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The Myth of Iranian Partnership

October 6th, 2013 - 7:15 pm

Dexter Filkins is a good reporter and an honest man, but he’s been gulled by an American diplomat.  He’s bought into one of the silly myths that unfortunately define the way American policy makers and intellectuals think about Iran.

In his long essay about Quds Force commander General Suleimani in the New Yorker, Mr. Filkins quotes Ryan Crocker, one of our better diplomats, about dealing with Iran.  Crocker had been meeting with Suleimani on the eve of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, shortly after 9/11.

“Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban,” Filkins tells us.  Actually, it wasn’t too hard to sense their mood, since “the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. ‘If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!’ he shouted. ‘When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.’ He stomped out of the room. ‘It was a great moment,’ Crocker said.”

If you say so.  A bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but great moments are in the eyes of the beholder.  Anyway, Filkins-citing-Crocker tells us that we were getting along well with the Iranians (we were swapping “information”) until the cowboy in the White House wrecked everything:

The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.” The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.”

Diplomats, like intellectuals, take words very seriously, and Crocker was furious that Bush had called out the Iranians.  But then, presidents take words seriously too, and Crocker might have understood the moment better if he’d asked himself if perhaps the president knew something that the dips didn’t.  He could have asked me, too, because this was one of the few occasions on which I actually knew something that most of the world, evidently including distinguished men like Crocker, did not:  that the Iranians were busily sending killers into Afghanistan with orders to assassinate American troops there.

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Davy Crockett and The Great Shutdown of ’13

October 1st, 2013 - 7:39 pm

When I was very young — 25, or thereabouts — I had just arrived in Florence to start learning Italian with a proper Tuscan accent, and as I was mastering the subtleties of the menu in the student mensa and urgent phrases like “where’s the bathroom, please?”, the government fell (over Vietnam, no less).  This was a first for me, and I didn’t realize it was actually fairly normal in my soon-to-be second country, and I was plenty worried.  So the next morning I struck up a bit of a conversation with the nice man at the coffee bar down the block.

“There’s no government,” I observed.

“Right,” he said.

“What are we going to do?”  I asked

“God willing it will last, and they won’t raise taxes.”

It was the first time my mind had entertained the thought that a country without a sitting government might not be a total catastrophe.

We’re not in anything like that condition, as everybody knows.  We’ve still got a government, and our elected officials are arguing about how much of our money to spend, and on what.  And along these lines, please take a few minutes to read the best commentary on the so-called “shutdown” from America’s most literate newspaper, the New York Sun.  It’s unsigned, but it reads like Seth Lipsky, America’s greatest living editor, and the author of a fine book on the Constitution.

Whoever wrote it makes a couple of great points that have gone missing in the wild debate over “whose fault is it?”  First, that it’s quite wrong to talk about “defunding Medicare,” since it hasn’t ever been funded.  And second, contrary to the president’s rant about Congress fulfilling its legal responsibilities, the Constitution contains no requirement that Congress vote a budget.  The Sun says it better than I can, so read it, but those are the takeaways.

Meanwhile, there’s the question the newsies keep asking, namely “whose fault is it?” That is actually a tricky way of saying “we’re blaming the Republicans.”  But there’s a prior question, the one prompted by my coffee guy in Florence in 1965:  Is this such a bad thing?  Yes, people are suffering, including two family members who are currently without pay.  Yes, it’s horrible that the Scrooges in the White House and the Democrat Party won’t pony up the money for the sick kids in federally funded hospitals.  Etcetera, etcetera.

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As advertised, Hassan Rouhani was the star of the week at the Great UN Circus.  He knew it, and he treated his American hosts with arrogance and contempt, and was duly hailed as a peace-seeker.  He spent hours and hours with diplomats (just not American ones), journalists, academic apologists such as Gary Sick, and anti-American rabble rousers like Louis Farrakhan, but he didn’t have time for President Obama.

No matter.  When the Iranians told the White House that Rouhani could squeeze in a few words on the phone, Obama eagerly called him up, thereby giving the journalists and apologists the opportunity to use their prepared language about “historic conversation,” etcetera etcetera and so forth.

Rouhani’s basic message was to say “you’d better be nice to me, or you’ll get the hardliners,” and some nasties from central casting duly appeared on cue at the Tehran airport when Rouhani returned from satanic New York City, shouting at the president and even throwing a shoe.  A couple of the demonstrators were arrested, underscoring their presumed menace (anyone who believes the “protest” was spontaneous badly needs a lower-school refresher course in totalitarianism).  It was overkill;  Obama wants a deal.  He doesn’t need further convincing.

And he’s willing to pay for it.  Quite a lot, in fact.  Even before Rouhani deigned to take Obama’s call, we had given the Islamic Republic an ancient treasure, a cup crafted two millenia before Mohammed, said to be worth at least a million dollars.

Remember that Obama gave the Brits a collection of his favorite speeches.

Why such largesse?  It’s a shocking present, way beyond the normal.  Orders of magnitude greater, in fact.  What had the Iranians done to deserve it?

I don’t know, but if I were forced to answer, I’d reply with another question:  what did Obama and Rouhani talk about?  Yes, I know they exchanged pleasantries about wanting a happier world, but there was one subject raised by Obama.  A “senior administration official” told the press on background about it:

The fate of three U.S. citizens who have disappeared or been imprisoned in Iran was discussed during Friday’s historic conversation between the two nations’ presidents, a senior U.S. administration official said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, during his phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, “noted our concern about three American citizens who have been held within Iran — Robert Levinson, Saeed Abedini, and Amir Hekmati — and noted our interest in seeing those Americans reunited with their families,” the official said.

Levinson is a former FBI agent who was disappeared from Kish Island several years ago.  He was said to be investigating cigarette smuggling.  Abedini is an Iranian-American Christian minister arrested and charged with subversion.  Hekmati is an Iranian-American Marine who was said to be visiting relatives in Tehran, and was arrested and charged with espionage.

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The Iranians Are Coming!

September 22nd, 2013 - 7:13 pm

Hasan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, is going to be in New York this week, and the dips and pundits are very excited.  They think there’s a chance for a breakthrough, maybe even two or three breakthroughs:

● A deal on the Iranian nuclear weapons program;

● Progress on the Syrian deal;

● A great leap forward in American-Iranian “relations.”

The last would produce some sort of “normalization,” involving an exchange of diplomatic representations, at a maximum the restoration of full relations for the first time since the seizure of American hostages in Tehran in the early months of the Islamic Revolution.  Even a “chance encounter” between Rouhani and Obama will be treated as a major event, and you can expect to read language like “for the first time in decades, American and Iranian leaders met face to face.”

That language is false.  There have been myriad face-to-face encounters, and other claims about Rouhani are also false. A recent puff piece in the New York Times summed up the conventional wisdom:

Long known as fiercely intelligent, he became renowned after the revolution for his ability to navigate a system dominated by ideologues, building consensus among many opposing forces. Those close to him describe Mr. Rouhani as the golden boy of the Islamic republic’s close-knit group of leaders and a deal maker who has had a direct hand in most of Iran’s major foreign policy decisions over the past three decades.

He was one of three Iranian officials to meet with the former national security adviser Robert McFarlane when he secretly visited Tehran in 1986 to arrange the arms-for-hostages deal that would later erupt into the Iran-contra scandal.

Golden Boy is the man of the week.  But I don’t think he met McFarlane.  At the time, he was an obscure clerical nothingburger.  I believe that the key Iranian at the 1986 meetings was Mohammad Javad Larijani, the eldest of five very powerful brothers.  And M.J. Larijani has continued to function as a back channel to the White House;  I’m quite confident that he has met with high-ranking Obama officials in the Middle East and in Geneva.

I wonder if any of the journalists will ask Mr. Rouhani how he liked the key-shaped cake that McFarlane et. al. brought him…maybe they will, expecting him to come out with a witty line.  They are less likely to quote one of his public statements about the United States:

“We need to express ‘Death to America’ with action. Saying it is easy.”

Nor do I expect to hear a lot about Rouhani’s self-satisfied discussion of how he tricked the West into thinking that Iran had suspended its nuclear enrichment efforts, when it was actually speeded up.

There is more. 

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Obama and the Red Queen

September 11th, 2013 - 7:53 am

As the Red Queen once put it, “All have won and all must have prizes.”  As I listen to the debate over What To Do About Syria, it often seems that they’re all right.  They all make sense, from the all-out bombers to the total isolationists.  Those who say we’ve got no dog in the Syrian fight sound right, as do those who say doing nothing would be a disaster for the United States, along with those who say intervention would uphold the standards of civilization, and those who say American intervention risks unleashing even greater barbarism on the poor Syrians, and beyond.

Here are the sensible arguments I hear:

The use of chemical weapons should certainly be punished.  Otherwise, the long-established taboo against the awful things will be proven worthless, and Assad and others will keep using them.  Ergo, it’s right to punish Assad.

On the other hand, punishment might not be good enough.  The Syrian ruler presumably used the chemical weapons because he was afraid of being defeated.  He’d heard about the “red line,” and he did it anyway.  A limited strike that does not threaten Assad’s hold on power is unlikely to convince him to change course.  Ergo, he has to be punished in a big way, so that he learns his lesson.

On the other hand again, a big assault might threaten Assad’s regime.  Suppose he falls.  Will things get better?  Plenty of smart people say that things might very well get worse, because Syria might thereby be brought under the control of radical anti-Western fanatics, including elements of al-Qaeda.

Furthermore, both the Russians and the Iranians, both of whom have a lot invested in Assad’s survival, say they will respond to an attack.  What exactly does that mean?  It’s not altogether clear, but what if an American bomber were shot down by Russian or Iranian forces?  The consequences might be horrific (big war — world war, even?).  Ergo it’s best not to go down THAT road.

Furthermore again, what’s our national interest in the outcome of the war?  We don’t like Assad, but we don’t like a lot of those fighting him, either.  Ergo, it’s best to stay out, then try to sort things out afterwards.

On yet another hand, if we do nothing, it seriously undermines American credibility, and therefore American security.  No future “red line” is likely to deter anyone, anywhere.  Retreat now would encourage Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Guards to conclude that we won’t do anything in future confrontations.  Specifically, our “red line” on Iranian nukes would be erased.  Ergo we must act, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s strategically necessary.

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Sending Messages to Tehran

September 9th, 2013 - 6:48 pm

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough knows a lot about the president’s thinking and feeling about the world.  Remember that the about-face on Syria followed a long walk-and-chat involving the two of them.  So we should pay attention to what he says:

White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sunday that an impending U.S. attack on Syria would send a message to Iranian leaders that they should not feel free to develop nuclear weapons.

I think we should take that as a direct text message from the president.  What does it mean, exactly?   For starters, it surely means that American calculations are not limited to Syria alone.  We’re also thinking about Iran, which is entirely proper.  As I’ve said, Syria isn’t an independent actor.  Assad’s survival depends on Iran and Russia, therefore Khamenei and Putin are bigtime players.  On the ground, Khamenei matters more than Putin, because so much of the fighting is actually conducted by Iranian forces.  But in the “international arena” Putin is a major player, as we see from the global sigh of expectant relief at the news of his proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under “international control.”  As if that worked in Iraq…

So it’s altogether understandable that Obama would be thinking about Iran at the same time he thinks about Syria.  They are part of the same big problem, along with Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Kurdistan.  If the Iranians get their nukes, it will be bad for Obama (never mind the consequences in the real world; politicians’ first concern is for that handsome devil in the mirror), and so his decisions, such as they are, elsewhere in the world are pushed through the Iranian filter.  How will this play in Tehran?

That’s the meaning of McDonough’s statement about “sending a message.”  If Obama wimps out on Syria the Iranians will figure that he’ll wimp out on them, too.  If you had any doubts, here’s Susan Rice, the national security advisor:

“We will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Rice declared. “As the president has said, all options remain on the table. For our efforts to succeed, however, the leaders in Tehran must know that the United States means what we say.”

“If we do not respond when Iran’s close ally uses weapons of mass destruction, what message does that send to Iran? It risks suggesting that the international community cannot muster the will to act when necessary,” Rice said.

And here’s Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel:

“A refusal to act would undermine the credibility of America’s other security commitments — including the president’s commitment to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” he said, adding, “The word of the United States must mean something.”

Which is fair enough, so far as it goes, which isn’t really far enough.  Because the Iranians have already reached that conclusion.  They’re not sitting around wondering what we are going to do; they are pushing their advantage on all fronts, in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan…and Nigeria, for that matter.  They think they’ve got us on the run, and the Putin scheme reflects that.  He’s pulling the global plug on the president, at once underlining Obama’s indecisiveness, his weakness at home, and his impotence.

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Tyrants have always wanted to control the minds of their subjects, which is why the schools are so important for the future of liberty.  Once the state gets its claws on the schools, it imposes texts and curricula that enhance its power and advance its ideology.  The advocates of statism understand this well, and they are willing to fight violently to maintain and extend their control.

The Europeans are a tempo ahead of us in this very nasty business, but our guys are doing their best to catch up.  A recent story deals with American injustice working in tandem with German authorities to thwart a German family’s efforts to educate their own children.

The Romeike family, Christian evangelicals, wanted to homeschool their children, but the German authorities wouldn’t permit it.  So the Romeikes came to America (Tennessee, to be precise), where there’s lots of homeschooling, and where a federal judge granted them asylum.  The Germans didn’t like that, and the Obama/Holder Justice Department ordered the extradition of the family back to Germany, where, in another recent case, German police dragged off four children from their homeschooling parents.  The Justice Department ordered the extradition of the Romeikes on the basis that “banning homeschooling teaches tolerance of diverse views.”

You couldn’t ask for a better example of Orwellian doublespeak.  The German state isn’t interested in “diverse views” at all;  it went to great effort to compel the Romeikes to deliver their children to the official teachers of the officially approved version of the truth.  That version is political correctness written in long words with most of the verbs coming at the end.

The Europeans are steadily advancing toward maximum indoctrination of their youngsters, perhaps inspired by the old dictum, for which the Jesuits are usually credited, “give me a child at the age of seven and I will give you the man.”  The most dramatic example comes from France, where the Socialist government is explicitly imposing a new state religion on the country’s schools.

“The French Revolution is not over” is both the title of a new book by Vincent Peillon, the education minister, and the mission statement for that country’s latest experiment with totalitarian democracy, the doctrine of the Terror during the 18th-century revolution.  According to Peillon, it’s not enough to simply transform France “materially”; the time has come to remake the French people morally and spiritually.  Therefore “we must invent a Republican religion,” and he’s got one: “secularism (laicite’).”

Peillon explains in the video accompanying his book that the values of the past (especially religious ones) have to be guillotined, to be replaced by a new secular ethical code. The schools are the instrument of choice (the new secular ethics will be required study in French schools as of 2015).  He calls for “a transubstantiation that works within and for the school, the new church with its new ministers, its new liturgy and its new tablets of law.”

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What The Hell Is Going On?

September 2nd, 2013 - 8:36 am

So far as we know, most everyone in the government was expecting the bombing would start on Saturday afternoon, Washington, D.C., time.  Government officials, above all those with expertise in military operations, were told to cancel their Labor Day vacations and show up for overtime work.  No golf for them!  Then President Obama–in the face of most all the advice from his “national security team” (I even heard a national radio network broadcaster call it “the war cabinet”)–changed his mind.  Suddenly.  Unexpectedly.  Surprisingly.

How?  Why?

The story about the sudden change of mind has been carefully fed to the scribblers.  It’s been written and rewritten many times.  But it doesn’t make sense, unless you believe in sudden epiphanies, or bolts from the blue, or ongoing revelation, and there’s no evidence that the president believes such things.

So I ask again:  How?  Why?  We don’t have an answer, which suggests to me that we’re missing some key element in the story.

Presidential decisions are sometimes driven by real events in the real world, and sometimes by private conversations among a very small group of intimates.  During the Carter years, for example, it was said that you never knew what he was going to do until the last conversation prior to handing down his verdict.  If you were an intimate, you wanted to be the last person on his dance card before the band started to play.  Other presidents have had different methods, but personal interplay is always important.

Note that this sort of “process” greatly favors people with offices in the White House.  They only have to walk down the hall, whereas the cabinet secretaries have to drive across town, or even across the river.  That takes time.  Access=influence, so the guys and gals down the hall, including the gal who shares the living quarters, have more of it than those across town or on the other side of the Potomac.

Ergo, it may well be that somebody got to the president late Friday and said something that got him to reverse course.  Those who believe that Valerie Jarrett is the eminence grise of the Obama years will wonder if she prevailed over the War Cabinet, as when she–once?  several times?  accounts vary…–lobbied against the Kill bin Laden operation.  Those who think Chief of Staff Denis McDonough is the key actor will point to the long walk he took with his boss on Saturday morning as the key event.  Those who think Michelle does foreign policy (and those who don’t think first ladies are key players on ALL policy matters should report for reeducation) will look there for the answer.

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Syria: the Dead Spook Solves It

August 28th, 2013 - 8:06 pm

I think I woke him up.  That would be the spirit of my late friend James Jesus Angleton, former chief of CIA Counterintelligence, literary editor, aficionado of James Joyce, and interrogator of Ezra Pound.  I’d invested a small fortune getting my ouija board in good working order, and it was working beautifully.  Angleton, on the other hand, was clearing his throat and coughing, as you might expect from a man who was never without a cigarette.  But I was hoping to get some guidance from him on the Syrian-war-about-to-happen, and his time zone was always unclear…

ML:  Sorry, sorry, shall I try again later?

JJA:  (Voice even more gravelly than usual.)  Just give me a second.  Where’s the water?  Ah, there (drinks, then two deep breaths).  Better.  You want to talk about Assad I imagine?

ML:  The whole thing.  Assad, Obama, Khamenei, Rouhani…

JJA:  Oh good.  How can I help?

ML:  Do you think the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against the “opposition”?

JJA:  Yes.  Or maybe the Iranians, or the two together.  It all comes to same thing.  And not just this incident, but many times.

ML:  Dexter Filkins, who’s a good reporter and an honest man, tells us that the opposition groups have claimed up to thirty-five chemical attacks.

JJA:  Yes, and I tend to believe our intel guys when they say the opposition doesn’t have such weapons.

ML:  Do you think we’re going to bomb Syria?

JJA:  Haven’t the vaguest.  I don’t think the president does, either.  He’ll be getting plenty of advice to the contrary.

ML:  Valerie Jarrett, as usual?

JJA:  Lots of folks, including allies.  Do you see Cameron as the reincarnation of Blair?  Do you think the Brits really want to attack Damascus?  I think the French are more likely to push for action.

ML:  Really?

JJA:  Have you already forgotten about Mali?  That was France…

ML:  Fair enough.

JJA:  The Brits will publicly support whatever Obama says, but remember that their lawyers told Blair, back when, that he needed a clear UN resolution to attack Iraq, or he risked being prosecuted for war crimes.  Cameron doesn’t have Blair’s resolve, so far as I can tell, and I’ll bet he’s trying to get Obama to let the UN decide whether to attack.

ML:  Clearly, Obama doesn’t want to do anything serious.

JJA::  I haven’t ever seen so many trial balloons coming out of an administration.

ML:  And none of them is floating, so far as I can tell.

JJA:  Nope.  Obama hasn’t made the case for action, and he doesn’t seem able to design anything like an effective strategy.  Do we want Assad gone?  Dead?  Chastened?  What?

ML:  Most everyone insists there’s no good outcome in Syria.

JJA:  Yes, they say that.  But then, they forget the covert option…

ML:  Huh?

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The Road to Damascus Starts in Tehran

August 25th, 2013 - 12:10 pm

It’s Middle East Groundhog Day all over again.  The discussion of What To Do About Syria is a replay of What To Do About Saddam:  it’s all about the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong way.

When the intel and military “experts” say, as they have been saying for many months, “there is no good outcome in Syria,” they’re talking about that war, the wrong war.

We invaded Iraq in the name of the War Against Terror, which President George W. Bush defined as a war against terrorist organizations and the states that supported them.  That should have made Iran the focus of our strategy, since Tehran was (and still is, now more than ever) the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism.  Nothing would have so devastated the jihadis as the fall of the Iranian regime, which–then as now–funded, trained, armed and gave sanctuary to terrorist groups from al-Qaeda and Hezbollah to Islamic Jihad and Hamas.  Unless we defeated Iran, it would not be possible for Iraq to have decent security, no matter how total the defeat of Saddam and the Baathists, and how well-intentioned the successor government.  As you can plainly see.

It’s not as if anyone should be surprised;  before the invasion, both Assad and Khamenei publicly announced that they would wage war against us in Iraq, just as they had in Lebanon a short generation before.  Today they warn us to stay out of Syria, or they will attack us on a global scale.

Here we go.  Again.  We are still the main target of the terror war, of which the leading sponsor is Iran.  The Assad regime in Damascus is a satrapy of Iran, as we are publicly told by both the Syrian insurrectionaries and the Iranian leaders, including The Great Moderate, President Rouhani.  There are thousands of Iranian killers in the front lines, hailing from the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force and from Hezbollah, long the regime’s foreign legion. Iranian advisers tell Assad’s loyalists where and how to attack, and if the Syrians have indeed used chemical weapons, you can be sure the Iranians approved it, and were probably involved in the operations.

So, as in Iraq, if you want to win this battle in the terror war, you must defeat the Iranian regime.  And, as in the early years of this bloody century, you can do it without dropping bombs or sending Americans to fight on the ground, because the overwhelming majority of Iranians want to rid themselves of Khamenei and Rouhani and all the rest of their tyrannical oppressors.  They can do it, with a bit of political, technological and economic support.  They could have done it in 2003, when they were on the verge of declaring a general strike against the regime.  Colin Powell and W abandoned them, and it never happened.  They could have done it in 2009, when millions of them took to the streets in demonstrations larger than those that led to the downfall of the shah.  Hillary Clinton and O abandoned them, and a brutal repression ensued.

A lot of Americans have been sacrificed to our failure of strategic vision, and American soldiers, the best of us, are at risk today in Afghanistan, targets of Iranian-trained Taliban fanatics.  You can be sure that more Americans will be at enhanced risk if we engage in Syria, from soldiers on military bases to civilians in embassies and consulates and resorts and stock exchanges, or even walking through Times Square or waiting at the finish line of a marathon.

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