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Monthly Archives: May 2011

Cruising Through the Middle East

May 21st, 2011 - 8:23 am

We’ve been traveling through Jordan, Egypt and Israel and are now steaming across the Med towards Rome on a lovely cruise ship, guests of National Public Television. After dreaming about Petra for more than twentyyears, we finally spent a day there and it exceeded all expectations, which were plenty glorious. It was delightful to learn from our archeologist-become-guide that Spielberg got it right. The building in which Indiana Jones chooses wisely and drinks from the holy grail, really was a temple, not–as it is officially called–the Treasury.

It’s more than two miles from the entrance to that building, and we lucked out on weather: sunny and warm, but not yet hot, and there’s lots of shade, so it was both good exercise and fabulous sight seeing. At a rudimentary cafe just past “the Treasury” we chatted with the owner/waiter, an illiterate Bedouin who is fluent in five languages, tried living in Naples with the love of his life, but couldn’t manage it. The two of them moved back to Petra. I’m not much good at travelogues, but if you ever get the chance, see Petra, truly one of the wonders of the world. And did you know (I did not) that Aaron is buried on a mountain top overlooking Petra? If you want to visit that place it’s a ten-day hike, no road…

So we went on to Egypt and then Israel, with the dramatic contrast between failed states and the booming modern country that Israel has become. In Jordan and Egypt, they are desperate for tourists. A hotel room in Luxor that normally goes for 300-400 dollars a night can be had for 40, and high ranking bureaucrats and archeologists are now tour guides, essentially working for tips. The ports are working a bit, but there is little in the way of decent technology, most of the loading and unloading is done by hand and shoulder, while the docks in Israel at Ashdod and Haifa are very high tech, the docks full of brand new Japanese automobiles etc etc.

So when I read of Obama yelling at the Israelis to come to terms with their neighbors, I just laugh. The Arab states have failed–one reason for the surge in radical Islam–and if there were any logic in the realm of Western diplomacy our leaders would note that it is the Arabs and Iranians who need to learn from the Israelis how to makea country work well.

But the deep thinkers are well and truly overwhelmed by their antipathy to Israel, and they cannot and will not take an honest look at the most elementary facts on the ground. Instead of lecturing Netanyahu about the importance of forty-year old borders, we should be lecturing what Obama calls “the Muslim world” about what a mess their world is, and pointing out that the Jews have it right.

And, as always, the big question–Iran–is finesssed. You can’t talk seriously about the Arab-Israeli thing until you’ve dealt with Iran, because the Iranian regime runs the terrorists’ networks. The Arabs couldn’t deliver peace to the Israelis even if they wanted to, because the Iranians hold all the trump cards.

The Iranian Death Spiral Resumes

May 9th, 2011 - 8:51 am

So now the Ahmadinejad people and the Khamenei people are fighting it out in the streets of Tehran, as Reza tells us.  Those who have followed this blog for some time will recognize it as the latest phase in what I call “The War of the Persian Succession,” a nasty fight over who will be the next Supreme Leader of Iran, after the passing of Khamenei.

Remember, too, that Mousavi — the leader of a Green Movement that is very much a player in this struggle — designed a strategy that would lead to the implosion of the regime, not its overthrow in a dramatic confrontation.  He believes that the internal conflicts are so severe, that if only pressure can be maintained, the system will come down.  He hoped that pressure would come from the West, but it didn’t (even though the sanctions have made life more difficult).  So the process is slower than it might have been, but still moving along the lines he designed.

I think it is unlikely that one “faction” will definitively prevail over the other.  The leader and the president are siamese twins, fused at a vital part of their anatomies, and separation might well be fatal to both.  Each  has weapons aimed at the other’s heart, and the weapons consist of information of massive fraud and theft.

The Greens issued a lengthy report on these practices, and on the skullduggery the contending forces are practicing on each other.  It’s quite spectacular (h/t Michael Rubin and Ali Alfoneh):

  • “Following clerical criticism of Ahmadinejad’s behavior and the policies of his government, Ahmadinejad supporters have pressured the theologians through the Counter Espionage Directorate of the Revolutionary Guards… By installing listening devices in their classes and their offices, they have tried to force them to cooperate with the government and approve of his [Ahmadinejad's] initiatives… In reaction, some theologians threatened to react and put the government in its place, which led the Revolutionary Guards to station special forces units in Qum to suppress any unpredictable movement… This has further angered the theologians.”
  • “Following the Office of the Supreme Leader’s decision to transfer the main part of the oil revenue to a special account supervised by a three man group headed by Mojtaba Khamenei… Ahmadinejad used the first cabinet session following this decision to attack Mr. Khamenei and his entourage. He called this decision insulting and restriction of the cabinet’s access to the oil revenue. He [Ahmadinejad] called the Supreme Leader ‘ignorant’ and a ‘tool.’”
  • “Ahmadinejad has recently sent [Intelligence Minister] Heydar Moslehi the names of 45 senior Intelligence Ministry officials and has demanded their dismissal… Ahmadinejad had also said that according to the investigations of the Revolutionary Guards Counter Espionage Directorate, these individuals had not shown the necessary loyalty towards the cabinet and must be replaced with a number of individuals soon to be identified by the cabinet… Heydar Moslahi had in his report to Ayatollah Khamenei called ‘acceptance of this demand’ a ‘serious blow to the body of the Intelligence Ministry.’”
  • “In Moslehi’s report, there is also account of surfacing of a number of microphones in the wake of infiltration of the ministry by members of the Revolutionary Guards Counter Espionage units… According to the report, with Ahmadinejad’s knowledge, the Office of the Supreme Leader too was tapped.”
  • “In February, a group of internal security forces close to Ahmadinejad visited Dubai as a trade mission….They also met with two American political/military authorities in the United Arab Emirates. In the report, the Intelligence Ministry has strongly warned the Leader of the consequences of such deeds.”
  • “The Ministry of Industries has in a confidential report to the parliament – officially also submitted to the Intelligence Ministry – reported that it is not capable of explaining the oil and industrial agreements between Iran and China and Iran and Malaysia and is not aware of their content. The Ministry of Industries has also reported that it has not played any role in those activities. Following the disclosure of the report in the parliament, Ahmadinejad sarcastically tells the Industry Minister: ‘This is why we have decided to dissolve the Ministry of Industries.’”
  • “The Oil Ministry has in a report to the parliamentary Energy Committee stressed that it is completely ignorant of the level of fuel exports through the tenth countrywide pipeline and is not willing to accept any responsibility in this regard since this pipeline is not at all under the ministry’s control and its revenues are not sent to the government….The report also discloses that the Kish subsea pipeline – built by the Revolutionary Guards and Chinese companies – exports great amounts of fuel which has resulted in $3 billion discrepancy in the oil revenue, which the Oil Ministry no longer desires to be accountable for. According to the Intelligence Ministry, the 600 kilometers long Ahwaz-Dehgolan pipeline, has resulted in $580 million embezzlement by the Revolutionary Guards. The amount has been tracked to two personal accounts in Malaysia. There is also report of $2 billion embezzlement in the Neka-Jask pipeline. The amount has been traced to personal bank accounts – in China – of several senior Revolutionary Guards commanders.”

The entirety of the country’s oil and gas business is now in the hands of Khamenei’s son.  There is no oversight from the “government,” and when the deputies in the Majlis tried a bit of earmarking, they found the cupboard was bare:

IranChannel reported on March 18 that the mullahs in parliament found $11 billion missing from the state-controlled petrodollar fund in Iran’s foreign exchange account. On April 29, Asriran.com reported that a member of parliament declared that not even a dollar was left in that account. Reviewing the current budget, the head of the parliamentary agricultural committee proposed $2 billion from the foreign reserve account to fund water projects, to whom the head of the joint (talfigh) committee replied that nothing, not even a dollar, remained.

No surprise, then, that there is still no approved national budget for the year that began in March.  There are varying reports of whether food subsidies will be extended, cancelled, reduced or increased. The numbers we have on the economy are impressively negative.  The government’s bank debt has risen 35% in the last 9 months;  unemployment is up, labor protests are increasing…

Indeed, aside from stealing, the only thing this regime is still able to do is torture and kill.  There are many reports of the Iranian involvement in the Syrian slaughter, most recently a story — which I have confirmed — that Khamenei has ordered the Iraqi-based “Sadr Army” (you remember Muqtadah al Sadr, surely) to send thousands of killers into Syria to save the Assad regime.  Previous stories identified Hezbollah killers as snipers in Syrian cities, and Revolutionary Guards officers acting as commanders in the field and advisers in Damascus.

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The Torture Question

May 7th, 2011 - 8:02 pm

It’s not a simple matter, not at all. It’s so complicated that it’s what the Europeans call “transversal,” it cuts across established political and ideological lines. Haven’t you been surprised to find presumed righties rejecting aggressive interrogation and presumed lefties accepting it?

One of my gurus in things military is David Galula, a French officer who fought in Algeria and then went to Harvard to write one of the classics on counterinsurgency. Before going to Algeria, he hated torture and vowed to do everything he could to end the practice. He never lost his hatred of it — for what it did to the victims and also what it did to the practitioners — but slowly, reluctantly, he was compelled to admit that it sometimes works. This was a terrible realization. It’s one of the things that makes torture such a horrible question. You can be against it, as Galula was, and as I am, and still admit that maybe there are times…

I have written against torture, on the grounds that a man will do and say many things in order to stop the pain. He will often invent information that he thinks will make you stop. I think that’s intuitively obvious, and it seriously undermines the case for torture, as for methods that may fall short of someone’s definition of “torture” but still inflict physical and/or psychological pain.

On the other hand, sometimes it works. I have met professional interrogators who are adamant that torture is never necessary. They say that a skilled interrogator, or team of interrogators, can do the job. It may take a while, but they will get there. I believe them. And I wish we could close the discussion there. Except there’s the Jack Bauer scenario, a WMD is set to kill lots and lots of us, and you’ve got a prisoner who knows the whole story. He refuses to discuss it. At all. Interrogation is a non-starter. Now what?

Torture might work, and might work fast enough to save a lot of lives. Or not. I don’t know the details of the Khalid Sheikh Mohammed waterboarding, which is sometimes presented as if it were a quick fix, and sometimes as if he had to be repeatedly subjected  to it, and even so it took quite a while until he coughed up the precious information that led us to his co-conspirators. As it turned out, we had more time than we feared. Maybe a good interrogator could have broken down his resistance in an acceptable time frame. If so, would our moral universe be better if we hadn’t put him on a board and made him fear we were going to drown him? Yes, I think  so.

But suppose you don’t have the time, and suppose lives — the lives of your people — are on the line. Do you try torture?

Call it by its proper name: it’s evil (even though our “torture methods” don’t begin to compare with those commonly used by our enemies. Not remotely. There are degrees of evil, after all). Are you willing to, as Machiavelli put it so elegantly but typically brutally, “enter into evil”? He insisted that there will inevitably be times when leaders, if they want to prevail, must be willing to do it. He has rules — do it fast, do it all at once, exit evil as quickly as you can — but you will have done an evil thing and you will have tarnished your soul. And the national soul as well.

Machiavelli believes in Christian virtue and he believes every man should strive to live a virtuous life. “Entering into evil” is the opposite, and yet … and yet, there will be those moments when it is necessary if you are to prevail.

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“I’m sorry, you know I can’t disclose my location.”

It was the spirit of my long-deceased friend, James Jesus Angleton, whom I’d reached via ouija board for what I hoped would be a highly informative conversation, but the way he spat out that phrase suggested I may have asked the wrong question.  I wanted to know if he’d had the chance to talk to Osama bin Laden’s ghost, and yes, I knew that if Angleton said “yes” it would finally tell me where he was residing.

ML:  “Sorry, I didn’t mean it that way, but you know there are lots of questions about the operation that sent him away from this level.”

JJA:  “And how!  We can talk about it, love to.  It’s a counter-intelligence playground, there are scads of different ways to interpret it.  But the version from the White House is probably one of the least likely, and the fact that they’ve changed their story — including key details — suggests that they wanted to cover up the genesis of the operation.”

ML:  “You mean you don’t believe the story about tracking the courier?”

JJA:  “Well, duh, of course we tracked couriers.  But unless you sit down and talk to the courier, and unless you decide to believe what he says, just watching a courier doesn’t give you operational intelligence, like the floor plan of the villa and the number of people inside, and the condition of the target and are there weapons there, blah blah.”

ML:  “So you’re saying that we needed a human source?”

JJA:  “At least one, maybe more.  It’s best if you have more than one, it gives you some confidence that your information is accurate.”

ML:  “And that source or sources?  Who could they be?”

JJA:  “Just to be precise, we should not be so antiseptic in our language.  I’m saying that Osama was betrayed.  Somebody who knew the details — or maybe several somebodies — delivered him to us.  So the question is, who betrayed him?  And why?”

ML:  “Good, now we’re getting someplace.  And then there’s another question, a very big question:  what did we pay the traitor?”

JJA:  “Right, that’s always a key issue in espionage.”

ML:  “Yeah, the spooks love to talk about their tradecraft, about how potential recruits have weaknesses, some want money, some want sex, some are in it for political or ideological motives…”

JJA:  “Don’t pay too much attention to stories about recruitment.  The most important agents are usually walk-ins.  We didn’t recruit a single major spy during the Cold War;  they came to us.  Every last one of them…”

ML:  “Well you should know!  So who walked in?”

JJA:  “Probably the Paks. They work with lots of AQ terrorists, as we know.  Second choice:  A high-ranking al-Qaeda person, someone of the stature of a Zawahiri.”

ML:  “The Paks?  But everyone in Washington is saying that we were being taken for a ride by the Paks.  They had to know bin Laden was in that villa, but they never told us.  The bastards were taking our money at the same time they were protecting our number one target.”

JJA:  “Yes, yes.  Which means they had the opportunity to betray him.”

ML:  “Why would they want to do that if they were in cahoots with him?”

JJA:  “There are many possible reasons.  One is that things were going badly with us — look at all the tough language coming from the likes of General Petraeus and from leading members of Congress and several spoon-fed journalists — and the gift of bin Laden would make for a happier Obama administration.”

ML:  “A happier America, in fact.”

JJA:  “Precisely so.  The Paks don’t want to lose all that money, and an angry America at a time of huge budget deficits is risky for them.”

ML:  “So we promise to continue the cash flow in exchange for bin Laden?”

JJA:  “And more.”

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Because President Obama has got it ass-backwards. Ryan Lizza in the New Yorker says that our seemingly incoherent policy — which Krauthammer calls “ad hoc” — is driven by two ideas:  “that the relative power of the U.S. is declining, as rivals like China rise, and that the U.S. is reviled in many parts of the world.” Therefore, we shouldn’t try to lead from the front, but quietly, modestly, and humbly try to get others to take the lead, and then join in.

Suppose we change the terms of reference to domestic politics, and ask how Obama should conduct his reelection campaign. How does this sound: since the relative power of Obama is declining, as rivals like Palin and Trump rise, and since Obama is reviled in many parts of the country, the president shouldn’t be out in front, but get others to take the lead, and then join in?

No one pretending to understand the president would ever say such a thing, because it’s so obviously nonsensical. Who would vote for someone who never tried to lead the country, but only said “me too” when he heard something he agreed with?

Nobody, that’s who. And yet we’re supposed to accept, perhaps even admire, that he runs the ship of state that way. I give it three letters:  NOT.

It’s nonsensical and unbelievable, it’s the textbook case of lipstick on the swine. Charles Krauthammer  deconstructs it with pitiless care: nobody, including China, is in a position to challenge us militarily; yes, others dislike us, as they always have — not, as Obama seems to believe, only since the end of the Cold War — that goes with the territory. American presidents have accepted that, and gotten on with it.

But our wimp-in-chief , as presented by the New Yorker, isn’t about to do that, and not because he has thought deeply about the nature of modern leadership (as Krauthammer wryly remarks, “leading from behind” is an oxymoron). He believes in his own charisma (“I have a special gift,” he has said), and so he expects all the right people — from his domestic “base” to the media, and to the “progressive intellectuals” throughout the world — to accept whatever he comes to say.

Because it’s all about saying, not doing. Like all legislators, he’s a believer in the magic of words, in the power of public oratory. That’s what they do for a living, after all. They don’t run anything, they don’t make tough decisions, they give speeches. And if a speech turns out to have been wrong, well, they give another speech.

With rare exceptions, his foreign policy speeches have been quite consistent: he viscerally sides with our revilers, believing that America lacks standing to take the lead on the crucial issues of our time. Rejecting, as he does, the very idea that America represents something uniquely praiseworthy in the modern world, he is not trying to advance either our interests or our values as most Americans understand them, but instead apologizes for previous presidents who did that.

That’s what leading with your behind is all about.

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