The potential for an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities may be a lot greater than skeptics may have thought. That’s the upshot of a story published yesterday in Foreign Policy that alleges Azerbaijan has granted the Israelis access to airbases in that country. If true, Israel’s ability to launch a strike from bases on Iran’s northern border would make the Jewish state’s military challenge in seeking to knock out Iran’s nuclear plants a lot simpler. The assistance of the Azeris would enable the Israelis to make repeated attacks and would eliminate the need to refuel their planes in midair in order to make the long flight from Israel to Iran.
Yet at the same time, a report in Ha’aretz insists that Tuesday’s announcement by the U.S. Defense Department that it would ask Congress for more money for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system ensures there will be no attack on Iran before the presidential election this year. While that assumption may be unfounded, along with similar speculation that followed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama earlier this month, it leaves open the possibility that Israel is heeding U.S. requests to hold off an attack. The question for Iran is, which of these stories do you believe?
On that score, there’s no question that Iran must regard the decision of the Azeris to assist an Israeli strike as being a mortal threat to their ability to defend themselves. Prior to this, all discussion of a possible Israeli strike had been tempered by the knowledge that their ability to attack Iran was severely limited by the vast distance between the two countries. When compared to the ability of the United States to project airpower from carriers stationed in the Persian Gulf as well as other bases in the Middle East, it made an Israeli attack on Iran look like a poor substitute for U.S. action. But bases in Azerbaijan completely transform the military equation between Israel and Iran. They remove the need for the Israeli Air Force to refuel planes in midair in order to secure their safe return. Support staff stationed along Iran’s northern border would also make it easier for IAF to execute repeated sorties on nuclear targets and facilitate the rescue of downed planes and pilots. The bases would vastly increase the likelihood that an Israeli air campaign against Iran would achieve a high degree of success and lower the potential for losses.
From Iran’s point of view, this is a total disaster. While they have always known they stood no chance of mounting an effective defense against a massive U.S. air campaign on their nuclear plants, an Israeli attack from 2,200 miles away did not seem as formidable a challenge. The Azeri factor does not quite put the Israeli military on a par with that of the United States but it does act as a multiplying factor with regard to Israel’s ability to launch repeated strikes.
Though the Haaretz report that spoke of Israel’s plans to attack Iran as being put on hold until next spring may encourage Tehran, the fact that the sources for the Azeri story in Foreign Policy appear to be senior U.S. military and diplomatic figures shows the Obama administration is by no means certain Netanyahu can be counted on to hold his fire until after the president is safely re-elected. The American motive for leaking the story is clear. By making public the fact that the Azeris have more or less been bribed by Israel to give them access to bases that will enable them to easily attack Iran, the United States may be hoping to accomplish two things.
One is to scare the Iranians into finally waving the white flag on its nuclear project. The story ought to make it clear to the ayatollahs there is no way they can protect themselves from either Israel or the United States if push comes to shove. The odds of the Iranians coming to their senses in this manner are slim, but the administration is determined to do whatever it can to keep the window for diplomacy on the nuclear question open for as long as it can.
The second motive is to forestall any Israeli attack. Making public the Azeri role in the military plan might force the Jewish state’s Asian ally to back away from any involvement in the project.
Whether the revelation will actually deter Israel from acting should Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak determine it is in their country’s interest to strike prior to November is still to be determined. The belief that the extra money for Iron Dome guarantees Israel won’t attack Iran this year is based on the assumption that Obama and Netanyahu came to some agreement on the issue when they met in early March. The Iranians must certainly hope this is the case. But the one thing we know today that we didn’t a few weeks ago is that Israel’s hand in this game of nuclear poker is far stronger than most people thought.
Azeris Strengthen Israel’s Hand on Iran
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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.
Podcast: The Trump presser and Bannon's bizarre interview.
In the second of this week’s COMMENTARY podcasts, the hosts try to wrap their heads around a series of events that defy logic. Why would Donald Trump try to rehabilitate people who align themselves with torch-lit rally-goers chanting racist slogans? Why would the left go to the mattresses to defend their own violent elements? And what the heck is Steve Bannon thinking in general? And does the country now share our crushing morosity? Give a listen and find out.
Don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes.
The State Department on Tuesday released its annual International Religious Freedom Report, and the grim upshot was that people of faith face persecution around the globe. This year’s report, the first under President Trump, called out usual suspects such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia. It also notably used the “G” word–genocide–to describe Islamic State’s crimes against Christians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities in Syria and Iraq.
Authoritarian regimes and jihadists aren’t the only ones who mete out anti-religious repression these days. Nominally free societies, particularly in Europe, are increasingly guilty of it as well. Yet because it is less visible, carried out by governments with impeccable liberal credentials, such persecution receives far less attention, including in the State report.
Consider tiny Belgium, which has been roiling with controversy this month over whether Catholic hospitals can be required to permit euthanasia on their premises. Belgium’s pro-euthanasia lobby and its political and media allies seek to bring to heel the country’s last bastion of opposition, the Roman Church.
Belgium legalized the practice in 2002. Proponents had vowed that it would only be applied in very few terminal cases. But since then, the number of patients who have been euthanized has steadily grown (some 13,000 so far). So has the list of conditions that qualify. Now dementia, chronic depression, and various other forms of mental or behavioral anguish can get you an appointment with the country’s busy and prosperous Dr. Deaths. In the 2014-15 reporting period, 15 percent of cases were nonterminal.
Typical of today’s aggressive liberalism, it wasn’t enough to have legalized euthanasia and expanded it to once-unimaginable situations, such as a patient who was dissatisfied with the results of a sex change. No, even euthanasia’s most ardent opponents must love euthanasia.
Proponents set their sights on the Brothers of Charity. The Catholic medical order runs psychiatric hospitals worldwide, 15 of them in Belgium, where it was founded in the early 19th Century.
When euthanasia was first legalized, the Brothers assumed their consciences would be safe. As Brother René Stockman, the order’s superior-general in Rome, told me in a phone interview last week: “We had always maintained that the Brothers of Charity, as part of our charism and calling, would accompany the mentally ill and seek to heal them, but never perform euthanasia, because we also want our services to be in line with Catholic teaching. And when euthanasia got going in Belgium, there was at first no talk of euthanatizing the mentally ill.”
But pro-euthanasia pressure mounted. It began with a civil ruling last year against a Catholic nursing home that had refused to permit doctors to euthanize a 74-year-old resident. The woman’s adult children sued, and a court in Louvain ordered the home to pay €6,000 in fines and damages.
Then, early this year, the board of the Belgian Brothers issued a statement authorizing physicians to euthanize non-terminal, mentally ill patients on the order’s premises. The statement asserted that euthanasia is a routine medical procedure, and that patient autonomy and the protection of life are equally important values–in direct violation of the Catholic view, which is that the protection of life at all stages is absolute.
Shamefully, three religious on the board apparently went along with the majority-lay trustees. Br. Stockman told me he suspects the three religious “are overwhelmed by the lay members as well as the professional staff.” The Belgian Brothers declined to comment.
Br. Stockman in the spring appealed to the Belgian bishops and to some of the Church’s highest authorities in Rome. Last week, Pope Francis intervened, ordering the Belgian chapter to stop offering euthanasia. The Belgian Brothers have until the end of August to comply.
The response from the political class so far has been to blow a Belgian raspberry at the supreme pontiff. One of the lay trustees, former Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy, on Monday tweeted that “the time of Roma locuta causa finita is long past.” The Latin phrase, attributed to St. Augustine, means: “Rome has spoken; the cause is finished.”
If Van Rompuy is right, it would call into question the ability of any global religious organization to set policy for its various national chapters–a grave setback for international religious freedom. It would also be a tragedy for the 5,000 mentally ill patients the Brothers serve in Belgium. As Br. Stockman told me, refusal to comply would cast doubt on the future of the Brothers’ operations in Belgium: “Do we have the capacity, in Belgium, where we can still offer our charism and our vision? Because we are facing severe secularization in Belgium.”
He added: “In 1815 we broke the chains of the mentally ill, who up to that point were literally imprisoned. We were liberators. Now we see that our child is going in a way that is not in line with the parents.”
When dealing with religious persecution in the West, it is easy to count incidents of physical violence: a Jewish cemetery desecrated here, a hijabi woman harassed there, and so on. The State Department and various NGOs do such work with admirable meticulousness. Yet it is much harder to document when, in the name of secularity, entire societies and political classes declare war on private conscience and religious liberty.
What Trump supporters heard on Tuesday.
When the president of the United States passed on his third opportunity to condemn unequivocally and without caveats Nazi sympathizers marching in his name, John Podhoretz dubbed it “one of the most disheartening facts of my lifetime.” This gut wrenching display of wounded, bitter petulance turned the stomachs of observers on all sides of the political aisle, and it has catalyzed the most concerted backlash to Trump among Republican lawmakers since the “Access Hollywood” tape. For cynical Trump critics, though, this is all posturing. They await deliverance from the age of Trump. They know that hinges on GOP lawmakers turning on their own president—an extraordinary prospect—and that won’t happen until Republican voters have had enough. The cynics are right. This will not break Trump’s base.
It turns out Trump felt compelled to revisit the comments he made on Monday because they were delivered under duress. Trump ignited a controversy on Saturday when, in the aftermath of murderous violence in Charlottesville, he went off script and condemned violence “on many sides.” According to White House officials who spoke with the New York Times, Trump was frustrated by having to clean up that mess with a canned statement. On Tuesday, he went against their advice by articulating sentiments he had “long expressed in private.”
What the political class on both sides of the aisle heard him say from that podium in Trump Tower was appalling. They watched a visibly agitated Trump fail to make a distinction between a march in which both neo-Nazi demonstrators and counter-demonstrators clashed and a white supremacist attacked peaceful protesters blocks away from the skirmishes. They saw him invest emotionally in the notion that “the alt-left”—a term that, unlike the “alt-right,” no group embraces and has no universally understood meaning—was as guilty as anyone. They heard him defend the people who attended a torch-lit march in which demonstrators rallied around a statue of Robert E. Lee throwing Hitler salutes and chanting “Jews will not replace us.”
For those observers, the spectacle was nauseating. Bound up in ego and without any appreciation for posterity or comity, Trump had taken a sledgehammer to the fragile racial consensus ironed out in America over centuries of conflict. But that’s not what the president’s supporters heard. Even some who have little love for Trump but resent his liberal and media opponents heard something entirely different.
“The night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Trump insisted. “I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
Who is to say whether that’s true or not? Sure, it seems unlikely that someone who is not a white supremacist would find him or herself in the middle of a crowd of neo-Nazis and go with the flow. But that sentiment is certainly true of America at large. Millions of Americans who are not neo-Confederate sympathizers are nevertheless alarmed by the tearing down of landmarks they’ve known all their lives, especially when that’s not the result of political consensus but the work of frenzied swarms of revisionist youth. They might not have even seen the torch-lit rally because it wasn’t featured in media they consume. They are not racist and they reject violence, but they do resent the pace of cultural change. Trump might as well have been talking about them. So, to them, Trump was right.
Trump later insisted that those protesting the removal of the statue—a pretext only later embraced by alt-right protesters but not the impetus for the “Unite the Right” gathering—had a point. “I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down,” Trump noticed. “I wonder, is it George Washington next week? And is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?”
Trump supporters didn’t hear the president equate a traitorous religious zealot who fought in defense of slavery with both the nation’s first patrician president and the author of the most powerful classically liberal document the world had ever seen. They heard an old argument, one that has been articulated by Republicans since Democrats began purging Jefferson and Andrew Jackson from their collective histories—that there is no limiting principle to the idea that antebellum slaveholders must be expunged from our public squares. So, to them, Trump was right.
“You are changing history, you’re changing culture,” Trump insisted. “You had people, and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.” There! Trump condemned the Nazis. What more do you want? And there were counter-demonstrators in “black outfits and with the helmets and with the baseball bats” who were amendable to being provoked into a fight with their racist counterparts. Even the New York Times reporter on the scene admitted to witnessing “club-wielding ‘Antifa beating white nationalists.” So, on that point, Trump was right.
Perhaps in their hearts, these Trump supporters know that the president has given succor to the worst fringes of American society and likely swollen their ranks as a result. But the collective response to Trump’s press conference yesterday on the part of the political class will likely only render the impulse to rally around the president more justified and urgent.
Writing in Business Insider, Josh Barro postulated that Trump’s “many sides” comment on Saturday amounted to a Hillary Clinton-like “deplorables” moment. He speculated that, by evincing caution when faced with the prospect of denouncing his most racist supporters, Trump lumped the more respectable members of his base in with an ugly crowd and they wouldn’t appreciate it. But people possess an infinite capacity for rationalization. In this case, it isn’t even a compromising task; if Trump is all that stands between them and the forces of violence, un-American revisionism, and socialism, a little sloppy messaging on white supremacy is a tolerable compromise.
Republican base voters are not budging and so, no matter their personal sentiments, their elected representatives are obliged to stay put as well.