Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Ari Shavit, Defining Chutzpah

In a new NYT op-ed, Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit does his level-best to throw a scare into everyone over Iran's nuclear ambitions.  The scenarios he lays out are scary.  If Iran gets the bomb, then countries around the whole world will buckle down to get their own nukes.  If Israel decides to bomb Iran (which, he says, will have to happen no later than this summer, after which point Iran's facilities will be "immune" to such bombing), then it will unleash a regional war, the spin-off from which many have predicted, but none can know for sure.

In either instance, as Shavit says, "the world will change."

Would that he had left it at that.  

Instead, Shavit closes his piece by rearing up, thrusting a big finger forward, pointing it at the West, and saying, in effect: If Israel has to do this horrble thing, has to bomb Iran, then the rest of the world - and the US in particular - has no one else to blame but itself.  

For a regional war in which Israel would have struck the first blow? Possibly thousands killed in Iran and beyond?  The world economy shoved to the edge, or even over it?  All because Israel feels "existentially" threatened by an Iran that - even Israel's own intelligence experts say - cannot be proved to be working on building a nuclear weapon, and even if it were, is still years away from achieving that?!

Israel is willing to incite a catastrophe, risk sending the lives of thousands of people down the tubes, on the basis of what Iran might do?  And then Israel will feel justified in turning around and telling the rest of us: "Hey, don't blame us.  You screwed yourselves"?!

How about this instead?

If Israel takes the foolish, destructive course of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities,

  • the United States and Europe should turn their backs on Mr. Netanyahu, distance themselves from his actions immediately and as far as possible, impose sanctions on the purchase of Israeli technology and products, and offer to rush humanitarian aid to the stricken people of Iran - many of whom may be suffering from radiation poisoning.
  • Sensible Israelis should understand that Netanyahu will have opened a Pandora's box that ensures that the nation of Israel will remain a pariah for the foreseeable future.  Israel will be able to expect neither friendship nor accommodation from the community of "civilized nations" of which it claims to be a member.
  • Sensible Israelis should further understand that Netanyahu's decision may indeed have made emigration from Israel the most prudent and life-affirming option for themselves and their children.  The consequences of such an unprovoked attack on Iran (which will take years to play out) will have earned Israel potentially millions more enemies (and not just among the Iranian people).  The likelihood of Israel ever achieving national security in such circumstances would be rendered next to nil.
  • Or . . . sensible Israelis should insist that their leaders immediately seek to re-create Israel into a secular, binational democratic state, in which Jews and Arabs alike share fully in the risks and rewards of trying to rebuild a viable future.  Along the way, they might insist that their leaders disclose and then proceed to dismantle Israel's nuclear arsenal.

Sound harsh, even drastic, Mr. Shavit?  Well, should what I've just outlined be the course of action that needs to be taken, well . . . Israel will have - truly - brought that on itself.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Demographic Revolution in the Middle East

Nicholas Eberstadt, at Foreign Policy.  Such developments are never as media-sexy as political turmoil and such, but the implications could be staggering.
The quiet revolution in fertility now unfolding across the Islamic world is (so to speak) pregnant with implications for the future: it portends a radical revision of population projections for many countries; an unexpectedly rapid aging of many now youthful societies; and a new outlook for economic development in societies whose accomplishments to date in this realm have so often been disappointing. But the fact that this hidden-in-plain-sight revolution has come as such a surprise should emphasize just how little we really understood about the societies beneath the frozen political autocracies that controlled so many Islamic populations over the past generation.
Indeed, the standard measures of development simply don't explain all the great demographic changes underway outside the mature, industrialized countries. In particular, proponents of purely material models of development are confronted by the awkward fact that the fertility decline over the past generation has been more rapid in the Arab states than virtually anywhere else on earth. Yet few people disagree that those same countries have exceptionally poor development records over the same period.
For over a generation, bien pensants in the international community have been sagely informing us that "development is the best pill." If this were really true, however, the great Middle Eastern fertility revolution could never have taken place. A new world is, quite literally, being born before our eye -- and we would all do well to pay much closer attention to its significance.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Mitt Romney Discovers Reagan - and the F Word

In his essay in today's WaPo (and so nicely timed for all the AIPACers who are in DC for their annual convention), Mitt Romney shows off his newly discovered F word.


As in, Jimmy Carter (of Iran hostage crisis fame) was the US's most "feckless" president ever; and now Barack Obama is proving equally "feckless" - says Mitt - in his dealings with (here's Mitt's second big F word) the "fanatic ayatollahs."

All of this behavior, Mitt tells us, to be stood in stark contrast to that of the formidably fearsome (oooohhhh - F words) Ronald Reagan, who in 1980 let those nasty ayatollahs know that he meant business - whereupon, minutes after Reagan's January 1981 inauguration, the now supposedly fearful uber-ayatollah Khomeini released the hostage Americans.

Thanks for that history lesson, Mitt.  But . . .

. . . why did you leave out the part about how several years later. Reagan, by then moving from fearsome and formidable to forgetful and fuzzy-brained, allowed his own helpers (later to be proven felonious) to make deals with the "fanatic ayatollahs" to sell them weapons for their war against our then fine friend, Saddam Hussein?  

You never heard of Iran-Contra, Mitt?  I mean, in all your contacts with Fox News, you never got to meet Ollie North?

Netanyahu's Shameful Holocaust Pandering

The imminence of war with Iran is all over today's reporting and analyses.  (See especially this long, in-depth report in Der Spiegel.)  But Haaretz features two pieces that highlight Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's shameful resort (again!) to the Iran=Nazi Germany trope.  Barak Ravid and Chemi Shalev report:
[Netanyahu] dismissed arguments that an attack on Iran would exact too heavy a toll by provoking Iranian retaliation. He held up a copy of a 1944 letter from the U.S. War Department rejecting world Jewish leaders' entreaties to bomb the Auschwitz death camp because it would be "ineffective" and "might provoke even more vindictive action by the Germans."
Haaretz's editor-in-chief, Aluf Benn, assesses the implications and consequences of Netanyahu's approach: 

The Holocaust talk has but one meaning: they force Israel to go to war and strike the Iranians. The justifications against an attack, weighty as those may be, turn to fumes when put up against the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, and Treblinka. No calculus of missiles falling on Tel Aviv, rising oil prices and economic crisis can hold water when compared to genocide. If that's the situation, the option of sitting quietly, expecting the "world" to neutralize Iran, or of a stable balance of terror, becomes nonexistent. If Netanyahu doesn't act and Iran achieves nuclear weapons capabilities, he'll go down in history as a pathetic loud mouth. As a poor man's Churchill.
But Netanyahu booby-trapped himself back when he was still making his way to Washington, when he presented Iran with a public ultimatum: dismantle the underground enrichment facility near Qom, cease all enrichment activity, and remove the medium-grade uranium from Iranian territory. He realizes that the Iranian government will never agree to those terms, which seems more like setting up a casus belli that a reasonable diplomatic demand. But Netanyahu's Holocaust speech at the AIPAC conference went much further than that.
Obama asked Netanyahu to avoid inflammatory statements in regards to Iran, to keep gas prices down in America's gas station. It's an important issue when trying to rebuild the American economy as well as, of course, his reelection bid. And while Obama's thinking may seem reasonable, he's living in an entirely different world than that of Israel's prime minister. From the White House, Iran looks like a strategic problem, not as a Holocaust. Thus, time isn't of the essence, and diplomacy and sanctions should still be given a chance. Netanyahu is motivated by other things.
It's possible to detect enough loopholes that would allow Netanyahu to escape an imminent decision to go to war. Netanyahu has a political interest to aid his Republican friends against Obama, so his statement that "there wasn't a decision to attack" seems more like an attempt to stir things up ahead of the U.S. presidential elections than a command to Israel Air Force units. There are those who believe he's just a second-guessing coward who would never take it upon himself to initiate a war. It could be that all those interpretations are true. Nevertheless, Netanyahu took on a public obligation on Monday that would make it very hard for him to back away from the path of war with Iran.
No mainstream American commentator could have published an analysis such as Benn's without risking instant anathematizing as an anti-Semite from points all across the US political and social spectrum.  That's a shame, because comparing the so-called "existential threat" from Iran to history's most horrific human atrocity is something for which Netanyahu deserves to be castigated.  It cheapens the memory and impact of the Shoah.  It also nudges the world closer to a conflict the consequences of which could potentially include more thousands of lives exterminated by IDF (and US?) bombs and missiles, and by Iranian retaliation.  
To invoke the memory of the 6 million killed by the Nazis in order to green-light a new slaughter goes beyond shameful.  The Israeli media seem able to raise that point.  Would that Americans could be so honest.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Can John McCain Play Chess?

On the Senate floor today, John McCain called for "foreign airstrikes" (I'm quoting from this morning's Foreign Policy advance notice of his speech) against Syria, ostensibly with the intention of carving out "safe havens" for humanitarian assistance and relief.  

"To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country.  The ultimate goal of airstrikes should be to establish and defend safe havens in Syria, especially in the north, in which opposition forces can organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance -- including weapons and ammunition, body armor and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army and other armed groups in Syria to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign partners."

"Increasingly, the question for U.S. policy is not whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. We can be confident that Syria's neighbors will do so eventually, if they have not already. Some kind of intervention will happen, with us or without us. So the real question for U.S. policy is whether we will participate in this next phase of the conflict in Syria, and thereby increase our ability to shape an outcome that is beneficial to the Syrian people, and to us. I believe we must."

It's difficult to fault a man for a desire to stop indiscriminate bloodshed.  In McCain's case, though, I'd wager that his motivations spring at least as much from his assertion that 

"If Assad manages to cling to power -- or even if he manages to sustain his slaughter for months to come, with all of the human and geopolitical costs that entails -- it would be a strategic and moral defeat for the United States. We cannot, we must not, allow this to happen."

Whatever his ultimate or ulterior motivations, I'd want to remind the senator (along with Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, the two other members of McCain's chest-thumper trio, who I'm sure will be heaping great praise on McCain's speech) of that shopworn yet tried-and-true "slippery slope" (a term that Stephen Walt recently applied to the Syria-intervention scenario).  I'd also ask him to learn to play chess - or, if he did know how to play that game once upon a time, summon up the kind of thinking  required to be successful . . . that is, planning several moves ahead, with an awareness that one's opponent has his own options, some of which might catch you out.

And, in this instance, senator, you're talking about chess in multiple dimensions, with many players.

On the other hand, this is the same John McCain who decreed that the US invasion and occupation in Iraq was a "victory."  The (at least) tens of thousands of Iraqis killed, maimed, and scarred - and the millions who became refugees - probably don't agree.  Sure, Saddam Hussein was eliminated.  But the cost, senator, the cost.

Now you want the US to step up and help eliminate Bashar al-Asad.  The cost, senator, the cost.

Perhaps McCain ought to consult one of his heroes, David Petraeus.  Petraeus might refer McCain to a question Petraeus asked during the Iraq campaign:

Tell me how this ends.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Scott Brown's Idiocy (and Elizabeth Warren's Cowardice) on the One-State Solution

Via Eric Kleefeld at TPM, a report that Massachusetts senator Scott Brown has come down harshly on Harvard University for sponsoring the upcoming (and, IMHO, much needed and long overdue) conference on the "one-state solution" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Utterly predictable, yet no less disturbing on that account, is Brown's statement that 
Academic elites need to understand that their ideas have real world consequences well beyond the comforts of the ivory tower, and the last thing Israel needs is Harvard legitimizing a terribly misguided idea.
May I note the following:
  • Brown's gratuitous references to academic "elites" and the "ivory tower" were undoubtedly calculated to chum the waters for right-wing media maneaters.  Rush Limbaugh in particular has used "elites" as a code for "hateful/egghead/pointy-headed liberals" for years.
  • The "ivory-tower" denizens who will be speaking at the conference - most prominent among them, Ilan Pappe and Stephen Walt - have already forgotten more about the realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Scott Brown will ever know.
  • Yes, Senator Brown, the entire point - and fervent hope - of the conference's organizers is that the conference will indeed have "real world consequences."  The "peace process" has become the longest-standing joke in the history of US foreign policy and public diplomacy.  But it has nonetheless resulted in significant "real world consequences": more Zionist "facts on the ground" - most recently in the form of West Bank "outposts", once deemed illegal, in which the Israeli government now quietly acquiesces.
The irony here is that while Scott Brown (and Abe Foxman, ever on the lookout for existential threats) are so eager to condemn a conference to discuss a one-state solution, the government of Israel has been pursuing its own version of a one-state solution for years: a Jewish state that would encompass all of the West Bank, and Jerusalem, once the settler movement has accomplished its mission.  Indeed, most well-informed observers (most of whom are indeed from the "academic elite") have known for quite a while that the "two-state solution" is dead. . . .
. . .  which is why I'm hugely disappointed that Elizabeth Warren, Brown's Democratic opponent for the Massachusetts senatorial election in November, responded to Brown's statements with an incredibly (but again, predictably, given the current biases in US politics) weak-kneed statement that, gosh, I wasn't even aware of the conference (in which case, she better hire some additional staff, or else start reading the papers), but anyway, I've always been in favor of a two-state solution.  Isn't it comforting to see that Ms. Warren is so engaged?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Where are Iranian Voices on Bomb-Iran Prospects?

Glenn Greenwald at Salon, on how the US mainstream media - with the NY Times as perhaps prime offender - gives the American public mostly the voices of Israeli leaders (or Israel's amen chorus in the US) on the bomb-Iran debate.  

What is missing from the debate are the views held not only by Iranian leaders but also large populations in numerous capitals and nations around the world: that Iran has the right to pursue its nuclear program; that it is Israel and the U.S. — not Iran — that poses the greatest threat to world peace; that American and Israeli aggression against non-nuclear states (along with their massive stockpile of nuclear weapons) is what makes it rational for a nation to want to proliferate, etc. One does not have to agree with any of those views to recognize how widely they are held in the world and how much of a place they (therefore) merit in the discussion.

If one searches hard enough, one can likely find American media accounts attempting to describe or present the views of Iran on this conflict or other nations which support it — just like NBC News can point to a single Iranian source among the tidal wave of American and Israeli government and military officials who brief its top executives and shape their understanding of the issue. But overwhelmingly, the American media continuously amplifies the views of American and Israeli officials while all but suppressing the views of those on the other side. For every one Iranian official Americans are permitted to hear from (and they are treated with extreme skepticism by American journalists), they hear from countless Israelis (who are treated with the utmost deference). 

Case in point: today's NYT piece from Ethan Bronner (thankfully, though much too late, departing as NYT bureau chief in Israel) on the tensions between Messrs Obama and Netanyahu as their meeting - and the AIPAC confrontation - approaches.  His sources?  Two former Israeli ambassadors to Washington, Abraham Foxman (Zionist supremo who has long reigned as Israel's chief US apologist), and John McCain.  Not a word from any expert with a point of view that might have some semblance of balance.

Another Syria Wake-up Call

From Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at Anthony Cordesman's ultra-realist CSIS, another wake-up call about the strength of Assad's support in Syria:

Underestimating the reservations of key groups that still support the Assad regime all but guarantees a protracted civil war that could divide Syria along sectarian lines and destabilize neighboring Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Already, its neighbors are experiencing spillover effects, including refugee flows, heightened Sunni-Alawite tension in northern Lebanon, pressure from Islamist opposition forces in Jordan and discord between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq over how to deal with the crisis in Syria.

Internal or external efforts to truly isolate, weaken or replace the regime are likely to fail unless real-world steps are taken to address the legitimate fears of key groups that still support Assad.

Read the entire piece here . . .

The Futility of a US Intervention in Syria - or Iran

I cannot recommend highly enough Gian Gentile's wake-up call posted at The National Interest, where he makes plain what people like Andrew Bacevich have been saying for years:

  • the US cannot fix every crisis (no matter how horrific) across the planet
  • when the US military is inserted into a situation like Iraq in 2003 (or, some would hope, Syria in 2012), it can do as much harm as help to the locals.

Gentile notes:

I am a serving soldier obedient to my political masters. If President Obama directs the military to intervene to protect the Syrian people by stopping the civil war, then that is exactly what we shall do. Yet it is also the responsibility of the American military to provide realistic advice on what that will actually entail—and what it will cost.

Halting the civil war will require a generational effort and significant commitment of boots on the ground. I have been on the business end of an American military force placed in the middle of a civil war in a foreign land. In 2006, I commanded a combat battalion in western Baghdad in that most hellish year of Iraq's civil war between Sunni and Shia. Although my outfit's primary task was to "protect the Iraqi people," we invariably were forced to take sides.

There is much moral weight in "Responsibility to Protect" because the term implies that the foreign military force used to "protect" vulnerable civilians will be effective. Yet the hard hand of war does not always adhere to catchy, moralistic terms. Instead, when the United States applies military force to "protect," it takes part in the destruction, death and devastation of war. Thus the military ends up hurting the civilian population in the very process of trying to protect it. These kinds of interventions in civil wars are never as clean or clear as idealistic policy experts wish them to be.

If the civilian decision makers of United States decide to intervene in Syria to protect its population and end the civil war, the military will step up to the task. But policy experts should do so with a realistic sensibility of what an intervention will require: It won't be cheap. It won't be easy. It will take a very long time. And from the angle of U.S. national interests, it’s probably not worth the cost in American blood and treasure.


Mr. Obama would do well to have a copy of Gentile's essay on hand when Mr. Netanyahu comes calling on Monday.  And we can only hope that someone might pass along Gentile's counsel to McCain/Graham/Lieberman and all those worthies at AIPAC.  Sure sure -  I recognize that no one is calling for US boots on the ground in Iran.  But as Gentile asserts, when military operations begin, all the planning goes out the window.  As with a proposed Syrian intervention, an intervention in Iran will be fraught with blowback - dire consequences, hardly foreseen.

And as Robert Merry similarly makes plain (again, at The National Interest), an Israeli attack that draws in the US is likely to have very damaging consequences for the US-Israel "special relationship":

suppose the already war-weary American people were to find their country in a beleaguered situation—beset by economic woes wrought by a global recession; pulled into further Mideast hostilities that generated growing numbers of U.S. casualties without an end in sight; grappling with an enflamed Middle East that threatened to fray the global order at various points around the edges of its stability. And suppose all this could be attributed to an Israeli military action undertaken over the objections of the American president.


The result would be an entirely new political environment in America for the U.S.-Israeli relationship. When a Mearsheimer or a Friedman spoke up about the divergence of interests between the two countries, the Abramses and Rothmans and Tobins would not be responding with quite the same outrage and aggressiveness. Members of Congress would not be bestowing twenty-nine standing ovations upon Israeli leaders who had just insulted the American president; and, if they did, few indeed would buy the argument that those ovations reflected political sentiment across the country. For a majority of Americans, the idea of an ironclad convergence of national interests between Israel and the United States, in all times and all circumstances, would be seen as not only wrong but dangerously so.


Politics is driven by lesson-laden events. Mr. Netanyahu may want to ponder that reality as he decides whether to unleash such an event that could hit American interests—and the American consciousness—with a bitter force.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Obama's Upcoming Moment of Truth

Bibi's coming to town, and by some accounts, Barack is starting to pout.  And who can blame him?

Mr. Netanyahu arrives presently in Washington with a bone to pick.  Bibi evidently is infuriated by the US's insistence (delivered by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair, General Martin Dempsey) that Israel's ramped-up threat to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear installations is both premature and unhelpful.  

And the stage for a showdown is set.  The annual convention of AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby in the US, is about to begin.  Obama will be addressing the delegates on Sunday morning.  Netanyahu follows on Monday night, after a discussion with Obama slated for Monday morning.  Unless Obama caves to Netanyahu before Monday night, Bibi will surely challenge the US president to take a tougher line on military action against Iran.  Then, on Tuesday, come even more fireworks: the three top GOP presidential contenders (the honorable messrs. Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum) will be taking the rostrum, where they will most assuredly vie with each other to see who can (1) offer up to Bibi the most fulsome and sanctimonious praise and (2) trash Barack Hussein Obama as a weak-kneed Neville Chamberlain wanabee.  (Indeed, they likely will weigh in right on the heels of Bibi's speech.  Tuesday is also "Super-Tuesday" in the GOP-primary  process.)  

I highly recommend Tony Karon's reflections on all of this, especially his comment that with the US economy just maybe bouncing back, the Republicans are going to focus their firepower on Obama's handling of Iran and the "special relationship" with Israel.  And as TK also notes, Bibi's acolytes in the US Congress are already trying to force Obama's hand:
A non-binding “Sense of the Senate” resolution unveiled Wednesday by Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman on behalf of a bipartisan group of 32 senators is explicitly designed to limit the Administration’s scope for compromise in any negotiating process, and to press for a more bellicose policy. The senators insist Obama draw the red line at Iran acquiring “nuclear weapons capability” rather than initiating the construction of weapons, and it “rejects any United States policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons-capable Iran.”
AIPAC delegates are expected on Tuesday to fan out across Capitol Hill to press their senators and representatives to back the resolution.
Twelve of those Senators had earlier written to Obama warning him against allowing any relaxation of sanctions in response to any Iranian concession “less than full, verifiable, and sustained suspension of all enrichment activities, including both 3 percent and 20 percent enrichment. The time for confidence-building measures is over.”

But Karon also notes that any possible diplomatic progress in this crisis will need to be predicated upon such confidence-building measures.  So, short of a complete capitulation by Iran, the only remaining course of action that the good senators seem to want to leave Obama is war against Iran.  Indeed, The Guardian reported:

Senator Joe Lieberman, one of the sponsors of the resolution, said it is intended "to say clearly and resolutely to Iran: You have only two choices – peacefully negotiate to end your nuclear program or expect a military strike to end that program."
Critics of the resolution said that it smacks of a congressional authorization for an attack on Iran. That view was reinforced when the sponsors declined a request from some Democrats to amend it to clarify that the resolution did not imply consent for war.

The manifold dangers of starting a war with Iran have been laid out fully and meticulously by a ton of experts, for months.  (And, by the way, please discount today's NYT op-ed from IAF general Amos Yadlin on how attacking Iran's nuclear facilities would likely terminate its nuclear program.  Stephen Walt does a superb job of trashing Yadlin's argument, and the fallacies on which it's built - and Walt does us a further service by enjoining the NYT's op-ed board to vet submissions more rigorously.  Of course, given that Netanyahu only weeks ago dissed the NYT, maybe they want to make nicer with Bibi?  In any event, shame on them.)  As the NYT reports, the growing fear that war may be unavoidable has already begun to nudge US gasoline prices upward.  An actual outbreak of hostilities could easily send gas prices here to $5 per gallon, potentially halting the baby-stepping  economic recovery in its tracks and most certainly enraging the Fox News-watching/Limbaugh-listening/Silverado-driving Mr and Mrs Joe Sixpacks across the USA.  And you can be sure that Fox-Limbaugh will find a way to lay blame for those skyrocketing gas prices, not on the AIPAC/GOP bomb-Iran alliance that brought them a new war, but on the shoulders of Barack Obama. . . .

IF Mr. Obama buckles under all of the pressure.  The next several days may tell us a lot about how imminent (or not) war with Iran may be, and how willing Obama is - or is not - to imperil America's economy, and what's left of its global standing, for the sake of his election prospects.


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