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The Meaning of Fallujah

January 8th, 2014 - 7:54 pm

Al-Qaeda is back in Fallujah and Ramadi, where we defeated them in the recent past. Everyone in the Middle East knew it, and they all knew al-Qaeda was on the ropes.  Recruitment was more difficult, fund-raising likewise, and the cult of bin Laden was decidedly wobbly.

That’s what happens when a messianic mass movement — like Islamism — loses.  People start asking all sorts of annoying questions.  If your past victories were due to Allah’s support, a demonstration of His recognition that you were the sole practitioners of the right sort of Islam, what are we to make of your defeat?  Has Allah abandoned you?  Has he joined the Marines?

In the ebb and flow of the global war in which we are so reluctantly engaged, that was a moment to be seized.  Instead, our new leaders judged it was the perfect time to walk away.  They have been walking away ever since.  And they had plenty of support, from deep within American tradition, from that oft-fatal conviction that peace is normal and war is an aberration, when the opposite defines human history.  So we walked away, abandoning those who had staked their future to America’s commitment to freedom, and giving hope and time to our enemies, who regrouped and attacked again.  Thus, Iraq, where the slaughter often exceeds the death toll in Syria.  Thus, Syria itself.  And Lebanon.

Al-Qaeda, and others like them, can now say, “You see, Allah is indeed with us.  We are stronger than ever.  Much stronger.  We used to have bands of terrorists, but today we have armies.  The Americans have run away from Iraq, where our flag now flies, and they are running away from Afghanistan, where the Taliban are preparing to impose God’s will.  The future is clear.  We will win.  Join us, or perish.”

That is the meaning of Fallujah.  And everyone in the Middle East knows it.  These Americans can win some battles, but they do not have the stomach to win the war.

It’s serious enough to make the deep thinkers at the White House ponder reengaging in Iraq, somehow.  As the Wall Street Journal reported,

The rise of the Islamist forces in Iraq is particularly worrisome to the Obama administration. In response, U.S. officials said Sunday they were seeking to boost military support — though they emphasized no troops — for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to help in his campaign to push back al-Qaeda. U.S. officials are also considering new military aid for Lebanon, which is plagued by rising sectarian violence.

Easier said than done, however.  It’s one thing to support Maliki when we’ve got troops on the ground, and can effectively defend him against al-Qaeda, and against Iran.  It’s quite another matter when we’re just offering weapons, drones and bombs from a distance.  Maliki certainly can’t defend Iraq against Iran, whatever his wishes, and indeed any assistance we give him may well end up in Tehran. Do we really want to deliver hellfire missiles to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei by way of Baghdad?  Congress seems reluctant, and rightly so.  On the other hand, if Iraq can’t get help from us, they’ll take it from Tehran, which has happily offered to fight al-Qaeda.

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2014: The World Without America. Or Is It?

January 1st, 2014 - 4:37 pm

At the end of last year, President Obama was in Hawaii. French President Hollande was in Saudi Arabia, whose leaders openly declare their contempt for American leaders. Obama is basically having fun. Hollande and the royal family are basically doing strategy. They are designing actions to advance their interests in the new world;  not, as is often said, a world without America, but a world in which American leaders have turned against America.

Which is not an easy task.

Those of us who lived abroad during the Cold War were given a window that was closed to our fellow citizens back home: if our eyes and ears and, above all, our noses were sufficiently sensitive, we could understand the importance of America, which defined the world for quite a while. Most of my years abroad were in Italy, and I was constantly amazed by Italians’ assumption that, over in Washington and New York, as in Hollywood and Detroit, “the Americans” were following Italian affairs in great detail.  One day an important national leader asked me, “What do they think in Washington about Aldo Moro’s editorial in today’s Corriere della Sera?  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that maybe three people in Washington might have read it, or that fewer than a dozen had ever heard of Aldo Moro.

The point being that all over the world, the people who mattered always had an eye on America, assumed that America was watching them and had plans for them, and thought that at the end of the day America was likely to be decisive in their future.

These convictions, most of which were fantasies, became even stronger when the Soviet Empire imploded, in the Bush-Clinton-Bush era when America was the lone superpower. One way or another, the world had to come to terms with the United States, because there was no effective counterforce, and, aside from a few fanatics, no one could imagine a fundamental change. Who could challenge American power?  Our enemies had to be very careful, our friends felt very comfortable, and the events of those years–our intervention in the Balkans, our smashing of Saddam when he ventured into Kuwait–removed any delusions of grandeur by would-be uppity nations.

American hegemony wasn’t limited to military power, but encompassed the most basic components of the modern world, from Internet and its attendant gadgets and technologies (Microsoft, Apple, Google…) to movies, scholarship and literature. America was omnipresent and omnipotent. When the fanatics attacked us on 9/11, we destroyed the Taliban in Afghanistan in record time, and countries with some military capacity begged to join us.

Omnipresent and omnipotent.  As al-Qaeda scrambled to find safe havens, we prepared to invade Iraq, and the invasion was a further demonstration of American might.  To be sure, there were problems. Big problems, even.  But at the end of the day, al-Qaeda was smashed in Iraq, tyrants like Qadaffi scrambled to appease us, and our key allies, from NATO to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, felt mighty secure. And Saddam was gone.

And then, poof! We opted out. Because we’re like that. Nothing new.  It’s not “war weariness”; it’s the way we are. But also because Obama, which is something very new, and even harder to understand.

Actually, we never wanted in. Just think at how Bush the Elder scolded us, lest we even thought about celebrating the fall of the Soviet Empire.  Americans’ typical view of “normal” is a world at peace, where we all try to get along, because, you know, we’re all basically the same, and we’re all basically good.  People like that don’t have an imperial vocation.  Without 9/11, Bush the Younger wouldn’t have spent much time on foreign policy.  He’d have devoted most of his energies to being compassionate.

Most of the rest of the world doesn’t think that way.  Most of the rest of the world agrees with Machiavelli’s first principle: “Man is more inclined to do evil than to do good.”  Which is why most of the rest of the world is either at war, or preparing for war, and it is very hard for them to believe that we really do want to opt out.  We’ve been so engaged and so powerful for so long, that they can’t imagine that we have really turned tail.  Most of the French still believe we read Le Monde every day, and most Saudis probably still believe that our CIA station in the kingdom is there to tell them what to do.

Never mind that Obama and his buddies told everyone they wanted out.  Never mind that our abandonment of Israel was clear before the end of Obama’s first year in office.  Nobody out there in the real world could believe it.  They assumed that we were being cleverly deceptive, that any pullback would be temporary, and that we would remain committed to our long-standing basic principles.  Democratic, pro-Western allies would be treated like the friends they wish to be, and tyrannical, anti-American enemies would be recognized as such.  Ergo, the mission for the French and the Saudis, and all the others, was to remain engaged with us, to keep reminding us of our common imperatives, and to help us “understand” our common menaces.

Why?  So that we’d act when it became necessary, and they would have a voice in our actions.  We’d help Europe withstand an aggressive Russia, we’d help our Middle Eastern friends resist Iran, we’d help the Africans resist jihad, and we’d support Latin American democrats.

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Saint Nelson

December 6th, 2013 - 9:15 am


Inevitably, Americans look at Africa through the lens of race, but that’s a mistake. Africa is about tribes, and one of the many things that made apartheid such a hateful system is that it was a European imposition, it was alien to the culture of the sub-Saharan continent, because it was all about race.

The importance of Nelson Mandela is both obscured and enhanced by this racial overlay.  South Africa was anomalous because it was fundamentally about race, while the internal conflicts elsewhere in Africa–as in Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique–were basically tribal wars.  But Mandela’s charisma, his ability to lead, the respect he commanded within the country derived in large part from the fact that he was a prince of the Qosa tribe, the largest and most important in the country.

To see that Mandela was bred and raised to be a leader, all you had to do was watch him walk, or even stand.  Such elegant posture, such grace as he moved, such elegance of gesture, and such command of whatever language he was speaking…he was nobility.  And not just in public;  to sit and talk with him was a singular pleasure.  Like all great leaders, he listened attentively, and chose his words carefully.  He commanded respect in all settings.

Yet despite his powerful charisma, he was also a humble man.  In all his actions–as the prisoner who earned the respect and admiration of his jailers, the president who embraced all his people, and a loyal fan who wore the national rugby shirt as South Africa won the World Championship–it was never about him.  It was always about the country, about the people, and about the importance of both strength and toleration.

One does not often find such qualities in a world-historical figure.  Only such a man could have led South Africa to national unity at that time, when so many were confidently predicting a racial bloodbath.  His example set the tone and inspired the nation.

Help, Heeeelp! The Amphipods Are Here…

December 4th, 2013 - 3:49 pm

Nothing much happens in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where we have lived for nearly thirty years.  Nothing except rising taxes and falling services, that is (e.g., they used to collect the garbage twice a week, now only once).  But there are plenty of schemes, including one for a light rail line from here to New Carrollton, where there’s an Amtrak station.  That scheme is now at risk because, as currently designed, it might threaten the habitat of the very rare, indeed unique, Hay’s Spring amphipod, a small fresh-water shrimp that lives in the streams that feed Rock Creek, which appropriately runs through Rock Creek Park, which is just a block away from Villa Ledeen.

Those little shrimp are protected by the Feds.  They only exist here, down the block, and of course they’re endangered, so the grand scheme to let us take a little train to New Carrollton and then a big train to Baltimore, Wilmington, Philly, Newark, or New York will now pause while they try to make sure the construction doesn’t create dirty water that might threaten the amphipods.

You might think this is just a routine event, of the sort that happens every day somewhere in This Great Land.  But I take it personally.  First, because train, highway and subway schemes have been delayed most everywhere I lived in the last forty-fifty years, and second because fresh-water shrimp played a tragicomic role in one of my African sorties, and left, let us say, a lasting impression.

Have you ever seen Fellini’s Roma?  It’s a stream-of-consciousness film about the city, and one of my favorite scenes has to do with the construction of the subway system.  In the sixties, seventies and eighties, the project was forever interrupted because you couldn’t dig very far without encountering priceless ancient ruins, and the ministries in charge of protecting the old treasures from modern depredation stepped in, and examined the new finds.  Each examination took years, of course, and one of the common one-liners in those years was that while the system was supposed to be ready for the Jubilee (a Catholic festival every fifty years), nobody stipulated which Jubilee.  Fellini takes us down the subway shaft and into his fantasy of an ancient world…well, you really have to see it to appreciate how much fun it is.

In 1973, I spent several days each month in Israel, coaching the Israeli national bridge team.  The bridge players mostly lived in and around Tel Aviv, so that’s where I was hoteled, but whenever I could, I went to Jerusalem to see what was going on.  And one of those things was digging.  Digging to build new roads, digging to explore areas of the Old City and environs, digging digging digging…and it was just like Rome.  With predictable frequency, the diggers found ancient ruins, and the ministers stopped work to explore.  So, as in Rome, you ended up walking a lot, and the archeologists became integral parts of the public works programs.

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Some pundits love to carry on about the presumed brilliance of the Persians, reminding us that they invented chess, that they’re fabulous negotiators and strategists, and masters of deception.  Others love to carry on about the presumed brilliance of President Obama, who plays basketball, not chess, but is still, as the historian Michael Beschloss once said, the smartest president in American history.

I don’t doubt the Persians and our president have high IQs, but I know from personal experience that the rulers of Iran are at least a bit crazy (I met with some of them when I was the “secret back channel” to Iran during the Reagan administration), and they have certainly wrecked their country.  Obama’s results haven’t been particularly epic either.

Braininess doesn’t automatically translate into good policy or even to a clear understanding of what’s going on. Several thoughtful analysts have concluded — correctly, as I see it — that recent Middle Eastern deals are, at a minimum, giant steps toward a working alliance between the United States and Iran. It’s pretty clear that Obama believes he is on the verge of fulfilling one of his favorite dreams: a U.S.-Iranian consortium.  Of late, that has produced two unexpected agreements, one terminating the Syrian chemical weapons program, and the other temporarily limiting at least some parts of the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

The Iranians, likewise, think they’ve made significant advances:  they think they’re in the driver’s seat in Syria, and have won acceptance of their long-claimed “right to enrich uranium.”

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The Big Deal on The Road to War

November 24th, 2013 - 3:35 pm

Schumer doesn’t like the “historic” deal with Iran–it doesn’t seem proportional to him–and Menendez insists that new sanctions are on the way.  Two Democrats, not notoriously leading neocons, both warning that the agreement may be a hard sell to Congress.  But then, Obama may not ask them for approval, so then what?  That would give the Iranians multiple coups:

–First and foremost, money, which they badly need.  According to my sources in Iran, Iranian industry overall is currently at twenty percent of capacity, the regime’s blank check for supporting Assad in Syria has drained the treasury, and the country is down to something like two-to-three months’ hard currency supplies.

The “money coup” is even better than that for the regime, because, as numerous smart people have noted–and as my colleague Mark Dubowitz warned well before the deal was agreed on–this step offers Tehran the real possibility of an end to sanctions altogether.  That’s because Iran will now be able to offer foreign countries and companies the chance to make big bucks, and the companies and countries will become de facto lobbyists for ending sanctions.

Rouhani knows this, and has bragged in a tweet to Supreme Leader Khamenei that the process for ending sanctions has now begun.

–Second, a clear, explicit commitment that Tehran is permitted to continue enriching uranium.  Kerry and Obama have said–and will no doubt continue to say–that we have not recognized an Iranian “right to enrichment,” but the text of the agreement says that Iran can keep enriching (to 3.5%) and that the final agreement we say we want will provide for “a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”

If that’s not recognition of a right to enrich, I need remedial English.  And for those of you who think “well, what’s the big deal about a measly 3.5%?” it’s quite a big deal.  From there to weapons-grade uranium is a question of a few months.  And under this deal, Iran gets to keep plenty of 5% uranium.

–Third, yet another devastating confirmation to the regime’s internal opposition that the West is not prepared to seriously challenge the regime.  In case they had any doubts, which they shouldn’t, and by and large didn’t.

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So says Ari Shavit, an Israeli columnist for Haaretz, writing in the New York Times.  It’s all because Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan instead of mounting a “diplomatic campaign against Iran” (elsewhere described as a “political-economic campaign” of the sort directed against Libya’s nuclear project) after the attacks of 9/11.  So far as I can tell, he’s talking about a campaign to force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program (there’s no mention of regime change).  An ambitious international campaign, in which Bush should have enlisted the European Union, Russia, Sunni Arabs and Israel.

If we had done that, Mr. Shavit says, Iran would have been forced to abandon their nuclear project, the United States would have been spared the loss of life and wealth in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we wouldn’t be where we are today:  exhausted, traumatized, with “a limited attention span for problems in the Middle East.”

This has to go down as one of those ideas that only an intellectual could embrace.  The United States has just been attacked.  What was the president supposed to do?  According to Mr. Shavit, Bush should have said “we’ve got three thousand dead, there are smoldering buildings in New York and Washington, but not to worry, I’m going to talk to the Arabs, the Russians and the Europeans in order to force the Iranians to stop working on nukes.  I’ll get back to you with progress reports when and if I have news.”

Don’t attack al Qaeda.  Don’t invade Afghanistan or Iraq.  Just force Iran to stop developing nukes.

W would have been a laughing stock, an object of derisive contempt, a caricature of Jimmy Carter, who, after the Iranian attack on our Tehran Embassy in 1979, carried out Mr. Shavit’s policy recommendations to near-perfection.  Carter slapped sanctions on Iran, organized international support, and started negotiating.

It didn’t work out very well for him or for the United States.  In 1979, there was no doubt we’d been attacked by Iranians.  In 2001, nobody thought the Iranians were involved in the assaults in New York and Washington.  So why in the world would anyone think that a political/diplomatic/economic campaign against Iran was a proper response?

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In the centuries leading up to Galileo, the Aristotelians thrashed around desperately trying to save the astronomical doctrine–named after Ptolemy–that had the Earth at the center of the universe.  But the more we learned about the actual universe, the harder it became to sustain the theory, according to which the heavenly bodies moved in circular orbits, and the only fixed, immovable point in the universe was…us.  Even Copernicus, whose name is permanently attached to heliocentrism (planets revolve around the sun, not the earth), tried to salvage the theory of circular planetary orbits;  it took Kepler to sort out that orbits are elliptical.  Copernicus kept on diddling with the orbits by inventing endless “epicycles” to account for the annoying fact that the planets didn’t show up where they were supposed to be.

In other words, annoying facts had subverted a beautiful theory, and the beautiful theory had to go, even though many of those who called attention to the annoying facts would be burned at the stake, thrown in jail, censored and ruined along the way.  For many happy years, Barbara and I and baby Simone lived just off Campo dei Fiori in Rome, where Giordano Bruno was burned alive for daring to suggest that the beautiful theory didn’t account for the real world.  There’s a grim statue of Bruno in the Campo, a durable reminder of the dangers truth tellers encounter for speaking their minds.

Sometimes these “paradigm shifts” happen very quickly.  Other times are maddeningly slow.  And we’re invariably surprised when the beautiful theory bites the historical dust, even though we had long known the theory was claptrap.  Gorbachev probably knows that subject better than most…his whole world collapsed along with the myth of communism.

However, the myth lingered, and has had a brief reincarnation in the person of President Obama.  Now its hollowness is being exposed once again, as the failures of the state overwhelm us from many sides.  The Obamacare fiasco attracts the most current attention, because it causes so much direct pain to so many people, and promises even more for more in short order.  The various “fixes” are replays of the epicycles, and will have the same effect (footnotes in the history texts of the future).

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Killers on the Loose in Iran

November 11th, 2013 - 6:00 pm

Al-Reuters reports that Iran’s deputy minister of industry, Mr. Safdar Rahmat Abadi, was killed on Sunday evening as he got into his car in Tehran.  He was shot in the head and the chest, and two shell casings were found in his vehicle.

If those are true facts, Minister Abadi was likely killed by someone he knew and did not fear.  There don’t seem to be any suspects at the moment (no surprise there;  all the usual suspects have by now been rounded up by the Rouhani government, and aren’t let out of jail to kill high-ranking government officials).  Reuters ponders the significance of the event, noting that the assassination of a top official in the central government is rare, although plenty of local officials, Revolutionary Guards, and other security officers have been killed.

Like the attack on security personnel in Baluchistan, for example.  Late in October, 14 border guards were killed.  By somebody.  The killers were not identified, but the Rouhani regime took the opportunity to kill 16 Baluchis who were, a local judge said, “linked to terrorism.”  Such events are now so common as to verge on the routine.  Ergo, there are plenty of Iranians eager for revenge.

Still, it’s not obvious that the deputy minister of industry has been involved in the murder of his fellow citizens.  If I had to guess at a motive, it would be rage over some seizure of property or failure to pay wages or refusal to cater to the wishes of some powerful faction.  It’s almost impossible for Americans to imagine the extent of corruption within the regime.  Reuters is trying to educate us, to their credit, publishing an investigation of the wealth of the supreme leader.  So far, only the first of three articles has appeared, but it’s pretty eye-opening.  Reuters credits Khamenei for a personal — not institutional, but personal — fortune of about $95 billion.  A lot of that came from taking away the property of his fellow Iranians.  Indeed, the article begins with just such a case, an 82-year-old woman who lost her home, and those of her kids, because the leader wanted them.

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What Happened in Geneva? What Does It Mean?

November 10th, 2013 - 7:54 pm

It’s not easy to make a deal with Iran (and even when you think you’ve made one, you might be wrong).  The failure of the Geneva talks is just another in a long series of such failures.  Even the public events are part of the well-established pattern:  the secretary of state jumps on a plane and flies to meet with the Iranians.  But when he gets there, he finds it’s not quite a done deal.  And in the wee hours of the morning two days later, there’s no deal at all.

Remember that something very similar happened in September 2006, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice jumped on a plane in Washington and flew to New York, expecting to sign a deal at the United Nations with Iran’s Ali Larijani.  The deal had been negotiated in secret over several months, and both sides had agreed to the final language.  But Larijani never showed up.  This time the deal had again been negotiated in secret over several months, and, unlike 2006, the Iranians actually showed up, smiling broadly and brandishing their signing pens.  But it turned out that there was no deal.  What went wrong?

The headlines suggested that the French were to blame, that Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius rejected some of the conditions, and his demands were unacceptable, at a minimum to the Iranians and perhaps to some of the Western countries as well.  The French insist that this latter claim is false.  They say that Kerry and Fabius met head-to-head on Saturday evening around six o’clock, and agreed on the Western final proposal.  They go on to say that, on the basis of the Franco-American agreement, Catherine Ashton of the EU wrote a 3-page text that all members of the Western group agreed to and that was given to the Iranians.  After some delay, the Iranians said that the text would have to be approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and they were unable to sign anything on the spot in Geneva.

No doubt we’re going to get more detail in the next few days, but if the French account–which was given to the Socialist magazine Le Nouvel Observateur–is anywhere near correct, then there’s an obvious series of questions:

–First, when the Obama administration whispered to the press that the deal was done, and that Kerry was showing up for the signing party in Geneva, what, if any, were the differences between that deal and the one the Iranians couldn’t sign then and there?

–Second, was the Obama administration totally unaware of the French position?  How could Fabius’s proposal have come as a surprise?  It’s not as if we are isolated from French diplomats, after all;

–Third, were the Iranians unaware of the French position?  Or did they think that the Obama administration was going to force an agreement that did not satisfy Paris?

Here and there, I’ve read claims that the Americans backtracked during the negotiations in Geneva.  If true, it would help explain the snafu.  And if the French account is correct, it would mean that the United States backtracked twice, first to the Iranian demands, and then to French conditions.  When the Iranians saw that their own proposed deal was not accepted, they had to say that Khamenei would have to decide the matter.

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