning:

There aren’t enough U.S. and Afghan forces to provide the security that’s needed to win the loyalty of wary locals. The Taliban have beheaded Afghans who cooperate with foreigners in a creeping intimidation campaign. The Afghan government hasn’t dispatched enough local administrators or trained police to establish credible governance, and now the Taliban have begun their anticipated spring offensive.

Commanders in southern Afghanistan are quoted as telling McChrystal that he needs to be patient. “How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?” McChrystal replied. Instead, he suggested to Major General Nick Carter, the British officer who planned the operation, that more troops should have been used:

“I think that we’ve done well, but I think that the pace of security has been slower,” McChrystal said in one meeting. “I’m thinking that, had we put more force in there, we could have locked that place down better.”

Of course, McChrystal knows that if you put more troops into Marjah, you risk a decline of security in another area. Now, the imperative is to marshal as many soldiers as possible to retake Kandahar, the most important city in the south.

The Marjah offensive should be a cautionary tale in that regard: yes, troops can enter Taliban strongholds quickly. But no, they can’t reverse years of Taliban gains in a heartbeat. That requires sustained presence. The question is whether the Obama administration will show the patience necessary given the deadline the president has set for starting to withdraw troops next summer. As usual, when it comes to American counterinsurgency, the war will be won or lost in Washington — not on some distant battlefield. I only wish I had more confidence in Obama’s staying power and resolution as commander in chief.

Dion Nissenbaum of McClatchy Newspapers accompanied General Stanley McChrystal to Marjah and filed an outstanding report on the current state of play in that Helmand Province town three months after the Marines went in. There is general agreement that the operation has not gone as well in recent weeks as it did in the beginning:

There aren’t enough U.S. and Afghan forces to provide the security that’s needed to win the loyalty of wary locals. The Taliban have beheaded Afghans who cooperate with foreigners in a creeping intimidation campaign. The Afghan government hasn’t dispatched enough local administrators or trained police to establish credible governance, and now the Taliban have begun their anticipated spring offensive.

Commanders in southern Afghanistan are quoted as telling McChrystal that he needs to be patient. “How many days do you think we have before we run out of support by the international community?” McChrystal replied. Instead, he suggested to Major General Nick Carter, the British officer who planned the operation, that more troops should have been used:

“I think that we’ve done well, but I think that the pace of security has been slower,” McChrystal said in one meeting. “I’m thinking that, had we put more force in there, we could have locked that place down better.”

Of course, McChrystal knows that if you put more troops into Marjah, you risk a decline of security in another area. Now, the imperative is to marshal as many soldiers as possible to retake Kandahar, the most important city in the south.

The Marjah offensive should be a cautionary tale in that regard: yes, troops can enter Taliban strongholds quickly. But no, they can’t reverse years of Taliban gains in a heartbeat. That requires sustained presence. The question is whether the Obama administration will show the patience necessary given the deadline the president has set for starting to withdraw troops next summer. As usual, when it comes to American counterinsurgency, the war will be won or lost in Washington — not on some distant battlefield. I only wish I had more confidence in Obama’s staying power and resolution as commander in chief.

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RE: Did Chuck DeVore Exaggerate His Military Service?

Both DeVore and his press aide contacted me, quite exercised about my post regarding his military service. I imagine the Los Angeles Times is getting the same treatment. DeVore e-mails:

I actually have the micro-cassette recording of Lebanon. You can hear multiple bursts of automatic weapons fire with the Israeli officer finally saying “OK, we are done” and then ordering the  press off the hill. Zelnick stayed to complete his report, BTW, much to the discomfort of his cameraman.

But the issue of proximity, of course, is what is in question.

His press aide complains: “But it’s a he-said, she-said exercise — not even close to ‘Hillary Clinton’s Bosnian gun fire fantasy.’ It’s a shame you’d participate in tearing down the only pro-Israel candidate in this race or [in] either party.”

First, Clinton chose to confess her erroneous recollection, or that too would have been a she-said, they-said incident. Second, a candidate’s pro- or anti-Israel leanings are irrelevant to an issue of character. I frankly don’t care whether Richard Blumenthal is the next John Bolton; he’s unfit to serve. Third, Carly Fiorina is solidly pro-Israel and has repeatedly criticized Obama’s Israel policy and his approach to Iran. She is warmly received and embraced by California Jewish Republicans. Readers will assess just how credible the DeVore team is.

On the radio appearance, his aide says that he introduced himself as a reservist. Yes, but the statement was about his present status. In the debate, he also says things like: “Well, as I mentioned before, I am the sole candidate on either side of the aisle with military experience. I’m a lieutenant colonel of military intelligence within the U.S. army.” Hmm. Wouldn’t the average person think he meant “regular Army” in that capacity? And in a response to a question on Mirandizing terrorists, DeVore says: “Well, this is a very critical question. I am looking at my U.S. Army Military I.D. card and at the bottom it says Geneva Conventions I.D. Card. On the back it indicates that I am Geneva Conventions Category Four. Which is a field grade officer out of anything that means that if I am captured by Geneva Conventions signatory, I can’t be forced to do physical work and of course Enlisted people will laugh at that. The point though is that I am the only candidate out of both my Republican opponents and Barbara Boxer whose actually studied the law of war and knows the Geneva Convention because we have to study it as someone going though the Command General Staff College in the U.S. Army.” I think the average listener would conclude this is evidence of service in the regular Army.

Well, you have the account of the candidate and of a well-respected (by liberals and conservative alike) press reporter. And there is a transcript of the debate. Voters will have to decide whether DeVore was exaggerating his service. Maybe he should hold a press conference and let the media ask all the questions they like.

Both DeVore and his press aide contacted me, quite exercised about my post regarding his military service. I imagine the Los Angeles Times is getting the same treatment. DeVore e-mails:

I actually have the micro-cassette recording of Lebanon. You can hear multiple bursts of automatic weapons fire with the Israeli officer finally saying “OK, we are done” and then ordering the  press off the hill. Zelnick stayed to complete his report, BTW, much to the discomfort of his cameraman.

But the issue of proximity, of course, is what is in question.

His press aide complains: “But it’s a he-said, she-said exercise — not even close to ‘Hillary Clinton’s Bosnian gun fire fantasy.’ It’s a shame you’d participate in tearing down the only pro-Israel candidate in this race or [in] either party.”

First, Clinton chose to confess her erroneous recollection, or that too would have been a she-said, they-said incident. Second, a candidate’s pro- or anti-Israel leanings are irrelevant to an issue of character. I frankly don’t care whether Richard Blumenthal is the next John Bolton; he’s unfit to serve. Third, Carly Fiorina is solidly pro-Israel and has repeatedly criticized Obama’s Israel policy and his approach to Iran. She is warmly received and embraced by California Jewish Republicans. Readers will assess just how credible the DeVore team is.

On the radio appearance, his aide says that he introduced himself as a reservist. Yes, but the statement was about his present status. In the debate, he also says things like: “Well, as I mentioned before, I am the sole candidate on either side of the aisle with military experience. I’m a lieutenant colonel of military intelligence within the U.S. army.” Hmm. Wouldn’t the average person think he meant “regular Army” in that capacity? And in a response to a question on Mirandizing terrorists, DeVore says: “Well, this is a very critical question. I am looking at my U.S. Army Military I.D. card and at the bottom it says Geneva Conventions I.D. Card. On the back it indicates that I am Geneva Conventions Category Four. Which is a field grade officer out of anything that means that if I am captured by Geneva Conventions signatory, I can’t be forced to do physical work and of course Enlisted people will laugh at that. The point though is that I am the only candidate out of both my Republican opponents and Barbara Boxer whose actually studied the law of war and knows the Geneva Convention because we have to study it as someone going though the Command General Staff College in the U.S. Army.” I think the average listener would conclude this is evidence of service in the regular Army.

Well, you have the account of the candidate and of a well-respected (by liberals and conservative alike) press reporter. And there is a transcript of the debate. Voters will have to decide whether DeVore was exaggerating his service. Maybe he should hold a press conference and let the media ask all the questions they like.

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Did Terrorist Detainees’ Lawyers Endanger CIA Agents?

Eli Lake reports:

Covertly taken photos of CIA interrogators that were shown by defense attorneys to al Qaeda inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison represent a more serious security breach than the 2003 outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, the agency’s former general counsel said Wednesday.

John Rizzo, who was the agency’s top attorney until December, said in an interview that he initially requested the Justice Department and CIA investigation into the compromise of CIA interrogators’ identities after photographs of the officers were found in the cell of one al Qaeda terrorist in Cuba.

Recall that Guantanamo detainees — some of whom may now have been released back to their home countries (and returned to the battlefield, given the rate of recidivism) — were shown pictures of CIA agents by their attorneys. The danger to these public servants is acute:

“Well I think this is far more serious than Valerie Plame,” Mr. Rizzo said after a breakfast speech. “That was clearly illegal, outing a covert officer. I am not downplaying that. But this is far more serious.”

“This was not leaked to a columnist,” he added. “These were pictures of undercover people who were involved in the interrogations program given for identification purposes to the 9/11 [terrorists].”

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is now investigating the matter. At this stage, we know that “the photographs appeared to have been taken by private investigators for the John Adams Project, which is jointly backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.” As Lake notes, serious violations of law may have occurred:

One possible crime would be the “disclosure of classified information, being the faces of these people, to an enemy foreign power,” Mr. Rizzo said.

Mr. Rizzo said the other possible law the pro-bono attorneys may have violated would be the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), the same law Mr. Fitzgerald initially investigated in Mrs. Plame’s case. No one in the Plame case was prosecuted under that statute. A former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., was convicted of lying to investigators and later partially pardoned.

We will see what Fitzgerald turns up. But the potential that lawyers illegally disclosed materials to terrorists and thereby endangered CIA agents should remind us of the mentality of those who claimed to be defending our “values” as they litigated against the U.S.

Eli Lake reports:

Covertly taken photos of CIA interrogators that were shown by defense attorneys to al Qaeda inmates at the Guantanamo Bay prison represent a more serious security breach than the 2003 outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, the agency’s former general counsel said Wednesday.

John Rizzo, who was the agency’s top attorney until December, said in an interview that he initially requested the Justice Department and CIA investigation into the compromise of CIA interrogators’ identities after photographs of the officers were found in the cell of one al Qaeda terrorist in Cuba.

Recall that Guantanamo detainees — some of whom may now have been released back to their home countries (and returned to the battlefield, given the rate of recidivism) — were shown pictures of CIA agents by their attorneys. The danger to these public servants is acute:

“Well I think this is far more serious than Valerie Plame,” Mr. Rizzo said after a breakfast speech. “That was clearly illegal, outing a covert officer. I am not downplaying that. But this is far more serious.”

“This was not leaked to a columnist,” he added. “These were pictures of undercover people who were involved in the interrogations program given for identification purposes to the 9/11 [terrorists].”

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is now investigating the matter. At this stage, we know that “the photographs appeared to have been taken by private investigators for the John Adams Project, which is jointly backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.” As Lake notes, serious violations of law may have occurred:

One possible crime would be the “disclosure of classified information, being the faces of these people, to an enemy foreign power,” Mr. Rizzo said.

Mr. Rizzo said the other possible law the pro-bono attorneys may have violated would be the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA), the same law Mr. Fitzgerald initially investigated in Mrs. Plame’s case. No one in the Plame case was prosecuted under that statute. A former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby Jr., was convicted of lying to investigators and later partially pardoned.

We will see what Fitzgerald turns up. But the potential that lawyers illegally disclosed materials to terrorists and thereby endangered CIA agents should remind us of the mentality of those who claimed to be defending our “values” as they litigated against the U.S.

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From the Horse’s Mouth: Petraeus on Israel

Back on March 13, terrorist groupie Mark Perry — a former Arafat aide who now pals around with Hamas and Hezbollah — posted an article on Foreign Policy’s website, claiming that General David Petraeus was behind the administration’s policy of getting tough with Israel. He attributed to Petraeus the view that “Israel’s intransigence” — meaning its unwillingness to give up every inch of the West Bank and East Jerusalem tomorrow — “could cost American lives.” His item received wide circulation though it may be doubted whether, as he now says, “It changed the way people think about the conflict.”

I tried to set the record straight with two Commentary items (see here and here) in which I suggested, based on talking to an officer familiar with Petraeus’s thinking, that Perry’s item was a gross distortion —in fact a fraud. I noted that in Petraeus’s view, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was only one factor among many affecting U.S. interests in the region and that Israeli settlements were far from the only, or even the main, obstacle to peace. I even suggested — again, based on inside information — that the 56-page posture statement that Central Command had submitted to Congress, which stated that the Arab-Israeli conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” was not the best indicator of his thinking. Better to look at what he actually told Congress — in a hearing he barely mentioned Israel (until prompted to do so) and never talked about settlements at all.

This brought hoots of derision from commentators on both the Left and the Right, who claimed that I was putting words into Petraeus’s mouth — that I was, in Joe Klein’s phrase, taking a “flying leap.” Predictably piling on were Andrew Sullivan, who said I was “glossing over” what Petraeus said, and Robert Wright, who claimed that, “by Boot’s lights, Petraeus is anti-Israel.” Diana West added a truly inventive spin, by suggesting that Petraeus was a protégé of Stephen Walt, who was his faculty adviser many years ago at Princeton before the good professor won renown as a leading basher of the “Israel Lobby” and the state of Israel itself. It was from Walt, Ms. West claims, that Petraeus imbibed his “Arabist, anti-Israel attitudes.”

So who was off-base here: those of us who tried to explain the nuances of General Petraeus’s thinking or those bloggers and commentators who tried to suggest that he is a strident critic of Israel?

The answer has now been publicly provided by Petraeus himself in a speech in New Hampshire. Watch it for yourself. A good summary is provided by the American Spectator’s Philip Klein, who was present at the event and asked Petraeus to clarify his thinking.

The general said that it was “unhelpful” that “bloggers” had “picked … up” what he had said and “spun it.” He noted that, aside from Israel’s actions, there are many other important factors standing in the way of peace, including “a whole bunch of extremist organizations, some of which by the way deny Israel’s right to exist. There’s a country that has a nuclear program who denies that the Holocaust took place. So again we have all these factors in there. This [Israel] is just one.”

What about Perry’s claim that American support for Israel puts our soldiers at risk? Petraeus said, “There is no mention of lives anywhere in there. I actually reread the statement. It doesn’t say that at all.”

He concluded by noting that he had sent to General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, the “blog by Max Boot” which, he said, had “picked apart this whole thing, as he typically does, pretty astutely.”

I hope Petraeus’s comments will put an end to this whole weird episode. Those who are either happy or unhappy about the administration’s approach to Israel should lodge their compliments or complaints where they belong — at the White House, not at Central Command.

Back on March 13, terrorist groupie Mark Perry — a former Arafat aide who now pals around with Hamas and Hezbollah — posted an article on Foreign Policy’s website, claiming that General David Petraeus was behind the administration’s policy of getting tough with Israel. He attributed to Petraeus the view that “Israel’s intransigence” — meaning its unwillingness to give up every inch of the West Bank and East Jerusalem tomorrow — “could cost American lives.” His item received wide circulation though it may be doubted whether, as he now says, “It changed the way people think about the conflict.”

I tried to set the record straight with two Commentary items (see here and here) in which I suggested, based on talking to an officer familiar with Petraeus’s thinking, that Perry’s item was a gross distortion —in fact a fraud. I noted that in Petraeus’s view, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was only one factor among many affecting U.S. interests in the region and that Israeli settlements were far from the only, or even the main, obstacle to peace. I even suggested — again, based on inside information — that the 56-page posture statement that Central Command had submitted to Congress, which stated that the Arab-Israeli conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel,” was not the best indicator of his thinking. Better to look at what he actually told Congress — in a hearing he barely mentioned Israel (until prompted to do so) and never talked about settlements at all.

This brought hoots of derision from commentators on both the Left and the Right, who claimed that I was putting words into Petraeus’s mouth — that I was, in Joe Klein’s phrase, taking a “flying leap.” Predictably piling on were Andrew Sullivan, who said I was “glossing over” what Petraeus said, and Robert Wright, who claimed that, “by Boot’s lights, Petraeus is anti-Israel.” Diana West added a truly inventive spin, by suggesting that Petraeus was a protégé of Stephen Walt, who was his faculty adviser many years ago at Princeton before the good professor won renown as a leading basher of the “Israel Lobby” and the state of Israel itself. It was from Walt, Ms. West claims, that Petraeus imbibed his “Arabist, anti-Israel attitudes.”

So who was off-base here: those of us who tried to explain the nuances of General Petraeus’s thinking or those bloggers and commentators who tried to suggest that he is a strident critic of Israel?

The answer has now been publicly provided by Petraeus himself in a speech in New Hampshire. Watch it for yourself. A good summary is provided by the American Spectator’s Philip Klein, who was present at the event and asked Petraeus to clarify his thinking.

The general said that it was “unhelpful” that “bloggers” had “picked … up” what he had said and “spun it.” He noted that, aside from Israel’s actions, there are many other important factors standing in the way of peace, including “a whole bunch of extremist organizations, some of which by the way deny Israel’s right to exist. There’s a country that has a nuclear program who denies that the Holocaust took place. So again we have all these factors in there. This [Israel] is just one.”

What about Perry’s claim that American support for Israel puts our soldiers at risk? Petraeus said, “There is no mention of lives anywhere in there. I actually reread the statement. It doesn’t say that at all.”

He concluded by noting that he had sent to General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, the “blog by Max Boot” which, he said, had “picked apart this whole thing, as he typically does, pretty astutely.”

I hope Petraeus’s comments will put an end to this whole weird episode. Those who are either happy or unhappy about the administration’s approach to Israel should lodge their compliments or complaints where they belong — at the White House, not at Central Command.

Read Less

The Innocents Pack for Damascus

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

Lebanese scholar Tony Badran quotes Robert Ford, President Barack Obama’s unconfirmed pick for ambassador to Syria, and Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, making statements last week that are breathtaking in their disconnection from reality.

Kerry said he believes Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, “understands that his country’s long-term interests … are not well served by aligning Syria with a revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran and its terrorist clients.” Ford, at the same time, said the U.S. “must persuade Syria that neither Iran nor Hezbollah shares Syria’s long-term strategic interest in … peace.”

These statements are simply off-planet. Either Kerry and Ford don’t know the first thing about how the Syrian government perceives its own interests, or they’re making stuff up for the sake of diplomacy.

It could be the latter. That happens. In Baghdad in 2008, a U.S. Army officer told me that the U.S. said things that weren’t strictly true about Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia to make it easier for him to save face, climb down out of his tree, and cut a deal. The American and Iraqi armies were still fighting his men in the streets but pretended they were only battling it out with rogue forces called “Special Groups.”

“We are giving the office of Moqtada al-Sadr a door,” the officer said. “We want them to be a political entity, not a military entity. So if you’re fighting coalition forces or the Iraqi army, we’ll say you’re a Special Groups leader or a Special Groups member.”

“So,” I said, “this is like the make-believe distinctions between military wings and political wings of Hamas and Hezbollah?”

“Yes,” he said. “That’s it. That’s exactly it.”

I’d like to give Kerry and Ford the benefit of the doubt here and assume that that’s what they’re doing with Assad, that they know Syria’s alliance with Iran is three decades old and therefore well thought-out and durable, that they know his foreign policy goal is one of “resistance” rather than peace, but I have my doubts. They otherwise shouldn’t find engaging him worth the humiliation and bother.

The U.S. military used diplomatic fictions to help convince Sadr to cool it, but he was actively losing a war at the time. He was, shall we say, open to constructive suggestions. Assad is not losing anything. On the contrary, he has all but reconsolidated his overlordship in Lebanon through terrorism and warlordism, and his patron regime in Tehran is on the brink of becoming a nuclear-armed mini regional superpower. Kerry and Ford should know they can no more flip Syria into our column than they could have lured East Germany out of the Soviet bloc during the Brezhnev era.

Diplomatic fictions have their time and place, but there’s a downside. Unsophisticated players, observers, and analysts begin to believe them and no longer understand what is actually happening. Residents of the Washington, D.C., bubble are especially susceptible, but I’ve met American journalists who live in the Middle East who don’t understand that Assad strives not for peace and stability but rather for revolution, terrorism, and war. (They might want to reread The Truth About Syria by Barry Rubin and Syria’s Terrorist War on Lebanon and the Peace Process by Marius Deeb.)

If some Americans who live in and write about the Middle East have a hard time with this, I am not optimistic that the truth has fully penetrated the Beltway, especially when policy, as well as public statements, seems to be based on this fantasy.

Kerry and Ford are undoubtedly intelligent people, or they’d be in a different line of work, but getting leverage and results in the Middle East requires something more. “American elites have a hard time distinguishing between intelligence and cunning,” Lee Smith, author of The Strong Horse, said to me recently, “largely because their lives do not depend on them outwitting murderous rivals. In hard places, intelligent people is what the cunning eat for lunch.”

Engaging Syria and describing Assad as a reasonable man would make sense if something epic had just happened that might convince him to run his calculations again, such as the overthrow or collapse of Ali Khamenei’s government in Iran. Otherwise, the administration is setting itself up for another failure in the Middle East that will damage its — no, our — credibility. One good thing will probably come of it, though. The naifs will learn. They’ll learn it the hard way, which seems to be the only way most of us learn anything over there. But they’ll learn.

Read Less




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