Never before in recent history has the United States faced a country that has so persistently sought to kill Americans or attack Americans only to avoid consequences after every outrage. It’s not just a matter of:
- The 1979-1981 hostage situation.
- Assassinating an Iranian dissident in suburban Washington, DC.
- The 1983 Marine Barracks bombing.
- Seizing American hostages in Lebanon.
- The 1996 Khobar Towers attacks.
- The facilitation of transport for the 9/11 hijackers to and from Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan.
- Sheltering of senior al-Qaeda leaders post-9/11.
- Smuggling of explosively-formed projectiles into Iraq and weaponry to the Taliban to kill Americans.
- Plotting to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC.
- Seizing, holding for years, and then ransoming a number of Iranian-Americans for years and continuing to hold former FBI agent Robert Levinson, left behind by the Obama administration in its rush to conclude a nuclear deal.
For none of the listed events has anyone in Iran faced any consequence. Rather, the problem is broader: There is a consistent and bizarre effort to whitewash Iranian excesses and to depict not the reality of the Islamic today, but rather a fictional and imaginary Iran.
Consider for a moment supposed U.S.-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan. Did that herald a new beginning scuttled by George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech as former diplomat James Dobbins suggested? Let’s put aside the idea that a regime which leads “Death to America” chants on a weekly basis has such a thin skin that it can’t deal with one line of criticism in a single speech. What Dobbins ignored was what Bush knew: Iran has built a then still covert and illicit enrichment facility at Natanz and was smuggling 50 tons of weaponry to Palestinian terrorists onboard the Karine-A. At best, Dobbins was guilty of being a single blind man describing the trunk of an elephant, not recognizing the rest of the beast was submerged in excrement. At worst, he was describing an imaginary Iran and castigating anyone else who did not fall victim to the same illusion.
Then, of course, there was the furious back-pedaling in the policy world and commentariat regarding Iran’s threats to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. The problem, of course, was that Iran’s own official translation — and numerous banners since then — repeated the threat in both English and Persian. Nevertheless, today numerous policymakers and proponents of the Iran deal simply deny what Iranian officials said and meant, ascribe to Iranian leaders a falsehood, and predicate policy on that kinder, gentler Iran.
There’s then the issue of the supposed 2003 “Grand Bargain” offer spread by Trita Parsi, Iran’s de facto lobbyist in Washington. The story was false on its face and, at the time Parsi spread the story, he knew it was false — the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations had emailed him as much. Nevertheless, he hooked a number of credulous reporters and now-Secretary of State John Kerry onto the conspiracy theory. To this day, it is amazing that, given decades of knowledge about Iran’s negotiating behavior, any serious journalist or politician could have for a second believed that Iran would offer to resolve everything with the snap of the fingers on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s right hand.
What about the promise of Iran’s youth? It is a common trope. The problem is, Iran actually has an aging population. The birthrate in the Islamic Republic is half of what it was in the 1980s, and the growth rate is not much greater than that of the United States once illegal immigration into the United States is included. Indeed, in recent years, the aging population has been a source of worry to Khamenei and the subject of several speeches, although the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has taken comfort in the fact that an aging population will be easier to control. In imaginary Iran, however, there is a burgeoning youth who want nothing more than McDonalds and apple pie.
What about Iran’s reformists? Let’s put aside that the Guardian Council has, in some elections, eliminated more than 99 percent of candidates and so those labelled reformists are actually in the top one percent of regime loyalists. What do the reformists believe? While former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became infamous for denying the Holocaust, his predecessor and “Dialogue of Civilizations” promoter Mohammad Khatami also promoted Holocaust denial. Maybe he was a kinder, gentler sort of Holocaust denier and revisionists, but sponsoring religious hatred with a smile shouldn’t make it any less odious.
What about elections? A whole series of American officials — Strobe Talbott, Richard Armitage, Colin Powell, John Kerry, among others — have at one point or another suggested Iran was a democracy. Let’s put aside the fact that only certain bodies come up to a popular vote and that sovereignty in Iran comes from God to the Supreme Leader, and not from the bottom up. Do those elections which occur matter? Not on the issues which concern U.S. policy most: Iran’s covert nuclear program was constructed during a period of supposed reformist control, and the Supreme National Security Council chair who oversaw the project was none other than Hassan Rouhani, the current president. But there’s also the logical flaw: If reformist election victories represent the will of the Iranian people, then what do the hardline election victories mean which, not by coincidence, intersperse the reformist victories? Again, it’s an imaginary Iran where elections represent the public will and matter only when they conform to the fantasies of ambitious American and Western diplomats.
But what about the journalists who cover such elections? Firstly, what few journalists will acknowledge publicly though many will admit privately is that they go where their minders allow them to go. Look at the backdrop to any Christiane Amanpour report from Iran and it’s likely to be affluent and relatively liberal northern Tehran or central Tehran. Seldom are reporters allowed to go (or bother to go) to Western Tehran, where many of the IRGC veterans and their families reside in housing projects, or to the slums south of Tehran, like Islamshahr, which often make up for in religious fervor and anti-Western sentiment what they lack in overseas bank accounts.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of religious minorities. How many journalists and academics have repeated the talking point that Iran has the second largest Jewish population in the Middle East (often cited as 20,000) as if that means all is well? Here’s the problem: Firstly, that ignores the exodus of 100,000 from the time of the Islamic Revolution. To only lose 84 percent of one’s population isn’t a good thing. To suggest that the Islamic State hosts the second-largest population of Yezidis should comfort no one. Then, there’s the issue that the 20,000 figure has been frozen in time for more than two decades. Today, the true number is closer to 8,000, Iranian Jews say. That journalists and academics are so willing to take Iranian government numbers at face value be they over the number of Jews, voter turn-out, or the number of executions is troubling. It’s almost as if there’s one set of journalistic standards and credulousness for Iran and another more rigorous set for the rest of the world.
Make no mistake. The Iranian people and the Islamic Republic are not one and the same, although President Obama’s contribution to U.S. rhetoric to Iran was to conflate the two. To criticize the Islamic Republic is not to castigate the Iranian people. And it is also true that most Iranians are far more moderate and cosmopolitan than their government. The sad fact is, however, that in dictatorships it is the guys with the guns who construct policy and not those whom they repress. Increasingly, whether out of naiveté, political correctness, agenda journalism, or effective Iran lobbyists to whom truth is only a secondary or tertiary concern, American officials see only the Iranian people and not their repressors.
It is one thing to try to craft policy to achieve what today is only an imaginary Iran — a normal state that seeks to join productively the community of nations — but another thing to gear policy to it as if that normal state already exists. Alas, until the White House, State Department, and Pentagon calibrate policy to the reality of the Islamic Republic’s ideological prerogatives, terror sponsorship, animosity toward the United States and incitement to genocide against Israel, the more likely it is that U.S. policy objectives will fail spectacularly and Iranian leaders will continue to pursue their aims successfully. Simply put, imaginary Iran is like the mythical siren luring sailors to their demise. No one in today’s world should so easily fooled.
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An imitation mastermind exits a make-believe position
The fact that Steve Bannon, ousted from his senior role at the Trump White House, was its “chief strategist” in the first place is testimony to how accidental this presidency was and is. Who would hire for such a job a person whose first serious involvement in American political life had come only a few years earlier when he found himself running a right-wing media website due to a tragic accident—and whose entire involvement in actual political events was limited to three late months on the Trump campaign? This is the sort of thing that, in a normal universe, might get someone a deputy assistant to the president post as a reward—not a personal fiefdom inside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Bannon is the greatest genius since Picasso. The fact is, Picasso had had art lessons before his Blue Period. Bannon took a central role in the White House with a knowledge base about the practical workings of politics gleaned entirely from books and newspapers. Trump the real-estate guy wouldn’t ever have hired a project manager who’d never so much as built a Lego tower before. In effect, that’s what he did with Bannon.
To be fair, no one really knows what a “strategist” is. The word’s common use can, I believe, be attributed to my friend Bill Kristol, who decided to call himself a “Republican strategist” when he had left the first Bush White House and was being sought to give good quote about the condition of the GOP in 1993 and 1994. From Bill’s clever innovation, a fancy-sounding title for a non-existent title perfect for a TV chyron became a national sensation.
Now the question is, what will the departure of this made-for-TV job mean for the Trump White House? My guess is: Not very much. Stephen Miller, who may be 30 years younger than Bannon but has about five times the political experience, is still in there fighting for what is essentially the Bannon worldview. Trump’s entirely personal decision to lean toward the alt-Right in the past week is an indication that the conservative fear he might move leftward is ridiculous. Trump is gonna dance with the one who brung him here; he thinks he owes those guys.
So basically what I’m saying is: The Bannon subplot is over. Time for the rise of a new White House figure to serve the subject of the next “he’s the real president” newsmagazine cover story.
A long time coming.
The horrific series of events in Barcelona is yet another macabre example of what is starting to feel like Europe’s new normal. This is the era of frequent, low-tech, mass casualty Jihadist attacks, in which any ideologically driven fanatic can jump in a van or pick up a knife and inflict carnage on the streets of our cities. The former head of Mi5, Lord Evans, has predicted that the battle against this form of terrorism is likely to last for a generation.
Yet there is a certain added grotesque irony to the attacks in Barcelona. This current wave of Islamist terrorism, the so-called leaderless Jihad, has its origins in Spain. When that van sped through Barcelona’s iconic Las Rambles, plowing down innocent pedestrians, the latest incarnation of Jihadism was coming home to roost.
This kind of terrorism, increasingly familiar across Europe, was, in fact, masterminded by a Spaniard. A veteran Jihadist called Abu Musab al-Suri. Formerly part of al-Qaeda, he is understood to have parted with Osama Bin Laden. In 2005, he published what would turn out to be a hugely significant text: “the Global Islamic Resistance Call.” It would be some years before western countries would feel the full effect of the strategy outlined in this document, but it is precisely the tactics developed by al-Suri that have gone on to form the basis of Islamic State strategy and the strategy for the IS inspired attacks that we are now seeing in the West.
Abu Musab al-Suri has had a decades’ long involvement in modern Jihadism, and particularly with Islamist terrorism in Spain. The Spanish authorities have wanted al-Suri since 2003, for his role in establishing the country’s first al-Qaeda cell in the mid-1990s. However, Al Suri’s role in terrorism in Spain goes back to well before this. Spain also wants al-Suri in connection to the 1985 Madrid bombing by the Islamic Jihad Organization, in which a restaurant frequented by US servicemen was blown up leaving 18 people dead. But it is also believed that he may have had a connection to the far more devastating 2004 Madrid train bombing, which killed 191 people.
Al-Suri’s jihadism took him to several conflict zones, including Afghanistan. But his most significant role has been as an ideological mastermind. During the 1990s he spent a stint living in London. From there he was editor of al-Ansar, one of the most important Jihadist magazines the time. His writings would also later be published in al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. It has even been suggested that al-Suri was ideologically connected to the 7/7 bombings, given that his writings had specifically encouraged the targeting of the London Underground.
By 2005, however, it seems that al-Suri had become disillusioned with al-Qaeda’s strategy. Its rigid, top-down structure and highly-organized, sophisticated attacks had brought about neither the desired awakening among Muslims nor the Islamist revolution the Jihadists had hoped for. In 2005, al-Suri released his “Global Islamic Resistance Call” onto the internet. Envisaging a leaderless Jihad, in which individuals or small cells would form their own organic and independent plots, they would avoid detection by not linking to a large structured network and instead used the internet to spread ideology and tactics. Crucially, al-Suri’s Jihadist manifesto stresses the importance of ultimately capturing territory to establish an Islamic state. This obscure Spanish extremist had set in motion events that would bring about the wave of terrorism being suffered today.
Al-Qaeda had hoped to function as a vanguard for triggering a much larger Islamist insurgency. But it was the rise of Islamic State in Syria that would eventually turbo charge the vision laid out by al-Suri. Between 2014 and 2016, Islamic State’s prolific spokesman, Mohammed Adnani put out a series of messages to Muslims living in the West, increasingly calling on them not to travel to the Middle East, but to instead carry out attacks in the West using whatever they had available to them; a knife, a car, poison, even a rock if need be. And Adnani told adherents in the West not to wait for instructions, but to take their own initiative and to target civilians. Like al-Suri, IS believe that through attacking civilians in the West, they can eventually bring about a clash in Europe that will rally European Muslims behind them.
In Barcelona, as with the recent vehicular attacks in London and Paris, we are witnessing the adherents of this strategy attempting to get their deranged, but terribly dangerous, plan off the ground. And in a chillingly ironic way, via al-Suri, it is a strategy that traces some of its origins back to Spain. European authorities are now engaged in struggle of trying to prevent any more of al-Suri’s vision from coming to fruition. But as the former head of Mi5 has warned us, it is a generational task we now face, and there can be little doubt that Europe is now caught up amid a new era of Jihad.
Terrorists in the wind.
While there was still blood on the streets, attackers on the loose, and victims of the terrorist event in Barcelona who had not yet succumbed to their ultimately fatal wounds, President Donald Trump went public with his half-baked thoughts on the matter. As is so often the case, those thoughts were crude and callous—implying, as he had on the campaign trail, that an apocryphal tale involving the defilement of Muslim corpses is illustrative of practices America should embrace. Political observers were fixated on those comments, not on the attack or its aftermath, as they should have been. It was, in truth, fans of the president who ignored the fact that Trump’s first impulse amid an ongoing terrorist attack was barbarous who don’t have their priorities straight.
Once the shock of the president’s comments had abated, though, it was incumbent on the country to do what the president did not: turn their attentions to Spain. 14 people are dead today. Over 80 are injured. Many nationalities are represented among the fatalities, including one American, as the terrorists targeted a popular tourist boulevard.
This was no low-tech event conducted by lone wolves. Hours after the attack in Barcelona, police in the city of Cambrils 70 miles south of Barcelona tracked down terrorists preparing to mount a companion attack. Four suspects were killed in the ensuing gunbattle with a fifth dying in hospital.
All told, 130 people were injured as a result of these attacks, 17 of whom are in critical condition.
Those would-be terrorists were wearing explosive belts that turned out to be fake, but that is only a stroke of good luck. On Wednesday night, hours before the van attack in Barcelona, a bomb went off in a house in the city’s southwest suburbs. One was killed in the process of making improvised explosives, which, had they been successful, would doubtlessly have been used in this coordinated set of attacks.
“As you look at the chronology, this was a fairly large cell, had to have been in place for a while — pretty good planning,” said George W. Bush administration homeland security advisor Fran Townsend. “If these guys had successfully executed on the explosives you can imagine instead of just – I don’t want to minimize it – using the car as the weapon, imagine if the car had exploded.”
This attack represents the first successful mass casualty terrorist event in Europe claimed by ISIS since the de-facto capital of the Islamic State, Raqqa, began to fall into the hands of liberating forces. As of last week, 50 percent of the city had been retaken by coalition forces. The beating back of ISIS from the strongholds in Iraq and Syria it once occupied has compelled the terror group to change tactics. They’ve advised would-be recruits to stop making the effort to come to the Middle East and to try instead to execute terrorist attacks in their home countries. ISIS leaders have been preparing to transition the organization into a more traditional terrorist group along the lines of al-Qaeda as the territory it controls shrinks.
ISIS-led operations in the West will become more urgent as ISIS’s “caliphate” dissolves, and this deadly event in Spain is likely indicative of a forthcoming trend. The Spanish weren’t ready. If Donald Trump’s bloody revenge fantasies are any indication, he is not treating this threat with the sobriety it merits either.
The tipping point.
We are deterred.
That’s the only possible way to read the confessions of Donald Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who inexplicably vomited out a variety of compromising thoughts in an interview with an adversarial journalist at a liberal publication. The interview is packed with juicy tidbits, but the comment with the broadest policy implications is receiving the least amount of attention. In that interview, with The American Prospect’s Robert Kuttner, Bannon confessed that the administration’s rhetorical posture regarding a conflict with North Korea is utterly hollow.
“There’s no military solution,” Bannon said. “Forget it.”
“Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here,” he added. “[T]hey got us.”
So much for “fire” and “fury.”
Lay observers can be forgiven for thinking this concession amounts only to acknowledging reality. It’s not exactly a state secret that North Korea’s dug-in artillery positions on or near the 38th Parallel, just miles from the South Korean capital, represent a significant deterrent threat. At no point, however, did an administration official—much less one as close to the president as his chief strategist—suggest that this threat was sufficient to stay the commander-in-chief’s hand.
The president and a variety of administration officials have made a conscious effort to communicate (both to Pyongyang and to Western lawmakers) his willingness to entertain the prospect of a preventative first strike on a narrow set of North Korean targets. The risks of such strikes, ranging from provoking a limited or full-scale retaliatory response to environmental and collateral damage, are real. That might be bluster, but it serves a utilitarian purpose.
It is unclear that the United States will accept a nuclear North Korea with the reliable capacity to deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States. It’s not even clear that America will be able to live with a North Korea that can strike U.S. troop positions in South Korea and Japan, which could occur with almost no warning. Making Kim Jong-un’s regime understand that the U.S. will not tolerate a nuclear-capable North Korea creates an incentive to de-escalate and head back to the negotiating table—even if those are negotiations to which the U.S. and its allies are not party.
The prospect of a first strike might have been a bluff. If that was the strategy, however, it was one to which the U.S. had committed itself. It was not Steve Bannon’s role to undermine the president and force the United States to retrench from its current position.
Even though this approach is reckless, it makes sense if Bannon’s objective was to take the prospect of preventative warfare off the table. That notion falls apart when taking into account the ostensible purpose of Bannon’s call to Kuttner, who is a trade hawk and a friend to the complaints of labor union activists: to rag on China.
“We’re at economic war with China,” Bannon said. “On Korea, they’re just tapping us along. It’s just a sideshow.” He added that, on the present trajectory, there would be an “inflection point” from which America will not recover. In 25 or 30 years’ time, he said, it will be the People’s Republic and not the United States that is the world’s global hegemon. “[T]he economic war with China is everything,” Bannon averred.
This is some pretty blatant sabotage. If the United States lacks a military solution to the crisis on the Korean peninsula, it needs a diplomatic one. The only party that can execute that objective is China, and the Trump administration has been making admirable strides in convincing China to get off the sidelines. If Bannon had his way, it seems, all progress toward compelling Beijing to abandon the Kim regime would be done away with; and all because of one man’s obsession with a glorious Sino-American trade war.
This interview was grossly irresponsible. The kind of freelancing in which the president’s chief strategist engaged in has blown the treads off the administration’s existing strategy. This was not done in service to the president or the country, but to Steve Bannon and his fanatical commitment to isolationism and protectionism. He’s done his president and his country a disservice. Steve Bannon has to go.
An eternal hatred.
When Shabbat services concluded at Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA, last Saturday, Alan Zimmerman, president of the congregation, “advised congregants that it would be safer to leave the temple through the back entrance rather than through the front, and to please go in groups.”
That kind of advice would have been depressingly banal if it were given in Europe during the 19th and 20th Centuries. In 2017 America, the image of Jews quietly sneaking out of synagogue to avoid persecution is, for the moment, appropriately shocking. Only time will tell if Zimmerman’s instructions—and the actions that precipitated them—remain an anomaly.
That anti-Semitism is alive and well in our flourishing democracy should surprise no one. Far more important than learning the identities of every single neo-Nazi marcher is carefully analyzing how our society reacts to such hatred. Responses have been glaringly varied:
Prior to the rally, Congregation Beth Israel hired an armed security guard because, according to Zimmerman, “the police department refused to provide us with an officer during morning services.” Hindsight is always 20/20, but it takes an intensely blurred moral vision to overlook the fact that Nazis reserve a special hatred for the Jews.
Writing in the New York Times, Nathan Englander commented on what he sees as the long-lasting impact of Saturday’s march: “The children who witness a day like that, and a president like this, will not forget the fear and disrespect tailored to the black child, the Muslim child, the Jewish child.” I hope he’s right, but I fear he’s wrong.
In this country, too many Jews are complacent when they should be vigilant; comfortable when they should be cautious. Psychologically, it makes perfect sense—we seek safety and acceptance, so we delude ourselves into believing it exists where it, in fact, does not. The best example of this mentality is evident in Jews who insist on believing that those who despise Israel and Israelis can somehow still be advocates for Jews and Judaism.
Linda Sarsour, an anti-Israel darling of the left, tweeted about the rally: “Sending love to my Jewish siblings. I know watching Charlottesville [and] the anti-Semitism on display was horrifying. We [are] in this together.” While Sarsour has never marched past a synagogue chanting “Jews will not replace us,” she is opportunistic in her condemnations of violence against the Jewish people.
A rabid anti-Zionist, Sarsour went so far in April as to say she was “honored” to share a stage with Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted in 1970 for the role she played in a 1969 terrorist attack that killed two Hebrew University students. Liberal Jews should not be lulled into believing this woman is their friend.
When it comes to seeing imaginary friends, conservative Jews, too, have been lulled into believing untruths. It seems, though, that Trump’s response to Charlottesville may have finally shattered the rose-colored glasses.
The Republican Jewish Coalition “call[ed] upon President Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and antisemitism.”
The Rabbinical Council of America, an organization of Orthodox Rabbis, released a statement in which they “condemn[ed] any suggestion of moral equivalency between the White Supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and those who stood up to their repugnant messages and actions.”
Rabbi Elazar Muskin, RCA president said: “There is no moral comparison. Failure to unequivocally reject hatred and bias is a failing of moral leadership and fans the flames of intolerance and chauvinism.” He went on to explain that “as a rabbinic organization we prefer to address issues and not personalities,” but that “this situation rises above partisan politics and therefore we are taking the unusual approach to directly comment on the words of the President.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who prepared Ivanka for her conversion, told me on the phone: “I was very proud of my rabbinic organization [the RCA] that they spoke strongly, but respectfully, in making the points that had to be made.” Rabbi Lookstein is Rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kehiliath Jeshurun, the Modern Orthodox synagogue of which I am a member. Lookstein, along with Rabbis Chaim Steinmetz and Elie Weinstock, emailed the congregation, noting, “while we always avoid politics, we are deeply troubled by the moral equivalency and equivocation President Trump has offered in his response to this act of violence.”
Tomorrow, at sundown, Jews around the world will usher in the Sabbath. They’ll greet each other with the salutation “Shabbat Shalom”—Sabbath of peace. May it be so.