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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Iran’s ‘Rational’ Suicide

February 29th, 2012 - 5:28 am

JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey must have a big mind, if we accept Emerson’s dictum that consistency is the hobgoblin of little ones. Yesterday he “addressed remarks he made in a CNN interview in which he referred to the Iranian government as a ‘rational actor’ and said an attack by Israel on Iran would be ‘destabilizing’ and ‘not prudent,’” reports Jeremy Herb at The Hill:

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Senate panel on Tuesday he did not counsel Israel against attacking Iran over its nuclear program. Gen. Martin Dempsey told lawmakers on the Senate Budget Committee, “We’ve had a conversation with them about time, the issue of time.”

Dempsey also defended his comment that Iran is a “rational actor.” Dempsey said that he doesn’t mistake Iran’s rhetoric for a lack of reason, and said that even Iran’s actions that are unacceptable to the U.S. fit the country’s pattern over the past 30 years. “We can’t afford to underestimate our potential adversaries by writing them off as irrational,” Dempsey said.

Please, Gen. Dempsey: read my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too)How can you tell if a person, or a country, is a “rational actor,” or not? Here’s a simple one: What is the rational self-interest of a bank robber with terminal brain cancer and no living relations? If such an individual takes hostages, you tell the police snipers to take their best shot. Iran is the national equivalent of a criminal with a tumor: it has the fastest rate of fertility decline recorded in world history. The table below comes from the UN Population Prospects website:

Iran (Islamic Republic of)
Total fertility (children per woman)
Medium variant

Period Total fertility
1950-1955 6.93
1955-1960 6.93
1960-1965 6.93
1965-1970 6.70
1970-1975 6.24
1975-1980 6.27
1980-1985 6.54
1985-1990 5.62
1990-1995 3.95
1995-2000 2.62
2000-2005 1.96
2005-2010 1.77
2010-2015 1.59
2015-2020 1.45

Iranian women bore 7 children in 1970, and an average of 1.5 today, the same as Europe. In the UN’s “low variant” forecast, fertility will fall to just 1 child per female.

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Thank Heaven for Little Ghouls

February 27th, 2012 - 6:03 am

Really interesting wars, Cardinal Richelieu informs me in a dream-sequence recounted in this morning’s “Spengler” essay at Asia Times Online, because they kill off the fathers, and then the sons. Richelieu presided over what we call the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), which reduced the population of Central Europe by about two-fifths, although there have been numerous others, including the Peloponnesian War and 1914 to 1945. Richelieu ” looked rather like the portrait by Phillipe de Champaigne, but sounded like Maurice Chevalier.”‘

Here is the nub of the conversation. For the fun part, that is, instructions on how to conjure ghosts in the sewers of Paris, you will have to refer to the original.

“We are a bit confused about Syria,” I began. “Its leader, Bashar al-Assad, is slaughtering his own people to suppress an uprising. And he is allied to Iran, which wants to acquire nuclear weapons and dominate the region. If we overthrow Assad, Sunni radicals will replace him, and take revenge on the Syrian minorities. And a radical Sunni government in Syria would ally itself with the Sunni minority next door in Iraq and make civil war more likely.”

“I don’t understand the question,” Richelieu replied.

“Everyone is killing each other in Syria and some other places in the region, and the conflict might spread. What should we do about it?”

“How much does this cost you?”

“Nothing at all,” I answered.

“Then let them kill each other as long as possible, which is to say for 30 years or so. Do you know,” the ghastly Cardinal continued, “why really interesting wars last for 30 years? That has been true from the Peloponnesian War to my own century. First you kill the fathers, then you kill their sons. There aren’t usually enough men left for a third iteration.”

“We can’t go around saying that,” I remonstrated.

“I didn’t say it, either,” Richelieu replied. “But I managed to reduce the population of the German Empire by half in the space of a generation and make France the dominant land power in Europe for two centuries.

“Isn’t there some way to stabilize these countries?” I asked.

Richelieu looked at me with what might have been contempt. “It is a simple exercise in logique. You had two Ba’athist states, one in Iraq and one in Syria. Both were ruled by minorities. The Assad family came from the Alawite minority Syria and oppressed the Sunnis, while Saddam Hussein came from the Sunni minority in Iraq and oppressed the Shi’ites.

It is a matter of calculation — what today you would call game theory. If you compose a state from antagonistic elements to begin with, the rulers must come from one of the minorities. All the minorities will then feel safe, and the majority knows that there is a limit to how badly a minority can oppress a majority. That is why the Ba’ath Party regimes in Iraq and Syria — tyrannies founded on the same principle — were mirror images of each other.”

“What happens if the majority rules?,” I asked.

“The moment you introduce majority rule in the tribal world,” the cardinal replied, “you destroy the natural equilibrium of oppression.

“The minorities have no recourse but to fight, perhaps to the death. In the case of Iraq, the presence of oil mitigates the problem.

The Shi’ites have the oil, but the Sunnis want some of the revenue, and it is easier for the Shi’ites to share the revenue than to kill the Sunnis. On the other hand, the problem is exacerbated by the presence of an aggressive neighbor who also wants the oil.”

“So civil war is more likely because of Iran?”

“Yes,” said the shade, “and not only in Iraq. Without support from Iran, the Syrian Alawites – barely an eighth of the people – could not hope to crush the Sunnis. Iran will back Assad and the Alawites until the end, because if the Sunnis come to power in Syria, it will make it harder for Iran to suppress the Sunnis in Iraq. As I said, it is a matter of simple logic. Next time you visit, bring a second bottle of Petrus, and my friend Descartes will draw a diagram for you.”

“So the best thing we can do to stabilize the region is to neutralize Iran?”

“Bingeaux!” Richelieu replied.

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Today it is contraception and the morning-after pill. Tomorrow it will be kosher slaughter, or matrilineal descent, or circumcision, or other matters of existential importance to Jewish observance. If the Obama administration gets away with forcing Catholic institutions to step across lines of life and death in the name of “health,” the federal government will have a precedent to legislate Judaism out of existence — as several other countries have already tried to do.

Now the Obama administration has told Catholic institutions that they don’t have to dispense pills that kill babies. Instead, they can pay the insurance company, and the insurance company will dispense the pill for them. It is an accounting trick (as Paul Ryan called it) that the White House misrepresents as a compromise. The Catholic bishops, of course, reject it. And only one Jewish organization, the haredi organization Agudath Israel, offered a sharp response. Its Washington director Abba Cohen stated:

Whether or not the White House’s new “compromise” proposal adequately addresses the religious freedom concerns raised by the Catholic Church is for the Catholic Church to say, not us – and, frankly, not the White House, either. The important points here are that no religiously sponsored entity, and no religiously motivated individual, should be forced by government to violate its or his sincerely held religious principles; and that the determination of religious propriety must be left to the religious entity or individual, not to the government.

The Orthodox Union, according to press accounts, guardedly praised the “compromise,” saying: ”The president’s stated commitment is a positive first step forward, the details of implementation are crucial and we look forward to working with the administration to see that through.” As a late-in-life returnee to Jewish observance, I habitually defer to  the Orthodox Union leadership in such matters. Having had the misfortune to have spent half my life among the atheists and religion-haters, though, I know how embittered and unrelenting are the supposed disciples of science. They are in fact  religious fanatics of the worst kind. You can’t make a deal with them. After they come for the Catholics, they will come for us. They already are coming for us all over the world.

It isn’t happening in the United States — not yet, except for a laughable referendum in San Francisco last year to prohibit circumcision. But it’s happening in England, where the country’s highest court has ruled that the religious definition of Jewish identity is racist. It’s happened in several European countries as well as New Zealand, which have banned or might ban kosher slaughter.

Contraception is not the issue. The issue is whether science has the right to decide the ultimate matters of life and death, or whether this is reserved to faith. We can argue the practical consequences all day and not get anywhere. It’s not as if contraception has ushered in a glorious era of human reproduction in which every child is planned and wanted. More than half of births to American women under 30 now occur outside of marriage, the New York Times reported Feb. 18, and overwhelmingly to working-class women who are economically unprepared for single motherhood. And 71% of total African-American and 53% of Hispanic births are out of wedlock as well. The cultural shift from the nuptial mystery of religion to the blandishments of recreational sex has left us with a catastrophic rate of illegitimacy and the prospect of a self-perpetuating underclass.

But that isn’t the issue. The fact that the liberals have left us with a social dystopia instead of a golden age is beside the point. The issue is: Who has the right to draw the lines where life and death are concerned? Morning-after pills may not seem too horrible to most of us. It’s not the same as sucking out the brains of a fully-developed fetus in a so-called “partial birth abortion,” or dismembering a 3-month-old fetus that responds to stimuli and can feel pain, is it? The Australian comic Jim Jeffries has made a career out of a routine that claims heaven must be boring; if you think of eternal bliss as a simple extension of ordinary time, you’d get used to it eventually. That sort of paradox of time has been in the literature since St. Augustine. But the paradox cuts both ways. If you don’t like sucking the brains out of a fully-developed fetus at eight months, how about 7 months? Or six months? Or five months? Three months? How about three months less one minute? Or less one second? Where do you draw the line? Nothing in our science can tell us where life begins. If you can overrule the Catholic assertion that life begins at conception on putative scientific grounds and require Catholic institutions to pay for morning-after pills, you have given “science” carte blanche to determine where life begins — and ends.

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There are plenty of analysts who deal with the logistics of nuclear weapons and their interdiction in the abstract, and a very few who have dealt with the matter as an existential issue. Apart from the Israelis, for whom Iranian nuclear capability represents an existential threat, the list is short. The German defense expert Hans Rühle headed the Policy Planning Staff of Germany’s Defense Ministry during the 1980s, when the U.S. installed the medium-range Pershing missiles in Germany and undercut Russia’s military advantage in the European theater.  A nuclear exchange with Russia remained a live possibility in those days; after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the high water mark for strategic risk during the Cold War came in 1983, when then-Soviet premier Andropov declared a nuclear alert, ostensibly in response to NATO’s “Able Archer” exercise, but really as an attempt to panic the Germans.

Hans Rühle was one of the toughest and most perspicacious analysts in those heady days. Today he evaluates Israel’s capacity to knock out Iran’s nuclear program in an essay in the German conservative daily Die Welt. It is worth reading (for non-German speakers, there’s Google Translate).

Rühle is highly confident that Israel could knock out Iran’s nuclear program for a decade or more with about 25 of its 87 F-15 fighter-bombers and a smaller number of its F-16s. Each of the F-15s would carry two of the GBU-28 bunker busters, with the F-16s armed with smaller bombs. Rühle writes

There are 25 to 30 installations in Iran which are exclusively or predominately dedicated to the nuclear program. Six of them are targets of the first rank: the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the conversion works in Isfahan, the heavy water reactor in Arak, the weapons and munitions production facility in Parchin, the uranium enrichment facility in Fordow, and the Bushehr light water reactor.

The location, nature, and defenses as well as (with some limitations) the type of installed anti-aircraft systems are extensively known.

The information about Natanz are solid. The project has been under satellite surveillance from the beginning and watched by Israeli “tourists.” At the moment there are a good 10,000 centrifuges installed, of which 6,500 are producing. Israel’s strongest “bunker buster” is the GBU-28 (weight 2.3 tons), which demonstrably can break through seven meters of reinforced concrete and 30 meters of earth. It would suffice to break through the roof at Natanz. In case of doubt, two GBU-28s could be used in sequence; the second bomb would deepen the first bomb’s crater and realize the required success.

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Now that America-hating Islamists control three-quarters of Egypt’s parliament and the military government has rejected American protests at the prosecution of U.S. citizens for supporting democracy, Egypt is asking for $11 billion in Western aid. That has to be the least popular idea to float down the Potomac in a long time. Nonetheless, the Obama administration and its supporters in the Punditeska doubtless will ask American taxpayers to ante up a large part of the $11 billion handout, in the interest of  ”promoting Egyptian democracy.” Only in America do we feed the mouth that bites us. CPI Financial News reported on Sunday:

Mumtaz El Saeed, Egypt’s Finance Minister, says the country needs $11 billion to help it get through the next fiscal year, as well as help with economic reforms, according to a report in Al Ahram, a local newspaper.

This comes as rating agency Standard & Poor’s lowered its long-term foreign- and local-currency sovereign credit ratings on the country to ‘B’ from ‘B+’; with a negative outlook.

S&P said that Egypt’s external position has deteriorated and is likely to weaken further, absent stabilisation in the domestic political situation alongside external financial support.

“Egypt’s external financing risks have risen significantly, with foreign direct investment having declined sharply and net portfolio flows also having turned negative. Egyptian Central Bank interventions–to support the Egyptian pound in the face of significant capital outflows and double-digit annual inflation–have resulted in a sharp decline in net international reserves. These were $16 billion at end-January 2012, down from $36 billion at the start of 2011. Historically, S&P’s assessment of Egypt’s external score has been a relative strength to the rating; this is now being eroded. It estimates that net international reserves, excluding gold, now cover less than three months of goods and services imports compared with more than six months at the start of 2011,” the rating agency said.

What Egypt’s reserves might be is unclear — the New York Times recently published an estimate of $10 billion, or less than two months’ imports — but at least half of the $20 billion to $25 billion loss in reserves is the result of flight capital. Only half reflects the minimum, essential import needs of a broken economy that imports half of its caloric consumption.

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Robert Kagan and Muslim Democracy

February 9th, 2012 - 7:13 am

Robert Kagan’s new book, The World America Made, argues with a straight face that an anti-American Egypt is good for the United States, as long as it is democratic. This remarkable assertion encapsulates the trouble with most foreign policy thinking on the right wing of American politics.  I review the book today at Tablet Magazine; in a nutshell:  ”Kagan’s purpose  in defending U.S. foreign-policy activism here is to deflect criticism of America’s unpopular engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is no easy task, and to perform it, Kagan adopts the two-stage approach to persuasion made famous by Prof. Harold Hill in The Music Man: Establish first that there is trouble in River City, and then propose a solution, namely a marching band. Kagan also offers a marching band, but with 40 divisions behind it.”

Hardest to fathom is Kagan’s enduring faith in the efficacy of Muslim democracy. He writes:

The inevitable victory of Islamist parties in some Arab states will probably bring governments to power that are less accommodating to some American interests than the previous dictatorships had been….Americans’ enduring interest in a liberal world order generally transcends other, more narrow and temporary interests. The United States can lose an Egyptian ally but still gain a healthier world order.

Like many of his colleagues in the conservative foreign policy establishment, Kagan believes that the democratic process must lead to desirable content, no matter who is voting or for what reason. He believes that “devout Muslims” are the key to democracy in the Muslim world, and that the democratization of the Arab world will inaugurate a new “fourth wave” of democracy around the world. As I observe in the Tablet review:

In 2004, Kagan lauded in the New York Times the “small but growing movement among scholars of Islam, a group diverse enough to include Gilles Kepel of France and [fellowWeekly Standard contributor] Reuel Marc Gerecht of the United States, that believes the real promise of democracy lies with devout Muslims.” And he continues to believe that the world revolves around the prospects for Muslim democracy. After the second great wave of democracy that followed World War II, and a third wave from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, Kagan writes:

it is possible that in the Arab Spring we are seeing a continuation of the Third Wave, or perhaps even a fourth. The explosion of democracy is about to enter a fifth straight decade, the longest and broadest such expansion in history.

He has no illusions that Muslim democracy, should it materialize, will be friendly to America:

Americans, having helped topple dictators in the Middle East, are not sure how they feel about what may follow. The inevitable victory of Islamist parties in some Arab states will probably bring governments to power that are less accommodating to some American interests than the previous dictatorships had been.

But Kagan thinks this is a good thing rather than a bad thing: “Americans’ enduring interest in a liberal world order generally transcends other, more narrow and temporary interests. The United States can lose an Egyptian ally but still gain a healthier world order.” Indeed, he lauds the Obama Administration for helping to topple erstwhile Arab allies: “America found itself withdrawing support from longtime allies like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. … American power became a decisive factor shaping the regional and international environment in which the Arab political turmoil unfolded.”

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Glengarry Glenn Greenwald

February 5th, 2012 - 4:58 am

At Salon, the award-winning liberal pundit and “former Constitutional and civil rights litigator” Glenn Greenwald attacks my previous post, “Lessons About Iran from Hitler,” in the usual manner of litigators and land salesmen: distract the jury from the substance of the matter by seizing upon an irrelevant detail and portraying it out of context. The McGuffin in Mr. Greenwald’s courtroom mummery is Iran’s military budget, which “Mr. Goldman is flagging as proof of Iran’s aggressive intentions: ‘Iran is planning to double its defense budget even though its currency is collapsing,’” he warns. Mr. Greenwald then adapts the celebrated Alec Baldwin monologue that opens Glenngarry Glen Ross (“That watch costs more than your car!”) to show that Iran’s military spending is negligible next to America’s:

That Ahmadinejad claims that Iran will increase its military budget for next year by 127% was widely reported this week. For a variety of reasons relating to Iran’s economic difficulties, that plan is quite infeasible — typical Ahmadinejad blustering — but let’s assume for the moment that it will actually happen. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Military Expenditure Database, Iran’s total annual military spending is $7 billion; an increase of 127% would take it to $15.8 billion — also known as: less than 2% of total U.S. military spending (which was $698 billion for fiscal year 2010).

An entirely different question occupied my post, which Mr. Greenwald says disrupted the tranquility of his Saturday morning:  ”Will sanctions persuade Iran to stop building nuclear weapons?” I concluded that “it is more likely that the Obama administration’s graduated sanctions will accelerate Tehran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.” The absolute size of Iran’s military spending is irrelevant to this calculation; the point, rather, is that the sanctions give Iran’s government a near-term advantage: “Iran is planning to double its defense budget even though its currency is collapsing. These are related events: in the medium term, the free-fall of Iran’s rial constitutes a transfer of wealth to the government from what remains of Iran’s private sector.” Over time, of course, the advantage turns into an economic disaster, which narrows Iran’s window of opportunity and thus creates an objective incentive to acquire “game-changing” nuclear weapons as quickly as possible.

Mr. Greenwald derides the “ludicrous claims about the Grave Iranian Threat” from the Obama administration, among other sources, and cannot bring himself to discuss the efficacy of sanctions, given that he considers the threat to be “ludicrous” to begin with. He would rather talk about something else, in the manner of litigators and land salesmen. The trouble is in that part of the world, first prize is, you get to compete for first prize once again; second prize is, you’re dead. To adopt another tagline: Why take chances?

Lessons About Iran from Hitler

February 3rd, 2012 - 5:29 am

Will sanctions persuade Iran to stop building nuclear weapons? No such question can be answered with finality, but it is more likely that the Obama administration’s graduated sanctions will accelerate Tehran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. The Obama administration, according to news accounts, is aghast that Israel might take preemptive action rather than give sanctions time to work. Sanctions, though, are more likely to prompt Iran to stake everything on the nuclear card. The last time the West dealt with a similar case, the prospect of economic collapse and the fear of regime change motivated the outbreak of World War II.

Iran is planning to double its defense budget even though its currency is collapsing. These are related events: in the medium term, the free-fall of Iran’s rial constitutes a transfer of wealth to the government from what remains of Iran’s private sector. As the Washington Post reported yesterday, “The government, which receives oil revenue mostly in dollars and euros, is profiting from the rial’s decline, analysts said. ‘Their income is in dollars, so a strong dollar helps them to buy more rials to pay their bills,’ said one prominent economist, who asked not to be identified, for fear of reprisals.” At least for the time being, sanctions strengthen the relative position of the regime, while undermining its long-term staying power — unless, of course, Tehran begins a new set of regional wars under a nuclear umbrella.

An important insight into the character of the Iranian leadership can be gained from Adolf Hitler’s speech to the German army’s top commanders at Obersalzberg on Aug. 22, 1939, a week before the invasion of Poland. Hitler began by explaining that he initially had wanted to attack the Allies in the West but that circumstances compelled him to take Poland out first. The question, then, was why begin war at that particular moment. And the answer had two parts: economic weakness and the threat of regime change.

We have nothing to lose, but much indeed to gain. As a result of the constraints forced upon us, our economic position is such that we cannot hold out for more than a few years. [Hermann] Goering can confirm this. We have no other choice, we must act. … At no point in the future will Germany have a man with more authority than I. But I could be replaced at any moment by some idiot or criminal. … The morale of the German people is excellent. It can only worsen from here.

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Obama, the Great Divider — Literally

February 2nd, 2012 - 5:59 am

The Republican message for 2012 is as irrefutable as  1 + 1 = 2. And Obama threw himself headfirst into the bear trap with his veto of the Keystone project.

One one hand, we have nearly a fourth of working-age Americans without jobs, the worst proportion since the early 1980s. On the other, we have $2 trillion of cash sitting idle on corporate balance sheets, as President Obama complained in a February 2011 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We have investors languishing for lack of returns, and unemployed people languishing for lack of work.

Standing in between prospective workers and prospective investors, preventing capital from employing labor, is Barack Obama. Someone really ought to to draw the cartoon: a $2 trillion cash pile gathering cobwebs on one side, an endless line of unemployment on the other, and Barack Obama in the middle, keeping them apart.

Under Obama, the United States has suffered the steepest drop in private investment since data were kept, as well as the slowest recovery.

Graph of Fixed Private Investment

The flip side of the investment bust is the worst employment-to-population ratio since before the great Reagan recovery:

FRED Graph

To put this in perspective, $2 trillion of idle cash represents two years’ worth of American investment in equipment and software. Why would corporations rather earn rounding-error levels of interest at the bank than put their money to work  in profitable ventures?

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