Commentary Magazine


Topic: United States

About That Special Relationship

Some are fretting about whether the special relationship that has bound the United States and the United Kingdom since World War II has been damaged by the House of Common’s vote against British participation in Syria and Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s decision to accept the Commons’ verdict. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, who has been writing from the UK for some time now, says in his column today that “Britain’s decision not to stand with the United States, its closest ally, in possible military action to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly chemical weapons attack marks a watershed moment that leaves the ‘special relationship’ in search of meaning and Britain in search of its role in the world.” Cohen’s column, rarely praised by COMMENTARY, is spot on.

Britain’s capitulation to war-weary public opinion is foremost a personal defeat for Cameron—the first prime minister to lose a vote on going to war since 1782—ironically, when Great Britain was at war with the United States. There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Cameron rushed the vote unnecessarily. He lost by only 13 votes, which could not have happened had it not been for an internal Tory Party revolt. Additionally, the public debate was short. Another week and the UN inspectors’ report might have changed things. At this point, no one quite knows the mission and goals of intervention. So Cameron’s decision to heed the call of Parliament and sit this one out may easily be interpreted as a transient problem, suggesting he needs to work on his communication skills, party unity, and overall popularity.

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Some are fretting about whether the special relationship that has bound the United States and the United Kingdom since World War II has been damaged by the House of Common’s vote against British participation in Syria and Prime Minister’s David Cameron’s decision to accept the Commons’ verdict. The New York Times’ Roger Cohen, who has been writing from the UK for some time now, says in his column today that “Britain’s decision not to stand with the United States, its closest ally, in possible military action to punish the Syrian regime for a deadly chemical weapons attack marks a watershed moment that leaves the ‘special relationship’ in search of meaning and Britain in search of its role in the world.” Cohen’s column, rarely praised by COMMENTARY, is spot on.

Britain’s capitulation to war-weary public opinion is foremost a personal defeat for Cameron—the first prime minister to lose a vote on going to war since 1782—ironically, when Great Britain was at war with the United States. There are mitigating circumstances, of course. Cameron rushed the vote unnecessarily. He lost by only 13 votes, which could not have happened had it not been for an internal Tory Party revolt. Additionally, the public debate was short. Another week and the UN inspectors’ report might have changed things. At this point, no one quite knows the mission and goals of intervention. So Cameron’s decision to heed the call of Parliament and sit this one out may easily be interpreted as a transient problem, suggesting he needs to work on his communication skills, party unity, and overall popularity.

But there is a deeper problem that goes beyond Cameron or the vote. Consider that Ed Miliband, the current British Labour Party leader, has repeatedly indicated that he wants any action against Syria to be squarely placed under international law—meaning some sort of UN umbrella. Miliband not only seems unconcerned that yesterday’s humiliation of the prime minister handed a spectacular propaganda victory to Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad; he knows full well that making a Syrian intervention dependent on a non-existent UN path means giving a green light to Assad to continue his butchery.

Miliband, in other words, wants Britain to commit itself to a pointless act of endless diplomacy designed to stall rather than facilitate military action. That is not what allies do. It is all reminiscent of French President Jacques Chirac and his Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s effort to undermine President Bush when he was seeking a second UN resolution to go to war against Saddam Hussein. Should Cameron soon exit the political scene—something he might consider after losing such a fateful policy vote—his successor will move Britain further away from the days when it could be counted on as the bedrock of transatlantic relations. 

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Don’t Just Worry About Iranian Influence in Iraq

Within the United States, conventional wisdom relates that Iraq is now a puppet of Iran. There is real reason for concern, and I won’t be one that will downplay Iranian attempts to influence, if not dominate, Iraq. That said, Iraqi Shi’ites are traditionally not pro-Iranian; they are pro-Iraqi. After all, during the Iran-Iraq War, the bulk of Iraqi conscripts on the front line hailed not from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and its Sunni environs, but rather from Baghdad and the largely Shi’ite towns and villages of Iraq’s south. They fought against the Shi’ite brethren because they saw themselves as Iraqis and Arabs first, not Persians.

That said, Iranian influence is on the increase. Iran’s true Achilles’ heel is Shi’ism. Because the supreme leader claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on earth, with ultimate political and religious authority, the theologically independent ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, undercut his authority whenever they contradict him. Iran will never tolerate the rise of an ayatollah to the political leadership in Iraq because that would pose a threat to the supreme leader. However, the Iranians will try to dominate Iraq to ensure that Iranian strategic interests remain paramount. Certainly, it need not have been this way: Had the United States retained a presence in Iraq, even if a limited number of forces simply kicked their heels in isolated bases, their presence would have enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to better resist Iranian demands. For many Middle Eastern countries, diplomacy is about balance. Iran will ratchet up its pressure and perhaps its presence in Iraq as its grasp on Syria falters. Iraqis worry openly that they will become Iran’s new frontline.

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Within the United States, conventional wisdom relates that Iraq is now a puppet of Iran. There is real reason for concern, and I won’t be one that will downplay Iranian attempts to influence, if not dominate, Iraq. That said, Iraqi Shi’ites are traditionally not pro-Iranian; they are pro-Iraqi. After all, during the Iran-Iraq War, the bulk of Iraqi conscripts on the front line hailed not from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit and its Sunni environs, but rather from Baghdad and the largely Shi’ite towns and villages of Iraq’s south. They fought against the Shi’ite brethren because they saw themselves as Iraqis and Arabs first, not Persians.

That said, Iranian influence is on the increase. Iran’s true Achilles’ heel is Shi’ism. Because the supreme leader claims to be the deputy of the Messiah on earth, with ultimate political and religious authority, the theologically independent ayatollahs in Najaf, Iraq, undercut his authority whenever they contradict him. Iran will never tolerate the rise of an ayatollah to the political leadership in Iraq because that would pose a threat to the supreme leader. However, the Iranians will try to dominate Iraq to ensure that Iranian strategic interests remain paramount. Certainly, it need not have been this way: Had the United States retained a presence in Iraq, even if a limited number of forces simply kicked their heels in isolated bases, their presence would have enabled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to better resist Iranian demands. For many Middle Eastern countries, diplomacy is about balance. Iran will ratchet up its pressure and perhaps its presence in Iraq as its grasp on Syria falters. Iraqis worry openly that they will become Iran’s new frontline.

While Washington should certainly do what it can to constrain Iranian influence in Iraq, it would be a mistake to focus only on Iran. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s whirlwind trip to Russia and the announcement of a multibillion-dollar arms purchase should underline this point. True, Maliki can say that he sought first to purchase weapons from the United States, but Kurdish opposition (the Kurds believe Maliki might use the weapons against them) slow-rolled the deal and convinced Maliki to look elsewhere. That said, the Iraqi government is not simply reaching out to Iran as a last resort. Throughout the Baathist period, Iraq cultivated close relations with the Soviet Union. Many Iraqis studied in the Soviet Union and the East Bloc. Many have residual ties to Russians and feel comfortable doing business the Russian way. Russians tend not to worry about niceties such as transparency or human rights, and that works just fine for some Iraqis.

It’s not just Russia and Iran which are making plays for the Iraqi market. China is a growing presence. In 2010, the United States was Iraq’s fifth largest source of imports, but was still Iraq’s No. 1 trade partner. While I do not have access to the most recent statistics, Iraqi politicians have said that the United States might now be number four or five, after Iran, Russia, Turkey, and China. The Chinese have been quite aggressive. In the scandal/power play which led to the resignation of the minister of trade, Muhammad Allawi, one factor was a Maliki ally in the ministry whom some government officials say is on the payroll of the Chinese telecommunication firm Huawei. According to their accusations, the woman in question—who clashed repeatedly with Muhammad Allawi—would repeatedly undercut efforts by American businesses to work more in Iraq in order to privilege Huawei. The problem is not just in central Iraq. In the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymani, Huawei sports a fancy new store. While the Kurdish ruling families’ notorious corruption has stymied some American investment, again, the Chinese are not so particular.

American officials are right to worry about Iranian influence. Focusing exclusively on the Iranian threat to the neglect of others, however, will be counterproductive. Saddam’s ouster was about resolving a threat to U.S. national security, and the efforts to offer Iraqis a future beyond dictatorship was the right move. Let us hope, however, that White House neglect will not mean that Iraq slides further into an Iranian-Russian-Chinese economic axis, not even a year after the departure of the last American troops.

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Who Should Fund U.S. Muslim Groups?

Last week, the Washington Post profiled Zainab al-Suwaij, the founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Because she grew up under dictatorship and repression in Iraq and so understands the values which make America great, Zainab has always been outspoken in favor of moderation, individual liberty, women’s empowerment, and against the extremism preached so often by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While almost anyone who meets Zainab, be they in Iraq, Egypt, and the United States, becomes an admirer, the Post found one naysayer. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era,” Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware, said.

Khan’s statement is curious: Why should it be wrong for the AIC to compete for and, on occasion, to win U.S. grants? It’s not like an organization called the American Islamic Congress hides the American component. Nor does Khan indicate why Muslim groups should shy away from accepting American money but have no hesitation accepting Saudi cash, like the more radical Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society for North America (ISNA) do.

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Last week, the Washington Post profiled Zainab al-Suwaij, the founder and director of the American Islamic Congress (AIC). Because she grew up under dictatorship and repression in Iraq and so understands the values which make America great, Zainab has always been outspoken in favor of moderation, individual liberty, women’s empowerment, and against the extremism preached so often by Saudi Arabia and Iran. While almost anyone who meets Zainab, be they in Iraq, Egypt, and the United States, becomes an admirer, the Post found one naysayer. “If AIC is surviving on U.S. money, then they have no legitimacy, especially if they came to the fore in the [George W.] Bush era,” Muqtedar Khan, a professor at the University of Delaware, said.

Khan’s statement is curious: Why should it be wrong for the AIC to compete for and, on occasion, to win U.S. grants? It’s not like an organization called the American Islamic Congress hides the American component. Nor does Khan indicate why Muslim groups should shy away from accepting American money but have no hesitation accepting Saudi cash, like the more radical Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and Islamic Society for North America (ISNA) do.

The ultimate irony is that Khan’s home institution, University of Delaware, has also accepted State Department money to run Middle East programs. If Saudi Arabia is a cash cow for organizations like CAIR and ISNA that often apologize for terrorism, shouldn’t organizations that take a more moderate tack and seek to promote both empowerment and respect for American values also have access to resources?

Perhaps it is time for Islamic advocacy organizations and universities to first and foremost foreswear foreign money. It does say a great deal about Suwaij that she’d rather compete for American grant money and also a great deal about her critics that they see Saudi money as less tainted.

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U.S. Must Nurture Successor to Karzai

Mike O’Hanlon is absolutely right to argue that the U.S. needs to nurture a reformist successor to Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president. I made the same point in this Council on Foreign Relations Policy Innovation Memorandum.

The suggestion that the U.S. should throw its weight behind a presidential candidate in the 2014 election will jar many who view this as antithetical to democracy. It is not. Indeed, nothing will do more to undermine Afghanistan’s democracy than if the U.S. were to stand by and let malign actors such as various warlords, drug traffickers, and Pakistani intelligence agents anoint their favored candidate, whoever that is, to succeed Karzai. They will have no compunctions about throwing their weight around; neither should we. With 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan even after September, we will have a large say in what happens no matter what. Better to use that influence to try to push for the best candidate possible rather than stand by and let someone transparently dishonest or sectarian take power.

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Mike O’Hanlon is absolutely right to argue that the U.S. needs to nurture a reformist successor to Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan’s president. I made the same point in this Council on Foreign Relations Policy Innovation Memorandum.

The suggestion that the U.S. should throw its weight behind a presidential candidate in the 2014 election will jar many who view this as antithetical to democracy. It is not. Indeed, nothing will do more to undermine Afghanistan’s democracy than if the U.S. were to stand by and let malign actors such as various warlords, drug traffickers, and Pakistani intelligence agents anoint their favored candidate, whoever that is, to succeed Karzai. They will have no compunctions about throwing their weight around; neither should we. With 68,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan even after September, we will have a large say in what happens no matter what. Better to use that influence to try to push for the best candidate possible rather than stand by and let someone transparently dishonest or sectarian take power.

Granted, the U.S. has not had the greatest track record in choosing candidates; Karzai was anointed by the U.S. and our allies at the end of 2001 and, while not as bad as some imagine, he has not been the George Washington, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Lee Kuan Yew, or Konrad Adenauer that Afghanistan desperately needs. Is there such a man (or woman) among the current contenders? Perhaps not, but some are obviously better than others, and with a decade of experience in Afghanistan, American diplomats, political leaders, and intelligence operatives have a much broader base of experience upon which to make a judgment about the contenders than they had in 2001.

The bottom line is that if we fail to anoint a candidate that will be making a choice too—we will be choosing to let the worst elements in Afghanistan control the electoral process. That would be a disaster that would undermine all of the progress our troops have made since 2010.

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Is Syria the New Vietnam?

There are strong arguments for and against American military intervention in Syria. And everyone is weighing in. An editorial in the Jewish Daily Forward asks: ‘‘What is to be done about Syria,’’ and asserts that, ‘‘passivity [is] impossible.’’ And so the piece sets out to consider some of those arguments. However, its intention comes to naught, and instead the editorial finds itself reduced to precisely the equivocation that it claims is so unacceptable.

That alone wouldn’t be worth comment. But it gets worse: the editorial not only fails to confront the arguments seriously, but has the further audacity to criticize from its transcendent perch those who have actually staked positions on the matter. And not only that either: it ends with the self-righteous assertion that only the Forward’s editors really appreciate the true complexity of the issue. Their sentiments are best communicated in their own words, so here are the particularly offending concluding paragraphs:

But how should the international community channel this new indignation? Is the answer as simple as military intervention? It appears not. Even the human rights organizations are cautioning against such a move. Though the Holocaust and the genocides of the 1990s make passivity impossible, there are even more recent precedents that do and should give us pause: Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are those who, like Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, offer cavalier solutions, such as providing arms to the fractious band of rebels. Others demand a NATO-led air war. But these hawks can’t answer basic questions about who exactly could take power in Syria after Assad, which of the various factions of warring opposition groups to even support, or how to avoid turning an intervention into a regional conflagration. Legions of experts keep making the same point that what worked for Libya won’t work in Syria. After the interventions of the past decade and their Sisyphean aftermaths, it would be irresponsible to imagine we could dip our toe into this conflict without considering the consequences.

But this complexity should not be an invitation to sit on our hands, nor is it acceptable to simply give Assad more time to kill by settling for half-measures like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s ineffectual peace plan or sending a few powerless UN observers.

What we can do is use this moment for the moral clarity it provides. If, before Houla, it was still conceivable for Assad’s remaining defenders to imagine they were witnessing in Syria an internal power struggle between pro- and anti-government forces, it should now be clear that Assad is a murderer, capable of ever worse brutalities and willing to cravenly exploit ethnic divisions to hold on to his power. This is now plain and simple to see. Perhaps if Russia and China — and, one can always hope, Iran as well — start to feel his bloody hands staining theirs, the path might be open to the sort of isolation that will make a difference.

Our responsibility, in the meantime, is now more apparent than ever. Don’t forget the massacred children of Houla, and don’t let the world forget them, either.

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There are strong arguments for and against American military intervention in Syria. And everyone is weighing in. An editorial in the Jewish Daily Forward asks: ‘‘What is to be done about Syria,’’ and asserts that, ‘‘passivity [is] impossible.’’ And so the piece sets out to consider some of those arguments. However, its intention comes to naught, and instead the editorial finds itself reduced to precisely the equivocation that it claims is so unacceptable.

That alone wouldn’t be worth comment. But it gets worse: the editorial not only fails to confront the arguments seriously, but has the further audacity to criticize from its transcendent perch those who have actually staked positions on the matter. And not only that either: it ends with the self-righteous assertion that only the Forward’s editors really appreciate the true complexity of the issue. Their sentiments are best communicated in their own words, so here are the particularly offending concluding paragraphs:

But how should the international community channel this new indignation? Is the answer as simple as military intervention? It appears not. Even the human rights organizations are cautioning against such a move. Though the Holocaust and the genocides of the 1990s make passivity impossible, there are even more recent precedents that do and should give us pause: Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are those who, like Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, offer cavalier solutions, such as providing arms to the fractious band of rebels. Others demand a NATO-led air war. But these hawks can’t answer basic questions about who exactly could take power in Syria after Assad, which of the various factions of warring opposition groups to even support, or how to avoid turning an intervention into a regional conflagration. Legions of experts keep making the same point that what worked for Libya won’t work in Syria. After the interventions of the past decade and their Sisyphean aftermaths, it would be irresponsible to imagine we could dip our toe into this conflict without considering the consequences.

But this complexity should not be an invitation to sit on our hands, nor is it acceptable to simply give Assad more time to kill by settling for half-measures like former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s ineffectual peace plan or sending a few powerless UN observers.

What we can do is use this moment for the moral clarity it provides. If, before Houla, it was still conceivable for Assad’s remaining defenders to imagine they were witnessing in Syria an internal power struggle between pro- and anti-government forces, it should now be clear that Assad is a murderer, capable of ever worse brutalities and willing to cravenly exploit ethnic divisions to hold on to his power. This is now plain and simple to see. Perhaps if Russia and China — and, one can always hope, Iran as well — start to feel his bloody hands staining theirs, the path might be open to the sort of isolation that will make a difference.

Our responsibility, in the meantime, is now more apparent than ever. Don’t forget the massacred children of Houla, and don’t let the world forget them, either.

What is interesting about this is that it is not the first time we have been forced to endure the unjustified pietistic vainglory of the Left. Norman Podhoretz, in his Ex-Friends, recalled his earlier analysis of the Vietnam War, where he had famously observed this same phenomenon:

Certain people took the position that they were against both Saigon and Hanoi. What then were they for? The answer given in a piece written jointly by Irving Howe and the political theorist Michael Walzer, the editors of Dissent, after the war was over was that they had ‘‘hoped for the emergence of a Vietnamese ‘third force’ capable of rallying the people in a progressive direction by enacting land reforms and defending civil liberties.’’ But since, as they themselves admitted, there was very little chance that this would happen, to have thrown their energies into opposing the American effort was tantamount to working for the Communist victory they said (in all sincerity) they did not want. Nothing daunted by this contradiction, they still awarded themselves moral congratulations on having been against the evils on both sides of the war:

‘‘Those of us who opposed American intervention yet did not want a Communist victory were in the difficult position of having no happy ending to offer…And we were in the difficult position of urging a relatively complex argument at a moment when most Americans, pro- and anti-war, wanted blinding simplicities.’’

Yet considering the actual alternatives that existed, what did the urging of ‘‘a relatively complex argument’’ avail other than to make those who urged it feel pleased with themselves?

There we see that oppressive ‘‘complexity’’ again, and the self-congratulatory self-pity of those isolated few who, unlike everyone else, perceive it. And, once again, we see that convenient combination of equivocation and fantasy – ‘‘the emergence of a ‘third force’’’ or the hope that Russia, China, and Iran will pressure Syria so that we don’t have to – that all but disqualifies these commentators from being taken seriously.

To reiterate, there are strong arguments for and against intervention, and no serious thinker on either side of this debate believes that their policy is straightforward or without cost, but at least their arguments aren’t smug and are based on real, and not imaginary, circumstances.

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Leading from Behind…Zimbabwe?

Against the backdrop of continued massacres in Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end,” although neither she nor the White House has outlined a strategy to meet that goal.

President Obama prefers to work through allies. He has sought to bring Russian strongman Vladimir Putin around. If Putin does not care about human rights in Russia, however, it is doubtful he cares too much about ordinary Syrians, especially if it means undermining the regime which hosts Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union. As in Libya, he also prefers to work from behind through other allies. How embarrassing it is for a superpower like the United States to take the backseat to the likes of Zimbabwe, which has announced it is training its troops in advance of a Syrian peacekeeping mission.

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Against the backdrop of continued massacres in Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared, “The Assad regime’s brutality against its own people must and will end,” although neither she nor the White House has outlined a strategy to meet that goal.

President Obama prefers to work through allies. He has sought to bring Russian strongman Vladimir Putin around. If Putin does not care about human rights in Russia, however, it is doubtful he cares too much about ordinary Syrians, especially if it means undermining the regime which hosts Russia’s only military base outside the former Soviet Union. As in Libya, he also prefers to work from behind through other allies. How embarrassing it is for a superpower like the United States to take the backseat to the likes of Zimbabwe, which has announced it is training its troops in advance of a Syrian peacekeeping mission.

I’m sure the Syrian people, in desperate need of protection from a regime gone wild whose forces rape and pillage, will be grateful the United Nations is sending a force best known for its rape and pillage.

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The Class War Goes Hot

There are two wellsprings of class warfare in America. There is Barack Obama, whose reelection strategy is to taunt Americans about their rich neighbors. And there are the indignant loiterers of the Occupy movement, who married aimlessness to anarchism and produced a half-witted crime spree that boomer liberals then declared “meaningful.” Both want corporate bigwigs to pay up.

So does Brandon L. Baxter. We know this because in a recorded phone call about planning a terrorist bombing in Cleveland, Ohio, the 20-year-old Baxter allegedly said that “Taking out a bridge in the business district would cost the … corporate big wigs a lot of money.” The plot was foiled this week by federal authorities who revealed that most or all of the five aspiring terrorists involved were “associated” with the Occupy movement.

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There are two wellsprings of class warfare in America. There is Barack Obama, whose reelection strategy is to taunt Americans about their rich neighbors. And there are the indignant loiterers of the Occupy movement, who married aimlessness to anarchism and produced a half-witted crime spree that boomer liberals then declared “meaningful.” Both want corporate bigwigs to pay up.

So does Brandon L. Baxter. We know this because in a recorded phone call about planning a terrorist bombing in Cleveland, Ohio, the 20-year-old Baxter allegedly said that “Taking out a bridge in the business district would cost the … corporate big wigs a lot of money.” The plot was foiled this week by federal authorities who revealed that most or all of the five aspiring terrorists involved were “associated” with the Occupy movement.

Or is that irrelevant? “They were in no way representing or acting on behalf of Occupy Cleveland,” said a Cleveland Occupier named Debbie Kline. Of course they weren’t! Why would anyone think that anarchist terrorist Occupiers planning to bomb corporate bigwigs into coughing up cash would have anything to do with anarchist Occupier criminals who’ve spent a year setting fires, trashing businesses, and blocking ports to get corporate bigwigs to cough up cash? Apples and oranges, clearly.

The few existing articulate defenders of the Occupy movement note the peace-and-love vibe that abounds at protests. “I go down there every day, and I see sweet, compassionate, politically astute people,” said hippie businessman Russell Simmons about Occupy Wall Street. “I participate in their meditation daily. I see people who have high aspirations for America, who are idealistic. I see the most inclusive group that America has to offer.” Bingo! The group is so inclusive its doors are open to the likes of Brandon L. Baxter and the Cleveland Five.

There is only one entry requirement for the Occupy movement: a consuming resentment of the guy who has more than you. It is a grudge cult, a movement created to ennoble mankind’s worst impulse, and it must inevitably lead to violence. The class war must go hot.

As for Russell Simmons’s meditators, they represent a demographic with the most malleable group intellect since the Manson family—which is not beside the point. When you throw a bunch of late-comer deadheads into a pit with a gang of seething anarchists, which side do you suppose will exert its will on things?

Debbie Kline’s statement about the bombers not representing the Occupiers is legally valid but culturally useless. They both represent the same toxic political phenomenon: demonization of fellow citizens as the source of their woes. That notion is corrosive at its inception.

And it is the same corrosive idea behind the White House webpage urging Americans to “Just enter a few pieces of information about your taxes, and see how many millionaires pay a lower effective tax rate than you.”

The Obama campaign has the class-warfare brains, the credentialed thinkers (and the enlightened billionaire) who’ve drawn up a plan to make someone else pay for the fundamental unfairness of your life. If you think it’s a stretch to compare them to the class-warfare thugs of the Occupy movement just look at Europe, where the brains and thugs re-couple in strong political parties every time a bad-economy election is held. In Greece, where the evil 1 percent du jour are immigrants, the fascist Golden Dawn party may enter parliament in a few days. In the current French elections, extremists on the right and left have ratcheted up nativist rhetoric. Hungary’s Nazi-nostalgic Jobbik party recently held an EU flag burning rally to protest their longtime scapegoats, the Gypsies.

It’s worth recalling that anarchist terrorism started to rock Europe in 2010, a year before Occupy Wall Street and two years before the bomb plot in Ohio. Yes, it’s true, we’re not Europe. But that’s the point. We’re America, so why are we flirting with this garbage?

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Obama’s Goal is to Avoid Conflict With Iran

In the latest in a series of New York Times front-page features on U.S. policy toward Iran based on anonymous sources within the administration, the newspaper proclaimed today the chances of armed conflict with the Islamist state had markedly declined. The unnamed American officials did no more than state the obvious when they noted that the current diplomatic process initiated this month in Istanbul which will recommence in Baghdad after a long break in late May has made it less likely that anyone would attack Iran anytime soon. However, presenting this conclusion as an objective analysis begs the point. The reason why “the temperature has cooled,” as one anonymous Obama administration put it, is not because the West is any closer to actually persuading the Iranians to desist from their nuclear ambitions. Rather, it is the result of policies that have no larger goal than to ensure that there will be no confrontation over the nuclear issue during the president’s campaign.

None of the factors the administration officials put forward as evidence of a cooling of tensions give much hope of securing a non-nuclear Iran. The sanctions, diplomacy and the encouragement of dissent within Israel against the Netanyahu government aren’t likely to convince the Iranians they have no choice but to give up. Though the sanctions are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, that hasn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program, and its Islamist leadership have every confidence they can outfox Obama and his partners in the P5+1 talks as they have in the past without giving up anything valuable. These factors all have a more immediate goal: rendering any attack on Iran out of the question, and thus enabling the president to face the voters without either a huge spike in oil prices or another Middle East conflict.

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In the latest in a series of New York Times front-page features on U.S. policy toward Iran based on anonymous sources within the administration, the newspaper proclaimed today the chances of armed conflict with the Islamist state had markedly declined. The unnamed American officials did no more than state the obvious when they noted that the current diplomatic process initiated this month in Istanbul which will recommence in Baghdad after a long break in late May has made it less likely that anyone would attack Iran anytime soon. However, presenting this conclusion as an objective analysis begs the point. The reason why “the temperature has cooled,” as one anonymous Obama administration put it, is not because the West is any closer to actually persuading the Iranians to desist from their nuclear ambitions. Rather, it is the result of policies that have no larger goal than to ensure that there will be no confrontation over the nuclear issue during the president’s campaign.

None of the factors the administration officials put forward as evidence of a cooling of tensions give much hope of securing a non-nuclear Iran. The sanctions, diplomacy and the encouragement of dissent within Israel against the Netanyahu government aren’t likely to convince the Iranians they have no choice but to give up. Though the sanctions are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, that hasn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program, and its Islamist leadership have every confidence they can outfox Obama and his partners in the P5+1 talks as they have in the past without giving up anything valuable. These factors all have a more immediate goal: rendering any attack on Iran out of the question, and thus enabling the president to face the voters without either a huge spike in oil prices or another Middle East conflict.

As the Times points out, a couple of months ago when the president said he did not consider containment of a nuclear Iran a viable policy, speculation about the use of force against Iran skyrocketed. But by holding out hope for a “window of diplomacy,” Obama has given himself a convenient escape hatch from his ringing rhetoric on the topic. The negotiations merely provide Iran more time to continue refining uranium with impunity so long as the talks continue. The reports emanating from Tehran about the ayatollahs being willing to compromise is exactly what the person who is running the talks — E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton — wants to hear. All the positive atmospherics may make it possible to drag out the process all through the spring and summer if not the fall.

The Europeans are desperate for any sign of give on the Iranians’ part that will provide them with the excuse to back off their threat of an embargo of Iranian oil. And both the administration and the Iranians have the shared goal of keeping the talking going until after the November election when the president might have the “flexibility” to reconsider his promises.

As for the criticism against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu from within his country’s security establishment, that is not something that is likely to affect his decision making process for a couple of reasons.

First, though Netanyahu’s concerns about the futility of the P5+1 talks are justified, there is very little chance that he would order a strike on Iran while they continue. An Israeli attack on Iran, assuming one ever happens, will only be possible during a period when there is no ongoing diplomatic process. Second, even if he were free to act now, it isn’t likely that the carping of a few disgruntled former officials would stop him. While the Israeli public would prefer an international coalition to take on Iran rather than to do it alone, Netanyahu knows he has public support for a proactive policy so long as he can show there is no alternative.

In this context, it is important to note that Netanyahu may choose to move up Israel elections to the fall from next year. With another mandate from the people (and polls show him to be an overwhelming favorite to lead the next government), he will have even more freedom to do as he thinks best.

But as even the Times noted this morning, Obama has potentially laid a trap for himself by embracing the P5+1 talks. Though it is possible the Iranians will be clever enough to string the West along for many months, they have also shown they are just as fond of embarrassing their diplomatic partners by reneging on their commitments or by simply refusing to go on negotiating. Though a break in diplomacy is seemingly not in their interests, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to seek to confuse or flummox the West by cutting the process off at some point. If they do, then Obama will be faced with the choice of reneging on his promises to stop Iran or to act. If that moment comes before November, it will be a very difficult choice indeed.

 

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America’s Slowing Economy

Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that seasonally-adjusted annual rate of sales fell 7.1 percent from February. The March figures for home sales were the lowest in four months. Today, we learned that new orders for manufactured durable goods in March decreased $8.8 billion — or 4.2 percent — to $202.6 billion. And this comes after a jobs report that showed in March we produced only 120,000 new jobs, as more and more people continued to drop out of the labor force.

As this McClatchy Newspaper story puts it:

Rather than a breakout surge in economic growth, mainstream forecasters say, Americans should expect the U.S. economy to slog forward for another couple of years.

The economy grew at a subpar annual rate of 1.7 percent last year, down from 3 percent the year before. The consensus forecast for this year now is for growth of 2 to 2.5 percent.

The U.S. economy is expected to slow later this year… A spate of recent indicators punctuated fears that the economy is stalling. March delivered only 120,000 new jobs, and the latest manufacturing and real estate data softened.

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Yesterday, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that seasonally-adjusted annual rate of sales fell 7.1 percent from February. The March figures for home sales were the lowest in four months. Today, we learned that new orders for manufactured durable goods in March decreased $8.8 billion — or 4.2 percent — to $202.6 billion. And this comes after a jobs report that showed in March we produced only 120,000 new jobs, as more and more people continued to drop out of the labor force.

As this McClatchy Newspaper story puts it:

Rather than a breakout surge in economic growth, mainstream forecasters say, Americans should expect the U.S. economy to slog forward for another couple of years.

The economy grew at a subpar annual rate of 1.7 percent last year, down from 3 percent the year before. The consensus forecast for this year now is for growth of 2 to 2.5 percent.

The U.S. economy is expected to slow later this year… A spate of recent indicators punctuated fears that the economy is stalling. March delivered only 120,000 new jobs, and the latest manufacturing and real estate data softened.

We’re already experiencing the weakest economic recovery since after World War II — and the latest data points to a further slowdown.

No wonder the president’s campaign would rather talk about contraception, Warren Buffett’s secretary, and the Irish setter Mitt Romney owned 30 years ago.

 

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Showdown in Bahrain

Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

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Several Bahraini officials took me to task when I wrote this back at the beginning of February, and I was happily wrong: The February 14 anniversary in Bahrain passed with relatively little bloodshed, a testament to the careful planning – and, admittedly, pre-emptive repression – of Bahraini security forces. The situation is again coming to a head. Bahraini activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja’s hunger strike is now on day 70. The real possibility that he might die in custody, coupled with the April 22 Formula One race in Bahrain—an event the opposition hopes to disrupt—has increased tensions considerably. Nor has the opposition in recent days limited itself to non-violent protests. Frustration among the opposition is high as casualties from tear gas fired into enclosed spaces and hit-and-runs from police cars increase. The April 9 explosion which injured seven police officers signals a dangerous turn.

Bahrain, of course, might be the smallest Arab country but, for the United States, its importance is not in proportion to its size. As host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is a keystone in America’s regional strategy. The Obama administration is right to worry that the overthrow of the monarchy in Bahrain would lead to the eviction of U.S. interests in that tiny island nation. It was for this reason that the State Department has skirted growing concern about arms exports by repackaging promised arms into multiple bundles below $1 million in order to avoid congressional intervention.

So what next in Bahrain? The level of trust between opposition and government is zero. There is a stereotype in the West that the Persian Gulf is awash in oil, but it is not evenly distributed. The simple fact is that Bahrain has next to nothing—and would have even less if Saudi Arabia did not provide a great deal. Given their constraints and financial limitations, the Khalifa family has transformed Bahrain from a dusty backwater into a major financial hub. Shiny skyscrapers sit on reclaimed land. Infrastructure is superior even to many oil-rich Saudi cities (don’t even ask about the sewage system in Jeddah). Visitors recognize what the Bahrainis know: Bahraini culture is laid back and Bahrainis are far friendlier than many of their Gulf brethren.

Still, the grievances are real: A Bahraini born Shi’ite has little equality of opportunity. Sectarian restrictions are rife. And many of Crown Prince Hamad’s promises of reform evaporated when he took the throne in 1999. While many Bahraini officials recognize the need for reform, cynicism is rife and trust is non-existent. There is a consistent problem in which all sides recognize the need for reform after bouts of violence but do not want to concede under pressure. Once calm is restored, however, they fool themselves into thinking that reform is unnecessary, until the cycle begins anew.

So how to proceed? The Bahraini government claims the uprising is Iranian-sponsored. Certainly, the Iranians may co-opt it, but to show real Iranian interference beyond media incitement, the Bahraini government needs to expose the financial links between certain opposition figures and Iran. There have been quiet allegations of some businesses and bank accounts acting as fronts and financiers of opposition activity, but the unwillingness of the Bahraini officials to expose such intelligence has begun to erode their credibility.

The opposition, meanwhile, has made a case based on heart strings, but has yet to demonstrate how they would govern the day after any victory. Bahraini opposition politicians avoid too much talk about the role of Ayatollah Isa Qasim in political decision-making and when if ever they have taken action in contradiction to his pronouncements. While the opposition leaders are seasoned and mature, the anger of their followers will not be easily contained. If the opposition does succeed in overthrowing the monarchy—increasingly their goal—then how would the opposition constrain the impulse to exact revenge against the Sunni minority? If Bahraini Shi’ites have been largely excluded from the security forces, how would they be integrated over the following weeks and months? Ditto better integration of the financial sector. Seeking to destroy Bahrain’s economic infrastructure and reputation will, at best, provide a Pyrrhic victory.

Of course, the elephant in the room is Saudi Arabia, whose offer of federation with Bahrain may be enough to keep hardliners inside the Bahraini royal family from pushing forward with reform. Nothing should remind better that as bad as the Iranian regime might be, the Saudis are just as noxious an influence on Middle Eastern politics. If the Obama administration believes it can farm out the Bahrain problem to the Saudis, then the White House and State Department will soon demonstrate just how counterproductive a strategy of leading from behind can be.

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No Alternative to American Leadership

The prize for least convincing op-ed article of the day–admittedly a close contest, given all the contenders one can choose from–goes to Kwasi Kwarteng’s New York Times article, “Echoes of the End of the Raj.” Kwarteng, a British Conservative parliamentarian of African ancestry who has written a book about the British Empire, claims (have you heard this before?) the U.S. is in rapid decline and can no longer afford the price of global power, or as he calls it, empire. Those interested in a more comprehensive deconstruction of this unconvincing argument should turn to Bob Kagan’s fine new book. I want to focus here on only one of Kwarteng’s egregious statements.

“America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945,” he writes. Really? He may be the only one who sees the parallels. As it happens, my forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which will come out in January 2013 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s Liveright imprint, contains a short section describing what Britain looked like in 1945 and the years immediately afterward. Here is part of what I write:

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The prize for least convincing op-ed article of the day–admittedly a close contest, given all the contenders one can choose from–goes to Kwasi Kwarteng’s New York Times article, “Echoes of the End of the Raj.” Kwarteng, a British Conservative parliamentarian of African ancestry who has written a book about the British Empire, claims (have you heard this before?) the U.S. is in rapid decline and can no longer afford the price of global power, or as he calls it, empire. Those interested in a more comprehensive deconstruction of this unconvincing argument should turn to Bob Kagan’s fine new book. I want to focus here on only one of Kwarteng’s egregious statements.

“America’s position today reminds me of Britain’s situation in 1945,” he writes. Really? He may be the only one who sees the parallels. As it happens, my forthcoming book, “Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present,” which will come out in January 2013 from W.W. Norton & Co.’s Liveright imprint, contains a short section describing what Britain looked like in 1945 and the years immediately afterward. Here is part of what I write:

Some 750,000 houses had been destroyed or damaged, public debt was at record levels, the pound devalued, unemployment rising. Britain had to rely on a loan from the United States as a lifeline, even as the new Labor government was launching a dramatic expansion of costly government programs in health-care, schooling, unemployment insurance, and old-age pensions.

Rationing remained in effect covering everything from meat, eggs, and butter to clothes, soap, and gasoline. As one housewife noted: “Queues were everywhere, for wedge-heeled shoes, pork-pies, fish, bead & cakes, tomatoes–& emergency ration-cards at the food office.” Even in the House of Commons dining room, the only meat on offer was whale or seal steak. The situation deteriorated even more in the harsh winter of 1947-1948. Coal, gas, and electricity were all in short supply. Everyone seemed to be shivering and complaining, as college student Kingsley Amis put it, “CHRIST ITS [sic] BLEEDING COLD.”

I describe conditions in post-war Britain to make clear why Britain could not afford to hang onto its empire. But does any of this sound like contemporary America? Are we rationing food and clothing? Are we dealing with widespread devastation? Are we unable to afford heat for our homes? Hardly. In fact, America is enjoying unprecedented prosperity–we are many times better off than we were 30 years ago, much less than Britain was 67 years ago, at the immediate conclusion of the most destructive war in history–one that bled Britain dry. We have not been bled dry by our military exertions. The defense budget amounts to less than 5 percent of our GDP–hardly an unsupportable burden, as I have argued many times before.

We do face problems of excessive government spending, exacerbated by President Obama’s Clement Atlee-like propensity for expanding the size of government. But, unlike Britain in 1945, we do not face a fundamental economic crisis. Our economy remains a leader among industrialized, or more accurately post-industrialized nations, with world-beating companies such as Wal-Mart, Apple, and General Electric–not to mention vast demographic advantages and mineral resources such as shale oil–that Britain simply did not have in 1945.

There is no reason we cannot continue to exercise global leadership–and every reason why we must continue to do so. Post-1945 Britain could cede the mantle gracefully to the U.S., confident that we would champion the same liberal values. To whom can the U.S. possibly pass power today? China? Russia? Iran? The question answers itself: there is no alternative to American leadership.

 

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Why U.S. Is Not Helping Syrian Rebels

The White House appears to be digging in its heels against any further aid to the Syrian rebels beyond the provision of communications equipment. It is hard to know how lasting this position will be as the president had previously touted Bashar al-Assad as a negotiating partner before calling for his departure from office. And last year, the administration resisted weeks of entreaties to intervene in Libya before deciding to do so. Events in Syria may dictate a more forceful White House response–events such as the recent firing across the Turkish border by Syrian security forces. A few more incidents like that and Turkey may decided to establish “safe zones” within Syria–a move that would probably drag the U.S. along given the close ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan.

But why has the administration refused to act so far? On its face this refusal is mysterious given that the human rights situation in Syria is even more appalling than the conditions which prevailed in Libya prior to the U.S.-led intervention–and the strategic stakes are considerably higher. The administration has offered various explanations of why intervention wouldn’t work–e.g., claiming that the rebels aren’t united enough or that Assad’s air defenses are too formidable or that UN authorization is lacking–but, as I have previously noted, these explanations are not terribly compelling, especially given a death toll climbing north of 10,000 as  we do nothing. If the president wanted to intervene, as he did in Libya, he could easily find cause to override the arguments of naysayers. Why hasn’t he done so?

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The White House appears to be digging in its heels against any further aid to the Syrian rebels beyond the provision of communications equipment. It is hard to know how lasting this position will be as the president had previously touted Bashar al-Assad as a negotiating partner before calling for his departure from office. And last year, the administration resisted weeks of entreaties to intervene in Libya before deciding to do so. Events in Syria may dictate a more forceful White House response–events such as the recent firing across the Turkish border by Syrian security forces. A few more incidents like that and Turkey may decided to establish “safe zones” within Syria–a move that would probably drag the U.S. along given the close ties between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan.

But why has the administration refused to act so far? On its face this refusal is mysterious given that the human rights situation in Syria is even more appalling than the conditions which prevailed in Libya prior to the U.S.-led intervention–and the strategic stakes are considerably higher. The administration has offered various explanations of why intervention wouldn’t work–e.g., claiming that the rebels aren’t united enough or that Assad’s air defenses are too formidable or that UN authorization is lacking–but, as I have previously noted, these explanations are not terribly compelling, especially given a death toll climbing north of 10,000 as  we do nothing. If the president wanted to intervene, as he did in Libya, he could easily find cause to override the arguments of naysayers. Why hasn’t he done so?

I can’t help noting that this is an election year in the United States and President Obama is seeking reelection based on a narrative of having “ended” a war in Iraq and being on his way to ending another war in Afghanistan. As the president constantly reminds us, the “tide of war” is receding (try telling that to the Taliban or the Quds Force). Given that’s going to be his pitch to voters, it would be highly inconvenient if, in November, U.S. aircraft were bombing Syrian regime targets. Yet if the president were to act now, there is considerable risk of such an outcome considering the fact that our military intervention in Libya lasted from March to October of 2011.

Thus, on top of various other considerations, election-year politics probably weighs against a more forceful American response. That’s a shame, because if we do nothing, not only will many more Syrians lose their lives, but we will lose a prime opportunity to tilt the Middle East balance of power against our primary adversary, Iran.

 

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How Good Is Our Intelligence on Iran?

I join my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams and my Contentions colleague Jonathan Tobin in expressing reservations about whether the U.S. government really has the degree of insight into Iran’s nuclear program claimed in carefully orchestrated leaks such as this Washington Post article which brags about how stealthy CIA drones have penetrated deep into Iranian air space.

There is, I fear, not only political spin at work here (the administration wants to showcase U.S. intelligence capabilities to ward off an Israeli strike) but also deep-seated hubris on the part of the intelligence community. Perhaps the CIA has high-level assets within the Iranian government who for understandable reasons go unmentioned in the Washington Post article; but if we are indeed primarily reliant on signals intelligence and aerial surveillance, as the article implies, then we may be in for a nasty shock.

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I join my Council on Foreign Relations colleague Elliott Abrams and my Contentions colleague Jonathan Tobin in expressing reservations about whether the U.S. government really has the degree of insight into Iran’s nuclear program claimed in carefully orchestrated leaks such as this Washington Post article which brags about how stealthy CIA drones have penetrated deep into Iranian air space.

There is, I fear, not only political spin at work here (the administration wants to showcase U.S. intelligence capabilities to ward off an Israeli strike) but also deep-seated hubris on the part of the intelligence community. Perhaps the CIA has high-level assets within the Iranian government who for understandable reasons go unmentioned in the Washington Post article; but if we are indeed primarily reliant on signals intelligence and aerial surveillance, as the article implies, then we may be in for a nasty shock.

Indeed, we have experienced such surprises many times before–for instance, the U.S. intelligence community was caught off guard by the Pakistani nuclear test in 1998 and the North Korean test in 2006–and this at a time when U.S. intelligence capabilities were nearly as advanced as they are today. The reality is that our enemies are aware of many of our high-tech spying techniques (e.g. a stealth drone crashed in Iran) and know how to cloak their activities to prevent the full shape of their efforts from becoming clear.

I would be a lot more convinced by accounts such as the one in the Post if the anonymous intelligence officials quoted therein expressed some degree of humility about their ability to penetrate the deepest recesses of a closed political and military system such as Iran. The fact that they come across as being so utterly confident in their judgments makes them paradoxically less trustworthy: They are failing to question their assumptions just as they failed to question their assumptions about Iraq’s WMD program prior to the U.S. invasion.

 

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The “Night Raids” Deal With Afghanistan

Should we be concerned that the new agreement reached by the U.S. and Afghanistan over the conduct of “night raids” will hamper the ability of U.S. Special Operations Forces to target America’s enemies? Not on the basis of what has been released about the accord.

Pentagon spokesmen argue that the limitations–having Afghans in the lead in both operations and the interrogation of detainees–do no more than codify existing practices. Moreover, there are wide loopholes in all cases: Afghans can always request extra U.S. aid and even raids that were not initially authorized by Afghan authorities can still be authorized after the fact.

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Should we be concerned that the new agreement reached by the U.S. and Afghanistan over the conduct of “night raids” will hamper the ability of U.S. Special Operations Forces to target America’s enemies? Not on the basis of what has been released about the accord.

Pentagon spokesmen argue that the limitations–having Afghans in the lead in both operations and the interrogation of detainees–do no more than codify existing practices. Moreover, there are wide loopholes in all cases: Afghans can always request extra U.S. aid and even raids that were not initially authorized by Afghan authorities can still be authorized after the fact.

The underlying reality here is that Afghan Special Operations Forces, like their counterparts in Iraq, are the best of the best of the Afghan armed forces–they have received the most aid and training from American authorities and they are the Afghans most trusted by Americans to act as close partners in sensitive operations. Notwithstanding suspicions that may exist between conventional Afghan and American units, there are close bonds of trust between the two Special Operations communities which should ensure, at least for the foreseeable future, that they will not allow legal limitations to hinder their teamwork. Moreover, Afghanistan’s defense minister, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, who is in charge of the implementation of the accord, is considered by Americans to be another close and trusted partner.

From all I have read, this is a good agreement that gives Afghanistan’s government a fig leaf of sovereignty while allowing Special Operations raids to continue at their current high tempo. The successful conclusion of this accord, coming after a similar deal on the handling of detainees, augurs well for the conclusion of a longterm U.S.-Afghan security agreement that could dampen some of the jitters occasioned by the looming 2014 deadline for NATO powers to withdraw their combat troops from Afghanistan.

 

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Should U.S. Shoot Down N. Korean Missile?

Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.

Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.

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Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.

Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.

Imagine if the U.S. had taken tougher action in the 1990s to prevent North Korea from going nuclear–or since then to punish it for its violations of international law. Instead,we have engaged in one round of fruitless diplomatic wrangling after another, constantly offering the North Koreans generous incentives to abandon their nuclear efforts only to have the North Koreans violate all of their commitments. This experience of American passivity no doubt encourages the mullahs into pursuing their own nuclear ambitions more recklessly than ever. With Iran poised on the brink of going nuclear, now would be a good time to prove that we will not sit supinely back and accept the world’s most dangerous weapons spreading into the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes. Shooting down a North Korean missile launch would be a dramatic yet not reckless way to make the point.

 

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Time to Take Action in Pakistan

David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.

Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.

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David Ignatius has a good column today pointing out that Pakistan has a lot to answer for in its relationship with al-Qaeda. As he notes: “Osama bin Laden lived in five houses in Pakistan, fathered four children there, kept three wives who took dictation for his rambling directives to his terror network, had two children born in public hospitals — and through it all, the Pakistani government did not know one single thing about his whereabouts?” That strains credulity as does the fact that numerous other senior al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad were able to live in Pakistan for years.

Of course, Pakistan’s links with terrorists hardly end with al-Qaeda. The Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, has notoriously close ties with such groups as the Haqqani Network and the Afghan Taliban, who are responsible for the deaths of numerous American and Afghan soldiers as well as Afghan civilians, and Lashkar e Taiba, which was responsible for the 2008 murder spree in Mumbai and whose founder, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, now has a $10 million American bounty on his head. Saeed, by the way, lives and travels quite openly in Pakistan; he must know he has nothing to fear from his confederates in the Pakistani security establishment.

Yet why does the U.S. still insist on treating Pakistan as a wayward ally—a difficult friend but a friend nevertheless? It is well past time to wake up from this delusion and start to take actions the Pakistani army may adamantly oppose—such as using drone strikes to target Haqqani and Afghan Taliban leaders living in Pakistan—but that are essential to protect our troops in Afghanistan and our interests in the region.

Instead, we continue to subsidize the very Pakistani state which is making war on us and our friends. As commentator Sarah Chayes noted in an article about Afghanistan (which I took some exception with): “Imagine Washington openly financing North Vietnam in 1970.”

 

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China’s Getting Our Oil Because of Obama, Says Canada PM

This is big news, and not just because it refutes a lot of the skepticism that Canada would ever actually go through with its threats to sell its oil to China. It also shows there will be major consequences from what the Obama administration clearly believed was a harmless little political game it could play with the Keystone XL permitting. Even if the president backs down from his Keystone XL objections now – as Republicans have continued to urge him to do – Canadian PM Stephen Harper says it won’t make a difference.

Canada’s Sun News reports:

In a public one-on-one interview here with Jane Harman, head of the Wilson Centre think-tank, Harper said Obama’s rejection of the controversial pipeline — even temporarily — stressed Canada’s need to find other buyers for oilsands crude.

And that wouldn’t change even if the president’s mind did.

“Look, the very fact that a ‘no’ could even be said underscores to our country that we must diversify our energy export markets,” Harper told Harman in front of a live audience of businesspeople, scholars, diplomats, and journalists.

“We cannot be, as a country, in a situation where our one and, in many cases, only energy partner could say no to our energy products. We just cannot be in that position.” Read More

This is big news, and not just because it refutes a lot of the skepticism that Canada would ever actually go through with its threats to sell its oil to China. It also shows there will be major consequences from what the Obama administration clearly believed was a harmless little political game it could play with the Keystone XL permitting. Even if the president backs down from his Keystone XL objections now – as Republicans have continued to urge him to do – Canadian PM Stephen Harper says it won’t make a difference.

Canada’s Sun News reports:

In a public one-on-one interview here with Jane Harman, head of the Wilson Centre think-tank, Harper said Obama’s rejection of the controversial pipeline — even temporarily — stressed Canada’s need to find other buyers for oilsands crude.

And that wouldn’t change even if the president’s mind did.

“Look, the very fact that a ‘no’ could even be said underscores to our country that we must diversify our energy export markets,” Harper told Harman in front of a live audience of businesspeople, scholars, diplomats, and journalists.

“We cannot be, as a country, in a situation where our one and, in many cases, only energy partner could say no to our energy products. We just cannot be in that position.”

Where to begin on this? First, there’s the amateurishness of an administration that thinks it can string along Canada for political convenience, without realizing the potential fallout. It’s also yet another example of Obama’s commitment to alienating allies while simultaneously aiding adversaries.

And the damages aren’t limited to diplomacy and the U.S. losing out on oil to China. The U.S. will also take a hit on the oil it already purchases, at a reduced rate, from Canada, because of the added competition in the market:

Harper also told Harman that Canada has been selling its oil to the United States at a discounted price.

So not only will America be able to buy less Canadian oil even if Keystone is eventually approved, the U.S. will also have to pay more for it because the market for oilsands crude will be more competitive.

“We have taken a significant price hit by virtue of the fact that we are a captive supplier and that just does not make sense in terms of the broader interests of the Canadian economy,” Harper said. “We’re still going to be a major supplier of the United States. It will be a long time, if ever, before the United States isn’t our number one export market, but for us the United States cannot be our only export market.

“That is not in our interest, either commercially or in terms of pricing.”

The U.S. could be paying for Obama’s political stunt long after he leaves office.

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What Afghans Think About Declining U.S. Support

In the current issue of COMMENTARY, Jamie M. Fly has an excellent article reminding readers of the moral case for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. With the Koran burning in February and a lone, deranged soldier’s massacre of Afghan civilians last month, U.S. support for our continued intervention in Afghanistan has declined precipitously. Both American progressives—for whom Afghanistan was once the good war—and many conservatives increasingly say the United States is at the point of decline returns, and that our occupation has become the problem. News reports showing 500 people in Kabul protesting and chanting anti-American slogans can be disheartening given the blood and treasure which the United States has invested into Afghanistan. The situation looks dire especially if one forgets that Kabul is a city of five million people, and so spontaneous demonstrations of 500 are pitiful by even rent-a-mob standards. Seldom, however, do journalists and officials consider what the Afghans are thinking before they project their own doubts onto the Afghan population.

It is in this context that a March 28 article in Hasht-e Sobh (8 a.m.), Afghanistan’s newspaper of record, is so interesting. In an editorial entitled, “Will support for war wane?” (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center), the newspaper places blame for declining U.S. public support not on the United States but rather on Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

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In the current issue of COMMENTARY, Jamie M. Fly has an excellent article reminding readers of the moral case for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. With the Koran burning in February and a lone, deranged soldier’s massacre of Afghan civilians last month, U.S. support for our continued intervention in Afghanistan has declined precipitously. Both American progressives—for whom Afghanistan was once the good war—and many conservatives increasingly say the United States is at the point of decline returns, and that our occupation has become the problem. News reports showing 500 people in Kabul protesting and chanting anti-American slogans can be disheartening given the blood and treasure which the United States has invested into Afghanistan. The situation looks dire especially if one forgets that Kabul is a city of five million people, and so spontaneous demonstrations of 500 are pitiful by even rent-a-mob standards. Seldom, however, do journalists and officials consider what the Afghans are thinking before they project their own doubts onto the Afghan population.

It is in this context that a March 28 article in Hasht-e Sobh (8 a.m.), Afghanistan’s newspaper of record, is so interesting. In an editorial entitled, “Will support for war wane?” (with a translation provided by the Open Source Center), the newspaper places blame for declining U.S. public support not on the United States but rather on Afghan President Hamid Karzai:

The question is why war in Afghanistan is losing support after a decade? This has happened due to some internal and external factors. It appears that prolongation of war, increasing casualties of the US forces and the high financial costs are the main factors behind the fall in support for the Afghan war in the United States… Over the past 10 years, the Afghan government has not been able to prove its capability. The inability of the government in ensuring security and rule of law is one of the factors which questions continuation of US support and US forces’ presence in Afghanistan. In addition, US-Afghan relations have seen many ups and downs over the past 10 years. Many times, Mr. Karzai strongly criticized the United States and sometimes supported the neighboring countries’ anti-US policies. Now, it is expected that there will be less tension with the signing of the strategic agreement, however the presence of some anti-US circles in the government and the government’s stances have caused the Americans to lose hope about the continuation of their presence in Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, we will witness a fall in support for Afghanistan from other countries if Mr. Karzai does not change his policies and bring about changes in the presidential office.

Americans have a bad habit to self-flagellate. But leadership requires not allowing strategic goals to be undercut by the vicissitudes of war or short-term public opinion. Indeed, if the Afghan press is believed, the situation might improve considerably if, rather than throw up their hands and surrender, Obama administration officials would do a better job of holding Hamid Karzai to account for his own double-dealing.

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Remembering Nancy Pelosi’s Syria Junket

Five years ago this coming Wednesday, House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi defied President Bush’s request and his strategy isolating Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad by going to Damascus. “We do not encourage and, in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria,” the White House spokesman said. “This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror.”

Pelosi would have none of that. She had known evil and to her, he resided in the White House. The Syrian dictator, however, was a reforming, Western educated eye doctor. Bilateral problems might be real, but they might be resolved through dialogue. “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” she told reporters.

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Five years ago this coming Wednesday, House Majority leader Nancy Pelosi defied President Bush’s request and his strategy isolating Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad by going to Damascus. “We do not encourage and, in fact, we discourage members of Congress to make such visits to Syria,” the White House spokesman said. “This is a country that is a state sponsor of terror.”

Pelosi would have none of that. She had known evil and to her, he resided in the White House. The Syrian dictator, however, was a reforming, Western educated eye doctor. Bilateral problems might be real, but they might be resolved through dialogue. “We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” she told reporters.

The Syrian regime used her meeting to its full propaganda advantage. After concluding his meeting with Pelosi, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem, said, “These people in the United States who are opposing dialogue I tell them one thing: Dialogue is … the only method to close the gap existing between two countries.” Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Pelosi, Syrian officers and North Korean scientists scrambled to put the finishing touches on a covert nuclear facility, and Syrian dissidents dove for cover, interpreting correctly that Assad would interpret the end of America’s isolation of Assad as a green light for murder. Assad, in hindsight, welcomed Pelosi not as a politician with whom to have sincere dialogue, but rather as a useful idiot who might help relieve him of international pressure.

Five years later, Bashar al-Assad has not changed and, alas, neither has Nancy Pelosi.

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Nations Step Up Syrian Rebel Aid

Under the category of “better late than never” (but just barely): An international “Friends of Syria” group of nations agreed in Istanbul to step up aid, at least of the non-lethal sort, to the Syrian rebels. Gulf nations pledged $100 million to pay salaries to the anti-Assad fighters while the U.S. agreed to send communications equipment to help the rebels get better organized.

That’s certainly a step forward, but it’s not as far as the U.S. and its allies should go. As Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told the New York Times:  “Our people are killed in the streets. If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.”

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Under the category of “better late than never” (but just barely): An international “Friends of Syria” group of nations agreed in Istanbul to step up aid, at least of the non-lethal sort, to the Syrian rebels. Gulf nations pledged $100 million to pay salaries to the anti-Assad fighters while the U.S. agreed to send communications equipment to help the rebels get better organized.

That’s certainly a step forward, but it’s not as far as the U.S. and its allies should go. As Molham Al Drobi, a member of the Syrian National Council, told the New York Times:  “Our people are killed in the streets. If the international community prefers not to do it themselves, they should at least help us doing it by giving us the green light, by providing us the arms, or anything else that needs to be done.”

He’s absolutely right. With more than 9,000 Syrians having already been slaughtered–and possibly far more–it is imperative that the international community do more to even the odds for the embattled rebel fighters by providing them with arms and ammunition. These need not be heavy weapons that could potentially threaten Israel or destabilize neighboring countries–AK-47s, RPGs, and lots of ammunition will do. Otherwise, Bashar al-Assad will continue his homicidal campaign to stamp out the rebellion with the help of the Iranian regime–and prevent the U.S. from seizing a major opportunity to alter the balance of power in the Middle East against the ayatollahs.

 

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