Commentary Magazine


Topic: The Economist

‘Economist’ Warns Iran Won’t Be Stopped

For years, we’ve been told that there’s plenty of time to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. The world laughed when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu drew a red line across a cartoon bomb at the United Nations last fall to demonstrate the need to act before it was too late. President Obama, who has vociferously pledged that Tehran will never gain such a weapon on his watch, tried engagement and then a mix of sanctions and diplomacy to try and make good on his promise. He still insists that this policy will eventually work and with the election of a new supposedly more moderate Iranian president, virtually everyone in the chattering classes and the foreign policy establishment has seemed content to allow the administration to keep talking about talking with the Islamist regime even if there’s no sign that it will ever work. This complacence has been criticized by American conservatives and some Israelis to little effect, but now one of the most reliable indicators of establishment thinking in Europe with little sympathy for Israel is agreeing with those long deemed alarmists about Iran.

In an eye-opening article published this week, the Economist dismisses the notion that anything the United States and its allies has been trying will work:

British and American intelligence sources think Iran is about a year away from having enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb, and rather further from mastering the technologies to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit into a missile. But David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, thinks that by mid-2014 Iran will have the capacity to produce enough fissile material for a single bomb in one or two weeks, should it choose to do so. It seems unlikely that Iran could be forced to change course on this matter by foreigners. The best that can be hoped for is that it decides that it does not want or need a nuclear weapon.

But given that, as the magazine stated in the opening sentence of the piece, “Iran is putting up with sanctions that damage its economy rather than accept a deal limiting its nuclear programme,” what possible reason is there to believe that the ayatollahs would simply give up what the regime has worked so long and hard to achieve? The obvious answer is none at all. Which means that the assurances we have been getting from Washington about having all the time in the world to let diplomacy work—in spite of repeated failures—was pure bunk. While I wouldn’t expect those who have been working diligently to switch American policy from one aimed at stopping Iran to one of containment (something Obama has disavowed) to draw any conclusions from this, it should be noted that this turn of events has led a leading columnist at Israel’s left-wing Haaretz newspaper to make a startling concession: Netanyahu was right all along.

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For years, we’ve been told that there’s plenty of time to stop Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. The world laughed when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu drew a red line across a cartoon bomb at the United Nations last fall to demonstrate the need to act before it was too late. President Obama, who has vociferously pledged that Tehran will never gain such a weapon on his watch, tried engagement and then a mix of sanctions and diplomacy to try and make good on his promise. He still insists that this policy will eventually work and with the election of a new supposedly more moderate Iranian president, virtually everyone in the chattering classes and the foreign policy establishment has seemed content to allow the administration to keep talking about talking with the Islamist regime even if there’s no sign that it will ever work. This complacence has been criticized by American conservatives and some Israelis to little effect, but now one of the most reliable indicators of establishment thinking in Europe with little sympathy for Israel is agreeing with those long deemed alarmists about Iran.

In an eye-opening article published this week, the Economist dismisses the notion that anything the United States and its allies has been trying will work:

British and American intelligence sources think Iran is about a year away from having enough highly enriched uranium to make a bomb, and rather further from mastering the technologies to make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit into a missile. But David Albright, a former UN weapons inspector who is president of the Institute for Science and International Security, thinks that by mid-2014 Iran will have the capacity to produce enough fissile material for a single bomb in one or two weeks, should it choose to do so. It seems unlikely that Iran could be forced to change course on this matter by foreigners. The best that can be hoped for is that it decides that it does not want or need a nuclear weapon.

But given that, as the magazine stated in the opening sentence of the piece, “Iran is putting up with sanctions that damage its economy rather than accept a deal limiting its nuclear programme,” what possible reason is there to believe that the ayatollahs would simply give up what the regime has worked so long and hard to achieve? The obvious answer is none at all. Which means that the assurances we have been getting from Washington about having all the time in the world to let diplomacy work—in spite of repeated failures—was pure bunk. While I wouldn’t expect those who have been working diligently to switch American policy from one aimed at stopping Iran to one of containment (something Obama has disavowed) to draw any conclusions from this, it should be noted that this turn of events has led a leading columnist at Israel’s left-wing Haaretz newspaper to make a startling concession: Netanyahu was right all along.

As Ari Shavit notes in today’s Haaretz:

While Israel was busy with light entertainment in the form of political reality shows, The Economist informed it this week that a difficult strategic reality is taking shape around it. What the world promised would never happen is happening at this very moment. What the top ranks of Israel’s defense establishment promised would never happen is in fact happening. Iran is becoming a nuclear power, while Israel (which is sunk in summer daydreams) stands alone.

From 2009 to 2012, a vigorous debate over Iran took place here. On one side were the optimists: President Shimon Peres, then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan, then-Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin, then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, the defense establishment, the media establishment and the refreshing spirit of hoping for the best. On the other side was a gloomy, besmirched pessimist: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The mention of Dagan and Diskin is important here. The former spooks were two of the stars of The Gatekeepers, a film in which former security chiefs flayed Netanyahu’s government for its policies and have been lionized in the West as the sane, smart Israelis who should be listened to instead of the dumbbells that were elected by the Israeli people. Yet, as one of their cheerleaders now attests, they were wrong about the most important defense issue faced by the country.

But as Shavit writes, it was the famous gatekeepers and other liberal Israelis who were listened to by the West:

America is there, said the optimists. No, it isn’t, said the pessimist. There’s a hidden hand, said the optimists. No, there isn’t, said the pessimist. There’s time, said the optimists. No, there isn’t, said the pessimist. Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped by the fall of 2012, the pessimist said. It’s not Iran’s nuclear program that’s the problem, but the prime minister, the optimists said.

For three and a half years, the optimists went from one journalist to another and from one American to another and said that the pessimist is a dangerous purveyor of doom and gloom who sees molehills as mountains and doesn’t understand that the world won’t let Iran go nuclear. For three and a half years, the optimists tied the pessimist’s hands on the basis of the threefold promise of America, the hidden hand and time.

Just as Israel’s left-wingers have done much to poison the minds of Western journalists and opinion-makers about the standoff with the Palestinians, the willingness of so many top Jerusalem figures to align themselves against Netanyahu on Iran had serious consequences. The optimists, as Shavit calls them, refused to help the prime minister to ratchet up the pressure on Obama to act before Iran had amassed the huge store of enriched uranium that it now possesses or it had stored much of its nuclear infrastructure in hardened, mountainside bunkers that would be difficult even for the United States to destroy. Instead, they helped hamstring the efforts of Netanyahu and former Minister of Defense Ehud Barak in their efforts to mobilize the West to act or to get a green light from Washington for Israel to strike on its own.

After repeatedly accusing Netanyahu of crying “wolf” about Iran, as Shavit puts it, Israel must now deal with the fact that “a strategic wolf with nuclear teeth is now at the gate.”

But, as he notes, as dangerous as the situation has become, it is not too late for it to be corrected. A decision by the West to enact a total economic blockade and boycott of Iran—with no exceptions for China to buy their oil—could bring an already shaky Iranian economy to its knees in a manner than even the ayatollahs would have to notice. A credible threat of force rather than the amorphous language used by a president who is clearly determined to do anything but use force to stop Iran might also get their attention.

But with the U.S. seemingly ready to waste another year on a diplomatic track that is designed merely to give Iran more time to develop their nukes, there seems little chance of either of those things happening.

The result is the situation the Economist describes in which Iran is certain to get a nuclear weapon sometime before the midterm elections next year. At that point, apologies to Netanyahu from his detractors in both the U.S. and Israel will be both too late and of no use to a Jewish state confronted by a nuclear Iran that wants to wipe it off the map.

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Global Warming Alarmism Cools Down

The Economist – which has long been concerned about the rise in Earth’s temperature and its consequences for civilization — has a significant article in the current issue. It begins this way:

Over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar. The world added roughly 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010. That is about a quarter of all the CO₂ put there by humanity since 1750. And yet, as James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, observes, “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.”

Temperatures fluctuate over short periods, but this lack of new warming is a surprise. Ed Hawkins, of the University of Reading, in Britain, points out that surface temperatures since 2005 are already at the low end of the range of projections derived from 20 climate models. If they remain flat, they will fall outside the models’ range within a few years.

“The mismatch between rising greenhouse-gas emissions and not-rising temperatures is among the biggest puzzle in climate science right now,” The Economist adds.

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The Economist – which has long been concerned about the rise in Earth’s temperature and its consequences for civilization — has a significant article in the current issue. It begins this way:

Over the past 15 years air temperatures at the Earth’s surface have been flat while greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to soar. The world added roughly 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere between 2000 and 2010. That is about a quarter of all the CO₂ put there by humanity since 1750. And yet, as James Hansen, the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, observes, “the five-year mean global temperature has been flat for a decade.”

Temperatures fluctuate over short periods, but this lack of new warming is a surprise. Ed Hawkins, of the University of Reading, in Britain, points out that surface temperatures since 2005 are already at the low end of the range of projections derived from 20 climate models. If they remain flat, they will fall outside the models’ range within a few years.

“The mismatch between rising greenhouse-gas emissions and not-rising temperatures is among the biggest puzzle in climate science right now,” The Economist adds.

The article rightly does not argue that anthropological global warming is a delusion. But it does make the point that an awful lot depends on whether the climate is less sensitive to CO2 emissions than previously believed. It makes (almost literally) a world of difference if Earth’s temperature increases 0.8-1.9°C v. 4.0-6.0°C. The low end would be something we could easily absorb; the high end would justify drastic interventions. So much depends on the model one uses and the confidence one places in them.

Based on the latest science, the Economist summaries things this way: 

given the hiatus in warming and all the new evidence, a small reduction in estimates of climate sensitivity would seem to be justified: a downwards nudge on various best estimates from 3°C to 2.5°C, perhaps; a lower ceiling (around 4.5°C), certainly. If climate scientists were credit-rating agencies, climate sensitivity would be on negative watch. But it would not yet be downgraded.

When I wrote on this subject a couple of years ago (see here  and here), I pointed out (a) the concentration in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide has increased markedly during the past 150 years; (b) humans have been responsible for a significant increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration during the past two centuries; (c) as a result, the earth is getting warmer; but (d) there’s a good deal of uncertainty based on future climate projections and what needs to be done. In light of that, adaptation rather than a completely unworkable system of global carbon rationing may be the way to go.

Here’s how I put it at the time:

Many climate scientists fear that unless dramatic steps are taken soon, we’ll see rising sea levels, contracting ice sheets, more floods and intense tropical cyclones, the spread of tropical diseases like malaria, the submergence of parts of continents, alterations in our ecosystems, and food and water shortages. Perhaps so; those concerns are certainly worth considering. But as Jim Manzi – who combines a sophisticated understanding of the scientific and economic stakes of the climate-change debate — has pointed out, pumping out more CO2 triggers an incredibly complicated set of feedback effects, and the most important scientific debate is really about these feedback effects. In Manzi’s words, “Climate models generate useful projections for us to consider, but the reality is that nobody knows with meaningful precision how much warming we will experience under any emissions scenario. Global warming is a real risk, but its impact over the next century could plausibly range from negligible to severe.”

Conservatives should be part of that conversation. There’s an intellectually credible case to be made that it’s unwise to embrace massive, harmful changes to our economy in the face of significant uncertainties based on incomplete knowledge of how the climate system will respond in the middle part of the 22nd century.

That is, I think, very much where we are today. Even the Economist is beginning to think so. 

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The Media’s Occupy Wall Street Delusions

As the Economist’s political outlook has changed on issues throughout the years, the one constant has been the restraining of the written identities of its anonymous contributors in place of a unified “voice of God,” as it’s often referred to. And the real challenge to maintaining this weighty air of authority has never been the complicated issues that seem to cry out for the responsible reflection of the Economist’s on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other consideration. It is, rather, the attempts to wedge clear-cut and fairly ridiculous ideas into this deliberative style.

Can you make just about anything sound plausible if you employ the tone of the unimpeachable? The Economist tested that question in this week’s edition, and the answer is a resounding No. The magazine has a brief write-up of the reunion of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, which it admits has seemingly run out of steam. But then the Economist closes with this paragraph:

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As the Economist’s political outlook has changed on issues throughout the years, the one constant has been the restraining of the written identities of its anonymous contributors in place of a unified “voice of God,” as it’s often referred to. And the real challenge to maintaining this weighty air of authority has never been the complicated issues that seem to cry out for the responsible reflection of the Economist’s on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other consideration. It is, rather, the attempts to wedge clear-cut and fairly ridiculous ideas into this deliberative style.

Can you make just about anything sound plausible if you employ the tone of the unimpeachable? The Economist tested that question in this week’s edition, and the answer is a resounding No. The magazine has a brief write-up of the reunion of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, which it admits has seemingly run out of steam. But then the Economist closes with this paragraph:

Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia School of Journalism and the author of a new book, “Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street”, has explored why Occupy did not become the sort of mass movement that could deliver legislative and regulatory change. He cites over-democratic decision-making in its General Assembly and a later turn to violence by some members. On the other hand, he argues, it succeeded in transforming America’s national conversation, adding to the Lexicon not just the Twitter meme of #occupy but also the notion that the country has become divided into a wealthy 1% and a not-so-lucky 99%. Without this, argues Mr Gitlin, it would have been far harder for Mitt Romney to be attacked simply for being rich, first by Newt Gingrich and then by Barack Obama. If this attack strategy helps win Mr Obama another term, he may have the Occupy movement to thank.

First of all, I can help Gitlin figure out why the Occupy movement didn’t change the world. Violent anarchists who shield the perpetrators of sexual assault, defecate on police cars, and rage against hygiene do not get elected to Congress. Far more remarkable is Gitlin’s assertion that Barack Obama, of all people, would have struggled to attack Mitt Romney as rich without the help of the country’s furious collectivist youth.

But worst of all is the Economist’s last sentence in that paragraph. It’s not attributed to Gitlin, but merely declared by the magazine: if Obama wins reelection by bashing success and hectoring the public about inequality, he can thank Occupy.

In the modern era of American politics, this sentiment is refuted by pretty much every single election cycle. But it’s also refuted by the magazine’s hero-president, Obama. Did the Economist not watch then-candidate Barack Obama attack John McCain in 2008 for having a rich wife? Did it miss Obama telling voters we need to “spread the wealth around”? Did it not watch the truly stunning conversation Obama had with Charlie Gibson at a Democratic primary debate with Hillary Clinton, in which Gibson pointed out to Obama that raising taxes on capital gains does not lead to higher revenue, and Obama responded that revenue wasn’t the issue, but instead that he “would look at raising the capital gains tax for purposes of fairness”?

The examples abound. Democrats, especially since the Bush tax cuts, have run on the class warfare argument that Republicans just want tax cuts “for the rich” (which, in the Democrats’ world, extends to the middle class with a smattering of regressive taxes on the poor as well) and that Republicans don’t understand the effects of inequality or the need to, in Obama’s terms, “spread the wealth around.”

Now, it’s true that the inequality issue’s profile may have been raised slightly by a credulous media seeing a crowd of Che wannabes in the sea of bored Chomskyites. But it’s safe to say the Obama campaign would have figured out a way to attack Romney’s wealth without the help of confused teenagers.

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The Purim Parallels

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often deploys historical analogies to help other world leaders understand the mindset of the Jewish people when faced with current threats or challenges. Tomorrow is Purim, the story of which Netanyahu brings up this time of year, each year, because of certain (mostly geographic) parallels.

The story begins on an alarming note when the evil Haman engineers a decree from the king he serves, Ahasuerus of Persia, calling for the annihilation of the empire’s Jews. The story ends with the humble Mordechai saving the king’s life and Queen Esther convincing her husband the king to sign a second decree discouraging the slaughter of the Jews and allowing and enabling the Jews to defend themselves against anyone who still attempted to carry out their annihilation. Esther, who was Jewish, fasted before making this request of the king, and so we fast today, the day before Purim, in solemn recognition both of Esther’s fast and the close call. But the point of the story and of Netanyahu’s decision to give President Obama a copy of the Book of Esther have been slightly misinterpreted.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often deploys historical analogies to help other world leaders understand the mindset of the Jewish people when faced with current threats or challenges. Tomorrow is Purim, the story of which Netanyahu brings up this time of year, each year, because of certain (mostly geographic) parallels.

The story begins on an alarming note when the evil Haman engineers a decree from the king he serves, Ahasuerus of Persia, calling for the annihilation of the empire’s Jews. The story ends with the humble Mordechai saving the king’s life and Queen Esther convincing her husband the king to sign a second decree discouraging the slaughter of the Jews and allowing and enabling the Jews to defend themselves against anyone who still attempted to carry out their annihilation. Esther, who was Jewish, fasted before making this request of the king, and so we fast today, the day before Purim, in solemn recognition both of Esther’s fast and the close call. But the point of the story and of Netanyahu’s decision to give President Obama a copy of the Book of Esther have been slightly misinterpreted.

First, the story of Purim is not about the “defeat” of the Persian empire, per se. Indeed, Mordechai went on to serve in the administration of Ahasuerus, and Esther remained the queen. Nor is it a story about Jewish power—the Jews needed the king to enable their self-defense, and the prayer and material deprivation of Jewish fast days is about faith and divine providence, not proud self-reliance. That’s why the primary purpose of raising the Purim analogy is to elucidate the differences. The Economist doesn’t like Netanyahu’s use of the Purim story and is tiring of his “Auschwitz complex,” as the magazine refers to it in a post on its Democracy in America blog.

“Mr Netanyahu is less attractive than Esther, but he seems to be wooing Mr. Obama and the American public just as effectively,” the Economist writes in a clumsy and undercooked metaphor of its own. The magazine faults Netanyahu for saying the following:

After all, that’s the very purpose of the Jewish state, to restore to the Jewish people control over our destiny. That’s why my supreme responsibility as prime minister of Israel is to ensure that Israel remains master of its fate.

“News flash: Israel is not master of its fate,” the Economist interrupts. But neither, it says, is the United States–or Britain, Serbia, China, or Sweden. And that’s just fine. But that misses the point. It’s true that Israel isn’t, in the literal sense, the master of its own fate. Part of the lesson of Purim is about faith. But Netanyahu doesn’t mean Israel is in total control of everyone’s actions. In a January article for the New York Times Magazine, Ronen Bergman asked Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak about those within the Israeli military and political establishment who vocally oppose a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations. Barak offered a memorable response:

It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us — the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.

Another way of saying this would be the old Hebrew National slogan: “We answer to a higher authority.” The Economist calls this the “ghetto mentality,” and says Netanyahu’s gift to Obama of the Book of Esther proves “he’s still in it.” But the Economist gives the game away when faulting Netanyahu for Israel’s siege mentality, claiming “As prime minister in the late 1990s, he did more than any other Israeli leader to destroy the peace process.” The Economist elaborates:

Violent clashes and provocations erupted whenever the peace process seemed on the verge of concrete steps forward; the most charitable spin would be that the Israelis failed to exercise the restraint they might have shown in retaliating against Palestinian terrorism, had they been truly interested in progress towards a two-state solution.

That paragraph says it all. When the peace process gained momentum, the Palestinians engaged in terrorism to destroy the process. But “the most charitable spin” is that Netanyahu deserves blame for not rolling over. Even the Economist’s phrasing tells you where they are coming from: “the most charitable spin” is a dismissive way of saying “attempting to see the other side’s point of view.” But the Economist prejudges that view. It’s spin–no matter what it is, it’s spin.

Doubtless that same hostility will be displayed toward Netanyahu if one day the Economist wakes up to the news that Iran’s nuclear installations have been reduced to rubble. And that will be a sign that Netanyahu didn’t give Obama the Book of Esther as a map to the current reality. He will have been reminding the president of just the opposite: this time, the decree allowing and enabling the Jews to defend themselves won’t be signed, sealed, and delivered in a foreign capital.

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