Tag Archives: Greg Scoblete

It All Comes Back To The Bush

Andrew Sullivan rounds up here, here and here

Jennifer Rubin:

The Obama administration needs to think long and hard about how it can convert its occasional rhetorical flourishes into concrete polices that can assist democracy advocates not only in Tunisia, but in Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere. If Obama wants to do some more productive “Muslim Outreach,” he should stop trying to ingratiate himself with despotic leaders and show that America is, and will continue to be, on the side of those yearning for freedom.

Recall when President George W. Bush talked about democracy taking hold in Iraq and then the region? Now Bush’s vision seems very prescient. Shouldn’t we all be in favor the freedom agenda? Criticized at the time as too Pollyannaish and too ambitious, Bush’s second inaugural address is worth reading again in full. This section is particularly apt:

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people. America’s belief in human dignity will guide our policies, yet rights must be more than the grudging concessions of dictators; they are secured by free dissent and the participation of the governed. In the long run, there is no justice without freedom, and there can be no human rights without human liberty.

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty–though this time in history, four decades defined by the swiftest advance of freedom ever seen, is an odd time for doubt. Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals. Eventually, the call of freedom comes to every mind and every soul. We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny because we do not accept the possibility of permanent slavery. Liberty will come to those who love it.

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Adam Serwer:

Rubin doesn’t even attempt to prove causation — eight years ago, the U.S. invaded Iraq, and last week there was an uprising in Tunisia. Ergo Bush deserves the credit. This is deeply paternalistic — in Rubin’s version of history, the Tunisians who faced down the security forces of an autocratic regime are practically bit players in their own political upheaval.

The point is not to make an actual argument, but to inject a political narrative that will retroactively vindicate the decision to go to war in Iraq, as though the American people would ever forget that the Bush administration justified that decision by manufacturing an imminent danger in the form of WMD that were never found.

“Democracy in the Muslim World” was not the primary reason given for invading Iraq, and even as a retroactive justification it remains weak. As Matt Duss pointed out last year, the RAND Corporation did a study concluding that “Iraq’s instability has become a convenient scarecrow neighboring regimes can use to delay political reform by asserting that democratization inevitably leads to insecurity.” But as Donald Rumsfeld might say, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so Rubin presses on:

One question that deserves further consideration: How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia? For now, the current administration had better get on the right side of history.

Perhaps the most bizarre of Republican foreign policy instincts is the belief that the President of the United States can force the foreign policy outcomes he desires through sheer force of will. This is what Matthew Yglesias has dubbed the “The Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics.”

Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor:

One question in Ms. Rubin’s column does have a clear answer however. “How much did the emergence of a democratic Iraq have to do with this popular revolt in Tunisia?” she asks.

Having covered Iraq and Egypt full time between 2003-2008, and having explored the question of whether the US invasion of Iraq would spur regional political change at length with academics, politicians, and average folks in and out of the region over a period of years (and talked to people in touch with current events in Tunisia the past few days) the answer to her question is clear: “Little to nothing.”

The sectarian bloodletting in Iraq, the insurgency, and the US role in combating it claimed tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, and Iraq remains unstable today. The regional view of the Iraq war was and is overwhelmingly negative, the model of Iraq something to be avoided at all costs. Before I read Rubin’s piece earlier today, Simon Hawkins, an anthropology professor at Franklin and Marshall, was kind enough to chat with me about Tunisian politics and history.

Hawkins, whose dissertation was about Tunisia, has been coming and going from the country since the late 1980s. He recounted (unprompted) how the word “democracy” had been given a bad name among many of the Tunisian youth (the same sorts who led the uprising against Ben Ali) because of the Iraq experience, “That’s democracy,” a group of Tunisian youths said to him in 2006 of Iraq. “No thanks.”

The Obama Administration’s policies towards the Arab world, largely focused on counterterrorism cooperation and avoiding pushing hard for political reform in autocracies like Egypt, are in fact an almost straight continuation of President Bush’s approach, particularly in his second term. It’s true that Bush made a ringing call for freedom in the Middle East a centerpiece of his inaugural address, but soon came up against the hard reality that close regional allies like Egypt, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia weren’t much interested in tolerating challenges to their rule.

After the Muslim Brotherhood tripled its share in Egypt’s parliament in one of the fairest (but still fraud marred) Egyptian elections in decades and the Islamist group Hamas swept free and fair Palestinian elections in 2006, the US took a big step back from Arab democracy promotion. That’s a situation that persists today.

More Rubin:

While those in Tunisia tell me there is no specific sign of an Islamist presence yet, it remains a real concern for those pressing for a secularized, democratic government.

One final note: while Muslim autocrats in the region have reason to worry, Elliott Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations makes a convincing case that regimes do not face the same threat of instability. In Jordan and Morocco, for example, the kings in those countries enjoy a “perceived legitimacy.”

Nevertheless, George W. Bush must be pleased to see the debate breakout over the best route to Middle East democracy. It was only a few years that the liberal elite assured us that Muslim self-rule was a fantasy.

Daniel Larison:

I don’t know about “the liberal elite,” but people opposed to the Bush administration’s illegal war in Iraq and ruinous “freedom agenda” actually argued that it would be extremely difficult to construct Western-style liberal democracies in countries that had no political tradition of representative or constitutional government. This is true. It is extremely difficult, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort and resources devoted to it, and it remains a foolish thing for the U.S. to pursue as a major foreign policy goal. What we also said was that it was outrageous and wrong to invade another country, trample on its sovereignty, wreck its infrastructure, and impoverish its people. What was even worse was to claim that we had liberated it, when we were actually handing it over to the tender mercies of sectarian militias and establishing what turned out to be a repressive government that often resorts to police-state tactics. In 2003, Muslim self-rule was already a reality in Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The fantasy was the idea that the U.S. could forcibly topple an authoritarian government and readily install a functioning liberal democratic government in Iraq, and that this would then lead to regional transformation. Except for the first part, none of this happened. So far, the Tunisians seem to be managing much better on their own than Iraq did under the tutelage of U.S. occupiers.

Greg Scoblete:

Rubin does raise a significant question, however, regarding U.S. policy towards Tunisia. It could be, as her source suggests, that there exists a wellspring of knowledgeable people in the U.S. federal government who understand Tunisian society and have a keen grasp of how to ensure that the country’s revolutionary tumult is channeled toward a stable, sustainable representative democracy (provided it’s not too Islamist, of course). If that is the case, telling whatever government does emerge “what we expect” makes some sense, as it presumes we know what we’re talking about.

If, however, we don’t actually know what’s best for Tunisian society going forward, outside of a general desire for it to have a representative and relatively liberal government, should we really be butting in?

More Rubin:

Now a final note: The left blogosphere seems to have wigged out over the suggestion that George W. Bush and the successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq has anything to do with all this. For starters, it is amusing to see that those voices, fresh from the smear on conservatives regarding the Arizona shooting, are now all about “causation.” But more seriously, had democracy failed in Iraq, had the country descended into chaos, and had Iraqis laboring for a secular, democratic Muslim country been killed and exiled, do we imagine this would have been good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere? Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong. And the notion that democratization and rebellion against despotic regimes do not spread regionally after a successful experiment is belied by history (e.g. Central America, Eastern Europe).

Larison responds:

Well, the country did descend into chaos, Iraqis laboring for a secular country were killed and exiled*, and that wasn’t good for the prospects of democracy elsewhere. These also happen to be the effects of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, which involved invading and devastating a country for bogus national security reasons and then trying to dress up the entire debacle as an experiment in democratization. The outward forms of democracy didn’t entirely fail in Iraq, but what those forms did was politicize ethnic and sectarian divisions and fuel years of inter-communal violence. Looking at the chaos unleashed by what war supporters kept insisting on calling “democracy,” nations throughout the region associated “democracy” with foreign occupation, civil strife, and constant violence. For that matter, there has been no “successful emergence of a secular, democratic Iraq.” There is an elected government with increasingly authoritarian and illiberal habits governed by sectarians pretending to be secular nationalists.

Rubin continues:

Recall that it was the left that said that democracy was alien to the Middle East. Bush was right; they were wrong.

No, Bush’s critics understood, usually better than his supporters, that Iran had some measure of constitutional and representative government before the Pahlavis, and Turkey has been gradually developing as a democratic republic since WWII. Opponents of the disastrous war and the “freedom agenda” said that democratic and representative government was alien to almost all Arab countries. Lebanon was and remains the exception. That was true. Maliki’s semi-dictatorship in Baghdad does little to change that assessment. Bush based his conviction that the U.S. should install democratic government in a predominantly Arab country on the general lack of such governments in Arab countries, which democratists concluded was a principal source of jihadism. To the extent that Bush and his allies were serious in wanting to democratize Arab countries, they were taking for granted that democratic government was alien to these countries, which is why the U.S. had to introduce it directly through active promotion. What Bush and his allies also said was that democratic government was part of a “single model of human progress,” and that therefore every society should be governed this way, and furthermore that every society was capable of governing itself this way. That was the far-fetched claim that most of Bush’s critics couldn’t accept, because it is nothing more than an ideological conviction.

Will at The League:

The analytical gymnastics Jennifer Rubin is forced to perform here to defend the invasion of Iraq are pretty impressive. If the Tunisian revolution spurs reform in neighboring countries, her line of reasoning goes, Iraq’s quasi-democratic political process must be having a similar effect in the region. I know little about the Middle East and less about Tunisia, but let me suggest one important distinction: If the “Jasmine Revolution” inspires emulation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, it will have something to do with the fact that Tunisia’s political upheaval was a genuinely organic, popular movement that isn’t perceived as the result of outside meddling. Whatever the merits of Iraq’s new government, it will never enjoy that type of currency in the region, which is why overblown claims about the positive regional consequences of our invasion remain so unpersuasive.

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Filed under Africa, Foreign Affairs, Iraq

Barack, Bibi, And The Bomber Boys

Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic:

It is possible that at some point in the next 12 months, the imposition of devastating economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran will persuade its leaders to cease their pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is also possible that Iran’s reform-minded Green Movement will somehow replace the mullah-led regime, or at least discover the means to temper the regime’s ideological extremism. It is possible, as well, that “foiling operations” conducted by the intelligence agencies of Israel, the United States, Great Britain, and other Western powers—programs designed to subvert the Iranian nuclear effort through sabotage and, on occasion, the carefully engineered disappearances of nuclear scientists—will have hindered Iran’s progress in some significant way. It is also possible that President Obama, who has said on more than a few occasions that he finds the prospect of a nuclear Iran “unacceptable,” will order a military strike against the country’s main weapons and uranium-enrichment facilities.

But none of these things—least of all the notion that Barack Obama, for whom initiating new wars in the Middle East is not a foreign-policy goal, will soon order the American military into action against Iran—seems, at this moment, terribly likely. What is more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran—possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq’s airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft. (It’s so crowded, in fact, that the United States Central Command, whose area of responsibility is the greater Middle East, has already asked the Pentagon what to do should Israeli aircraft invade its airspace. According to multiple sources, the answer came back: do not shoot them down.)

In these conversations, which will be fraught, the Israelis will tell their American counterparts that they are taking this drastic step because a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people. The Israelis will also state that they believe they have a reasonable chance of delaying the Iranian nuclear program for at least three to five years. They will tell their American colleagues that Israel was left with no choice. They will not be asking for permission, because it will be too late to ask for permission.

When the Israelis begin to bomb the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the formerly secret enrichment site at Qom, the nuclear-research center at Esfahan, and possibly even the Bushehr reactor, along with the other main sites of the Iranian nuclear program, a short while after they depart en masse from their bases across Israel—regardless of whether they succeed in destroying Iran’s centrifuges and warhead and missile plants, or whether they fail miserably to even make a dent in Iran’s nuclear program—they stand a good chance of changing the Middle East forever; of sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel’s only meaningful ally; of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel’s conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.

If a strike does succeed in crippling the Iranian nuclear program, however, Israel, in addition to possibly generating some combination of the various catastrophes outlined above, will have removed from its list of existential worries the immediate specter of nuclear-weaponized, theologically driven, eliminationist anti-Semitism; it may derive for itself the secret thanks (though the public condemnation) of the Middle East’s moderate Arab regimes, all of which fear an Iranian bomb with an intensity that in some instances matches Israel’s; and it will have succeeded in countering, in militant fashion, the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, which is, not irrelevantly, a prime goal of the enthusiastic counter-proliferator who currently occupies the White House.

Steve Clemons at the Washington Note:

In an important article titled “The Point of No Return” to be published in The Atlantic tomorrow, national correspondent Jeffrey Goldberg recounts something many people didn’t realize at the time and still have a hard time believing. President George W. Bush knocked back Dick Cheney’s wing of the foreign policy establishment – both inside and out of his administration – that wanted to launch a bombing campaign against Iran. In a snippet I had not seen before, Bush mockingly referred to bombing advocates Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys.”

George W. Bush was showing his inner realist not allowing his own trigger-happy Curtis LeMays pile on to the national security messes the US already owned in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But that was several years ago. Today, there is a new US President, more Iranian centrifuges, and a different Israeli Prime Minister – and Bibi Netanyahu seems closer to a Curtis LeMay, John Bolton or Frank Gaffney than he does to the more containment-oriented Eisenhowers and George Kennans who in their day forged a global equilibrium out of superpower rivalry and hatred.

Goldberg, after conducting dozens of interviews with senior members of Israel’s national security establishment as well as many top personalities in the Obama White House, concludes in his must-read piece that the likelihood of Israel unilaterally bombing Iran to curtail a potential nuclear weapon breakout capacity is north of 50-50.

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time:

I’m not sure I miss Bush’s penchant for nicknames (mine was “Joe Boy”): it was far too frat boy by a lot. But occasionally the President struck gold, as Jeff Goldberg reports in a new piece previewed by Steve Clemons today: he called Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer “the bomber boys,” after their obsession with going to war with Iran–an obsession Bush eschewed in his more reasonable second term, when he retrieved his foreign policy from the Cheney Cult.

In the end, Bush was completely overmatched by the presidency. His time in office–the tax cuts, the Iraq war, the torture, the slipshod governance, the spending on programs like Medicare prescription drugs without paying for them, the deficits, the failure to foresee the housing bubble–was ruinous for the country. But I’ve got to say that “Bomber Boys” is a keeper. Kristol and Krauthammer are hereby branded for life.

Jonathan Tobin at Commentary:

It is more likely that the president and his advisers are more worried about validating the Bush doctrine that a preemptive strike is justified when the threat of a rogue regime getting hold of a weapon of mass destruction is on the table. Everything this administration has done seems to indicate that it sees a potential strike on Iran as more of a threat to the world than the Iranian bomb itself. Since Obama is almost certainly more afraid of another Iraq than he is of a genocidal threat to Israel’s existence, it is difficult to believe that he will take Hitchens’s advice.


I think some people in Washington — and elsewhere — have been letting the Israelis twist in the wind in the hopes that Israel will solve our Iran problems for us, and take the blame. I don’t think these “leaders” will like the outcome, and if I were the Israelis I wouldn’t be trying too hard to make it pleasant. Irresponsibility can be expensive.

Rick Moran:

Goldberg notes that with success, the Israelis will buy time (probably putting the Iranian program back 3-5 years), earn the secret thanks of most of the moderate Arab regimes in the Middle East, and will have stopped potential proliferation to terrorist groups in its tracks.

Is that worth initiating a strike that could lead to World War III?

What will the Russians do if the Israeli’s hit Bushehr? It is likely they will kill Russian technicians in such a strike since they are building the facility under contract with Tehran. Will Vladmir Putin take the death of Russian scientists and technicians lying down? What if he retaliates against Israel? What would be the American response to that?

August, 1914?

Unleashing Hezb’allah against the western world, stirring up trouble in Iraq by ordering the Shia militias into the streets, not to mention a missile campaign against Israel that could kill thousands (at which point Israel may decide that to save its people, it must expand its own bombing campaign, escalating the conflict to the next level) – this alone could ratchet up tensions causing the world to start choosing up sides.

And no America with the will or the self-confidence to step in and assist the world in standing down.

Obama’s foreign policy is not anti-American, unpatriotic, or designed to favor Muslims. It’s just weak. The president has made the conscious decision that the US is too powerful and needs to defer to supra-national organizations like the UN, or regional line ups like NATO or the Arab League when conflict is threatened. “First among equals” is not rhetoric to Obama. He means it. He has been thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that most of the world’s troubles have been caused by a too-powerful United States and hence, only deliberately eschewing the promotion of American interests can redress this sin.

This will be the first world crisis since the end of World War II where American power and prestige will not be used to intervene in order to prevent catastrophe. Obama is betting the farm that his worldview will be more conducive to defusing a crisis than the more realpolitik and pragmatic point of view that has dominated American foreign policy for 65 years.

We are shortly going to find out whether good intentions really matter in international affairs

Allah Pundit:

Somehow it manages to be both harrowing and mundane: No matter what Obama and Netanyahu end up doing or not doing, the Middle East is sure to be a more dangerous place in a year or two than it is even now — and yet we’ve been headed towards that Catch-22 for years, dating well back into the Bush administration. As dire as they are, the strategic calculations have become sufficiently familiar — a bombing run might not disable the program, might only postpone it for a year or two, might touch off a regional war with America in the middle — that I bet most readers will either glance at the piece or pass on it entirely as old news. The Iranian program is like having a bomb in your lap knowing that any wire you cut will detonate it, so you sit there and fidget with it in hopes that it’ll just sort of fizzle out on its own. Sit there long enough and even a situation as dangerous as that will start to seem boring. Until the bomb goes off.

Doug Mataconis:

I honestly don’t know what the answer to the Iranian nuclear question is.

The prospect of the likes of the Islamic Republic possession nuclear weapons is not something I look forward to. Then again, I’m still not all that comfortable with the idea of Pakistan having nuclear weapons, and don’t get me started about North Korea. Nonetheless, Pakistan has had those weapons for more than a decade now and they haven’t used them. Even same goes for North Korea. Both countries, of course, have engaged in nuclear proliferation, and that may be the greatest danger of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, not that they’d use them, but that they’d teach others how to make them.  It’s entirely possible, then, that a nuclear-armed, or nuclear-capable, Iran, may not end up being as much of a threat as we fear.

Israel, however, doesn’t seem to be inclined to wait to find out how things will turn out. Their current leadership views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to Israel and, whether or not that is actually true, they’re likely to act accordingly. Unfortunately, their actions are likely to have consequences that we’ll all have to deal with.

UPDATE: Fred Kaplan at Slate

Glenn Greenwald

Jonathan Schwarz

Joe Klein at Swampland at Time

James Fallows

UPDATE #2: Robin Wright at The Atlantic

Christopher Hitchens in Slate

UPDATE #3: Elliott Abrams at The Atlantic

Greg Scoblete

Dave Schuler

UPDATE #4: Marc Lynch at The Atlantic

UPDATE #5: Heather Hurlburt and Daniel Drezner at Bloggingheads


Filed under Israel/Palestine, Middle East

As Atrios Says, “Meanwhile… Over There,” Part II

Ernesto Londoño at WaPo:

The leader of the bloc that received the most votes in last month’s elections called Wednesday for the creation of an internationally backed caretaker authority to prevent what he said were unlawful attempts by Iraq’s government to overturn the results.

The move escalated a standoff between the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which won the most seats in the March 7 parliamentary elections, and a bloc led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which came in a close second. Former prime minister Ayad Allawi, the leader of Iraqiya, also proposed extending the mandate of the outgoing parliament until a new one is in place, “for the purpose of monitoring the executive branch.”

Adding to the political tension, Human Rights Watch released a report late Tuesday saying that members of a military unit under the command of Maliki, a Shiite, systemically tortured and sexually abused hundreds of Sunni Arab prisoners.

“The horror we found suggests torture was a norm in [al-Muthanna],” Joe Stork, the group’s Middle East director, said in a statement, referring to a secret detention facility at a military airport in Baghdad. “The government needs to prosecute all of those responsible for this systemic brutality.”

In recent days, U.S. officials have expressed concern about the post-election wrangling, which has prevented Iraq’s electoral commission from certifying the results and has indefinitely delayed formation of a new Iraqi government.

Standing in the way are a manual recount of votes cast in Baghdad and efforts by a commission run by Shiite politicians to disqualify winning candidates for alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath Party. At the same time, the U.S. military intends to withdraw about half of its current force by the end of August, leaving 50,000 troops.

Allawi said Wednesday that the Justice and Accountability Commission is carrying out “malicious disqualifications.”

Greg Scoblete:

Part of me thinks that we’ve entered into a period similar to 2004-2005, where brewing trouble inside Iraq is either dismissed or ignored. Just as conservatives and the Bush administration pooh-poohed the insurgency right up until the point that it exploded, now (if they’re even paying attention) they’re dismissing the political violence and declaring President Bush a world-historical figure for the Surge. Liberals, who had an incentive during the Bush years to sound the alarm, have mostly fallen silent (except for Robert Dreyfuss, who thinks Iran has already won). I sure hope I’m wrong. But sectarian torture camps don’t bode well for the future of a democratic Iraq.

Human Rights Watch:

Detainees in a secret Baghdad detention facility were hung upside-down, deprived of air, kicked, whipped, beaten, given electric shocks, and sodomized, Human Rights Watch said today. Iraq should thoroughly investigate and prosecute all government and security officials responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 42 of the men in the Al Rusafa Detention Center on April 26, 2010. They were among about 300 detainees transferred from the secret facility in the old Muthanna airport in West Baghdad to Al Rusafa into a special block of 19 cage-type cells over the past several weeks, after the existence of the secret prison was revealed.

The men’s stories were credible and consistent. Most of the 300 displayed fresh scars and injuries they said were a result of routine and systematic torture they had experienced at the hands of interrogators at Muthanna. All were accused of aiding and abetting terrorism, and many said they were forced to sign false confessions.


Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki disputed reports charging that Iraq is torturing and abusing people in a secret prison.

“There are no secret prisons in Iraq at all,” the prime minister said in a Monday interview with state-run Al-Iraqiya TV.

Allegations of torture and abuse at the prison, named Muthanna, were first reported by The Los Angeles Times April 19. Amnesty International has urged Iraqi officials to investigate the claims.

Human Rights Watch released a report on the issue Tuesday, saying the detainees are routinely beaten, shocked and sodomized by their interrogators.

Al-Maliki continued to deny that there was a secret prison and called the reports “a smear campaign in which embassies and media organizations took part and it was perpetuated by Iraqi politicians because it serves their interests to say that there are secret prisons.”

John Cole:

The NY Times:

The torture of Iraqi detainees at a secret prison in Baghdad was far more systematic and brutal than initially reported, Human Rights Watch reported on Tuesday.The Washington Post:

Adding to the political tension, Human Rights Watch released a report late Tuesday saying that members of a military unit under the command of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, systemically tortured and sexually abused hundreds of Sunni Arab prisoners.NPR:

Iraqi men held for months at a secret prison outside Baghdad were systematically tortured and forced to sign confession statements that in at least some cases they were forbidden to read, according to a new report by a human rights group released Wednesday.When OTHER people do it, HRW is a legitimate, credible source, and it is not “allegations of torture” or “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Funny, that. In a really sad way.

Jonathan Bernstein:

On the politics of Iraq, it’s pretty clear from the article and other coverage that at least some Republicans are preparing to attack the president on Iraq, on the grounds that he’s (1) insufficiently focused on it, (2) stubbornly sticking to an inflexible deadline, and so therefore (3) he will have “lost” Iraq.  (Not to mention (4) The Terrorists!).  Obama would be wise, on narrow political grounds, to continue to ignore such criticisms.  This is, in a sense, a curious case where the usual myopia of the American mass media is going to help Obama even if the policy goes wrong.  Basically, as long as Americans aren’t dying in Iraq, there are going to be very few news stories about that nation.  That’s going to be true if there’s a low-level civil war, and it’s certainly going to be true if democracy doesn’t, in the end, triumph.  Sure, if there’s a coup, CNN will cover it briefly, but after that it’ll be back to weather, murders, shark attacks, and whatever else CNN fills its days with.  If there’s no coup, but just increasingly rigged elections, or Iraq falling further into Iran’s camp, it’ll get even less coverage (were you aware of this anti-American rally in Iraq last week?  Didn’t think so).  No one is ever going to base their vote against Barack Obama or the Democrats primarily on Iraq becoming a basket case, if that’s what happens, in large part because the media aren’t going to cover it.

Andrew Sullivan:

He thinks Obama will continue to draw down troops even if all hell breaks loose. That seems to be the message from the White House. But I’m not so sanguine about the reaction in the US if all those deaths and all that cost and all that damage ends up empowering a Shiite pseudo-strongman, with torture prisons and rigged elections. Anarchy is on the march.

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Filed under Iraq, Torture

The Decline And Fall Or Turn The Lights Down Real Low

Michael Auslin at American Enterprise Institute:

Decisions by the governments of Japan and Great Britain and the passage of the bankrupting health care bill in the US spell the coming end of America’s overseas basing and ability to project power. Should these trends continue, the US military will lose its European and Asian strategic anchors, hastening America’s eventual withdrawal from its global commitments and leaving the world a far more uncertain and unstable place.

The first strike comes from Asia. For the past six months, the new government of Japan has sought to revise a 2006 agreement to relocate a Marine Corps Air Station from one part of Okinawa to a less populated area.

Though the agreement was reached only after a decade of intense negotiations and with Democratic and Republican Administrations alike, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s government has instead suggested numerous alternative sites for the base, most of which were rejected during the previous negotiations and none of which would allow the same type of training and operations necessary for the Marine Corps’ air wing.

Now, American officials are privately wondering whether the ruling Democratic Party of Japan wants to allow the US the same level of access to bases in Japan, without which America would be incapable of providing regional security guarantees and serving as a force for stability in Asia amidst the growth of China’s military capacity and North Korea’s continuing nuclear developments. Indeed, the former head of the Democratic Party of Japan has publicly mused whether the US 7th Fleet is sufficient for alliance purposes, thus raising the specter of the withdrawal of US Marines and Air Force from Japan.

On the other side of the globe, a special House of Commons foreign affairs committee this week has concluded that Great Britain must learn to say no to Washington and exercise more independence, or risk further harm to the UK’s image abroad. Most worrying, the committee recommends a “comprehensive review” of current arrangements for the U.S. use of British military facilities at home and abroad, singling out such strategically crucial bases as Diego Garcia.

Reacting to reports of the CIA’s use of such bases for rendition purposes in the war on terror, the committee is calling on the government to drop the term “special relationship” to describe the US-UK bond and to more realistically recognize the “ever-evolving” nature of the relationship, which observers can safely interpret as putting greater distance between Whitehall and the White House.

The final strike in this geopolitical puzzle comes from Washington, D.C., where both Republican- and Democratic-run governments have blown up America’s budget to unsustainable levels, all but ensuring that US defense budgets will decline in coming years.

Greg Scoblete:

So who is guilty of moral weakness and short-sightedness: the Japanese, the British, or the Americans? All of the above?

It’s one thing to worry if the U.S. was unilaterally unplugging itself from alliances over the objections of its partners, but at least in the cases Auslin cites, that’s not the issue. The U.S. is harranging Japan to keep the base deal on track, while a democratically elected government, responding to the desire of its people, is objecting. In Britain, neither the current Labour government nor David Cameron’s Tories are talking about seriously undermining strategic ties with the United States.

Auslin sites the success of a 60 year American strategy to keep the peace globally, but isn’t this the fruits of such peace? Independent-yet-friendly democracies seeking a little more freedom of movement seems to me a far cry from countries seeking “non-aligned” status or worse, becoming clients of a competitive power.

Furthermore, I’m not sure why Auslin would suggest that “foreign governments will expand their regulatory and confiscatory powers against their domestic economies in order to fund their own military expansions.” As Auslin notes, the U.S. is able to fund a globe-spanning military without undue burden, surely these other large economies can fund militaries sufficient to meet their (less grandiose) security needs.

I do agree with Auslin that we’re looking at a potentially less stable international environment, but that’s mostly due to the rise of China and more powerful states in Asia. And China is rising regardless of the percentage of GDP we allot to defense and entitlements. If defense analysts think this is going to overturn the peaceful workings of global trade, then it seems to me they should spend more of their time arguing against nation building in the hinterlands of land-locked Afghanistan than on health-care. The former pulls resources directly away from the mission of militarily containing China (unless providing security so that Chinese mining concerns in Afghanistan can reap billions in profit is a super-sophisticated form of stealth containment), while the later exterts a longer-term budget strain which may or may not impact defense outlays.

And while those who believe in “global fraternity” are surely romantics, I would argue that those who believe in a durable global hegemony are equally starry eyed.

Daniel Larison:

What provoked this vision of the “dimming of our age”? The British Foreign Affairs Select Committee’s report pronouncing the “special relationship” dead and the continued resistance by the DPJ government in Japan to the location of a Marine air station in Okinawa. Oh, and health care. It is telling that the foreign examples Auslin provides are the results of national backlashes against perceived excessive identification with or dependence on U.S. power. Britain walked in lockstep with the United States before and during the war in Iraq, and it was badly burned by the experience. Japan has tolerated a continued military presence on Okinawa despite a history of abuses suffered by the civilian population. Some of our best allies feel used or put-upon, and their complaints stem from precisely the sort of overbearing hegemonist attitude that tends to treat many of our allies more like satrapies rather than treating them as sovereign, independent states with their own interests.

So some of the countries that theoretically benefit most from the American ability to “to uphold peace and intervene around the globe” want to adjust their relationships with the U.S. so that their national interests are better served. Britain and Japan are not proposing to scrap their alliances with America, nor are they necessarily declaring their opposition to America’s active role in their parts of the world, but they do seem to be saying that they should give more thought to how often their security and foreign policies line up closely with our own. Instead of taking advantage of the potential for increased burden-sharing these moves represent and instead of encouraging allies to tap into their own resources to provide for their defense, we hear laments foretelling the “dimming of our age.”

As for the so-called “romantic belief in global fraternity,” which very few people actually hold, there have been no greater romantics than the idealists who have deluded themselves and many of us that the interests of the rest of the world and the interests of the United States frequently converge. American hegemonists have been fairly certain that democratization and globalization advance American power, and so they have tried to encourage both on the unfounded assumptions that economic interdependence and democracy will tend to prevent conflict and will lead other governments to align with Washington. As both emerging-market democracies and long-established industrialized democratic powers have been showing us in recent years, neither democratization nor globalization magnifies American power, but instead has tended to create more increasingly powerful centers of resistance to Washington’s policies. In a way, that is a credit to past successes of U.S. policy: American power provided the protection and shelter to permit war-ravaged nations to rebuild and become capable of providing for their own needs and defense. The collapse of the Soviet Union gave us the chance to end our abnormal and untraditional global role, and Washington failed to seize the opportunity. We are now at a point when we can still disentangle ourselves from many places around the world largely on our own terms and when we can shift the burdens for regional security to the regional powers and institutions that are capable of taking them up, but there seems to be no political will and no imagination needed to make this happen.

Reihan Salam:

As a critic of cosmopolitanism, it’s very possible that Larison wouldn’t see the end of what we might call the Second Globalization Era, after the First Globalization Era that stretched from the late nineteenth century through the Great Depression, as a great tragedy.

But for those of us who believe that global trade flows, the free flow of capital, relatively free migration, and market-friendly governments are a good thing, Auslin raises an important question, namely whether the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia “free-rides” on American military power creates benefits that outweigh the costs. Perhaps the security competition that would result from a U.S. grand strategy that focused on offshore balancing rather than the more active and interventionist posture of the present would prove manageable. Military budgets would swell slightly, but new collective security arrangements would emerge to keep the peace at reasonable costs. Or perhaps the security competition would spark dangerous spirals of aggression and counter-aggression. It’s difficult to tell, though I tend to think that the former scenario is somewhat more likely.

Let’s assume a middle series projection in which military budgets do indeed increase, and, as Auslin suggests, states pursue more activist economic policies — including aggressive capital controls and migration controls — to finance this military expansion. Is this a friendlier world for classical liberals than one in which the benevolent global hegemony of the U.S. persists, or rather efforts to extend BGH persist?

Again, I’m not sure. I do think that such a world would prove somewhat less prosperous and more dangerous at the margin, though I can also imagine a comparatively freer United States flourishing in this environment. So really, much depends on your preferences and how you weigh American lives relative to the lives of foreigners in the regions where conflicts might intensify. Alternatively, much depends on how you weigh the relative risks. The status quo, as Larison would remind us, is far from risk-free.

Larison responds later:

One of the reasons I didn’t originally address these concerns is that I don’t find these to be the likely consequences of China’s continued rise, Russian resurgence in its own neighborhood and Iranian membership in the nuclear club. Why will global trade flows be stressed? China is heavily dependent on its export trade to sustain economic growth at home. It has no incentive to disrupt or “stress” trade flows or to embark on policies abroad that would lead to this. At present we see increasing economic integration of Taiwan with the mainland, and the Hatoyama government has held out the possibility, however remote it is at the moment, of forming an East Asian economic community modeled on the European Union. China is investing in (and exploiting) markets all over the world in states where Western companies typically do not go or where they are not allowed to go. So why will the free flow of capital be constrained if China continues to increase its military power? Are we not instead seeing increased trade carried out by and among the BRIC nations? Aren’t emerging-market countries, including China, engaging in noticeable economic innovation?

Matt Steinglass at DiA at The Economist:

I’m with Mr Larison here. I’ve written on this before, but I’ll say it again: “the fact that much of metropolitan Europe and East Asia ‘free-rides’ on American military power”, as Mr Salam puts it, seems to me to be a non-fact. Which countries in East Asia does Mr Salam believe spend too little on their own defence? South Korea, with 600,000 men under arms, currently ramping spending up to 3% of GDP despite declining North Korean capabilities? Taiwan, which has also raised defence spending to 3% of GDP and just finished buying $6 billion worth of arms from America? How much need Thailand spend to ensure victory in its border dispute with Cambodia? What is the threat to Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, or (apart from tussles with China over undersea mineral rights in the Yellow Sea) Japan? True, Vietnam is buying Russian submarines with a view to denying Chinese superiority in the South China Sea. And perhaps the Philippines could stand to beef up its military to put down insurgents in Mindanao. But what do either of these have to do with “free-riding on American military power”?

The claim fails for the same reasons with regard to Europe: 1. The major European powers spend a healthy 2%-plus of GDP on defence, and 2. No major European country faces any serious military threat. In fact, I don’t believe the phrase “free-riding on American military power” describes any actual countries in the world in the year 2010.

This is not to say that rising Chinese power will not lead to rising defence expenditures on the part of other regional countries in coming years. But even here, I’m baffled by Mr Auslin’s call for more American defence spending for fear that otherwise “foreign governments will expand their regulatory and confiscatory powers against their domestic economies in order to fund their own military expansions.” Assume this were true, and that you are the sort of person who thinks of laws and taxes in terms of “governments expanding their regulatory and confiscatory powers against their domestic economies.” Why in that case would it be a good idea for America’s government to expand its regulatory and confiscatory powers against its domestic economy, in order to forestall other countries from doing so? Or does Mr Auslin think that other countries’ militaries are funded by taxes, while America’s is funded by magic?

More Larison:

It is the lack of serious threats that needs to be emphasized. Suppose that Russia becomes even more assertive in post-Soviet space. Is this going to trigger a significant European arms build-up? It seems unlikely. It is European governments that have been consistently trying to block moves that would appear provocative to Russia. The Germans in particular are far more interested in building a constructive trading relationship with Russia than they are interested in feuding over political influence on Russia’s periphery. In the last decade, Washington has not been providing protection against a growing Russian threat to Europe, but has instead been trying to goad Russia with continued NATO expansion that most other members of NATO didn’t want and refused to accept. On the whole, American hawks have made a habit of perceiving threats to Europe that most Europeans do not see. Then they congratulate the U.S. for shielding Europe from these threats, marvel at European weakness in the face of said threats, and demand European gratitude and deference to U.S. initiatives on account of the protection we provide. This tends to color hawks’ views of everything else.

We see this again with the fear of an Iranian bomb. Most of the other major and rising powers in the region do not regard Iran’s nuclear program as a problem, much less a threat, and even important U.S. allies such as Turkey and India are far more interested in trade with Iran than they are in isolating or punishing it for a program Iran is actually entitled to have. On the whole, Iran’s neighbors do not see why the region should be subjected to another destabilizing conflict that has no realistic chance of halting Iran’s nuclear program in any case.

From the American perspective, it would seem to make fiscal and strategic sense to encourage allies to assume additional responsibilities for regional security. Auslin exaggerated the extent to which America was “hollowing out” its military capabilities, but Americans should welcome the prospect of wealthy allies providing for even more of their own defense. How and when allied states choose to do this will largely be up to them, but it should not be regarded as a calamity for them or the U.S. when it happens. Greater allied burden-sharing will reduce or eliminate the need for American military presence in many parts of the world, and that could help to trim the budget and it could help to keep the U.S. out of long, expensive military campaigns.

Salam responds to Steinglass:


Note that I put “free-riding” is scare quotes. That, of course, is a subtlety that’s easy to miss. I was suggesting that free-riding isn’t the perfect term, but it is useful. Given the way Steinglass approaches issues relating to health systems, public finances, etc., I can’t be too surprised by his reaction. But I am disappointed.

Do I believe that European and East Asian countries are spending “too little” on defense? No, I don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a meaningful concept. Military expenditures are a kind of self-insurance against an anarchic international environment. Choosing the “right” level of self-insurance is a thorny question that doesn’t have a clear answer. This is an environment with more than one imaginable equilibrium. The idea that a state can spend the right amount reflects a planner’s delusion. I tend to think that there is a complex political economy story behind the size of our defense budget. If we ran our defense budget like a lean multinational firm, it would look very different. Political and security imperatives play a big role, as do the PR and lobbying arms of for-profit firms.

The notion that there is free-riding going on doesn’t imply that it’s necessarily a bad thing: this is a core premise advanced by William Wohlforth and others who believe in “the stability of a unipolar world.” “Free-riding” in this vein is a feature, not a bug.

Many of these countries could spend less, e.g., if they consolidated domestic defense industries, outsourced more military functions, etc. I am suggesting that, in the absence of U.S. security guarantees, many of them might be inclined to spend more, not least because of the security competition that might emerge in this counterfactual world. How odd to imagine that U.S. security guarantees could evaporate and have zero effect on the global security environment, and the emergence of threats. This is a very strong version of the William Appleman Williams thesis recently revived by Andrew Bacevich. I’m not sure that Bacevich would believe that an offshore balancing strategy on the part of the U.S. would have zero effect on the global security environment. But who knows? My guess is that it could (a) improve it or (b) make it worse, and that in either case it would do so unevenly. That is, even in a more secure post-American world, some countries would perceive elevated security risks.

UPDATE: Michael Auslin responds

Larison responds

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The L Couple

Michael Crowley at TNR:

Say what you want about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but “he knows how to work a room.” So claims Flynt Leverett, the contrarian Iran analyst who, with his wife Hillary Mann Leverett, paid a visit to the Iranian president in New York City last fall. During the sit-down at Manhattan’s InterContinental Barclay hotel with a group of invited academics, foreign policy professionals, and other Iranophiles, the Leveretts marveled at Ahmadinejad’s attention to detail as the Iranian took copious notes and strove to pronounce their unfamiliar names correctly. “He addresses every person by name. He made a serious effort to address everyone’s issue,” Flynt says. “It was really striking, the retail politics aspect.”

As former Bush White House officials, the Leveretts might seem unlikely company for the diminutive tyrant. But Ahmadinejad has reason to admire the married Middle East analysts. They are, after all, the most prominent voices in the U.S. media arguing that he was legitimately reelected last June, and that the opposition Green Movement is a flash in the pan. “There is no revolution afoot in Iran, and the social base of this movement is not growing; it is, in fact, shrinking,” Flynt recently said on PBS’s “NewsHour.” He has made his case everywhere from msnbc to NPR to The New York Times op-ed page, where he and his wife have made three shared appearances since late May.

To the Leveretts, Ahmadinejad’s Bill Clinton-like personal touch underscores their argument that, far from a thug repressing his people, he is, in fact, a charming leader with broad Iranian support–and one whose true nature the United States fails to understand. And, in any case, they say, moral indignation over his regime’s character distracts us from clear strategic thinking. Both economic sanctions and the Green Movement will fail to contain Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions. America’s only choice is to engage Iran, nuclear bomb or no. For that, they have earned the enmity of former friends and colleagues–and even drawn death threats. “We are portrayed as un-American, stooges of the regime,” complains Hillary.

But it’s not the Leveretts’ ultra-realist policy views that are so discomfiting. It is the sense that they cross a line into making apologies for the loathsome Ahmadinejad. And that makes for one of Washington’s most intriguing mysteries: How did two ex-Bush aides become the Iranian regime’s biggest intellectual defenders?


What happened? Some critics accuse the Leveretts of becoming corporate shills. Their salon dinners, for instance, have included executives from oil companies that have done business in Iran, including Norway-based Statoil and French Total. The Leveretts firmly deny that they are peddling access or trying to affect policy for corporate gain. Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, says he recently conducted a review of their business ties and is “entirely satisfied there is no conflict. … The idea that their ideas are compromised is without foundation.”

Perhaps the Leveretts were transformed by what they saw as Bush’s blown opportunity to deal with Iran. Hillary says her dealings with Iranian diplomats as a Bush White House aide at the start of the Afghanistan war made her understand Tehran’s willingness to engage. “It seems that the Leveretts are almost frozen in time circa 2003 on this,” says Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner. The Leveretts have also come to accept the realist critique that Israel occupies too great a role in America’s foreign policy calculus; Flynt clashed with fellow Bush officials about what peace-process concessions Israel should be asked to make, for instance. “For a lot of pro-Israel groups, these [views of Iran] are non-starters,” he says.

Or perhaps, on some level, they have actually grown to admire Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In our meeting, I pressed them to say just how they feel about the Iranian leader. Geopolitics aside, did they consider him a despicable human being? “I think he’s actually a quite intelligent man,” Flynt replied. “I think he also has really extraordinary political skills.” “[T]he idea that he’s stupid or doesn’t understand retail politics is also pretty divorced from reality,” Hillary added. But that wasn’t the question.

Jeffrey Goldberg:

Michael Crowley has a devastating piece out now on Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, the former National Security Council staffers and expert self-marginalizers. In it, the Leverett does something I didn’t think she was foolish enough to do, which is to tell a reporter what he actually thinks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The verdict: He likes him! Also, and more egregiously, he defends the Iranian regime for showing restraint in the face of pro-democracy demonstrator

Kevin Sullivan:

I’ve never met the Leveretts, nor have I ever spoken with them about Iran. I have at times found their analysis on the post-June 12 upheaval a bit exaggerated, biased and even downright peculiar. That said, I think Crowley undermines his own article with this acknowledgment of their work:

It’s not obvious that this analysis is wrong–especially in the wake of disappointing Green turnout last week on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution–although, in a state willing to beat, arrest, and even kill protesters, gauging the popular mood is never simple.OK, fair enough. But flip this around on those who have been cheer leading for the so-called Green Movement, and the same criticism applies. Analysts and experts – clearly wearing their green hearts on their sleeves – have been repeatedly proven wrong about the size and capabilities of the Green Movement, yet no one suspects these well-intentioned partisans of nefarious, or even treasonous ties to agents or officials inside Iran (and if you think the Green Movement is somehow operating outside of Iran’s inner-circle you simply haven’t been paying attention). While I reserve my own criticisms of the Leveretts, I find the very personal and often malicious attacks on them to be really uncalled for, not to mention a distraction from the debate at hand. (incidentally, the Leveretts have written a brief and fair response to some of the nastier charges levied against them.)

Tim Fernholz at Tapped:

Disappointing many who had appreciated their earlier analysis, Leverett and Hillary Mann-Leverett, his wife and frequent writing partner, did not react the same way. Instead, they’ve dismissed the Greens and insisted on more engagement with Ahmadinejad, even comparing Obama to Bush. It’s a strange place to be, one that doesn’t seem to take into account the events of the last year.

Michael Crowley has written a piece exploring their position. He begins and ends his well-reported story with the suggestion that the Leveretts harbor some admiration for Ahmadinejad. Certainly, the Iranian president is despicable, but the restless urge to demonize people like Ahmadinejad has never paid dividends for the United States’ foreign policy; contests of who can hate more do not international achievement make. The Leveretts’ recognition of the Iranian president’s political abilities — and his rationality — is not an indictment of their arguments. Frankly, I’m more curious why Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei doesn’t make an appearance in the article, since he is generally recognized as Iran’s true leader.

To me, it seems the reason that the Leveretts are so keen to engage the Ahmadinejad regime is that they are realists. They have made the calculation that the Green movement is not likely to overthrow the government soon and that America’s near-term interests are more important than supporting human rights abroad. That’s not a liberal foreign policy, but it also doesn’t require some malign affection for a dangerous theocrat.

Daniel Larison:

What is the point of Crowley’s question? To establish that we are all capable of meaningless moralizing about a foreign leader? If the Leveretts refused to be pulled in by this, so much the better for them. This is more of the same tired personalization of foreign policy. If we obsess over a foreign leader as an embodiment of villainy, it will keep us from having to think rationally about real policy options, and it will absolutely prevent the consideration of any sort of sustained diplomatic engagement. The only purpose for this obsession with Ahmadinejad that I can see is to make it easier to advocate confrontational and aggressive policies against Iran. It is a way of substituting emotion and passion for critical thinking about the potential for improved U.S.-Iranian relations. It is mostly a way of striking the right pose for lack of anything else to contribute to the debate. Iran hawks may have nothing but terrible ideas, but at least they have sufficient hate for Ahmadinejad!

Andrew Sullivan

Patrick Appel:

My main problem with the Leveretts is, like certain hawks, they project a false sense of certainty about the situation in Iran. No one knows exactly how the opposition movement will manifest. The Leveretts assert arguable claims as fact without explaining how they are reaching their conclusions.

Daniel Larison responds to Appel:

The claims the Leveretts have made about the presidential election are substantially no different than those made by Stratfor analysts from the very beginning. All of them have made reasonable arguments that Mousavi voters in general and Green movement protesters in particular do not represent anything like a majority of the population, and they have made fairly common-sense observations that the Green movement has been losing strength as time goes on. Skeptics of the movement’s strength have also cast doubt on claims that the regime is widely seen as illegitimate by most Iranians. These claims have been central to the latest wave of regime change arguments, which have focused on helping the protest movement bring down the government, and the claims are probably wrong. The skeptics’ doubt is informed by what little apparently reliable evidence about Iranian public opinion we have. Compared with this admittedly sketchy and incomplete picture, the Leveretts’ critics cannot muster much more than anecdotal evidence whose importance they continually exaggerate.

No one has obsessively attacked George Friedman et al. as regime apologists or “intellectual defenders” of Ahmadinejad. It seems to me that the Leveretts aren’t being targeted with smears and insults principally because of their analysis, which Crowley does not really attempt to dispute, but because of the policy course they recommend, which is significant, sustained engagement with Iran. What Leveretts’ critics seem to want to do is identify this engagement approach with sympathy and collusion with the regime. This is the same thing that some of the Leveretts’ harshest critics were trying to do when they were attacking Trita Parsi as lobbyist for the regime.

Lee Smith at Tablet:

The opposition camp has been critical of Leverett for his collaborations with Mohamed Marandi, director of Tehran University’s Institute for North American Studies and the son of Khamenei’s personal physician, who appears to have facilitated Leverett’s upcoming visit. “The University of Tehran is the institution which has applied for our visas,” Leverett explained to me.

Leverett was offended when I asked if the Revolutionary Guard had played a role in his invitation, and yet there’s little doubt that his co-author is personally and professionally close to the regime—and publicly justifies some of its most brutal actions. Since the June elections, Marandi has been the Ahmadinejad government’s key spokesperson in the English-language media, and he recently defended the regime’s sentencing opposition members to death. His true occupation may be even more unsavory. “He passes himself off as an academic, but he’s with the Ministry of Intelligence,” says Ramin Ahmadi, co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentary Center and a professor of medicine at Yale.

Of course, if you need to make the case that you have a genuine channel to the regime’s inner sanctum, it’s hard to do better than to partner with a hard-core regime man like Marandi. In the realist view, Leverett’s strong stomach and lack of sentimental attachments is proof that he is coming from the right place. “Flynt comes from a very strong national-interest point of view and emphasizes energy security,” says David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter and a frequent guest at dinner seminars at the Leveretts’ Northern Virginia home. “They’re background dinners, usually about eight to 10 people, weapons experts, energy experts, Iranian nationals, with varied points of view on the Middle East,” he says. While Frum explains that Leverett’s “domestic politics are on the conservative, not liberal, side,” it is also true that Leverett’s fame and acceptance in Washington policymaking circles rests on the fact that he was lionized by liberals for his opposition to the Bush administration’s Iran policy.

The story of Leverett’s rise and fall and rise embodies the upside-down weirdness of the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, when obscure Middle East experts and Washington bureaucrats occupied center stage of the national debate. It’s safe to say that in less turbulent times, and under a less controversial president, no one would have ever heard of Flynt Leverett. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Leverett earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University, earned a doctorate in politics from Princeton, honed his Arabic-language skills in Damascus, and joined the CIA during a period when the agency was not especially known for running agents, or paying much attention to Iran.

In 2001, after a decade at the agency, Leverett landed a plum position on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, then headed by Richard Haass, and was subsequently named senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff. In the interagency process that coordinates policymakers in the bureaucracies across Washington—defense, state, White House, CIA—Leverett earned a reputation for committing what are known as “process fouls.” “That’s when you intentionally exclude other policymakers,” says a former senior-level Defense Department official. “Leverett did that to us all the time, withholding a paper and cutting us out of the debate because he feared, rightly, we were going to disagree with him.”

But it was Leverett’s disagreements with the president that, in his account, compelled him, as he wrote in 2005, “to leave the administration.” However, as another former member of the Bush NSC staff explained, Leverett did not leave his post by choice. “The job of a director on the NSC staff is bureaucratic,” says the former Bush official. “If there’s a deputies’ meeting, you take notes. When you get a letter from a foreign government, you log it in and draft a response.” Leverett continually missed deadlines and misplaced documents, and the NSC Records office had a long list of his delinquencies. His office was notoriously messy—documents were strewn over chairs, windowsills, the floor, and piled high on his desk. For Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser and a famously well-organized “clean desk” type, repeatedly missing deadlines and losing important letters was simply not tolerable behavior for an NSC officer, and Leverett was told to leave.

Returning to the CIA briefly before retiring from government service in the spring of 2003, Leverett moved on to the Brookings Institution, and then the New America Foundation, as he began to reinvent himself as an Iran expert with the help of his wife. Hillary Mann Leverett claimed that after rotating back to the State Department from the White House in April 2003 she had received a fax from a Swiss diplomat acting as an intermediary on behalf of the Iranians, offering what the Leveretts would come to call the Grand Bargain. According to the Swiss fax, she said, the Islamic Republic would cease support for terrorist organizations, terminate its nuclear weapons program, and recognize Israel if the United States would in turn guarantee that it had no designs to topple the regime.

So why didn’t the Americans bite? As the Leveretts explained in a series of interviews and their own articles, including, most famously, a 2006 op-ed in the New York Times published with redactions ordered by the Bush White House, it was because of Bush and the neoconservatives, who intended to lead the United States to war again.

The Leverettts responds:

In two previous posts on this blog, “Explaining the Concept of ‘Learning Curve’ to Jeffrey Goldberg” and “Explaining the Concept of ‘Facts’ to Jeffrey Goldberg”, Hillary Mann Leverett responded to a pair of truly shoddy pieces of “journalism” written about her by The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg.  Now we write jointly in response to a third such offfense, “The Iranian Revolutionary Guard-Flynt Leverett Connection”, which Mr. Goldberg posted on his blog yesterday.  Goldberg’s post both links to and quotes from an “article” published by one Lee Smith earlier this week in The Tablet—an online publication which, until this week, we had never heard of.  Mr. Goldberg, it turns out, is a contributing editor to The Tablet (according to the publication’s website).

In Mr. Goldberg’s previous attempts to write about Hillary (with whom he has, to this day, never spoken or sought to speak), he displayed a fact-free approach to journalism that we found truly unfortunate from someone who works for such a historically august publication as The Atlantic.  In his current effort to portray Flynt (with whom Mr. Goldberg has also never spoken or sought to speak), Mr. Goldberg stoops to a new low in attempted character assassination—a low set by Mr. Smith.  Mr. Smith’s “article” is chock full of unsubstantiated statements and  fabricated allegations.  For the record, we would like to respond to these unsubstantiated statements and fabricated allegations lies here.


Where to begin?!  By way of background, we should inform our readers that we are planning a trip to the Middle East next week.  Our itinerary includes Beirut and Damascus.  If our application for visas is approved, we might also be going to Tehran.  (As Middle East specialists, we travel to the Middle East multiple times each year.  We have been wanting to visit Iran for some time, and accepted an invitation from the University of Tehran to do so.)  It seems strange to us that people we don’t know have become so interested in our travel plans of late.  Mr. Smith is certainly very focused on the subject.  He bizarrely asserts that “Western scholars and policy wonks alike understand that access to the [Iranian] regime is a form of currency that can make you powerful or rich or both…all see access to the Iranian regime as the biggest prize in the foreign policy game”.

Considering the amount of grief we have to put up with because we actually want to talk to Iranians, including government officials, both inside Iran and outside the country, we are tempted to conclude that Mr. Smith is describing some parallel universe to the one that we live in.  We don’t know of a single “Western scholar” or “policy wonk” (and we know a lot of people in both categories) who thinks that access to the Iranian regime is going to make them powerful, rich, or both.

Lee Smith responds:

It is true, of course, that access alone does not make anyone rich or powerful, but it is a prerequisite if you wish to act an intermediary between closed societies and Western companies, which is exactly what the Leveretts are up to in Washington. I obtained several emails sent by the Leveretts and pertaining to their business, one of which is a November 2007 message inviting Trita Parsi to one of their “background dinners.” These dinners, which the Leveretts present as a kind of salon, help to generate business for an energy and consulting firm called Stratega, whose CEO happens to be Hillary Mann Leverett. The guests that night included representatives from Norway’s Statoil company, including Ali Ghezelbash, an owner of Atieh Bahar, which is an Iranian consulting firm that in the past facilitated business with Iranian industries, especially in the energy sector, controlled at one time by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. In 2006, Statoil was fined $21 million for a 2002 bribe securing “development of a critical Iranian petroleum project.”

In Leveretts’ response to my article, they also claimed to have been quite offended when I suggested while interviewing them that their prospective trip to Iran “was facilitated via Muhammad Marandi on behalf of the IRGC,” or the Revolutionary Guards Corps. They charge that this information was made up, either by my sources or by me.

UPDATE: Greg Scoblete

Larison responds to Scoblete

Patrick Appel

Kevin Sullivan responsd to Appel

Larison responds to Appel

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My, That Is An Exceptional 6 Train

Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review:

The Left’s search for a foreign template to graft onto America grew more desperate. Why couldn’t we be more like them — like the French, like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society? You can see it in Sicko, wherein Michael Moore extols the British national health-care system, the French way of life, and even the munificence of Cuba; you can hear it in all the admonitions from left-wing commentators that every other advanced society has government child care, or gun control, or mass transit, or whatever socialistic program or other infringement on our liberty we have had the wisdom to reject for decades.

Matthew Schmitz at The League:

Lowry and Ponnuru seem to believe that mass transit is a “socialistic program” and an “infringement on our liberty.” Presumably they think this because mass transit is built and administered by the government and supported, quite often, by taxes. But the exact same thing is true of highways. Would Lowry and Ponnuru denounce the Interestate system as socialistic on the same grounds?

Their casual slander also dishonors one of the recently passed heroes of the conservative movement, Paul Weyrich. Weyrich co-founded the Heritage Foundation and founded the Free Congress Foundation. Lowry and Ponnuru, who both probably knew him, also know that he was as American and un-socialistic as they come. Weyrich realized that transit was, in some cases, an eminently reasonable way of transporting people. If  Lowry and Ponnuru are unsettled by the fact that Europeans have more transit than we do, they should look back to the time when America had both more transit and less government than Europe did, or than it does now. If you’d like to read more on the conservative case for transit, see David Schaengold here.

Matthew Yglesias:

But of course they have nothing to say about genuine infringements of liberty like minimum parking requirements, maximum lot occupancy rules, building height limits, prohibitions on accessory dwellings, etc. that are mainstays of America’s centrally planned suburbs. That’s because to them what really matters isn’t socialism or liberty (certainly nobody who cares about liberty could be as enthusiastic about torture as National Review writers are) but Americanness. Even here, though, their critique falls badly flat. The world’s largest subway systems are in Japan and South Korea—not socialistic Europe—followed by New York City right here in the United States. Multiple-unit train control was invented in Chicago, as part of the world’s first electrically driven railway. I believe that all of the world’s 24-hour rapid transit systems (NYC Subway, Chicago L, NY-NJ PATH) are in the United States of America.

Brad DeLong:

Can people please stop bringing forward Ramesh Ponnuru as a “reasonable conservative” now?

Damon Linker at TNR on the rest of the essay:

Lowry and Ponnuru’s thesis—that President Obama is an enemy of “American exceptionalism”—is hardly original. It is so widely held and so frequently asserted on the right, in fact, that it can almost be described as conservative conventional wisdom. Still, NR’s treatment of the subject stands out. Lowry and Ponnuru aim for comprehensiveness, and they maintain a measured, thoughtful tone throughout their essay, marshalling a wide range of historical evidence for their thesis and making well-timed concessions to contrary arguments. It’s hard to imagine this key conservative claim receiving a more cogent and rhetorically effective defense. Which is precisely what makes the essay’s shortcomings so striking. While its authors clearly mean it to stand as a manifesto for a resurgent conservative moment, the essay far more resembles a lullaby—a comforting compilation of consoling pieties set to a soothingly familiar melody. The perfect soundtrack to a peaceful snooze.

Let’s begin at the beginning, with definitions. Lowry and Ponnuru aim to convince their readers that the President of the United States denies the idea that lies at the core of American identity: that the country is exceptional. But what makes America exceptional? This is what the authors tell us: Americans affirm a creed that upholds “liberty, equality (of opportunity and respect), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire economics.” These principles then combine with “other aspects of the American character—especially our religiousness and our willingness to defend ourselves by force—to form the core of American exceptionalism.”

Some of this is faintly ridiculous. (Is anything less exceptional in human history than a country’s willingness to defend itself by force?) As for the rest, it’s either a string of American banalities and clichés—or an abstract of the Republican Party platform. The next several paragraphs of the essay make it very clear that it’s the latter. That’s right: Lowry and Ponnuru expect their readers to believe that what makes our country exceptional is that large numbers of Americans affirm the ideology of the modern conservative movement. But that’s not quite right. Through long stretches of the essay they go much further—to imply that America is exceptional because the nation’s creed is the ideology of the modern conservative movement.

Follow the bouncing ball: the fact that “a profit-seeking company” founded Jamestown and that Puritan merchants wrote “In the name of God and of profit” at the top of their ledgers; that, in a “telling coincidence,” Adam Smith’s “free-market classic” The Wealth of Nations was published in the same year as the Declaration of Independence; that Benjamin Franklin’s name “comes from the Middle English meaning freeman, someone who owns some property”; that Abraham Lincoln supposedly hated few things more than “economic stasis”—all of these and many other anecdotes are supposed to add up to an endorsement of “the American economic gospel” (read: libertarian economic gospel) about “wealth and its creation.” Meanwhile, other cherry-picked facts in later paragraphs serve to highlight the American fondness for democratic elections, the country’s incorrigible patriotism and religiosity, and its “missionary impulse” to “export our model of liberty” to the world, often at the point of a gun.

More Yglesias:

In this telling, there’s something insidious about asking if they don’t do something better someplace else. But of course another way of looking at it is that you by definition can’t find examples of alternatives to the US status quo by looking at the US. That’s why you regularly see the Cato Institute touting Chile’s pension system or Heritage extolling the virtues of Sweden’s K-12 education or David Frum talking up French nuclear power. After all, we’ve never attempted to shift from a guaranteed pay-as-you-go pension system to a mandatory savings one in the United States. Nor do we have any examples of widespread operation of public elementary schools by for-profit firms. Nor do we have a robust nuclear power sector. So if you want to explore these ideas—ideas that conservatives often do want to explore—you need to look at models from abroad.

And there’s nothing wrong with that! So why isn’t it okay for liberals to talk about French health care or Finnish education or Danish energy policy? As Barack Obama once said, when you look at the right sometimes it’s like they’re proud of being ignorant.

Mark Murray at MSNBC:

And the cover story in the latest National Review, entitled “Defend Her: Obama’s Threat to American Exceptionalism,” contends: “The president has signaled again and again his unease with traditional American patriotism. As a senator he notoriously made a virtue of not wearing a flag pin. As president he has been unusually detached from American history: When a foreign critic brought up the Bay of Pigs, rather than defend the country’s honor he noted that he was a toddler at the time. And while acknowledging that America has been a force for good, he has all but denied the idea that America is an exceptional nation.”

Of course, Obama was asked whether he believes in American exceptionalism while visiting Europe during the NATO summit. His response: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism. I’m enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world. If you think about the site of this summit and what it means, I don’t think America should be embarrassed to see evidence of the sacrifices of our troops, the enormous amount of resources that were put into Europe postwar, and our leadership in crafting an Alliance that ultimately led to the unification of Europe. We should take great pride in that.”

That question Obama was asked defined American exceptionalism as the United States being “uniquely qualified to lead the world.” Historians typically regard American exceptionalism as why the U.S. didn’t have socialist revolutions or strong working-class movements like most of Europe did in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Yet the conservative definition of American exceptionalism — particularly in the National Review article — is aimed at Obama’s efforts to reform the nation’s health-care system, enact cap-and-trade (which, ironically, is based on market principles), etc. Here’s National Review summing up what American liberals want: “Why couldn’t we be more like them — like the French, the like the Swedes, like the Danes? Like any people with a larger and busier government overawing the private sector and civil society?”

But if you read Obama’s speeches — from the president campaign and now as president — you see a president with a different idea of American exceptionalism: America’s unique ability to evolve and become a more perfect union. “This union may never be perfect,” he said in his famous ’08 speech on race, “but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected.”

“In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given,” he said in his inaugural address. “It must be earned.”

Here’s what he said in his Berlin speech during the presidential campaign: “We’ve made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions. But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived — at great cost and great sacrifice — to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world.”

So it’s not that Obama doesn’t think America is an exceptional nation; his own words debunk that critique.

Rather, it’s that conservatives and liberals have two very different ideas of what “exceptional” means.

UPDATE: Matthew Lee Anderson

Samuel Goldman at PomoCon

James Poulos at PomoCon

UPDATE #2: Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene

Victor Davis Hanson at The Corner

Friedersdorf on Hanson

DiA at The Economist

Greg Scoblete

Daniel Larison

UPDATE #3: Lowry and Ponnuru responds to critics

John Holbo on the reponse

Matthew Yglesias on the response

UPDATE #4: Friedersdorf responds to the response

Goldman responds to the response

Schmitz responds to the response

UPDATE #5: More Larison

UPDATE #6: Peter Lawler

UPDATE #7: James Poulos and Robert Farley on Bloggingheads

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Filed under Go Meta, Infrastructure

Dial “A” For Assassination

Dana Priest at WaPo:

U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops who in the past six weeks have killed scores of people, among them six of 15 top leaders of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate, according to senior administration officials.

The operations, approved by President Obama and begun six weeks ago, involve several dozen troops from the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists. The American advisers do not take part in raids in Yemen, but help plan missions, develop tactics and provide weapons and munitions. Highly sensitive intelligence is being shared with the Yemeni forces, including electronic and video surveillance, as well as three-dimensional terrain maps and detailed analysis of the al-Qaeda network.

As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was thought to be meeting with other regional al-Qaeda leaders. Although he was not the focus of the strike and was not killed, he has since been added to a shortlist of U.S. citizens specifically targeted for killing or capture by the JSOC, military officials said. The officials, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operations.

Glenn Greenwald:

But buried in Priest’s article is her revelation that American citizens are now being placed on a secret “hit list” of people whom the President has personally authorized to be killed:

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush gave the CIA, and later the military, authority to kill U.S. citizens abroad if strong evidence existed that an American was involved in organizing or carrying out terrorist actions against the United States or U.S. interests, military and intelligence officials said. . . .

The Obama administration has adopted the same stance. If a U.S. citizen joins al-Qaeda, “it doesn’t really change anything from the standpoint of whether we can target them,” a senior administration official said. “They are then part of the enemy.”

Both the CIA and the JSOC maintain lists of individuals, called “High Value Targets” and “High Value Individuals,” whom they seek to kill or capture.  The JSOC list includes three Americans, including [New Mexico-born Islamic cleric Anwar] Aulaqi, whose name was added late last year. As of several months ago, the CIA list included three U.S. citizens, and an intelligence official said that Aulaqi’s name has now been added.

Indeed, Aulaqi was clearly one of the prime targets of the late-December missile strikes in Yemen, as anonymous officials excitedly announced — falsely, as it turns out — that he was killed in one of those strikes.

Just think about this for a minute.  Barack Obama, like George Bush before him, has claimed the authority to order American citizens murdered based solely on the unverified, uncharged, unchecked claim that they are associated with Terrorism and pose “a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons and interests.”  They’re entitled to no charges, no trial, no ability to contest the accusations.  Amazingly, the Bush administration’s policy of merely imprisoning foreign nationals (along with a couple of American citizens) without charges — based solely on the President’s claim that they were Terrorists — produced intense controversy for years.  That, one will recall, was a grave assault on the Constitution.  Shouldn’t Obama’s policy of ordering American citizens assassinated without any due process or checks of any kind — not imprisoned, but killed — produce at least as much controversy?

Obviously, if U.S. forces are fighting on an actual battlefield, then they (like everyone else) have the right to kill combatants actively fighting against them, including American citizens.  That’s just the essence of war.  That’s why it’s permissible to kill a combatant engaged on a real battlefield in a war zone but not, say, torture them once they’re captured and helplessly detained.  But combat is not what we’re talking about here.  The people on this “hit list” are likely to be killed while at home, sleeping in their bed, driving in a car with friends or family, or engaged in a whole array of other activities.  More critically still, the Obama administration — like the Bush administration before it — defines the “battlefield” as the entire world.  So the President claims the power to order U.S. citizens killed anywhere in the world, while engaged even in the most benign activities carried out far away from any actual battlefield, based solely on his say-so and with no judicial oversight or other checks.  That’s quite a power for an American President to claim for himself.

James Joyner responds:

Drawing the line is difficult, indeed.  Most obviously, if said accused terrorist were located within the borders of the United States, it would be clearly illegal to simply assassinate him. (Provoking him into defending himself by kicking in his door late at night, thus necessitating killing him, would of course be permissible.) But that would be true, I should think, of Osama bin Laden himself, much less an American citizen.

On the other hand, we blow up suspected terrorists — or, even Taliban leaders — in commando raids and drone attacks in places like Pakistan without thinking about it.  Indeed, according to an official quoted in Priest’s report, “There have been more such strikes in the first year of Obama’s administration than in the last three years under President George W. Bush.”  No one seems to be complaining about the president’s authority to do this.  (Many question whether it’s a sound strategy, of course, but that’s a different issue entirely.)

Would it make any difference if the accused terrorist had American citizenship?   I’m not so sure.

Obviously, this is an awesome power and one that could easily be abused.  But it’s not at all clear where the line should be drawn.


This Dana Priest article is interesting for the way it fleshes out the way the US is working in Yemen (primarily), Pakistan, and Somalia. But note this line, which she kind of buries in there.

As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was thought to be meeting with other regional al-Qaeda leaders. Although he was not the focus of the strike and was not killed, he has since been added to a shortlist of U.S. citizens specifically targeted for killing or capture by the JSOC, military officials said. [my emphasis]

That is, somewhere there’s a list of Americans who, the President has determined, can be killed with no due process.


Of course, they said Jose Padilla had close ties to al Qaeda, but those turned out to be more tenuous than originally claimed. Likewise the case against John Walker Lindh. And there are any number of “aspirational” terrorists whom officials have claimed had joined al Qaeda.

But I guess the tenuousness of those ties don’t really matter, when the President can dial up the assassination of an American citizen.

Greg Scoblete

UPDATE: Eli Lake at The Washington Times

Conor Friedersdorf in the Daily Beast and Conor at TAS

UPDATE #2: Glenn Greenwald

Kevin Williamson at The Corner

Andy McCarthy at The Corner

Both of the above via Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene

Ed Morrissey

Spencer Ackerman at Washington Indpendent


Filed under GWOT, Middle East, The Constitution

Play The Game Called “Iran And Consequences”

James Phillips at The Heritage Foundation:

The Iranian regime’s drive for nuclear weapons, rapid progress in building up its ballistic missile arse­nal, ominous rhetoric about destroying Israel, and the failure of international diplomatic efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons program have potentially created a–literally–explosive situation. Israel may launch a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons infra­structure.

The United States would almost certainly be drawn into an Israeli-Iranian conflict. The Obama Adminis­tration must start planning now to counter and mini­mize the destabilizing consequences of an expected Iranian backlash. To mitigate the threats posed by Iran to U.S. national security and to protect U.S. interests, the United States must:


  • Wash­ington should not seek to block Israel from taking what it considers to be necessary action against an existential threat. The United States does not have the power to guarantee that Israel would not be attacked by a nuclear Iran in the future, so it should not betray the trust of a democratic ally by tying its hands now. Although an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program will entail increased risks for U.S. interests in the Middle East, these risks would be dwarfed by the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Not only would a nuclear Iran pose a much more dire direct threat to the U.S., Israel, and other allies, but Tehran might pass a nuclear weapon to one of its Islamist ter­rorist surrogates. Its support for terrorism against Israel, insurgent attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq, and subversive efforts against moderate Arab governments are likely to grow steadily if it believes its nuclear capability gives it a carte blanche to act with impunity. Moreover a nuclear Iran would induce many other Middle Eastern states to seek their own nuclear weapons. This cas­cade of nuclear proliferation would enormously increase the risks of a future nuclear exchange involving some combination of Middle Eastern nuclear powers, threaten Israel and other U.S. allies, and increase the risks of oil disruptions, even if Iran was not involved in a future crisis.
  • Prepare for war with Iran. Given that the United States is likely to be attacked by Iran in the aftermath of an Israeli strike anyway, it may be logical to consider joining Israel in a preven­tive war against Iran. But the Obama Administra­tion is extremely unlikely to follow this course. However, the Administration must be ready to respond to any Iranian attacks. It must prepare contingency plans and deploy sufficient forces to protect U.S. military forces and embassies in the Middle East; defend allies, oil facilities and oil tanker routes in the Persian Gulf; and target Iranian ballistic missile, naval, air force, and Rev­olutionary Guard forces for systematic destruc­tion. In the event of a conflict, Iran’s nuclear facilities should be relentlessly targeted until all known nuclear weapon-related sites are destroyed completely. Perhaps the preparations for such a war, combined with the knowledge that Washington will not restrain Israel, would enable cooler heads to prevail in Tehran before Israel is forced to take action to defend itself.

Steve Hynd at Newshoggers:

Let’s be clear here – Cohen is advocating a preventative nuclear attack by the US on Iran’s strategic facilities – that’s the only way any such attack from Iran could “fail”. And he’s advocating doing that if Israel first launches its own aggressive war on Iran, despite Russia’s seeing Iran as “a partner and an ad hoc ally to challenge U.S. power through the expansion of Russia’s regional and international influence”.

The Heritage Foundation wants the US to aid Israel while it starts World War 3. Lunacy.

Justin Logan at Cato:

Phillips notes uncritically Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s characterization of the Iranian state as a “a messianic apocalyptic cult” and points out that while the United States “has the advantage of being geographically further away from Iran than Israel and thus less vulnerable to an Iranian nuclear attack … it must be sensitive to its ally’s security perspective.”

Therefore we should accede to an Israeli preventive strike and prepare for the consequences.  What’s odd about Phillips’ piece is that he doesn’t seem to think that the United States should provide its own view as to when an attack would be smart and when it would not be.  Instead, we should just toss the keys to the Israelis and buckle up: “Wash­ington should not seek to block Israel from taking what it considers to be necessary action against an existential threat. The United States does not have the power to guarantee that Israel would not be attacked by a nuclear Iran in the future, so it should not betray the trust of a democratic ally by tying its hands now.”  This is a pretty high standard.  It’s very difficult to guarantee a third party won’t do something in the future.  If that’s the standard we’re using to determine when we allow ourselves to be sucked into wars, we’re in for a lot of wars.  Moreover, I’m clear on the logic of starting a war, but why wouldn’t we, as the larger power in the relationship, want to determine the timeline on which the attack occurs?  Why just defer to Tel Aviv?

Greg Scoblete:

Perhaps not surprisingly, while Phillips spends a lot of time in a very long report arguing for why and how the bombs should fall on Iran, and why the U.S. must fight for Israel, he writes not a single sentence – not one – discussing what steps the U.S. should take after it subjects Iranian sites to “systematic destruction.” Instead we’re treated to the potential for Iranian retribution and why the U.S. must subject itself to such reprisals for Israel’s sake and because a nuclear Iran would be a worse outcome than having both Iraq and Afghanistan destabilized, more U.S. troops killed, and a potentially recession-inducing naval showdown in Hormuz.

But I’m more interested in what happens after America attacks Iran. What if the government collapses? Do we occupy the country? Do we allow a power vacuum? Do we let a Revolutionary Guard commander assume control? A cleric? Could we exercise any control in Iran following an attack? And if the current regime hangs on and then redoubles their nuclear efforts, do we subject them to another pounding five years hence? As a famous general once observed, “tell me how this ends?”

We know from our rueful experience in Iraq that conservative defense intellectuals don’t pay much attention to the immediate aftermath of a conflict (with the exception of Max Boot). It’s apparently sufficient to start a war and then let the chips fall where they may. Not that we should have too much confidence in their predictive abilities on that front either, but it would be nice if those clamoring for a war with Iran could provide us with just a scintilla of analysis regarding U.S. policy in the aftermath.

Daniel Larison:

Conservative defense intellectuals tend not to pay much attention to the post-combat phase because they don’t believe the military should remain for very long after concluding “major combat operations” (as Mr. Bush described them six and a half years ago). There was little or no Phase IV planning in Iraq, as Ricks documented in Fiasco and Zelizer has noted in Arsenal of Democracy, because many of the top officials responsible for that planning had no desire and no real intention of remaining in Iraq long enough to need such planning.

Scoblete credits Boot with paying attention to post-combat planning, but we should remember that the reason Boot does this is that he is a neo-imperialist who openly advocates for pursuing an imperial role in the world. While Boot’s so-called “hard Wilsonians” are very willing to think about U.S. post-conflict policies, in that they have no trouble supporting prolonged or even permanent deployments all over the world, their policies are mostly informed by arrogant presumption, naive universalism and cultural ignorance. This usually dovetails with the conservative desire to do as little nation-building as possible, because most of Boot’s neoconservative colleagues assumed that Iraqi democratic government would spring up and flourish almost immediately on its own with a ready-made exile leadership. Other conservative internationalists may or may not have believed this, but it provided them with the reassurance that the war would not “devolve” into a nation-building exercise. As the mission largely became more focused on nation-building, most conservative internationalists did not abandon support for the war, but this was a function of undue conservative loyalty to the executive, especially when the President was from their own party.

A quick war to topple a dictatorial regime and install a friendly replacement appealed to a broad cross-section of conservatives, but the badly flawed predictions of what would happen after the invasion revealed the error of both the “light footprint” approach and the democratist political fantasy that made that approach seem workable. We heard all about how modernized, secular and educated Iraqis were, which made nation-building seem unnecessary and it made post-conflict policies seem redundant. More often than not, the “stabilization” the “hard Wilsonians” propose to bring to the country was not necessary before the war, and their willingness to stay does not reflect an interest in repairing the damage to the country devastated by their war. It is instead an opportunity to project U.S. power and to create new responsibilities for the military and national security state, which make it that much harder to reduce and/or reform both.


That brings us back to Iran. “Preventive” war against Iran unfortunately has considerable support, especially on the right, and one reason for this is the perceived low cost such a war would have. The cost is perceived to be low because it would initially be largely waged as an air war, and the memory of past U.S. air wars in the last twenty years is one of total dominance, success and very few American casualties. Of course, a war against Iran would not be an easy, short or cheap one, but I think the majority that supports such a war assumes that the costs would be few and the fighting would be over quickly. My guess is that James Phillips does not discuss what might or might not happen after the strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites because he does not think there is anything to discuss. This is another shared flaw that many conservatives who write on foreign policy and national security share, which is simple indifference to the consequences of our military actions.

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Filed under Israel/Palestine, Middle East

Suck, Suck, Sucking On Civil War

Thomas Friedman in NYT:

Last week, five men from northern Virginia were arrested in Pakistan, where they went, they told Pakistani police, to join the jihad against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They first made contact with two extremist organizations in Pakistan by e-mail in August. As The Washington Post reported on Sunday: “ ‘Online recruiting has exponentially increased, with Facebook, YouTube and the increasing sophistication of people online,’ a high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official said. … ‘Increasingly, recruiters are taking less prominent roles in mosques and community centers because places like that are under scrutiny. So what these guys are doing is turning to the Internet,’ said Evan Kohlmann, a senior analyst with the U.S.-based NEFA Foundation, a private group that monitors extremist Web sites.”

The Obama team is fond of citing how many “allies” we have in the Afghan coalition. Sorry, but we don’t need more NATO allies to kill more Taliban and Al Qaeda. We need more Arab and Muslim allies to kill their extremist ideas, which, thanks to the Virtual Afghanistan, are now being spread farther than ever before.

Only Arabs and Muslims can fight the war of ideas within Islam. We had a civil war in America in the mid-19th century because we had a lot of people who believed bad things — namely that you could enslave people because of the color of their skin. We defeated those ideas and the individuals, leaders and institutions that propagated them, and we did it with such ferocity that five generations later some of their offspring still have not forgiven the North.

Islam needs the same civil war. It has a violent minority that believes bad things: that it is O.K. to not only murder non-Muslims — “infidels,” who do not submit to Muslim authority — but to murder Muslims as well who will not accept the most rigid Muslim lifestyle and submit to rule by a Muslim caliphate.

What is really scary is that this violent, jihadist minority seems to enjoy the most “legitimacy” in the Muslim world today. Few political and religious leaders dare to speak out against them in public. Secular Arab leaders wink at these groups, telling them: “We’ll arrest if you do it to us, but if you leave us alone and do it elsewhere, no problem.”

How many fatwas — religious edicts — have been issued by the leading bodies of Islam against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda? Very few. Where was the outrage last week when, on the very day that Iraq’s Parliament agreed on a formula to hold free and fair multiparty elections — unprecedented in Iraq’s modern history — five explosions set off by suicide bombers hit ministries, a university and Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Arts, killing at least 127 people and wounding more than 400, many of them kids?

Tom Maguire:

My thought – the Civil War didn’t simply start one day.  The tension between the slave and free states had been obvious for decades (and forced a punt at the Constitutional Convention.)

So my question – does Mr. Friedman, or anyone else, see the early signs of an Islamic reformation?  Thomas Jefferson feared an eventual civil war at the time of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 – are there any comparable precursors to an Islamic reformation?

Saad Kahn at Huffington Post:

Thomas Friedman’s latest op-ed in the New York Times suggested that the Arab World and Muslims should stand up against the extremists and defeat them at their own turf. He said:

Arab and Muslims are not just objects. They are subjects. They aspire to, are able to and must be challenged to take responsibility for their world. If we want a peaceful, tolerant region more than they do, they will hold our coats while we fight, and they will hold their tongues against their worst extremists. They will lose, and we will lose — here and there, in the real Afghanistan and in the Virtual Afghanistan.While he has truly described the incompetence and inaction of the Muslims in combating extremism, his premise fall shorts on some core problems of the Islamic World. He has diagnosed the problem but has failed to mention an important aspect of this region. And that is freedom of speech.

There is practically no Islamic country where people are allowed to open their minds and hearts in public. They cannot even raise questions about their illegitimate governments and monarchies let alone raising voice against the extremists. Most of these extremists actually use this lack of freedom of speech to recruit from the Muslim World. They raise valid questions about the monarchies and dictatorships and then ask the disenfranchised youth to join their ranks. Even Al-Qaeda had its genesis in a strong opposition of the Saudi monarchy and Egyptian dictatorship but later graduated to a full-fledged terrorist outfit.

The situation is even worse in Pakistan, a supposedly fledgling democracy, as people have to fight a daily war of sustenance and thus find no time to combat extremists. Extremism and poverty are strange bedfellows. Jihadi outfits have set up seminaries in the poorest parts of Pakistan where they provide food, shelter and Islamic education to millions of students. Their poor and illiterate parents do not have any knowledge of Islam or what their children would be subjected to in these seminaries. They happily send them to these places as they can do away with a hungry mouth to feed.

Spencer Ackerman:

Yes, what problem can’t be solved by the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, egged on from the sidelines by a newspaper columnist? I love how later in the column Friedman can’t understand why there was “no meaningful condemnation emerging from the Muslim world” about select atrocities committed by Muslims. Well, maybe when the most important foreign affairs columnist for the world’s most important newspaper gets a boner from the prospect of mass Muslim deaths, maybe those leaders are going to worry about playing into his hands.

I’m not defending that practice. It’s always better to address an issue at its root, rather than get caught up in second- or third-order concerns. But we Jews have a Yiddishism, shanda ver der goyim, which at its heart is the very human impulse to say, “Stop airing our dirty laundry in public for the outsiders to see and use against us.” Maybe Friedman ought to think on this for awhile. You know, strategically. Like he gets paid oodles of cash to do.

More Ackerman, at Washington Independent:

No one ought to diminish the threat posed by Internet-borne extremism. But no one ought to inflate it, either. Lost in the pearl-clutching over viral and online takfirism is the fact that … those Virginians were promptly apprehended by the Pakistanis before they could do anything. And as I reported in my piece Monday, the more al-Qaeda’s recruitment goes online, the further it endangers itself to penetration by intelligence and law enforcement. The plots that don’t get busted up tend to be disturbed individuals acting alone. That’s a dangerous problem, of course, and one that requires vigilance. And here, yes, Friedman and others do have a point, since online fora for extremism can contribute to such acts even without serving as a conduit to specific terrorist organizations. But Friedman shouldn’t act as if this is a danger of equal intensity or that the United States is powerless to effect it.

Daniel Larison:

There are many, many problems with urging on a “civil war” among Muslims. I don’t expect Friedman to be careful in his choice of words, but his use of the phrase “civil war” shows how confused he is. A civil war is fought between citizens of the same polity for control of its government. By speaking of a “civil war” within Islam, he unwittingly writes as if he accepts a global Islamic polity as a reality and something over which Muslims of various stripes can fight one another to control. Obviously, such a polity does not and never will exist.

As he did late last month, Friedman is carelessly reproducing pan-Islamist ideas as part of his own effort at looking for red herrings because he doesn’t want to “look inward.” In his case, the red herring is the lack of Muslim outrage. Maybe Muslims should be expressing more outrage over jihadist atrocities, but Friedman is demanding impassioned reaction from hundreds of millions spread out across four continents in response to events that are mostly abstract and far removed from them. It could be that large numbers of these people appear indifferent or quiescent not because they approve of the atrocities or fear the jihadists who commit them, but simply that they are indifferent to events that occur thousands of miles away in other lands. What we have seen in Iraq and Pakistan is the revulsion local populations come to feel for jihadists who target their people. Unless I miss something, the only way Friedman is going to get the war he wants is for jihadists to become much more numerous and widely distributed throughout Muslim-majority countries so that every Muslim society can be terrorized and then react against the attackers. That would mean a dramatic increase in terrorism worldwide and all of the attendant excesses that various national governments would engage in to combat these threats.

What Friedman is trying to avoid looking at are all those aggressive policies that he has vociferously backed for years that have done so much to sow distrust of the U.S. among Muslims. If jihadists have been making gains, it is partly because we have provided them abundant provocations and attacks to use as fodder for their propaganda. These policies have radicalized entire populations. That is what wars do: they radicalize and intensify political and/or religious beliefs, and they typically empower maximalists and fanatics. As destructive as the conflicts he would wish upon all Muslims would be, the end result could still very well be a larger population of deeply radicalized people, which would be disastrous for the welfare of all these societies and likely damaging to the security of the U.S. and allied nations.

UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias

UPDATE #2: Atrios

Greg Scoblete

Daniel Larison


Filed under GWOT, Mainstream, Middle East, New Media, Religion

There’s A Draft Proposal… Paarrrrrty!


Joshua Keating at Foreign Policy:

The International Atomic Energy Agency says Iranian negotiators have agreed to a draft proposal to ship most of its uranium to Russia for enrichment. The deal must still be accepted by Tehran, as well as the government of France, Russia, and the United States.

Details have not been released, but the agreement likely involves Iran shipping 75 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile to Russia for further enrichment. If Iran followed through, this would reduce its stockpile to below what would be required to create a nuclear weapon. However, Iran could likely replace that stockpile “in little over a year,” according to David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security.

“I very much hope that people see the big picture, see that this agreement could open the way for a complete normalization of relations between Iran and the International community,” said IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei

Laura Rozen at Politico:

The comments came after three days of talks among representatives from the U.S., France, Russia, and Iran at the atomic agency. The draft plan has to be agreed by the countries’ capitals. ElBaradei said he had set Friday as the goal for countries to confirm the agreement.

Earlier this week, Iran had reportedly raised objections to France’s role in converting the further enriched uranium into nuclear medical isotopes, saying France had previously reneged on delivery of nuclear fuel from a consortium of which it has a share. The issue was solved almost twenty years ago bilaterally, a diplomat said. It’s not yet clear how the issue has been resolved in the latest plan.

While ElBaradei specified few details, diplomats told the Associated Press “that it was essentially the original proposal drawn up by the IAEA that would commit Tehran to shipping 75 percent of its enriched uranium stockpile to Russia for further enrichment.”

If implemented, such a plan would conceivably put several months back on the clock to try to resolve international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. The deal seemingly offers Iran the appearance of de facto international recognition of its enrichment program, if not acceptance. It also gives Iran and world powers a chance to see if the other comes through on their side of the deal.

“France and Russia have expressed their willingness to do this. We are not seeking it out,” said French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner of the deal. He also said that the 1.2 kilos of Iranian low enriched uranium must leave Iran “before the end of the year.”

Andrew Sullivan has a round-up. Out of his round-up, Spencer Ackerman:

This would represent the first time that anyone has succeeded in putting time back on the Iranian nuclear clock. It would be a major diplomatic victory for Obama, and for the Forces Of Good in general. A nuclear Iran is in no one’s interest.

Greg Scoblete:

If Iran does indeed ship the whole 2,600 pounds at once, I think we see the contours of the “least worst” outcome, where diplomacy can gum up the works a bit in Iran. Ultimately, Iran can still cheat and wiggle its way toward a bomb but – like North Korea during the 1990s Agreed Framework – they’ll have to work their way there along a more torturous path. Not ideal, but with an Iranian population clearly hostile to its current regime, any play for time is valuable.

Kevin Sullivan:

Keep in mind that Security Council gridlock pretty much mirrors 2006 circumstances; when Iran rejected a similar proposal by the Russians to enrich Iranian uranium. Western leverage appears no greater today than it was back then, and the differences between then and now are subtle. One reason for the sea change is the domestic discomfort inside Iran. Still smarting from the June 12 unrest, Tehran has some tough decisions to make in the coming months on public gas subsidies and declining oil prices are limiting Iranian options—to fulfill domestic consumption needs, the country must diversify its energy production. Multilateral or unilateral sanctions are not something they can afford at this time.

But I believe it was Washington’s acknowledgment of those energy needs and nuclear rights that has made a big difference in getting Tehran to play ball on this. To be fair, President Bush also paid similar lip service to Iran’s nuclear rights; but without direct talks Iran had little reason to move on the issue and calm Western nerves (again, that divided Security Council matter).

The Iranian regime wants the bomb for security and regional legitimacy. If the West can secure for them the first two items, Tehran may be willing to bend on the first.

Not from Sully’s round-up:

Kevin Drum:

It’s a positive step.  On the other hand, Iran’s ability to enrich LEU into weapons grade uranium is a little fuzzy right now, so it’s possible that this costs them nothing at all.  It will take them upwards of a year to replace the stockpile of LEU they send out of the country, but if they’re a year away from mastering the full enrichment cycle then this deal doesn’t actually slow them down any.

Still, this is good news.  It’s not great news, and I wouldn’t take it as a sign of a new era in Iranian relations or anything.  But it’s better than nothing.

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