Monday, December 28, 2009

This Man's Death Is Not Your Talking Point

Working in his capacity as amplifier of Israeli alarm over Iran, Jeffrey Goldberg passes this along regarding the murder of Ali Moussavi, a nephew of opposition leader Mir Hussein Moussavi:
From the Times: "Moussavi was first run over by a sport utility vehicle outside his home, Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote on his Web site. Five men then emerged from the car, and one of them shot Mr. Moussavi. Government officials took the body late Sunday and warned the family not to hold a funeral, Mr. Makhmalbaf wrote."

Now imagine this regime with nuclear weapons.

While I think Mr. Moussavi's death represents an escalation, we already know that the Iranian regime was brutal. Here's an interesting little factoid, though: The number of nuclear-armed brutal regimes who have never actually used their nuclear weapons is only every single one of them.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Another Bad Argument For Iran Strike: 'The Worst Might Not Happen!'

Today, Iran's leading daily newspaper featured an op-ed by a conservative Iranian university professor insisting that there is only one way to deter the American war on Iran that all serious Iranian analysts believe is coming: A massive wave of guerrilla attacks on American military facilities.

This tells us a lot about Iran. They really are a bunch of crazies intent on blowing up the Middle East. Look at what they publish their leading newspapers!

Oh, wait -- the op-ed is actually in this morning's New York Times, and it's written by an American conservative, Alan Kuperman, who argues that there's "only one way to stop Iran": by bombing them. Trotting out the most overworked noun in the conservative foreign policy vocabulary, Kuperman writes "in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement."
We have reached the point where air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Postponing military action merely provides Iran a window to expand, disperse and harden its nuclear facilities against attack. The sooner the United States takes action, the better.

Kuperman doesn't bother to mount an argument about Iran's intentions or capabilities -- he simply presupposes that Iran wants a weapon, will get one soon, and that nothing short of military action can change this:
Incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran’s bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try. They should be precision attacks, aimed only at nuclear facilities, to remind Iran of the many other valuable sites that could be bombed if it were foolish enough to retaliate.

Ah, yes, "precision attacks" that wonderful salve for the modern, sophisticated warmonger's conscience. This paragraph, by itself, should have disqualified Kuperman's op-ed from running in any serious publication. The amount of work that "relatively" is doing is here is pretty staggering. One can argue that the benefits of a strike outweigh the risks and costs. I think that's clearly wrong, but one could argue it. But stating that those costs and risks would be "little" -- even "relatively" -- is a flat out, bald-faced admission that you just haven't bothered to do the work.

Kuperman uses Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility as an example of a strike that worked to delay a regime's nuclear program. He says nothing about the fact that the Osirak example is one of the reasons that Iran has dispersed and buried its nuclear facilities around the country, though he does suggest that "Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons."

Considering the consequences of such a strike for American troops and allies in the region, and for Iran's domestic opposition, Kuperman's argument amounts to: "Hey, the worst might not happen!" In Kuperman's defense, he's not alone here. I have yet to hear any advocate of an Iran strike do better.

Kuperman has a history of providing intellectual cover for policy choices that result in huge numbers of deaths. In a 2000 Foreign Affairs essay, he argued that humanitarian intervention in Rwanda would've just made things worse. In 2006 op-ed, he suggested that Darfur's victims kind of had it coming. It is utterly unsurprising that he should now apply his brand of human bean-counting to the thousands of Iranian (and American, and Iraqi, and Israeli) casualties that would very likely result from the action he advocates.

It is, however, deeply discouraging that the New York Times would choose to run it. The Weekly Standard and National Review already exist for promoting this sort of harebrained militarism. The Washington Post's editorial page, too, has, at least in regard to foreign policy, long since devolved into a neoconservative rat's nest. If we're not to repeat the tragic mistakes of the very recent past, then the Times needs to start insisting on quite a bit more intellectual rigor from its guest opinionators.

Cross-posted from the Wonk Room.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Mullahs Versus 'The Mullahs'

Here's an easy way to tell where someone stands on the Iran question: If they constantly refer to "the mullahs" (religious leaders) who rule Iran, then you're most likely dealing with someone who is disdainful of U.S.-Iran engagement, who thinks that the only problem with the Bush administration's 2003-06 hardline approach was that it wasn't hard enough, and who buys the nonsensical "Islamofascist" construct that powered the "Global War on Terror." You're probably also dealing with someone who either hasn't been following, or would like to ignore, the way that the Iranian system has been changing, especially in the wake of the June 12 elections, from one controlled primarily by "the mullahs" into one that, though still presided over by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and furnished with a fading veneer of religious legitimacy by a cadre of extremist clerics, is increasingly a military dictatorship controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

While using "the mullahs" in such a pejorative fashion may allow certain commentators to communicate their prejudices in a marginally acceptable way and stoke fear of scary guys in robes and turbans, it also elides one of the most important aspects of the current situation in Iran: The role of the mullahs in confronting "the mullahs."

Flipping through the TV channels late last night, I landed on the 700 Club just as Pat Robertson was offering his, err, "analysis" of Iran. Suppressing with great difficulty the urge to turn away from the stupid, I watched as Pat assured his viewers that the Iranian people "hate those mullahs," but then noted that the latest anti-government demonstrations had occurred at the funeral of the dissident Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Montazeri, "one of the better-liked mullahs." I could see on Pat's face that he realized that he'd just kind of clowned himself, but this is the situation that a lot of conservatives find themselves in now. Having fulminated for years against "the mullahs," they're unsure how to react to an Iranian opposition movement powered in considerable part by mullahs.

And not just mullahs, but Islamist mullahs, such as Montazeri himself, who even though he had turned against what the Iranian Islamic Republic had become, remained a firm believer in the principles of the Iranian revolution, in the idea of an Islamic Republic, and in the appropriateness of Islam as the organizing force in society.

Noting Montazeri's passing, neoconservative analyst Michael Rubin (who, though an occasional "mullah"-baiter himself, has also been very clear-eyed about the costs of a military strike on Iran, unlike many other neocons) gets part of the way there:

While the media focuses on popular protests in Iran, such as those which occurred in Iran after this summer's flawed elections, the real Achilles Heel to the Iranian regime is Shi'ism. Simply put, it is hard for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to claim ultimate political and religious authority when he is outranked by many clerics who oppose him and his philosophy of government.

Rubin's right: Shi'ism supplies a powerful anti-authoritarian critique, and Khamenei's meager religious credentials make it difficult for him to convincingly push back against it (the fact that his government has been murdering people in the streets certainly doesn't make it easier). It's very important to recognize, however, that these critiques are not just being generated from within Shi'ism, but also from within Islamist Shi'ism of the same sort that enlivened the 1979 Iranian revolution. Having ceaselessly condemned Islamism as inherently inhumane and undemocratic, many conservatives are now simply unable to appreciate the manner in which Islamist arguments have been redeployed against the Iranian regime's inhumane and undemocratic behavior.

Given the resonance of Islamist arguments, in both their Shia and Sunni variants, to significant numbers of Muslims throughout the world, developing a more nuanced view of the various trends that have too often been carelessly grouped under the scare-term "Islamist" is essential in order to cultivate a more serious and rigorous U.S. policy discussion about political reform not only in Iran, but in the broader region. We shouldn't have any illusions that Islamists are our allies, but neither should we presume that they're all necessarily our enemies. As events in Iran show, moderate Islamists can be an important source of religious legitimacy for the forces of reform.

Cross-posted from the Wonk Room.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Tortured Iraq-Al Qaeda Connection

New item up at Comment is Free:
Though dozens of civilians continue to be killed every week by terrorist bombings in Iraq, and simmering tensions between the Shiite-dominated central government and Sunni and Kurdish factions threaten to boil over, the American people have by and large tuned out the Iraq debate.

Exhausted of hearing about a war that most now believe never should have been fought, and lulled and distracted by endlessly repeated claims that the surge worked, it is perhaps understandable that Americans would prefer to read and hear about more immediate concerns such as the deepening economic crisis.

But the Iraq issue crept back into the public eye this week in an unexpected way – as an element of the torture debate.

Among the most notable and disturbing revelations of the recently released full report of the Senate armed services committee's Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in US Custody was that one of the principle drivers of the use of torture – I refuse to use the term "enhanced interrogation" for waterboarding, a technique invented by torturers for use as torture – on key detainees was the need to produce evidence that would support the Bush administration's arguments about the threat posed by Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

Read the rest here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Friday Guitar Blogging

Roy Buchanan.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Our Enemies Are Not Monolithic

Dismissing President Obama's Nowruz message last week as a "video mash note to Iran," The Weekly Standard's Stephen Hayes notes Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei's "defiant and hostile" response, which is very bad:
[This] suggests that Khamenei, far from being put on the defensive, sees the U.S. in a position of weakness. And why shouldn't he after Obama's ingratiatory message.

Rachel Abrams, also of The Weekly Standard, notes that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal "expressed satisfaction" at the Nowruz message. Which is very bad:
As Meshaal sees it, it’s "only a matter of time" before U.S. officials are dealing directly with the terrorist organization he runs from his hiding-place in Damascus. And why not? If we can talk to the mullahs in Iran, surely we can talk to their "Palestinian" puppets.

You know, if -- if -- one were inclined toward intellectual honesty, one might have to admit that the "puppet" and the "puppeteer" responding to the exact same statement in two substantially different ways reveals something of a weakness in Islamofascist puppetry theory.

Related, Rob Farley has an excellent post on the hard, hard work done by the word "connections" in the conservative discourse on Islamic extremism and terrorism:
[N]oting that two groups are "connected" really doesn't lead to any specific policy recommendations. One response to discovering that the [Islamic Courts Union] has been working with al-Qaeda is to sponsor an invasion of Somalia; another response is to undertake a political effort to split al-Qaeda from the ICU. The ICU, after all, is a different organization than al-Qaeda, with different interests and priorities. Hezbollah and Hamas are not the same organization; they have different interests, and they each have goals distinct from those of their purported sponsor, Iran. Arguments to the effect that Hamas and Hezbollah will march lock-step to the dictates of Tehran, or that the ICU is a creature of al-Qaeda, are worse than useless; they ignore the fact that organizations share only some interests, and consequently will collaborate under only some circumstances.

Indeed, it's worth noting that the Bush administration's only genuine national security accomplishment -- successfully bringing violence in Iraq down from catastrophic to merely crisis levels -- occurred largely as a result of Gen. David Petraeus' decision (on his own, without fully informing his superiors in Washington, as Tom Ricks reports in The Gamble) to reject the neoconservative conceit of a united Islamofascist front and reach out to Al Qaeda's erstwhile allies in the Iraqi insurgency. It's a bit strange why conservatives seem unable to apply this lesson elsewhere.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Guitar Blogging

Ali Farka Toure.

What Has Been Accomplished?

New item at Comment is Free:
There is another significant cost that must be factored into the Iraq debacle: Afghanistan. New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins recently quoted a western aid official lamenting "the tragedy ... the $70bn that would have given you enough police and army to stabilise this place all went to Iraq". By diverting troops and resources to Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration allowed the Taliban to re-establish themselves in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas, and the country had steadily collapsed back into insurgent warfare. Having failed to complete the mission in Afghanistan, the Bush administration handed the new president a war that promises to be as difficult and costly as Iraq has been – if not more.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday Guitar Blogging

T-Bone Walker.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Wages Of Schnapps

The dream is over:
The teenage daughter of former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and her fiance have broken up just over two months after the birth of the couple's child. reported Wednesday that sources said the split between Bristol Palin, 18, and Levi Johnston, 19 occurred a few weeks ago, and Johnston confirmed to the Associated Press that he and Bristol mutually decided to end their relationship "a while ago." He did not elaborate.

I'm tremendously happy to hear that Levi and Bristol will not be forced to carry on this charade through the 2012 primaries.

Levi is tremendously happy to hear that he will no longer be forced to wear blazers.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Friday Guitar Blogging

Lonnie Johnson.
Born in New Orleans in 1899, Johnson is generally credited with inventing the guitar solo -- playing featured, single note melodies on what had previously been regarded solely as a chordal rhythm instrument.

One of 12 children in a highly musical family, in addition to the guitar, Johnson played violin, mandolin, banjo, bass, and piano. After getting his start playing in his father's jazz group, Johnson became one of the first American jazz musicians to perform abroad, touring England in 1917. When he returned to the States he discovered that his entire immediate family except for one brother had died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.

Johnson moved back and forth from performing and recording music to other trades, paying the bills however he could. He played with Duke Ellington in the late 1920's, worked in a steel mill in the 30's, then went back into the studio in the late 30's to record more pop-oriented tunes and ballads.

In 1959, Johnson was discovered working as a janitor in a Philadelphia hotel by a local radio DJ, Chris Albertson. Albertson helped engineer Johnson's comeback, and Johnson toured extensively over the next few years. In 1965, Johnson played a series of dates in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and decided to make his home there. His health declined after a car accident in 1969, and he died in Toronto on June 16, 1970.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Gorenberg On Settlements And Cynicism

Responding to my argument that the conservative "settlements are reversible" defense is deeply cynical, Gershom Gorenberg agrees, but notes that "Settlement backers in Israel don’t normally argue that settlement is reversible."
I can’t claim to have heard every defense of settlements ever made, but this is a defense I hear almost entirely abroad (with one exception, which I’ll get too).

Perhaps the reversibility argument was an invention of foreign defenders of Israeli policy. More likely, it has been provided to them by Israeli officials - in which case the the officials have treated their foreign supporters as useful idiots.

Settlements, in Israeli debate, have always been regarded as “facts on the ground” - physical statements of policy, of intent to keep a particular piece of land under permanent Israeli rule. The debate on where settlements should be built has been intense precisely because it’s an argument over whether Israel should maintain permanent rule over some or all of the occupied territories.

Right, but it also seems to me that the creation of these facts involves Israel's anticipation of future concessions. That is, the more land that is seized and settlements built, the more Israel can later claim to have "given up" in any final status agreement.

The Left Takes The Lead On Afghanistan

New item up at Comment is Free:
While it's good that McCain seems finally to have noticed the extent of the crisis in Afghanistan – where he had previously suggested we could just "muddle through" while focusing the bulk of our resources on Iraq – McCain simply refused to acknowledge the single most significant factor contributing to that crisis: the decision to invade Iraq. "The shift of US resources and attention to Iraq in 2003 gave al-Qaida and the Taliban the respite they needed to reconstitute safe havens in the ungoverned border areas of neighbouring Pakistan," wrote analysts Spencer Boyer and James Lamond.

A firm grasp of this fact is one of the reasons that the far more vigorous debate over the future of the US intervention in Afghanistan – and about American national security in general – is now taking place on the left. While McCain and the military-centric thinkers at AEI continue to present Afghanistan as a problem that can be overcome by the application of more guns backed by stronger wills, (as they delusively believe problems in Iraq have been) progressive organisations like the Center for American Progress (where I am employed), National Security Network and grassroots groups like Get Afghanistan Right have been engaged in a deeper debate over what the appropriate mission should be in Afghanistan, and how much blood and treasure Americans should be willing to spend to complete that mission.

The Ruckus Over Chas Freeman

In addition to the requisite outrage over Chas Freeman's (should be) wholly uncontroversial position that military occupations tend to be provocative, a number of conservatives are now up in arms over a statement Freeman made in April 2002, at a Washington Institute for Near East Policy event discussing U.S.-Arab relations after 9/11. Freeman asked "And what of America’s lack of introspection about September 11?"
Instead of asking what might have caused the attack, or questioning the propriety of the national response to it, there is an ugly mood of chauvinism. Before Americans call on others to examine themselves, we should examine ourselves.

It's important to note that Freeman was responding here to a specific question about the amount of self-criticism in the Arab world regarding the teaching of extremist ideologies in their societies. Predictably, Freeman's response is being marketed by rightwing blogs as blaming the victim, etc. etc.

While I'm personally not a fan of Freeman's brand of realism, there's no question that he's very well qualified for the position he's been assigned. Charges that Freeman would "politicize" intelligence -- especially coming from such places as the Weekly Standard, whose editors obviously have no problem with politicized intelligence as long as it's politicized in favor of ruinous policies they like -- shouldn't be taken seriously on substance, but they should be taken seriously as strategy. Raising a fuss over Freeman probably can't do much to dislodge him from his position as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, but it does serve to lay the groundwork for challenges to the intelligence estimates produced by that shop.

As for the dyspepsia over Freeman's statement above, there's always been something really bizarre about conservatives' tendency to interpret the merest suggestion that U.S. policies in the Middle East contributed in any way to the September 11 attacks as evidence of traitorous anti-Americanism, especially since this is a mainstay of the neoconservative critique of pre-9/11 U.S. foreign policy. Here it is elucidated by Sen. John McCain a year ago, in his first major foreign policy address of the 2008 campaign:
For decades in the greater Middle East, we had a strategy of relying on autocrats to provide order and stability. We relied on the Shah of Iran, the autocratic rulers of Egypt, the generals of Pakistan, the Saudi royal family, and even, for a time, on Saddam Hussein. In the late 1970s that strategy began to unravel. The Shah was overthrown by the radical Islamic revolution that now rules in Tehran. The ensuing ferment in the Muslim world produced increasing instability. The autocrats clamped down with ever greater repression, while also surreptitiously aiding Islamic radicalism abroad in the hopes that they would not become its victims. It was a toxic and explosive mixture. The oppression of the autocrats blended with the radical Islamists’ dogmatic theology to produce a perfect storm of intolerance and hatred.

We can no longer delude ourselves that relying on these out-dated autocracies is the safest bet. They no longer provide lasting stability, only the illusion of it.

Without getting into the quality of McCain's analysis here, it's pretty obvious that he is, in fact, suggesting that past U.S. policy in the Middle East bears some of the blame for the 9/11 attacks. You'll notice that no one on the right attacked McCain for this. Funny.

Cross-posted from Wonk Room

Monday, March 02, 2009

Ask Not For Whom The Twitter Tweets

I think this really underestimates how hip Pac-Man is:
John McCain took to the Senate floor Monday and talked about Twittering.

For the increasingly popular networking tool, it was either a moment that marked the technology's full-bore entry into the cultural mainstream -- or a sign that Twitter is now about as hip as Pac-Man.

Just last year, McCain, the Republican nominee for president, was frequently mocked by late-night talk show hosts for barely knowing how to turn a computer on. But McCain 2.0 is now plugged in, sending multiple "tweets," as Twitter messages are called, several times a day.

"We have the most followers out of any congressman," boasts his spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, "topping over 122,000."

Coincidentally, my first and probably last experiment with Twitter took place when I went to hear McCain at AEI last week:
AEI has warm oatmeal cookies.8:36 AM Feb 25th

Here to hear McCain on Afghanistan.8:43 AM Feb 25th

Prediction: He'll call for a 'new strategy' for 'victory'8:45 AM Feb 25th

Cookies almost gone.8:47 AM Feb 25th

Am now considering a temporary surge toward the cookie table.8:49 AM Feb 25th

Surge succeeded. Have now redeployed back to my seat.8:52 AM Feb 25th

Yay! Randy Scheunemann!8:55 AM Feb 25th

once again, for mccain history begins with the surge.9:12 AM Feb 25th

mccain: "i am confident victory is possible in afghanistan."9:15 AM Feb 25th

mccain in nov 03: we'll "muddle through" in afghanistan.9:28 AM Feb 25th

asked about "muddle through," mccain accused me of taking words out of context.10:08 AM Feb 25th