Commentary Magazine


Topic: U.S. Embassy

Morning Commentary

Are Republicans coming around on New START? Eight GOP members voted to open debate on the treaty in the Senate last night, which some see as a “proxy” for the final vote. New START needs nine Republican supporters in the Senate to pass.

As repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell passes the House for a second time, it picks up another Republican supporter in the Senate: “‘After careful analysis of the comprehensive report compiled by the Department of Defense and thorough consideration of the testimony provided by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs, I support repeal of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law,’ [Sen. Olympia] Snowe said in a statement.”

Well, this pretty much ensures that the next Organization of the Islamic Conferences summit is going to be sufficiently awkward: “Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak compared Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East to a ‘cancer,’ according to a cable released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. ‘President Mubarak has made it clear that he sees Iran as Egypt’s — and the region’s — primary strategic threat,’ says the secret cable, sent April 28, 2009, from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”

Two writers and recent Columbia graduates discuss in the New Republic the problematic politics of the university’s controversial new Center for Palestine Studies: “Of course, there is nothing wrong with gathering a broad-based community of scholars behind a new academic initiative. Columbia and American academia need a venue for the interdisciplinary study of Palestine. But, unaccompanied by a dedication to real expertise, the CPS will be little more than a clique of like-minded academics whose defining commonality is hostility toward Israel. In its current form, it’s likely that the first Palestine Center at an American university will lead the way not in ‘a new era of civility,’ but, rather, in politicizing Middle East studies further than ever before.”

The Guardian is predictably outraged that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was given to, apparently, a neocon: “[Liu Xiaobo] has endorsed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. … Liu argues that ‘The free world led by the US fought almost all regimes that trampled on human rights [and the] major wars that the US became involved in are all ethically defensible.’… Liu has also one-sidedly praised Israel’s stance in the Middle East conflict. He places the blame for the Israel/Palestine conflict on Palestinians, who he regards as ‘often the provocateurs.’”

Ross Douthat responds to Mitt Romney supporters who excuse the politician’s “serial insincerity”: “I believe that Mitt Romney is a more serious person, and would probably be a better president, than his campaign style suggests. But issue by issue, policy by policy, that same campaign style makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins … because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.”

Are Republicans coming around on New START? Eight GOP members voted to open debate on the treaty in the Senate last night, which some see as a “proxy” for the final vote. New START needs nine Republican supporters in the Senate to pass.

As repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell passes the House for a second time, it picks up another Republican supporter in the Senate: “‘After careful analysis of the comprehensive report compiled by the Department of Defense and thorough consideration of the testimony provided by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service chiefs, I support repeal of the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law,’ [Sen. Olympia] Snowe said in a statement.”

Well, this pretty much ensures that the next Organization of the Islamic Conferences summit is going to be sufficiently awkward: “Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak compared Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East to a ‘cancer,’ according to a cable released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks. ‘President Mubarak has made it clear that he sees Iran as Egypt’s — and the region’s — primary strategic threat,’ says the secret cable, sent April 28, 2009, from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”

Two writers and recent Columbia graduates discuss in the New Republic the problematic politics of the university’s controversial new Center for Palestine Studies: “Of course, there is nothing wrong with gathering a broad-based community of scholars behind a new academic initiative. Columbia and American academia need a venue for the interdisciplinary study of Palestine. But, unaccompanied by a dedication to real expertise, the CPS will be little more than a clique of like-minded academics whose defining commonality is hostility toward Israel. In its current form, it’s likely that the first Palestine Center at an American university will lead the way not in ‘a new era of civility,’ but, rather, in politicizing Middle East studies further than ever before.”

The Guardian is predictably outraged that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was given to, apparently, a neocon: “[Liu Xiaobo] has endorsed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. … Liu argues that ‘The free world led by the US fought almost all regimes that trampled on human rights [and the] major wars that the US became involved in are all ethically defensible.’… Liu has also one-sidedly praised Israel’s stance in the Middle East conflict. He places the blame for the Israel/Palestine conflict on Palestinians, who he regards as ‘often the provocateurs.’”

Ross Douthat responds to Mitt Romney supporters who excuse the politician’s “serial insincerity”: “I believe that Mitt Romney is a more serious person, and would probably be a better president, than his campaign style suggests. But issue by issue, policy by policy, that same campaign style makes it awfully hard to figure out where he would actually stand when the pandering stops and the governing begins … because everything he does feels like a pander, I don’t know where he really stands on any of them. And freak show or no freak show, base or no base, that’s no way to run for president.”

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The Resistance Bloc’s Weak Point

Syrian strongman Bashar Assad is willing to fight Israel to the last Lebanese Shia, but he won’t risk one of his own. It’s far easier — and safer — to let third-party guerrillas drunk on their own martyrdom ideology wage his war against the “Zionist Entity” for him. That way he gets to pocket credit as a “resistance” leader without having to do any resisting himself. He knows he’d lose a conventional war within weeks, if not days, even if Israel were forced to fight Iran and Hezbollah at the same time.

His government said as much to the Iranian government recently, according to a leaked U.S. Embassy cable.

Last year, an Iranian delegation to Damascus asked Syria to commit to joining its military forces with Iran’s and Hezbollah’s because they think an Israeli attack on their nuclear weapons facilities is inevitable. “It is not a matter of if, but when,” an unnamed Syrian official was supposedly told. The official answered, however, that “we’re too weak” to retaliate.

So Syria is not much of an Iranian ally then, is it?

Assad may be weak, but he is not stupid. Terrorists, guerrillas, and insurgents can absorb punishment for years before going under. Police states are brittle things that can be easily shattered. He knows he can’t risk it. And he must find it amazing that Israel has been willing to spend decades fighting unwinnable asymmetric proxy wars instead of cleaning up in a short conventional war like it used to.

The U.S. and France have been trying to woo Syria away from Iran with baskets of carrots, but an Israeli stick would almost certainly be more effective. The Syrians have all but said so themselves. They will not go to war against Israel, not even if their allies are under attack. The only thing Assad is willing to do is help the Iranians arm someone else, and that’s only because he has so far gotten away with it.

If the Israelis say his support for and arming of Hezbollah is a casus belli for a conventional war, he might finally stop.

Syrian strongman Bashar Assad is willing to fight Israel to the last Lebanese Shia, but he won’t risk one of his own. It’s far easier — and safer — to let third-party guerrillas drunk on their own martyrdom ideology wage his war against the “Zionist Entity” for him. That way he gets to pocket credit as a “resistance” leader without having to do any resisting himself. He knows he’d lose a conventional war within weeks, if not days, even if Israel were forced to fight Iran and Hezbollah at the same time.

His government said as much to the Iranian government recently, according to a leaked U.S. Embassy cable.

Last year, an Iranian delegation to Damascus asked Syria to commit to joining its military forces with Iran’s and Hezbollah’s because they think an Israeli attack on their nuclear weapons facilities is inevitable. “It is not a matter of if, but when,” an unnamed Syrian official was supposedly told. The official answered, however, that “we’re too weak” to retaliate.

So Syria is not much of an Iranian ally then, is it?

Assad may be weak, but he is not stupid. Terrorists, guerrillas, and insurgents can absorb punishment for years before going under. Police states are brittle things that can be easily shattered. He knows he can’t risk it. And he must find it amazing that Israel has been willing to spend decades fighting unwinnable asymmetric proxy wars instead of cleaning up in a short conventional war like it used to.

The U.S. and France have been trying to woo Syria away from Iran with baskets of carrots, but an Israeli stick would almost certainly be more effective. The Syrians have all but said so themselves. They will not go to war against Israel, not even if their allies are under attack. The only thing Assad is willing to do is help the Iranians arm someone else, and that’s only because he has so far gotten away with it.

If the Israelis say his support for and arming of Hezbollah is a casus belli for a conventional war, he might finally stop.

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Turns Out Russia Is Still Russia

You can’t “reset” diplomacy in a diplomatic ghost town. Here’s the New York Times on newly leaked cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow: “The Kremlin displays scant ability or inclination to reform what one cable characterized as a ‘modern brand of authoritarianism’ accepted with resignation by the ruled,” reports C.J. Chivers. “Moreover, the cables reveal the limits of American influence within Russia and an evident dearth of diplomatic sources. The internal correspondence repeatedly reflected the analyses of an embassy whose staff was narrowly contained and had almost no access to Mr. Putin’s inner circle.”

Also exploded is the appealing notion that President Dmitry Medvedev either wields genuine presidential power greater than Putin’s or represents some new, reform-minded Kremlin. “The cables portray Mr. Putin as enjoying supremacy over all other Russian public figures,” and “Mr. Medvedev, the prime minister’s understudy, is the lesser part of a strange ‘tandemocracy’ and ‘plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.’”

So we’ve been hanging our hopes on the boy wonder. In June, Barack Obama praised Medvedev’s “vision for modernization in Russia, especially high-tech innovation as a personal passion of the president.” But the Times notes that “a veritable kaleidoscope of corruption thrived in Moscow, much of it under the protection of a mayor who served at the president’s pleasure.” Chivers writes that “Western businesses sometimes managed to pursue their interests by personally engaging senior Russian officials, including President Medvedev, rather than getting lost in bureaucratic channels.”

That bureaucratic labyrinth is apparently reserved for American diplomats. Meanwhile, liberals rage on about the urgent need to ratify New START so that our helpful Russian partners don’t lose faith in us.

The WikiLeaks fiasco continues to demonstrate the foreign policy naiveté of the Obama administration and confirm the suspicions of conservative critics. Yesterday, in Tablet, Lee Smith detailed eight points on which the “Wikileaks cable dump vindicates the right,” regarding Middle East policy. Today we’re seeing more evidence of this unfortunate vindication in areas beyond. It’s not that this whole episode compromises our standing around the world; rather, it reveals the ways in which we’ve been doing that all by ourselves for two years.

You can’t “reset” diplomacy in a diplomatic ghost town. Here’s the New York Times on newly leaked cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow: “The Kremlin displays scant ability or inclination to reform what one cable characterized as a ‘modern brand of authoritarianism’ accepted with resignation by the ruled,” reports C.J. Chivers. “Moreover, the cables reveal the limits of American influence within Russia and an evident dearth of diplomatic sources. The internal correspondence repeatedly reflected the analyses of an embassy whose staff was narrowly contained and had almost no access to Mr. Putin’s inner circle.”

Also exploded is the appealing notion that President Dmitry Medvedev either wields genuine presidential power greater than Putin’s or represents some new, reform-minded Kremlin. “The cables portray Mr. Putin as enjoying supremacy over all other Russian public figures,” and “Mr. Medvedev, the prime minister’s understudy, is the lesser part of a strange ‘tandemocracy’ and ‘plays Robin to Putin’s Batman.’”

So we’ve been hanging our hopes on the boy wonder. In June, Barack Obama praised Medvedev’s “vision for modernization in Russia, especially high-tech innovation as a personal passion of the president.” But the Times notes that “a veritable kaleidoscope of corruption thrived in Moscow, much of it under the protection of a mayor who served at the president’s pleasure.” Chivers writes that “Western businesses sometimes managed to pursue their interests by personally engaging senior Russian officials, including President Medvedev, rather than getting lost in bureaucratic channels.”

That bureaucratic labyrinth is apparently reserved for American diplomats. Meanwhile, liberals rage on about the urgent need to ratify New START so that our helpful Russian partners don’t lose faith in us.

The WikiLeaks fiasco continues to demonstrate the foreign policy naiveté of the Obama administration and confirm the suspicions of conservative critics. Yesterday, in Tablet, Lee Smith detailed eight points on which the “Wikileaks cable dump vindicates the right,” regarding Middle East policy. Today we’re seeing more evidence of this unfortunate vindication in areas beyond. It’s not that this whole episode compromises our standing around the world; rather, it reveals the ways in which we’ve been doing that all by ourselves for two years.

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Is J Street More Trouble Than It’s Worth?

J Street is backing Joe Sestak, providing both an endorsement and funding. He is their ideal candidate — willing to keynote at a CAIR fundraiser, unbothered by Obama’s Israel-bashing, happy to sign on to J Street’s letter on lifting the Gaza blockade, and left-leaning on everything else. This, of course, has raised concerns within the Jewish community. During the primary, Sen. Arlen Specter went after his opponent:

When addressing them at the May 2 forum, [Specter] went into great detail, describing his Jewish upbringing and choosing to focus much of his presentation on the issue of Israel. Responding to a question from the audience, he attacked his rival’s decision to participate at a meeting sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization that critics have accused of accommodating antisemitic views. “Sestak showed a lack of experience and sensitivity,” Specter said accusingly, later adding that “in the DNA” of the Jewish people, “we have memory of the pogroms.”

In May the contrast between Sestak and Specter, an ardent Israel supporter, was quite evident in an interview with the Jewish Exponent:

Do you believe a unified Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel? If not, should Israel freeze all its building in eastern Jerusalem?

Specter: Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel. In 1983, I joined Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in introducing legislation to require the U.S. Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I continue to support legislation requiring such a move.

Sestak: Both issues are ones that should be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians with the United States “in the room”; nothing should be mandated — by the administration or by Congress — upon the two parties as a condition for peace or at the beginning of the peace process.

Hmm, doesn’t exactly sound like Sestak is solid on the issue. (Sestak’s office did not respond to an inquiry as to his position on this and other issues relating to Israel.)

Now, candidates are sometimes willing to take flack over their support from a politically controversial group in exchange for handsome financing. Many a Democrat, for example, has taken his lumps for “being in the pocket of labor bosses”; the consolation is the robust funds they receive from organized labor. So has the J Street endorsement been worth the trouble it has caused Sestak?

It sure doesn’t look that way: “GOP U.S. Senate nominee Pat Toomey raised roughly $1 million more than Democratic opponent Joe Sestak in the latest fundraising quarter, according to numbers provided by each campaign Tuesday, another indication the Republican could posses a significant financial advantage in the general election race.” It seems that the J Street endorsement really isn’t paying off. It may be that pro-Israel voters in Pennsylvania are already voting — with their checkbooks — against Sestak. Unfortunately for Sestak, J Street hasn’t begun to make up the difference.

We’ll see how this plays out in Pennsylvania and in races around the country in which J Street has bestowed its endorsement, but perhaps not sufficient funds, on leftist Democrats. One lesson of this election may well be that a J Street endorsement is the kiss of political death for those foolish enough to adhere to its extreme agenda with the expectation that J Street can provide ample financial support.

J Street is backing Joe Sestak, providing both an endorsement and funding. He is their ideal candidate — willing to keynote at a CAIR fundraiser, unbothered by Obama’s Israel-bashing, happy to sign on to J Street’s letter on lifting the Gaza blockade, and left-leaning on everything else. This, of course, has raised concerns within the Jewish community. During the primary, Sen. Arlen Specter went after his opponent:

When addressing them at the May 2 forum, [Specter] went into great detail, describing his Jewish upbringing and choosing to focus much of his presentation on the issue of Israel. Responding to a question from the audience, he attacked his rival’s decision to participate at a meeting sponsored by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), an organization that critics have accused of accommodating antisemitic views. “Sestak showed a lack of experience and sensitivity,” Specter said accusingly, later adding that “in the DNA” of the Jewish people, “we have memory of the pogroms.”

In May the contrast between Sestak and Specter, an ardent Israel supporter, was quite evident in an interview with the Jewish Exponent:

Do you believe a unified Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel? If not, should Israel freeze all its building in eastern Jerusalem?

Specter: Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel. In 1983, I joined Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) in introducing legislation to require the U.S. Embassy be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. I continue to support legislation requiring such a move.

Sestak: Both issues are ones that should be worked out between Israel and the Palestinians with the United States “in the room”; nothing should be mandated — by the administration or by Congress — upon the two parties as a condition for peace or at the beginning of the peace process.

Hmm, doesn’t exactly sound like Sestak is solid on the issue. (Sestak’s office did not respond to an inquiry as to his position on this and other issues relating to Israel.)

Now, candidates are sometimes willing to take flack over their support from a politically controversial group in exchange for handsome financing. Many a Democrat, for example, has taken his lumps for “being in the pocket of labor bosses”; the consolation is the robust funds they receive from organized labor. So has the J Street endorsement been worth the trouble it has caused Sestak?

It sure doesn’t look that way: “GOP U.S. Senate nominee Pat Toomey raised roughly $1 million more than Democratic opponent Joe Sestak in the latest fundraising quarter, according to numbers provided by each campaign Tuesday, another indication the Republican could posses a significant financial advantage in the general election race.” It seems that the J Street endorsement really isn’t paying off. It may be that pro-Israel voters in Pennsylvania are already voting — with their checkbooks — against Sestak. Unfortunately for Sestak, J Street hasn’t begun to make up the difference.

We’ll see how this plays out in Pennsylvania and in races around the country in which J Street has bestowed its endorsement, but perhaps not sufficient funds, on leftist Democrats. One lesson of this election may well be that a J Street endorsement is the kiss of political death for those foolish enough to adhere to its extreme agenda with the expectation that J Street can provide ample financial support.

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Don’t Let Afghanistan Distract from Iraq

This Los Angeles Times article encapsulates many of the concerns I had about Iraq during my last visit a couple of months ago. Correspondent Ned Parker writes:

The Iraqis describe U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad as obsessed with bringing an end to the large-scale U.S. troop presence in Iraq. They believe the embassy’s single-mindedness has often left the United States veering from crisis to crisis here. Some U.S. military officers and Western analysts have also criticized what they see as a failure to think beyond the planned drawdown to 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of August. The lack of focus may leave an opening for Iraq’s neighbor and the United States’ rival — Iran.

The greater attention being focused on Afghanistan — while necessary and commendable — risks exacerbating the risks in Iraq. Iraq has made considerable progress in recent years, but as a recent string of violent attacks, and the continuing failure to form a government since the March 7 election, make clear, Iraq is not yet stable enough that it can flourish on its own without substantial help from the United States. Yet the Obama administration appears to be focused on withdrawal as its top priority; certainly there is scant public comment from the administration about any plan to build a long-term strategic relationship with Iraq.

The president should realize that the gains of recent years can still be lost, and that preserving what so many American personnel — military and civilian alike — have sacrificed so much to achieve will require sustained, high-level attention.

This Los Angeles Times article encapsulates many of the concerns I had about Iraq during my last visit a couple of months ago. Correspondent Ned Parker writes:

The Iraqis describe U.S. Embassy officials in Baghdad as obsessed with bringing an end to the large-scale U.S. troop presence in Iraq. They believe the embassy’s single-mindedness has often left the United States veering from crisis to crisis here. Some U.S. military officers and Western analysts have also criticized what they see as a failure to think beyond the planned drawdown to 50,000 noncombat troops by the end of August. The lack of focus may leave an opening for Iraq’s neighbor and the United States’ rival — Iran.

The greater attention being focused on Afghanistan — while necessary and commendable — risks exacerbating the risks in Iraq. Iraq has made considerable progress in recent years, but as a recent string of violent attacks, and the continuing failure to form a government since the March 7 election, make clear, Iraq is not yet stable enough that it can flourish on its own without substantial help from the United States. Yet the Obama administration appears to be focused on withdrawal as its top priority; certainly there is scant public comment from the administration about any plan to build a long-term strategic relationship with Iraq.

The president should realize that the gains of recent years can still be lost, and that preserving what so many American personnel — military and civilian alike — have sacrificed so much to achieve will require sustained, high-level attention.

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Flotsam and Jetsam

Patty Murray may be in trouble, especially if Dino Rossi gets into the Washington senate race.

At least one pro-Israel group is going after the Obami: “Activists for the Zionist Organization of America lobbied Congress to consider military action against Iran. In more than 100 meetings with members of Congress on Wednesday, the ZOA said hundreds of its activists also asked the lawmakers to defund the Palestinian Authority, press the U.S. embassy issue and enshrine anti-Jewish discrimination safeguards in education legislation.”

Read all of P.J. O’Rourke’s latest. A sample: “The secret to the Obama annoyance is snotty lecturing. His tone of voice sends us back to the worst place in college. . . . America has made the mistake of letting the A student run things. It was A students who briefly took over the business world during the period of derivatives, credit swaps, and collateralized debt obligations. We’re still reeling from the effects. This is why good businessmen have always adhered to the maxim: ‘A students work for B students.’”

No surprise from Mahmoud Abbas: “Mr. President (Barack Obama) and members of the American administration, since you believe in this (an independent Palestinian state), it is your duty to take steps toward a solution and to impose this solution.” After all, Abbas has no incentive to do anything else.

Douglas Schoen keeps trying to save Democrats from themselves. Forget cap-and-trade and immigration reform, he says: “Instead, what the Democrats should be doing is taking up the issue of jobs, then jobs and then jobs once again. With the unemployment rate still hovering perilously close to 10 percent, the only way congressional Democrats and the administration can improve their eroding political position is by taking on the jobs issue systematically — not sporadically and spasmodically. Every approach should be put on the table: tax incentives for job creation, a payroll tax holiday and even infrastructure investment — if only to demonstrate the party’s commitment to doing everything possible to stimulate employment.”

Works for me: “Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Saturday that he will be ‘unable to move forward’ with the upcoming climate and energy bill he’s crafting if Democratic leaders push ahead with plans to move immigration legislation. Graham’s declaration could halt or unravel the months-long effort to craft a compromise climate measure he has undertaken with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). The measure is slated to be unveiled Monday.”

Dana Milbank is whining about Republican “leaders,” claiming that Charlie Crist is being drummed out of the party. Nonsense. Voters don’t like him and he’s losing. He’s threatening to bolt to keep his pathetic senate race alive. (By the way, you’ll recall Joe Lieberman never got a single mainstream column pleading for the Democrats’ sanity when he ran as an independent.)

Alan Dershowitz pushes J Street: “Do you believe that if America fails to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and if the Israeli government makes a considered decision that it must use military action, as a last resort, to prevent Iran from being able to deploy nuclear weapons, that Israel would have the right to engage in preventive self defense by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities? I am not asking whether Israel should or should not consider such attack, since I lack the military expertise to make that decision, as do you. I am asking whether Israel should have the right to make that decision. And I’m asking whether you believe the United States should seek to prevent Israel from acting on that decision as an absolute last resort?” More important, what does Obama think?

Patty Murray may be in trouble, especially if Dino Rossi gets into the Washington senate race.

At least one pro-Israel group is going after the Obami: “Activists for the Zionist Organization of America lobbied Congress to consider military action against Iran. In more than 100 meetings with members of Congress on Wednesday, the ZOA said hundreds of its activists also asked the lawmakers to defund the Palestinian Authority, press the U.S. embassy issue and enshrine anti-Jewish discrimination safeguards in education legislation.”

Read all of P.J. O’Rourke’s latest. A sample: “The secret to the Obama annoyance is snotty lecturing. His tone of voice sends us back to the worst place in college. . . . America has made the mistake of letting the A student run things. It was A students who briefly took over the business world during the period of derivatives, credit swaps, and collateralized debt obligations. We’re still reeling from the effects. This is why good businessmen have always adhered to the maxim: ‘A students work for B students.’”

No surprise from Mahmoud Abbas: “Mr. President (Barack Obama) and members of the American administration, since you believe in this (an independent Palestinian state), it is your duty to take steps toward a solution and to impose this solution.” After all, Abbas has no incentive to do anything else.

Douglas Schoen keeps trying to save Democrats from themselves. Forget cap-and-trade and immigration reform, he says: “Instead, what the Democrats should be doing is taking up the issue of jobs, then jobs and then jobs once again. With the unemployment rate still hovering perilously close to 10 percent, the only way congressional Democrats and the administration can improve their eroding political position is by taking on the jobs issue systematically — not sporadically and spasmodically. Every approach should be put on the table: tax incentives for job creation, a payroll tax holiday and even infrastructure investment — if only to demonstrate the party’s commitment to doing everything possible to stimulate employment.”

Works for me: “Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Saturday that he will be ‘unable to move forward’ with the upcoming climate and energy bill he’s crafting if Democratic leaders push ahead with plans to move immigration legislation. Graham’s declaration could halt or unravel the months-long effort to craft a compromise climate measure he has undertaken with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). The measure is slated to be unveiled Monday.”

Dana Milbank is whining about Republican “leaders,” claiming that Charlie Crist is being drummed out of the party. Nonsense. Voters don’t like him and he’s losing. He’s threatening to bolt to keep his pathetic senate race alive. (By the way, you’ll recall Joe Lieberman never got a single mainstream column pleading for the Democrats’ sanity when he ran as an independent.)

Alan Dershowitz pushes J Street: “Do you believe that if America fails to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and if the Israeli government makes a considered decision that it must use military action, as a last resort, to prevent Iran from being able to deploy nuclear weapons, that Israel would have the right to engage in preventive self defense by attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities? I am not asking whether Israel should or should not consider such attack, since I lack the military expertise to make that decision, as do you. I am asking whether Israel should have the right to make that decision. And I’m asking whether you believe the United States should seek to prevent Israel from acting on that decision as an absolute last resort?” More important, what does Obama think?

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U.S. Diplomacy Between Dictators and Democratic Activists

We are lucky that the new government of Kyrgyzstan is willing to renew for at least a year the American lease on the Manas Air Base, which is critical for supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The danger was that the new leaders, who pledge themselves to democracy, would have turned on us because of America’s support for their ousted dictator, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the revolution, is clearly upset with the American role and has cause to be.

She told Lally Weymouth:

I would say that we have been really unhappy that the U.S. Embassy here was absolutely not interested in the democratic situation in Kyrgyzstan. It was not paying attention to our difficulties over the last two years.

We were not happy that they never had the time to meet with us. We concluded that the base is the most important agenda of the U.S., not our political development and the suffering of the opposition and the closing the papers and the beating of journalists. They turned a blind eye.

This points to the delicate balancing act the U.S. has to pull off in undemocratic countries where we have important security interests. Yes, we have to sometimes work with dictators. But, no, we can’t be so blinded by the relationship with the ruler in power as to lose sight of the larger imperative to promote more liberal, democratic institutions. Promoting change without alienating the existing leadership — that’s extremely hard to do. But there is no good choice because as Kyrgyzstan shows, it is the height of unrealism to be unduly committed to an unpopular, corrupt, and repressive status quo.

That’s something that President Obama, the self-styled Realpolitiker, should learn before it’s too late.

We are lucky that the new government of Kyrgyzstan is willing to renew for at least a year the American lease on the Manas Air Base, which is critical for supporting U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The danger was that the new leaders, who pledge themselves to democracy, would have turned on us because of America’s support for their ousted dictator, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. Roza Otunbayeva, leader of the revolution, is clearly upset with the American role and has cause to be.

She told Lally Weymouth:

I would say that we have been really unhappy that the U.S. Embassy here was absolutely not interested in the democratic situation in Kyrgyzstan. It was not paying attention to our difficulties over the last two years.

We were not happy that they never had the time to meet with us. We concluded that the base is the most important agenda of the U.S., not our political development and the suffering of the opposition and the closing the papers and the beating of journalists. They turned a blind eye.

This points to the delicate balancing act the U.S. has to pull off in undemocratic countries where we have important security interests. Yes, we have to sometimes work with dictators. But, no, we can’t be so blinded by the relationship with the ruler in power as to lose sight of the larger imperative to promote more liberal, democratic institutions. Promoting change without alienating the existing leadership — that’s extremely hard to do. But there is no good choice because as Kyrgyzstan shows, it is the height of unrealism to be unduly committed to an unpopular, corrupt, and repressive status quo.

That’s something that President Obama, the self-styled Realpolitiker, should learn before it’s too late.

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RE: Petraeus on Israel

Aside from the factual question of what Petraeus did and did not say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the incident has touched off a round of mild gloating among many liberals. They think that one of their cherished beliefs — that the conflict seriously undermines America’s ability to pursue its interests elsewhere in the Middle East — has been confirmed by a hero of the very people who reject this belief.

Martin Kramer has subjected this idea — often called “linkage” — to rigorous criticism, but it doesn’t tend to matter, because its popularity is grounded more in politics than in scholarship: once it can be claimed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects everything, then the conflict vastly increases in importance, and the need for intervention and an imposed “solution” becomes intense.

The linkage debate reminds me of George F. Kennan’s famous 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which began life as “The Long Telegram,” sent by Kennan when he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The State Department was interested in what today would be called an engagement policy with the Soviets, and Kennan thought this was not just foolish but also impossible. His missive argued that the United States could not have productive relations with the Soviets because of the very nature of Communism and authoritarianism. He wrote:

There is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.

One of the obvious problems with linkage is that the objection of the Iranian-Syrian “resistance bloc,” not to mention large segments of Arab public opinion, is not that the Palestinians don’t have a state — it’s that the Jews do have one.

But a less obvious problem with linkage is its prediction that the resolution of Palestinian grievances will mollify the regimes that are so deeply invested in antagonizing Israel and keeping Arab publics in a state of anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) fervor.

As Kennan pointed out, such regimes must cultivate “fear societies” in order to justify their rule, deflect popular anger, and prevent the emergence of civil society (that is, sources of power outside the regime). In a region like the Middle East, which also happens to be Muslim, this means that authoritarian regimes are always going to channel rage toward the ultimate “other” — Israel — ensuring an endless list of grievances and a perpetually restive Arab street. The fact of the matter is that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic fervor are no lower in Egypt and Jordan, which both have peace treaties with Israel, than they are elsewhere in the region — fervor that is eagerly promoted by the regimes. Linkage thus will never die because antagonism toward Israel is a permanent requirement of authoritarian Arab politics.

Aside from the factual question of what Petraeus did and did not say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the incident has touched off a round of mild gloating among many liberals. They think that one of their cherished beliefs — that the conflict seriously undermines America’s ability to pursue its interests elsewhere in the Middle East — has been confirmed by a hero of the very people who reject this belief.

Martin Kramer has subjected this idea — often called “linkage” — to rigorous criticism, but it doesn’t tend to matter, because its popularity is grounded more in politics than in scholarship: once it can be claimed that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affects everything, then the conflict vastly increases in importance, and the need for intervention and an imposed “solution” becomes intense.

The linkage debate reminds me of George F. Kennan’s famous 1947 essay, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which began life as “The Long Telegram,” sent by Kennan when he was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The State Department was interested in what today would be called an engagement policy with the Soviets, and Kennan thought this was not just foolish but also impossible. His missive argued that the United States could not have productive relations with the Soviets because of the very nature of Communism and authoritarianism. He wrote:

There is ample evidence that the stress laid in Moscow on the menace confronting Soviet society from the world outside its borders is founded not in the realities of foreign antagonism but in the necessity of explaining away the maintenance of dictatorial authority at home.

One of the obvious problems with linkage is that the objection of the Iranian-Syrian “resistance bloc,” not to mention large segments of Arab public opinion, is not that the Palestinians don’t have a state — it’s that the Jews do have one.

But a less obvious problem with linkage is its prediction that the resolution of Palestinian grievances will mollify the regimes that are so deeply invested in antagonizing Israel and keeping Arab publics in a state of anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) fervor.

As Kennan pointed out, such regimes must cultivate “fear societies” in order to justify their rule, deflect popular anger, and prevent the emergence of civil society (that is, sources of power outside the regime). In a region like the Middle East, which also happens to be Muslim, this means that authoritarian regimes are always going to channel rage toward the ultimate “other” — Israel — ensuring an endless list of grievances and a perpetually restive Arab street. The fact of the matter is that anti-Israel and anti-Semitic fervor are no lower in Egypt and Jordan, which both have peace treaties with Israel, than they are elsewhere in the region — fervor that is eagerly promoted by the regimes. Linkage thus will never die because antagonism toward Israel is a permanent requirement of authoritarian Arab politics.

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What Brown’s Election Should Teach Israel

Former Israeli ambassador Yoram Ettinger notes that Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts offers an important lesson for Israelis: that American democracy revolves “around constituents and not around the President, Congress, or political parties.” To Americans, that doubtless seems obvious. But since Israel’s electoral system is not constituency-based, it’s a point often missed by Israeli leaders — with negative consequences for Israel’s foreign policy.

Israel is virtually the only Western democracy that still elects its legislature via closed nationwide lists. Israelis vote for a party, not a candidate, so general election voters have no say over which individuals occupy their party’s Knesset seats. This means they also have no way to punish individual legislators for unpopular positions or poor performance: As long as a Knesset member satisfies his party bosses, he can count on a “safe seat” next election, meaning a slot high enough on the party list to keep him in the Knesset even if the party loses seats.

Consequently, prime ministers have enormous power over rank-and-file MKs, far greater than what U.S. presidents enjoy. A president has no power to get a congressman reelected; that decision lies solely with the congressman’s constituents. But prime ministers have considerable power to get an MK reelected. Though all three major Israeli parties currently choose their Knesset slates via nationwide primaries, these slates are so riddled with “reserved seats” that a premier’s ability to shape his party’s list remains enormous — especially if he maintains good relations with “vote contractors” (key local activists) who can persuade large numbers of primary voters to vote a pre-approved list.

All this causes Israeli premiers to overestimate the U.S. president’s power. And this often leads them to sacrifice Israeli interests to the president’s desires, for the sake of maintaining good relations with Israel’s only ally. What they fail to understand is that reasonable relations can be maintained even without kowtowing to the president’s every whim, because even in the foreign-policy realm, where his power is extensive, he still needs Congress. And he cannot just order congressmen to fall in line. Thus as long as support for Israel remains strong among the American people, and hence in Congress, there are limits beyond which even the most hostile president won’t go.

This understanding is particularly important because even the friendliest presidents generally adopt less pro-Israel positions than either the Congress or the American people desire. Thus, for instance, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but every president has utilized waivers to postpone the move.

Having lived in the U.S., current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu largely understands this. But most Israeli premiers don’t. Thus in their dealings with Israeli leaders, one of the most important services American Jewish leaders could perform is explaining how the American system truly works — and how to leverage the American people’s strong support for standing up to a hostile president.

Former Israeli ambassador Yoram Ettinger notes that Scott Brown’s upset victory in Massachusetts offers an important lesson for Israelis: that American democracy revolves “around constituents and not around the President, Congress, or political parties.” To Americans, that doubtless seems obvious. But since Israel’s electoral system is not constituency-based, it’s a point often missed by Israeli leaders — with negative consequences for Israel’s foreign policy.

Israel is virtually the only Western democracy that still elects its legislature via closed nationwide lists. Israelis vote for a party, not a candidate, so general election voters have no say over which individuals occupy their party’s Knesset seats. This means they also have no way to punish individual legislators for unpopular positions or poor performance: As long as a Knesset member satisfies his party bosses, he can count on a “safe seat” next election, meaning a slot high enough on the party list to keep him in the Knesset even if the party loses seats.

Consequently, prime ministers have enormous power over rank-and-file MKs, far greater than what U.S. presidents enjoy. A president has no power to get a congressman reelected; that decision lies solely with the congressman’s constituents. But prime ministers have considerable power to get an MK reelected. Though all three major Israeli parties currently choose their Knesset slates via nationwide primaries, these slates are so riddled with “reserved seats” that a premier’s ability to shape his party’s list remains enormous — especially if he maintains good relations with “vote contractors” (key local activists) who can persuade large numbers of primary voters to vote a pre-approved list.

All this causes Israeli premiers to overestimate the U.S. president’s power. And this often leads them to sacrifice Israeli interests to the president’s desires, for the sake of maintaining good relations with Israel’s only ally. What they fail to understand is that reasonable relations can be maintained even without kowtowing to the president’s every whim, because even in the foreign-policy realm, where his power is extensive, he still needs Congress. And he cannot just order congressmen to fall in line. Thus as long as support for Israel remains strong among the American people, and hence in Congress, there are limits beyond which even the most hostile president won’t go.

This understanding is particularly important because even the friendliest presidents generally adopt less pro-Israel positions than either the Congress or the American people desire. Thus, for instance, Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but every president has utilized waivers to postpone the move.

Having lived in the U.S., current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu largely understands this. But most Israeli premiers don’t. Thus in their dealings with Israeli leaders, one of the most important services American Jewish leaders could perform is explaining how the American system truly works — and how to leverage the American people’s strong support for standing up to a hostile president.

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Sunday Spin on Christmas Day Bombing

Flipping from channel to channel or perusing the transcripts of the Sunday talk shows, it was hard not to cringe. Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was everywhere. “We get it right most of the time…. We were alert all along… There wasn’t any smoking gun, just lots of clues we missed…. Yemen is really dangerous but we can’t say we’ll stop sending Guantanamo detainees there…. And Dick Cheney is very wrong…. The performance was defensive and otherworldly, alternately. One is tempted to say that, like Janet Napolitano, Brennan is not up to the job. That may well be the case, particularly as we learn about his own role in the missed clues. But we should be clear: this was all vetted in advance. This is the approved Obami version. These lines are the official talking points. So we come back to the fundamental question: why are they so bad at this? One longs for some candor and for some greater sense of urgency, the urgency that comes from realizing that we haven’t been on top of things and that we better get our act together — quickly.

The spin-meisters’ assurances stand in stark contrast to the bits and pieces of information slowly trickling out. We are learning from news accounts, in particular this eye-popping one, that the incompetence was rather breathtaking. A sample:

Collectively, the U.S. government had its head in the sand. The FBI had no representative at the meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, in the center of the country, the FBI maintains an attache only in Lagos, on the southern coast. The CIA did not tell the FBI about Abdulmutallab. Under the so-called Visa Viper program, the State Department received the report about the meeting with Abdulmutallab’s father, but it did not revoke the son’s visa. Rather, it made a note to closely scrutinize any future application to renew the visa. Likewise, the NCTC determined that there was no “reasonable suspicion” to conclude that Abdulmutallab was a terrorist, so he wasn’t put on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center watch list of some 400,000 names, or counted as one of 13,000 people who require extra screening before getting on a plane, or one of 4,000 names who are on the “no fly” list banned from getting on a plane at all. . .

The NCTC was set up to make sure that the various American agencies and intelligence services better shared information in the wake of 9/11, which might have been averted if the CIA and FBI had been in better communication about the al-Qaeda hijackers entering the country. But for reasons still not adequately explained, no one seems to have noticed other red flags in the intelligence system. The intelligence community had already picked up the intercepts indicating that al-Qaeda was planning to use a Nigerian for an attack on America. Other intercepts suggested a terror attack out of Yemen at Christmas, though officials believed the likely target would be somewhere in the Middle East, not in the United States. Finally, there were the intercepts between Abdulmutallab and the phone (and possibly a computer) used by al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cleric. Such contact would seem to cry out for attention although an intelligence official said the intercepts did not indicate Abdulmutallab’s full name.

And so it goes. But from watching Brennan, one senses that the Obami are banking on the public not fully grasping this. One has the nagging feeling that they are hoping to get by on flimflam and recycled talking points. The dutiful spokespeople — Napolitano and now Brennan — are striving to keep their own jobs and to hold back the torrent of outrage that they fear will sweep them from office. So they are not informing or reassuring us. They are practicing damage control — limit the facts, label the facts, attack the critics, and minimize the enormity of the screw up.

How this incident is being handled suggests that some real Congressional oversight might be needed, or better yet, an independent commission. (Perhaps the 9/11 commission can be brought back since they’ve already figured out what to look for and what bureaucratic bumbling looks like.) At the very least, one wishes that the malefactors who are at least partially responsible would step aside and let those less invested in spinning the story explain what went wrong.

Flipping from channel to channel or perusing the transcripts of the Sunday talk shows, it was hard not to cringe. Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was everywhere. “We get it right most of the time…. We were alert all along… There wasn’t any smoking gun, just lots of clues we missed…. Yemen is really dangerous but we can’t say we’ll stop sending Guantanamo detainees there…. And Dick Cheney is very wrong…. The performance was defensive and otherworldly, alternately. One is tempted to say that, like Janet Napolitano, Brennan is not up to the job. That may well be the case, particularly as we learn about his own role in the missed clues. But we should be clear: this was all vetted in advance. This is the approved Obami version. These lines are the official talking points. So we come back to the fundamental question: why are they so bad at this? One longs for some candor and for some greater sense of urgency, the urgency that comes from realizing that we haven’t been on top of things and that we better get our act together — quickly.

The spin-meisters’ assurances stand in stark contrast to the bits and pieces of information slowly trickling out. We are learning from news accounts, in particular this eye-popping one, that the incompetence was rather breathtaking. A sample:

Collectively, the U.S. government had its head in the sand. The FBI had no representative at the meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, in the center of the country, the FBI maintains an attache only in Lagos, on the southern coast. The CIA did not tell the FBI about Abdulmutallab. Under the so-called Visa Viper program, the State Department received the report about the meeting with Abdulmutallab’s father, but it did not revoke the son’s visa. Rather, it made a note to closely scrutinize any future application to renew the visa. Likewise, the NCTC determined that there was no “reasonable suspicion” to conclude that Abdulmutallab was a terrorist, so he wasn’t put on the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center watch list of some 400,000 names, or counted as one of 13,000 people who require extra screening before getting on a plane, or one of 4,000 names who are on the “no fly” list banned from getting on a plane at all. . .

The NCTC was set up to make sure that the various American agencies and intelligence services better shared information in the wake of 9/11, which might have been averted if the CIA and FBI had been in better communication about the al-Qaeda hijackers entering the country. But for reasons still not adequately explained, no one seems to have noticed other red flags in the intelligence system. The intelligence community had already picked up the intercepts indicating that al-Qaeda was planning to use a Nigerian for an attack on America. Other intercepts suggested a terror attack out of Yemen at Christmas, though officials believed the likely target would be somewhere in the Middle East, not in the United States. Finally, there were the intercepts between Abdulmutallab and the phone (and possibly a computer) used by al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based cleric. Such contact would seem to cry out for attention although an intelligence official said the intercepts did not indicate Abdulmutallab’s full name.

And so it goes. But from watching Brennan, one senses that the Obami are banking on the public not fully grasping this. One has the nagging feeling that they are hoping to get by on flimflam and recycled talking points. The dutiful spokespeople — Napolitano and now Brennan — are striving to keep their own jobs and to hold back the torrent of outrage that they fear will sweep them from office. So they are not informing or reassuring us. They are practicing damage control — limit the facts, label the facts, attack the critics, and minimize the enormity of the screw up.

How this incident is being handled suggests that some real Congressional oversight might be needed, or better yet, an independent commission. (Perhaps the 9/11 commission can be brought back since they’ve already figured out what to look for and what bureaucratic bumbling looks like.) At the very least, one wishes that the malefactors who are at least partially responsible would step aside and let those less invested in spinning the story explain what went wrong.

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Where Oh Where Is Hillary?

Nile Gardiner at the Daily Telegraph writes: “The White House should send a search party to track down Hillary Clinton. America’s foreign policy chief has been missing from the world stage for several days, and has become as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel at the height of the French Revolution.”

Come to think of it, we haven’t seen or heard from her since the Flight 253 bombing attack. Nada on the issue of the State Department’s own role in the security debacle that allowed the Christmas Day bomber to get onto the plane. (As Elliott Abrams noted, “His multiple-entry visa to the U.S. was not canceled by State, not even after his own father alerted U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria of the danger he might present.”) And not a peep on Iran. The “Where in the World is the Secretary” locator (I am not making this up) on the State Department website puts her in the environs of Washington D.C.

Maybe she is hiding at home, assuming, correctly, that anyone who shows up on camera (e.g., Janet Napolitano, the president) gets savaged. Maybe she is the fall-gal when we get the “how we messed up” report. (Prediction: It won’t say that treating terrorists like criminal defendants or releasing terrorists to Yemen is a problem.) Or perhaps she is studying up on the 2010 senate and gubernatorial races. There must be a race in some state she could run in and win, right? After all, she is the most admired woman in America (well, she’s in a statistical tie with Sarah Palin). She might not stay that way if she hangs out with the Obami much longer.

Nile Gardiner at the Daily Telegraph writes: “The White House should send a search party to track down Hillary Clinton. America’s foreign policy chief has been missing from the world stage for several days, and has become as elusive as the Scarlet Pimpernel at the height of the French Revolution.”

Come to think of it, we haven’t seen or heard from her since the Flight 253 bombing attack. Nada on the issue of the State Department’s own role in the security debacle that allowed the Christmas Day bomber to get onto the plane. (As Elliott Abrams noted, “His multiple-entry visa to the U.S. was not canceled by State, not even after his own father alerted U.S. Embassy officials in Nigeria of the danger he might present.”) And not a peep on Iran. The “Where in the World is the Secretary” locator (I am not making this up) on the State Department website puts her in the environs of Washington D.C.

Maybe she is hiding at home, assuming, correctly, that anyone who shows up on camera (e.g., Janet Napolitano, the president) gets savaged. Maybe she is the fall-gal when we get the “how we messed up” report. (Prediction: It won’t say that treating terrorists like criminal defendants or releasing terrorists to Yemen is a problem.) Or perhaps she is studying up on the 2010 senate and gubernatorial races. There must be a race in some state she could run in and win, right? After all, she is the most admired woman in America (well, she’s in a statistical tie with Sarah Palin). She might not stay that way if she hangs out with the Obami much longer.

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What Comes from Kowtowing

I suppose it could have been worse. China could have sentenced “a veteran Chinese human rights campaigner who challenged the central government over the faulty construction of school buildings that collapsed during last year’s Sichuan earthquake” while Obama was still in the country. Instead they waited a week to throw the activist into jail for three years for “possessing secret state documents.” That’s what you get when a U.S. president downplays and downgrades human rights. Obama’s wimpiness has not gone unnoticed by human-rights activists:

Jiang Tianyong, described in a telephone interview how he was taken in for questioning by police Thursday, while walking his 7-year-old daughter to school, and detained for 13 hours before being released. The previous day, Jiang said, he had tried to approach the U.S. Embassy because he had heard that Obama might meet with human rights lawyers. But he was taken back to his house by police.

Jiang expressed disappointment that Obama had not met with human rights activists during his trip.

“There are a bunch of people in Chinese civil society who have enough courage to talk with Obama about the human rights issue in China,” Jiang said. “But Obama is not decisive enough or doesn’t have enough willpower to talk with the civil society.”

Despite his mention of “universal rights,” Obama, in the view of rights activists, “didn’t strike as hard of a tone on human rights as some of us had hoped for,” said Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director for the London-based group Amnesty International. “It’s tough to wag your finger about human rights when your hand is stretched out for more money.”

And what did we get for downplaying human rights in China? Nothing — well, there’s always the contempt of the government that knows it can act with impunity. We shouldn’t be surprised if we see more of the same, not only in China, but also in Cuba, Iran, Russia, North Korea, Syria, and other thuggish regimes. Despots in those countries will also see that they too can crack down on their own people without suffering many, if any, adverse consequences from the Obami. Maybe they’ll even get a state visit, one without uncomfortable interchanges between the U.S. president and human-rights activists.

I suppose it could have been worse. China could have sentenced “a veteran Chinese human rights campaigner who challenged the central government over the faulty construction of school buildings that collapsed during last year’s Sichuan earthquake” while Obama was still in the country. Instead they waited a week to throw the activist into jail for three years for “possessing secret state documents.” That’s what you get when a U.S. president downplays and downgrades human rights. Obama’s wimpiness has not gone unnoticed by human-rights activists:

Jiang Tianyong, described in a telephone interview how he was taken in for questioning by police Thursday, while walking his 7-year-old daughter to school, and detained for 13 hours before being released. The previous day, Jiang said, he had tried to approach the U.S. Embassy because he had heard that Obama might meet with human rights lawyers. But he was taken back to his house by police.

Jiang expressed disappointment that Obama had not met with human rights activists during his trip.

“There are a bunch of people in Chinese civil society who have enough courage to talk with Obama about the human rights issue in China,” Jiang said. “But Obama is not decisive enough or doesn’t have enough willpower to talk with the civil society.”

Despite his mention of “universal rights,” Obama, in the view of rights activists, “didn’t strike as hard of a tone on human rights as some of us had hoped for,” said Sam Zarifi, the Asia-Pacific director for the London-based group Amnesty International. “It’s tough to wag your finger about human rights when your hand is stretched out for more money.”

And what did we get for downplaying human rights in China? Nothing — well, there’s always the contempt of the government that knows it can act with impunity. We shouldn’t be surprised if we see more of the same, not only in China, but also in Cuba, Iran, Russia, North Korea, Syria, and other thuggish regimes. Despots in those countries will also see that they too can crack down on their own people without suffering many, if any, adverse consequences from the Obami. Maybe they’ll even get a state visit, one without uncomfortable interchanges between the U.S. president and human-rights activists.

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RIP William Odom

I was saddened to read of the death of William E. Odom, one of America’s leading soldier-scholars. In recent years he has become known as an outspoken critic of Bush foreign policy and advocate of withdrawal from Iraq. I disagreed with him, and we even debated at least once on the radio. But I never lost my respect or affection for him, formulated initially when, as a graduate student at Yale in 1991-92, I took a class with him on the Russian military. He was a refreshing outpost of pro-military, anti-communist thinking on a campus where neither viewpoint was much encouraged.

Bill Odom spent much of his career as a military intelligence officer specializing in the Soviet Union including serving as a military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He went to Columbia to receive an MA and Ph.D. in political science. While there he worked closely with a professor named Zbigniew Brzezinski. When Brzezinski became Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, Odom became his military assistant. He then went on to become a three-star general and director of the National Security Agency in the Reagan administration. He finally retired in 1988 to pursue a career in the twin worlds of academia and think-tankery, which is how I came to know him.

During the Cold War, Odom had a reputation as a hawk and hardliner. (So, for that matter, did Brzezinski.) In the years since then, both seemed to drift to the left, though, in fairness to Odom, I am sure he would have denied it. He often said that he had opposed the Vietnam War from the start because he thought that containing North Vietnam was in the interests of China, not the United States. He opposed the Iraq War because he thought it was equally ill-advised. Unlike so many leading analysts and politicians, he did not turn into a dove only when it became clear the war was not going well: he was against the war from the beginning, which took some guts considering that he was employed by a conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute.

Where I truly disagreed with him was not in his opposition to the war in the first place-the decision to invade Iraq was a close call and there were good arguments on both sides. I thought he went too far when he said, during the course of the war, that victory was not an option and therefore we should pull out all of our troops, notwithstanding the dire likely consequences. He even puckishly authored an article in 2005 entitled “What’s Wrong with Cutting and Running?”

Notwithstanding his dovish views on Iraq (and related subjects, such as Iran), he remained committed to a fairly expansive view of the American role in the world, as he made clear in his book, co-authored with Robert Dujarric, America’s Inadvertent Empire. He approved of the “empire” in question, even if he never had much patience with those on either the Left or the Right who would place our ideals at the center of our foreign policy.

Agree with him or not, Odom deserves to be remembered for a long and illustrious career of service-a legacy carried on by his son, Mark, an army lieutenant-colonel who was wounded in Iraq. He was particularly notable for managing to combine scholarly achievement with a successful military career-a combination that both academia and the military too often frown upon.

I was saddened to read of the death of William E. Odom, one of America’s leading soldier-scholars. In recent years he has become known as an outspoken critic of Bush foreign policy and advocate of withdrawal from Iraq. I disagreed with him, and we even debated at least once on the radio. But I never lost my respect or affection for him, formulated initially when, as a graduate student at Yale in 1991-92, I took a class with him on the Russian military. He was a refreshing outpost of pro-military, anti-communist thinking on a campus where neither viewpoint was much encouraged.

Bill Odom spent much of his career as a military intelligence officer specializing in the Soviet Union including serving as a military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He went to Columbia to receive an MA and Ph.D. in political science. While there he worked closely with a professor named Zbigniew Brzezinski. When Brzezinski became Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, Odom became his military assistant. He then went on to become a three-star general and director of the National Security Agency in the Reagan administration. He finally retired in 1988 to pursue a career in the twin worlds of academia and think-tankery, which is how I came to know him.

During the Cold War, Odom had a reputation as a hawk and hardliner. (So, for that matter, did Brzezinski.) In the years since then, both seemed to drift to the left, though, in fairness to Odom, I am sure he would have denied it. He often said that he had opposed the Vietnam War from the start because he thought that containing North Vietnam was in the interests of China, not the United States. He opposed the Iraq War because he thought it was equally ill-advised. Unlike so many leading analysts and politicians, he did not turn into a dove only when it became clear the war was not going well: he was against the war from the beginning, which took some guts considering that he was employed by a conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute.

Where I truly disagreed with him was not in his opposition to the war in the first place-the decision to invade Iraq was a close call and there were good arguments on both sides. I thought he went too far when he said, during the course of the war, that victory was not an option and therefore we should pull out all of our troops, notwithstanding the dire likely consequences. He even puckishly authored an article in 2005 entitled “What’s Wrong with Cutting and Running?”

Notwithstanding his dovish views on Iraq (and related subjects, such as Iran), he remained committed to a fairly expansive view of the American role in the world, as he made clear in his book, co-authored with Robert Dujarric, America’s Inadvertent Empire. He approved of the “empire” in question, even if he never had much patience with those on either the Left or the Right who would place our ideals at the center of our foreign policy.

Agree with him or not, Odom deserves to be remembered for a long and illustrious career of service-a legacy carried on by his son, Mark, an army lieutenant-colonel who was wounded in Iraq. He was particularly notable for managing to combine scholarly achievement with a successful military career-a combination that both academia and the military too often frown upon.

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Mugabe Crosses a Line

As if we needed any more evidence that Robert Mugabe will not leave office without a fight: yesterday, Mugabe’s security officers harassed a fact-finding group including the American, British and Japanese ambassadors attempting to interview people in hospitals who had been tortured by the Mugabe regime. Read this short account of the bravery of our men in Harare:

Kevin Stirr, the U.S. Embassy’s democracy and governance officer, was asked by a security agent what the group had been doing. “Looking at people who have been beaten,” he said. The Central Intelligence Organisation agent replied: “We are going to beat you thoroughly, too”, before turning away and returning to his car. Mr Stirr pulled open the door and shouted at him.

The two agents in the vehicle tried to flee, but James McGee, the U.S. Ambassador, stood in their path. When they tried to push him away with the car, he sat heavily on the bonnet. He went on to take photographs of the agents, who were trying to hide their faces.

Zimbabwean agents threatened to beat an American embassy officer and tried to run over the U.S. Ambassador with their car? If Mugabe is acting this way with Western diplomats, one can only imagine what he has in store for his own people.

As if we needed any more evidence that Robert Mugabe will not leave office without a fight: yesterday, Mugabe’s security officers harassed a fact-finding group including the American, British and Japanese ambassadors attempting to interview people in hospitals who had been tortured by the Mugabe regime. Read this short account of the bravery of our men in Harare:

Kevin Stirr, the U.S. Embassy’s democracy and governance officer, was asked by a security agent what the group had been doing. “Looking at people who have been beaten,” he said. The Central Intelligence Organisation agent replied: “We are going to beat you thoroughly, too”, before turning away and returning to his car. Mr Stirr pulled open the door and shouted at him.

The two agents in the vehicle tried to flee, but James McGee, the U.S. Ambassador, stood in their path. When they tried to push him away with the car, he sat heavily on the bonnet. He went on to take photographs of the agents, who were trying to hide their faces.

Zimbabwean agents threatened to beat an American embassy officer and tried to run over the U.S. Ambassador with their car? If Mugabe is acting this way with Western diplomats, one can only imagine what he has in store for his own people.

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Good Riddance: Imad Mugniyeh

Great news from Syria. Imad Mughniyeh, one of the world’s worst terrorists, has been killed by a car bomb in Damascus. He is all but forgotten now, but Mughniyeh, a leader of Hezbollah, was the original Osama bin Laden—a terrorist kingpin who was responsible for hundreds of deaths, primarily Americans and Israelis. He had a $25 million American bounty on his head, the same size as the reward for bin Laden. It’s not hard to see why. This AP story sums up his reign of terror:

Mughniyeh, who had been in hiding for years, was among the fugitives indicted in the United States for the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed. He was also suspected of masterminding attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the Marine base in Lebanon that killed more than 260 Americans in the 1980s when he was then the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s security chief.

Mughniyeh, 45, was also the reputed leader of a group that held Westerners hostage in Lebanon, among them journalist Terry Anderson, a former Associated Press chief Middle East correspondent who was held captive for six years.

Mughniyeh is also believed by Israel to have been involved in planning the 1992 bombing of Israel’s embassy in Argentina in which 29 people were killed and the blast at a Buenos Aires Jewish center two years later that killed 95.

Hezbollah predictably blamed Israel for his death. That’s quite possible, although it’s also possible that he was killed by Syria’s intelligence services (for whom car bombings are a favorite assassination technique) or by a competing faction of Islamist thugs.

I would like to think there is even a chance he was killed by American operatives from the CIA or Special Operations Command. But while possible that seems unlikely; car bombs aren’t a typical American touch, and our commandos are not known for operating in Syria—although they should be.

Frankly it’s a disgrace that our forces didn’t manage to kill Mugniyeh long ago, a problem that can be attributed largely to the excessive caution that numerous American administrations, from Reagan on, have displayed in fighting terrorists. Robert Baer’s book See No Evil provides some details.

Even if it occurred far too late, the civilized world should rejoice at the demise of this monster. But keep in mind that Hezbollah has plenty of other killers just as vicious and cruel waiting in the wings.

Great news from Syria. Imad Mughniyeh, one of the world’s worst terrorists, has been killed by a car bomb in Damascus. He is all but forgotten now, but Mughniyeh, a leader of Hezbollah, was the original Osama bin Laden—a terrorist kingpin who was responsible for hundreds of deaths, primarily Americans and Israelis. He had a $25 million American bounty on his head, the same size as the reward for bin Laden. It’s not hard to see why. This AP story sums up his reign of terror:

Mughniyeh, who had been in hiding for years, was among the fugitives indicted in the United States for the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy diver was killed. He was also suspected of masterminding attacks on the U.S. Embassy and the Marine base in Lebanon that killed more than 260 Americans in the 1980s when he was then the Iranian-backed Hezbollah’s security chief.

Mughniyeh, 45, was also the reputed leader of a group that held Westerners hostage in Lebanon, among them journalist Terry Anderson, a former Associated Press chief Middle East correspondent who was held captive for six years.

Mughniyeh is also believed by Israel to have been involved in planning the 1992 bombing of Israel’s embassy in Argentina in which 29 people were killed and the blast at a Buenos Aires Jewish center two years later that killed 95.

Hezbollah predictably blamed Israel for his death. That’s quite possible, although it’s also possible that he was killed by Syria’s intelligence services (for whom car bombings are a favorite assassination technique) or by a competing faction of Islamist thugs.

I would like to think there is even a chance he was killed by American operatives from the CIA or Special Operations Command. But while possible that seems unlikely; car bombs aren’t a typical American touch, and our commandos are not known for operating in Syria—although they should be.

Frankly it’s a disgrace that our forces didn’t manage to kill Mugniyeh long ago, a problem that can be attributed largely to the excessive caution that numerous American administrations, from Reagan on, have displayed in fighting terrorists. Robert Baer’s book See No Evil provides some details.

Even if it occurred far too late, the civilized world should rejoice at the demise of this monster. But keep in mind that Hezbollah has plenty of other killers just as vicious and cruel waiting in the wings.

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What is Behind the Chinese Cyber-Offensive?

Is a Chinese cyber-war against the West underway? Let us connect the dots.

In the most recent episode, earlier this month, Chinese hackers, operating out of Guangzhou and Lanzhou, two regions that are strongholds of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), invaded the computer systems of key German-government ministries in Berlin.

Last November, the United States was hit, and not for the first time. Chinese hackers entered the network of the Naval War College, the Navy’s school for senior officers, forcing the closure of its internal network and the temporary suspension of all email accounts.

That followed an attack in June on the computer systems at Taiwan’s defense ministry and also the American Institute in Taiwan, the de-facto U.S. embassy there.

Then there is Titan Rain, the U.S. codename for an entire series of attacks on U.S. facilities from 2003 to 2005, that included raids on the U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Virginia, and the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego. All are thought to have originated in China.

The British parliament was also attacked in 2005 by hackers believed to be located in China.

What is behind all these episodes?

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Is a Chinese cyber-war against the West underway? Let us connect the dots.

In the most recent episode, earlier this month, Chinese hackers, operating out of Guangzhou and Lanzhou, two regions that are strongholds of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), invaded the computer systems of key German-government ministries in Berlin.

Last November, the United States was hit, and not for the first time. Chinese hackers entered the network of the Naval War College, the Navy’s school for senior officers, forcing the closure of its internal network and the temporary suspension of all email accounts.

That followed an attack in June on the computer systems at Taiwan’s defense ministry and also the American Institute in Taiwan, the de-facto U.S. embassy there.

Then there is Titan Rain, the U.S. codename for an entire series of attacks on U.S. facilities from 2003 to 2005, that included raids on the U.S. Army Information Systems Engineering Command at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, the Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Virginia, and the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego. All are thought to have originated in China.

The British parliament was also attacked in 2005 by hackers believed to be located in China.

What is behind all these episodes?

According to “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2006,” a U.S. Department of Defense publication, China has been “experimenting with strategy, doctrine, and tactics for information warfare.” The report notes that during a conflict, “information-warfare units could support active PLA forces by conducting ‘hacker attacks’ and network intrusions, or other forms of ‘cyber’ warfare, on an adversary’s military and commercial computer systems, while helping to defend Chinese networks.”

That the Chinese would be developing such a capability is unsurprising. We are developing similar capabilities, as are all advanced military powers. Computer networks are essential to warfare. and the ability to disrupt the enemy’s network while protecting one’s own has become an equally essential task.

Intelligence gathering via illicit entry into computer networks has become an important tool in the espionage toolkit. There are lots of secrets residing in both government and private-sector computers, and it should hardly come as a surprise that the Chinese have been developing techniques for extracting such secrets by clandestine means.

What does come as a surprise are all the recent hacking incidents. We are not at war with China. Neither is Germany or Britain or, arguably, Taiwan. If the hacking is part of a coherent strategy, it would seem to be self-defeating, prompting victim countries to develop countermeasures that make their own systems far more difficult to penetrate in the kind of crisis when the Chinese would really want to turn on their computer-sleuthing and disruption capabilities.

One possibility is that the attacks are being carried out not at governmental direction but by private hackers in China or elsewhere, who are routing their activities through Chinese networks. That is what the Chinese government maintains with some supporting evidence.

Another possibility is that the PLA is operating on its own, without the blessings of Beijing, to hone its capabilities and to test Western responses. Again, there is some evidence to support this theory.

Yet another possibility is that there is less to these incidents than meets the eye. They may in fact reflect the ineptitude of certain ill-prepared sectors of Western governments.

It is useful to keep in mind that major brokerage houses, banks, investment banks, and government central banks use computer networks to move billions of dollars around the world every day. These would be a ripe target for hackers, both inside adversary governments and in the criminal sector. But we seldom hear of any successful attacks against these institutions. Why not? Probably because, given what is at stake, they all put huge resources in computer security. Surely, if they were paying sufficient attention, governments could erect the same kinds of barriers to unauthorized entry.

Finally, there is the possibility that the Chinese government, acting on the basis of motives that are not apparent to us, has opted for short-term at the expense of long-term gain. Governments can do irrational things, and Communist governments, accountable to no one but themselves, doubly so.

In the end, the ongoing Chinese cyber-warfare remains a puzzle. Before we massively retaliate with a cyber-war of our own, it would be useful to get a firm fix on what we are up against.

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Dispatch from Task Force Justice

I visited Forward Operating Base Justice, located in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiyah, in April. Its commander is Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska. I recently asked him for an update on developments in his AOR (Area of Responsibility) that I could share with contentions readers. Here is his response:

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I visited Forward Operating Base Justice, located in the northwest Baghdad neighborhood of Khadamiyah, in April. Its commander is Lieutenant Colonel Steven Miska. I recently asked him for an update on developments in his AOR (Area of Responsibility) that I could share with contentions readers. Here is his response:

Max,
Some notes below. I will include a few nonstandard items in the update. Apologize for the delay in response. Have been juggling missions, media, and other tasks over the last few days.

Asian World Cup Football: Did you see the CNN coverage live from FOB Justice of the Iraqi Soccer game? We threw a great party with all of our local nationals. You would have thought we were at an Army-Navy tailgate. We went downtown after the game and spoke to people on the street. Khadamiyah was absolutely nuts. Lots of fun and a cathartic experience for the Iraqis to see their team accomplish something across the sectarian divide. Hopefully, more good can come from the victory.

Immigration: A few days ago we said goodbye to “George” who is our first interpreter to get an invitation to the Embassy in Jordan. He will be a pioneer for many of our Iraqi interpreters who have applied for visas. We hope that he will not run into too much resistance and will get his visa. Stories from Jordan are not hopeful. One report said that Iraqis were getting turned around at the border if they said they were entering Jordan to go to the U.S. Embassy. George has a story about going to work for a Jordanian company that has a branch in Baghdad. He knows someone that made the recommendation for him. I have asked him to stay in touch with us, so we can track his progress and any pitfalls along the way. We gave him numerous gifts and a few certificates. I told him that his feedback could help shape U.S. policy. We also have one more interpreter who has his invitation approved. We have 22 total applications in the works. We have 59 interpreters on our base. Many have either chosen not to apply or have not met their year requirement. Many are spreading the word that we need some more interpreters, and telling about our success of getting interpreters approved for a trip to Jordan. We have also been pushing the refugee issue for families who don’t qualify under other provisions, like Iraqi Army leaders. Between the soccer party and our push to take care of our interpreters, I have seen hope in the eyes of our Iraqi colleagues. This initiative will be one of our proudest accomplishments. We will continue to use our success from TF [Task Force] Justice to sensitize other leaders to the subject.

Reconciliation: The MOI [Ministry of Interior] and other government leaders are very reluctant to endorse any initiative that empowers the local Sunni volunteers who are securing neighborhoods like Ameriyah. Ameriyah is like night and day now. One minute it was full-scale kinetic activity. Then our former enemies, Sunni insurgents from the “honorable resistance,” began asking for our assistance to drive al Qaeda out. They were immediately more effective than Americans in driving al Qaeda in Iraq from their neighborhoods. They only asked for U.S. support and coordination. They make no bones about their belief that we need to leave for our alliance to be successful beyond the defeat of al Qaeda. We recognize we may end up fighting these guys again if the GOI [Government of Iraq] doesn’t seize the window of opportunity that is now open. If the GOI can make reasonable gestures of reconciliation, like deputizing these volunteers as local police to secure their own neighborhoods, then we will have made huge strides. As always, the political line of operation is where we need the most help. We have had a steady stream of VIPs come to visit the volunteers. Everyone is pressuring the GOI. Lots of foot-dragging, mumbling, and playing with prayer beads. That being said, things have dramatically improved since the turning of Anbar province. We anticipate that the Shia government will demand repatriation of Shia families in some of these neighborhoods to demonstrate intent on behalf of the former insurgents. As long as each side continues in good faith, they will not undermine the process.

Militia Influence: On the other side of the fence, we have the militia. They are a tough nut to crack. I believe the economic line of operation will be the key to defeating the militia influence. We need to overcome the corruption and graft through vigorous, pragmatic economic policy that jump-starts latent industry and employment. Many of the State Owned Enterprises (SOE) are producing at minimal levels relative to Saddam days. These industries have the capacity to very quickly create jobs and generate productive capacity that spills across sectarian lines. The profit incentive will help drive Sunnis and Shia to collaborate together. As we create more jobs, militia recruiting pools will dry up. We need to create honorable alternatives that allow young, military-age males to provide for their families. The militia has their hands dug deepest into mob-like crime throughout the Shia communities, and most politicians can’t shed themselves of the militia influence (so a political approach is probably not feasible—just my opinion.) We must defeat the militia through economic means. I do have some hope that we might solve this Gordian knot, but it is far from undone. Paul Brinkley [the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Business Transformation] and his group have the right approach, and are encouraging many in the SOEs to bring production back on line through smart application of grants and incentives. This has great potential, but will move with the lag associated with all fiscal economic policy. All other lines of operation must continue to buy time for economic progress to continue.

The Media: The fight is complex. The challenges are hard to boil down into 9-second sound bites or catchy headlines. However, we do spend a lot of time educating reporters, in addition to VIPs. We have a few die-hard reporters that travel to the fight and get a view from the ground on the challenges and opportunities facing our forces and the Iraqis. Most of the journalists I meet are tremendous professionals who make personal sacrifices to provide transparency in a society that needs media spotlights everywhere. The press is instrumental is helping keep the good people honest and the bad guys from committing even more egregious transgressions. Many of our media colleagues have brought attention to significant challenges like immigration, the need for diplomacy around the periphery of Iraq, detainee abuse, and other challenges. We need to encourage them and help them gain access to the stories that will shape human behavior in positive directions.

I hope this provides a brief glimpse into the complexities we face in western Baghdad. We have been very busy, but understand the need to get the word out.

Warm Regards,
Steve

Steven M. Miska
LTC, Infantry
Task Force Justice Commander

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Dangerous Dialogue

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”

None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980′s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

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The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, spent a couple of hours gabbing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on Monday. According to the prevailing political wisdom in Washington—and within large sectors of the newly-chastened Bush administration itself—this kind of “dialogue” will somehow transform the situation in Iraq for the better. It will also, the theory runs, lead gradually to the resolution of our other major differences with Iran, such as its implacable pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The prevailing wisdom in Tehran is rather different. There, it seems, such talks merely provide another opportunity to humiliate the United States and underline our inability to stop the Iranian quest for regional dominance. In case anyone didn’t get the memo, the Iranian government charged three Iranian-Americans with spying the day after this grand dialogue convened in Baghdad. As noted by the Washington Post, “The three individuals charged are prominent Washington scholar Haleh Esfandiari, social scientist Kian Tajbakhsh of the New York-based Open Society Institute, and correspondent Parnaz Azima of U.S.-funded Radio Farda.”

None of them, needless to say, is an actual spy. But grabbing hostages has by now become a well-entrenched tradition in Iran—one proven to work over the years in bringing the West to its knees, whether through the seizure of the U.S. Embassy personnel in 1979, numerous Westerners in Lebanon in the 1980′s, or the more recent detention of British sailors in the Persian Gulf.

To make this “up yours” a little more explicit, Ali Larijani, the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator, told the world’s press that he “rejected the possibility of Iran suspending its uranium enrichment program.” This, coming on the eve of talks between Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, will hardly improve the atmosphere for negotiations.

The only people who could possibly be surprised by the Iranian attitude are the architects of the Iraq Study Group report and other conveyors of wishful thinking in Washington. Naturally, their response will be that we should make even more concessions to Iran to overcome their “suspicions” about American behavior. What this rather naïve reasoning ignores are the big benefits that many in the Iranian leadership, especially in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, derive from the continuing Iranian policy of isolation and hostility. Not only does enmity with the West help to maintain their justification for a theocratic dictatorship, but, as Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains in this interview, it also helps well-connected Iranians to profit by looting the economy.

It takes quite an effort of will to convince oneself that the real issue between the U.S. and Iran is a lack of understanding. The reality is that the U.S. and Iran have radically divergent interests. In the case of Iraq, Iran’s interest is to foment strife that will weaken the U.S. and our democratic allies and expand its sphere of control. It is currently achieving that goal. Why would it, suddenly, want to help the U.S. achieve its objectives in Iraq? Until someone can answer that question convincingly, perhaps we should hold off on any further coffee klatches with the mullahs.

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Our Fallible CIA

I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s gripping account of the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah. And just in time, it seems. The Washington Post is proclaiming “A New Iranian Hostage Crisis” caused by Tehran’s illegal detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Bowden’s book has been extensively reviewed (including by Gabriel Schoenfeld in COMMENTARY), and I won’t bother to go over the same ground here. But one point that emerged from his account and that bears emphasizing is the CIA’s long track record of incompetence.

The “students” who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 were convinced it was a “Den of Spies” plotting to overthrow the Islamic revolution and to assassinate their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, as Bowden notes, the entire CIA presence consisted of three newly arrived officers, none of whom spoke Farsi, and who had no useful agents in the entire country. (The agency’s level of perceptiveness is suggested by an August 1978 analysis which concluded that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.”)

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I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s gripping account of the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah. And just in time, it seems. The Washington Post is proclaiming “A New Iranian Hostage Crisis” caused by Tehran’s illegal detention of Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari.

Bowden’s book has been extensively reviewed (including by Gabriel Schoenfeld in COMMENTARY), and I won’t bother to go over the same ground here. But one point that emerged from his account and that bears emphasizing is the CIA’s long track record of incompetence.

The “students” who took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 were convinced it was a “Den of Spies” plotting to overthrow the Islamic revolution and to assassinate their beloved Ayatollah Khomeini. In reality, as Bowden notes, the entire CIA presence consisted of three newly arrived officers, none of whom spoke Farsi, and who had no useful agents in the entire country. (The agency’s level of perceptiveness is suggested by an August 1978 analysis which concluded that Iran “is not in a revolutionary or even a prerevolutionary situation.”)

It’s no wonder the agency was so deceived. The CIA had depended for its knowledge of Iran on the Shah’s intelligence service, and when the Shah was overthrown, America’s intelligence agencies were left dumb and blind.

Unfortunately, there is good cause to suspect that conditions have not improved substantially in the past 28 years. The CIA has never had much luck operating in countries where there is not even an American embassy, and it would be remarkable if Iran today were an exception.

In fact, the Robb-Silberman Commission’s 2005 report strongly suggested—with details omitted in its unclassified version—that the American intelligence community has scant knowledge of what’s happening behind the scenes in either the North Korean or Iranian nuclear programs:

We found an intelligence community that has had some significant successes, but that is, on balance, badly equipped and badly organized to confront today’s threats. We found human intelligence collectors who have struggled in vain to find sources with valuable information—and often failed to vet properly the sources they did find. We found technical intelligence collectors whose traditional techniques have declining utility against threats that are increasingly elusive and diffuse. And we found an analytical community too quick to rely upon assumptions or conjecture, and too slow to communicate gaps and uncertainties to policymakers.

But above all, we found an intelligence community that was too disorganized and fragmented to use its many talented people and sophisticated tools effectively.

Keep the above in mind if you happen to read David Samuels’s cover story in the current issue of the Atlantic. Called “Grand Illusions,” it is a veeeery long account of the author’s travels and interviews with Condi Rice during her Middle Eastern diplomatic efforts. Amid the stultifying litany of meetings and press conferences, Samuels nonchalantly passes along a rather startling claim. A claim, in fact, that suggests the CIA is having a lot more behind-the-scenes success in Iran than anyone suspects.

Citing “[s]ources in the United States and the Middle East familiar with the covert side of the American-led effort to push back Iran,” Samuels claims that American agents are responsible for a series of recent events in Iran:

a bomb in Zahedan, the economic center of the province of Baluchistan, that killed 11 soldiers in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on February 14; the mysterious death of the Iranian scientist Ardashir Hosseinpour, who worked on uranium enrichment at the Isfahan nuclear facility; and the defection of a high ranking Iranian general named Ali Asgari.

If true, this would be good news, indicating that the CIA is conducting an effective covert action against the Iranian regime currently making war on us in Iraq and other places. But a healthy measure of skepticism is warranted. I asked a friend, a former CIA clandestine-service officer, about the veracity of Samuels’s reporting. His response: “It’s all crap. The Atlantic should not have put that in. It couldn’t be further from the truth. The Atlantic should not descend to the level of the New Yorker.”

Of course my friend’s dismissal of these allegations will not convince hardcore conspiracy theorists. They will think that his words are part of an elaborate disinformation campaign. There is, apparently, no shortage of people, especially abroad, who watch movies like Spy Game (2001) and The Bourne Identity (2002) and think that they provide an accurate picture of CIA capabilities—that with a few words the CIA director can launch a commando mission to free a spy from a Chinese prison or send hit teams to Europe to hunt down a renegade agent. While Hollywood often depicts the CIA and other intelligence agencies such as the NSA (Enemy of the State, 1998) as malevolent entities, it inevitably presents them as nearly omnipotent.

Too bad the real world doesn’t bear much resemblance to the reel world. In fact, the upcoming film based on the classic TV series Get Smart might provide a more accurate picture of our intelligence capabilities.

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McCain in Baghdad

Even when you’re in Baghdad, as I am at the moment, it’s impossible to miss the furor back home over John McCain’s visit here a few days ago. The press seems to think it has caught the Senator in a big “gotcha” over his trip to the Shorja market on Sunday. McCain (whose presidential campaign, I should disclose, I am advising on foreign policy) touted his visit to the market as evidence that the Baghdad security plan, “Operation Fardh Al Qanoon,” is working.

“Hah!,” the news corps screamed. Reporters wrote that McCain was able to visit the market only because of “heavy” extra protection and that merchants there complained that overall security conditions weren’t great. All of this true, but taken in isolation it provides a very distorted impression.

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Even when you’re in Baghdad, as I am at the moment, it’s impossible to miss the furor back home over John McCain’s visit here a few days ago. The press seems to think it has caught the Senator in a big “gotcha” over his trip to the Shorja market on Sunday. McCain (whose presidential campaign, I should disclose, I am advising on foreign policy) touted his visit to the market as evidence that the Baghdad security plan, “Operation Fardh Al Qanoon,” is working.

“Hah!,” the news corps screamed. Reporters wrote that McCain was able to visit the market only because of “heavy” extra protection and that merchants there complained that overall security conditions weren’t great. All of this true, but taken in isolation it provides a very distorted impression.

Here’s the perspective the press isn’t providing: We are in the middle of a tough, bloody war in Iraq. Throughout 2006, the war was going very badly, especially in Baghdad. Large chunks of the city were subject to a bloody campaign of ethnic cleansing, murder, and terrorism. Sunni families fled. Markets closed. Normal life ground to a halt. Those perilous trends have been stopped in the past few months and are beginning to be reversed. This is due to an increased deployment of Iraqi and American troops, and especially to the fact that Americans are no longer staying on their giant forward operating bases. They are patrollng more intensively from joint security stations and small combat outposts located in the middle of the city.

Though only three of the five extra brigades scheduled to be deployed have yet arrived in Baghdad, the offensive has already paid big dividends. A semblance of normality is returning in some neighborhoods, markets are reopening, sectarian murders and ethnic cleansings have been dramatically reduced. The situation still isn’t great, but at least the downward trend has been stopped. There have been a few big suicide bombings lately that obscure this improvement, but most of these have been outside Baghdad, where the current security operation is focused. Needless to say, coalition forces can’t magically pacify the entire country overnight—and that can’t be the measure of success or failure.

The fact that McCain was able and willing to walk around the Shorja market indicates that things are getting better, even if Iraq remains a war zone. Of course McCain had heavy security; he’s an especially attractive target for insurgents. But the market was functioning normally while he was there, and he wasn’t surrounded by bodyguards. He walked around freely without a helmet (though he was wearing body armor), and mingled with Iraqis. So did the other members of his delegation, as well as General David Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq.

Reporters may think this was like a Sunday stroll in Central Park, but that wasn’t the view of the U.S. embassy’s security coordinator, who refused to sign off on McCain’s visit because he thought it was too risky. The Senator thought otherwise, and he made an important point with his visit. Actually, two points: first, that the situation in Baghdad is improving; second, that the news media are more intent on ridiculing rather than reporting the first bits of good news to come out of Iraq in quite a long time.

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