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What If Barack and Bibi Are Both Right?

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James Fallows continues his interesting series on the Iran Deal:

Robert Hunter, a former ambassador and longtime foreign-policy eminence, has written that the Iran debate has reached the familiar “cairn-building” stage. That’s the stage in which each side adds a new rock—of argument, endorsement, rebuttal—to the piled-up cairn it has created. “The merits of the arguments are politically meaningless,” Hunter says. “The side with the highest pile of stones wins!” But as he goes on to say, these piles themselves also become meaningless. All that matters is what actually weighs on the senators and representatives who will cast up or down votes.

Recognizing that the cairn-building is reaching its useful end, and while taking a break from my article-writing duties of the moment, let me introduce three more reader messages on Iran. All bear on an aspect of the debate I’ve mentioned before but keep coming back to.

That aspect is: What lies behind the “existential” complaints?

Of course, the front-and-center reason for Israel’s existential fear of a nuclear- armed Iran is obvious. As The Atlantic’s own Jeffrey Goldberg wrote recently, “My position on this is simple: If, in the post-Holocaust world, a group of people express a desire to hurt Jews, it is, for safety’s sake, best to believe them.” This has been the consistent theme of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu’s speeches as well, and its emotional and psychological logic is undeniable.

But the strategic logic of the concern is more puzzling. No one doubts (although no officials can publicly say) that Israel has a large nuclear-retaliatory force, including on submarines. Thus any leader in Iran knows that an attack on Israel would with 100-percent certainty mean devastation for Iran as well (as Thomas Friedman went into on Wednesday). So to think that Iran might actually try to “wipe Israel off the map” requires assuming either that its leadership is literally suicidal, or that, like the Nazis in Germany, Iranian leaders are so bent on destruction that nothing other than brute force can hold them back.

The problem with the suicidal martyr-state assumption is that never in its 36-plus years in office has the Iranian leadership taken a move that rashly jeopardized its own well-being or hold on power. Iran’s leadership has been theocratic but not psychopathic. A serious problem for the United States, Israel, and others: yes. A Reich-like monster-state: no. Under its Islamic leaders, Iran has been at war once—a war that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq started when it invaded Iran in 1980. So the “existential” argument would be stronger were there any evidence of Iran’s leaders ever taking suicidal risks.

As for the comparison with Nazi Germany, last week Peter Beinart carefully laid out the reasons that modern Iran and Hitler’s Reich have exactly one point in common: their anti-Semitic rhetoric. In every other strategic, political, and military dimension they are completely different.

I am sure that officials in Israel’s security and military services realize this. Perhaps even Netanyahu does as well. So what lies behind the over-the-top claims?

That is what these posts address. The first is from Samuel J. Cohen, who was born in the United States and graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies but has lived in Israel since 1977. For 20 years he was a trade negotiator for the Israeli government. He argues that the U.S. government under Obama and the Israeli government under Netanyahu may both be sanely pursuing their national interests, but that these interests may be diverging. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 August 2015 at 2:23 pm

2016 and the Fable of the Surge

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Very interesting post by Kevin Drum, and I think he’s right on how fables—false accounts—take hold and shape our perceptions.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 August 2015 at 6:19 pm

Israeli adopts forced-feeding torture in order keep Palestinians imprisoned indefinitely without charge

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A very ugly scene: Israeli locks up people indefinitely with no charges filed, and if they go on hunger strike in protest, Israel will adopt forced-feeding despite medical personnel stating that this is torture. Israel justifies the torture by pointing out that the US has adopted torture, including forced-feeding, which the US continues to do at Guantánamo. The US: an exemplar of the acceptability of torture—not to mention imprisoning people without charge: cf. the 16-year-old boy locked up in solitary at Riker’s Island for three years, and finally simply released without going to trial. (The boy later committed suicide.)

Joel Greenberg reports for McClatchy:

Israel’s parliament passed a controversial law Thursday authorizing the force-feeding of hunger-striking Palestinian prisoners, drawing swift condemnation from the country’s medical association, which called the practice torture.

The government-backed bill was introduced in response to cases in which Palestinian prisoners have gone on prolonged hunger strikes to protest jail conditions and their detention without trial, sometimes winning early release.

The legislation, passed 46-40 in the 120-member Knesset, authorizes a district court judge to approve force-feeding of a prisoner who in the opinion of a doctor is in imminent danger of death or severe and irreversible disability.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year cited force-feeding at the U.S.-run Guantanamo Bay detention camp to bolster the government’s case for the practice, in which liquid nourishment is pumped in tubes run through prisoners’ noses into their stomachs.

Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who sponsored the bill, said after it passed that “hunger strikes by imprisoned terrorists have become a tool for attempts to pressure the state of Israel.”

“We must not reach a situation in which a prisoner who poses a public threat will be freed because the state did not have the ability to save him from death and is compelled to release him,” Erdan said.

Khader Adnan, a Palestinian prisoner who had been on a hunger strike for 55 days to protest his detention without charges, was released this month by the Israeli authorities because of fears that his possible death could trigger widespread unrest.

Israel holds more than 5,600 Palestinians in its jails, 391 of them without charges or trial, according to the Israel Prison Service.

Dr. Leonid Eideleman, chairman of the Israeli Medical Association, called passage of the force-feeding bill “a black day in the annals of Israeli legislation.” He said his group would instruct doctors not to cooperate with the procedure.

“Force-feeding is torture, doctors must not participate in torture, and Israeli doctors will not participate in torture,” Eidelman said, adding that his group would challenge the law in the Israeli Supreme Court. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2015 at 7:15 pm

WSJ’s Bret Stephens Secretly Plot With “Pro-Israel” Evangelical Group Against Iran Deal

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Glenn Greenwald reports in The Intercept:

The fanatical Israel-devoted group Christians United for Israel, which calls itself “the largest pro-Israel organization in the United States with over two million members,” yesterday held an off-the-record call to formulate strategies for defeating the pending nuclear deal with Iran. The star of the show was The Wall Street Journal‘s long-time foreign-affairs columnist and deputy editorial page editor Bret Stephens, who spoke for roughly 30 minutes. A recording of this call was provided to The Intercept and is posted here.

Stephens, who previously served as editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 to 2004 (where he anointed Paul Wolfowitz “Man of the (Jewish) Year”), is essentially a standard-issue neocon and warmonger, which is why his mentality is worth hearing. He begins the strategy call with an attempt to sound rational and sober, but becomes increasingly unhinged and hysterical as he progresses. Here, for instance, is Stephens’ message that he believes should be delivered to wavering members of Congress:

Someone should say, “this is going to be like your vote for the Iraq War. This is going to come back to haunt you. Mark my words, it will come back to haunt you. Because as Iran cheats, as Iran becomes more powerful, and Iran will be both of those things, you will be held to account. This vote will be a stain. You will have to walk away from it at some point or another. You will have to explain it. And some of you may in fact lose your seats because of your vote for this deal. You’ll certainly lose a lot of financial support from some of your previous supporters.”

[listen to this clip here]

First, note the bizarre equation of support for the war in Iraq with support for a peace deal with Iran. Second, since when do neocons like Stephens talk about the Iraq War as something shameful, as a “stain” on one’s legacy? Stephens was a vehement advocate for the attack on Iraq, as was the paper for which he works, and never once suggested that he was wrong to do so. Third, yet again we find journalists at newspapers claiming the pretense of objectivity who are in fact full-on activists: here, to the point of colluding with a right-wing group to sink the Iran Deal – there’s nothing wrong with that on its own terms, other than the conceit that journalism is distinct from activism.

If the Iran deal is defeated in the U.S., what’s the alternative? The relatively honest neocons admit, as Norm Podhoretz did today in Stephens’ paper, that the alternative is the one they really seek: full-on war with Iran. Here is Stephens’ attempt to answer to that question: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 July 2015 at 12:55 pm

Posted in GOP, Mideast Conflict

A very specific test for the Iran deal

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James Fallows provides a useful framework for how we should approach the Iran deal:

A week ago I volunteered my way into an Atlantic debate on the merits of the Iran nuclear agreement. The long version of the post is here; the summary is that the administration has both specific facts and longer-term historic patterns on its side in recommending the deal.

On the factual front, I argued that opponents had not then (and have not now) met President Obama’s challenge to propose a better real-world alternative to the negotiated terms. Better means one that would make it less attractive for Iran to pursue a bomb, over a longer period of time. Real-world means not the standard “Obama should have been tougher” carping but a specific demand that the other countries on “our” side, notably including Russia and China, would have joined in insisting on, and that the Iranians would have accepted.

“What’s your better idea?” is a challenge any honest opponent must accept. If this deal fails—which means, if the U.S. Congress rejects an agreement that the U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, and Iran have accepted—then something else will happen, and all known “somethings” involve faster Iranian progress toward a bomb.

On historical judgment, I said that for two reasons the supporters of the deal should get the benefit of the doubt. The short-term reason is that nearly everyone who in 2015 is alarmist about Iran was in 2002 alarmist about Iraq. You can find exceptions, but only a few. That doesn’t prove that today’s alarmists are wrong, but in any other realm it would count. The longer-term reason is that the history of controversial diplomatic agreements through the past century shows that those recommending “risks for peace” have more often proven right than their opponents. (Don’t believe me? Go back and consider the past examples.)

Three topics for today’s updates, with a connecting historical theme.

Correlation of Forces

In the two weeks since the deal was announced, the forces pro and con have lined up. The clear opponents include:

— The congressional GOP, which invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak against the deal long before it was struck, and virtually all of whose members oppose it.

Candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, including Scott Walker with his promise to revoke the deal on Day One in office (which would be difficult, unless he could convince Russia, China, etc. to reinstate sanctions), Mike Huckabee with his odious “oven” line, and the rest who oppose the deal as uniformly as they opposed Obamacare.

Many Israelis in and out of government, from Benjamin Netanyahu to Natan Sharansky. And, using arguments like Netanyahu’s, American organizations like AIPAC, Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel, the Zionist Organization of America (which went out of its way to endorse Huckabee’s statement), the Anti-Defamation League, and of course Sheldon Adelson.

So who do we have on the other side?

Most of the American public, by a 54-38 margin, according to a new poll by the Democratic-affiliated Public Policy Polling. “Voters within every gender, race, and age group are in support of it, reflecting the broad based mandate for the deal,” the PPP analysis said.

Most Jewish Americans, by a larger margin than the public in general, according to a Los Angeles Jewish Journal poll reported in the The Jerusalem Post. In this poll, American Jews supported the deal by a 49-31 margin; among the rest of the public in this study, the support was only 28-24, with a very large group undecided. According to the poll, 53 percent of Jewish Americans wanted Congress to approve the deal, versus 35 percent who wanted Congress to stop it.— Numerous Israeli analysts and former military and intelligence-service officials. For instance, various members of the IDF’s general staff; a former head of Mossad; a former head of Shin Bet; a scientist from Israel’s nuclear program; a former head of the IDF’s intelligence branch; a former deputy national-security advisor; another former IDF official; the think-tank Molad; Marc Schulman of; and many more. Every American has seen and read the literally cartoonish fulminations of Netanyahu against the deal (see below). How about more coverage of the Israeli defense professionals making the opposite case?

Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel from administrations of both parties, and three former U.S. Under Secretaries of State (including Thomas Pickering, who held both jobs), who issued a public letter on Monday supporting the deal. Sample passage: “Those who advocate rejection of the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s Nuclear Program, a.k.a. the deal] should assess carefully the value and feasibility of any alternative strategy. … The consequences of rejection are grave: U.S. responsibility for the collapse of the agreement; the inability to hold the P5+1 together for the essential international sanctions regime and such other action that may be required against Iran; and the real possibility that Iran will decide to build a nuclear weapon under significantly reduced or no inspections.”

More than 100 former U.S. ambassadors, career and political alike, and from both parties, who signed a similar public letter endorsing the deal. It begins, “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran stands as a landmark agreement in deterring the proliferation of nuclear weapons.”

More than 60 American “national-security leaders”—politicians, military officers, strategists, Republicans and Democrats—who issued their own public letter urging Congress to approve the deal. E.g., “We congratulate President Obama and all the negotiators for a landmark agreement unprecedented in its importance for preventing the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.” Here are a few Republicans who signed this letter: former Special Trade Representative Carla Hills; former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill; former Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum. Here are a few Democrats: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell; former Defense Secretary William Perry. I’m resisting saying: But what do any of them know, compared with Mike Huckabee?

Hans Blix, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who a dozen years ago tried to avert the disaster in Iraq. He says of the deal, “I think it is a remarkably far-reaching and detailed agreement. And I think it has a potential for stabilizing and improving the situation in the region as it gradually gets implemented.”

— A number of Iranian dissidents, who say that the deal could shift the internal balance in their country.

— An increasingly solid bloc of Democrats in Congress, being marshaled by Representatives David Price of North Carolina and Lloyd Doggett of Texas, who have been working since last year to reinforce support for the deal. “While demanding thorough scrutiny, this agreement appears to mark genuine progress for all who believe that peace will make us more secure than war with Iran,”Doggett (a longtime friend from our days in Texas) said when the deal was announced. “The bomb-Iran naysayers for whom the only good deal is a dead deal will unceasingly raise obstacles, but ultimately reason will prevail and the President’s leadership will be sustained.” It is interesting (to put it neutrally) to contrast the Price-Doggett effort, which has the support of Nancy Pelosi, with the equivocation of their Senate counterpart, leader-aspirant Chuck Schumer.

— An increasing number of journalists asking: if not this deal, exactly what? A notable example is Fareed Zakaria, who wrote: “Let’s imagine that the opponents of the nuclear agreement with Iran get their way: The U.S. Congress kills it. What is the most likely consequence? Within one year, Iran would have more than 25,000 centrifuges, its breakout time would shrink to mere weeks and the sanctions against it would crumble. How is this in the United States’ national interest? Or Israel’s? Or Saudi Arabia’s?”

I could go on, but you get the point. Judge for yourself. You can be persuaded by Netanyahu, Huckabee, Cruz, Kristol, Adelson, et al., all of whom were wrong on the last high-stakes judgment call about U.S. interests in the Middle East. Or by an overwhelming majority of the people from both parties with operating experience in America’s war-fighting and peace-making enterprises in this part of the world.

The Rut of History . . .

Continue reading.

It’s pretty simple: Don’t like the deal? Then tell me a realistic, specific, better option. If you cannot, then you have to accept that the Iran deal is the best option possible. (The question is not whether you dislike the Iran deal. It’s whether you can offer anything that’s better. If you can’t—well, then.)

Related story: Why History Gives Obama the Benefit of the Doubt on Iran

Written by LeisureGuy

28 July 2015 at 11:14 am

The Link Between Climate Change And ISIS Is Real

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Joe Romm reports in ThinkProgress, providing an instance of the general threat to security that climate change poses (according to the US military):

Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley linked climate change to the rise of ISIS earlier this week. Conservatives pounced. Score this round for O’Malley.

For three years now, leading security and climate experts — and Syrians themselves — have made the connection between climate change and the Syrian civil war. Indeed, when amajor peer-reviewed study came out on in March making this very case, Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley said it identifies “a pretty convincing climate fingerprint” for the Syrian drought.

Titley, a meteorologist who led the U.S. Navy’s Task Force on Climate Change when he was at the Pentagon, also said, “you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.”

Compare the words of Admiral Titley — former Deputy Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Information Dominance (!) and currently Director of Penn State’s Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risks. — with O’Malley’s (video here):

“One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria and the rise of ISIS was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis that created the symptoms — or rather, the conditions — of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence.”

Let’s run through the science underpinning what O’Malley, Admiral Titley, and others have said.

We know that the Syrian civil war that helped drive the rise of the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) was itself spawned in large part by what one expert called perhaps “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilizations began in the Fertile Crescent,” from 2006 to 2010.

That drought destroyed the livelihood of 800,000 people according to the U.N. and sent vastly more into poverty. The poor and displaced fled to cities, “where poverty, government mismanagement and other factors created unrest that exploded in spring 2011,” as the study’s news release explains.

The March 2015 study, “Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought,” found that global warming made Syria’s 2006 to 2010 drought two to three times more likely. “While we’re not saying the drought caused the war,” lead author Dr. Colin Kelley explained. “We are saying that it certainly contributed to other factors — agricultural collapse and mass migration among them — that caused the uprising.”


Events leading up to 2011 Syrian uprising, with chart of net migration of displaced Syrians and Iraqi refugees into urban areas (in millions) since 2005. Source: Kelley et al. (2015)

The study identifies “a pretty convincing climate fingerprint” for the Syrian drought, Admiral Titley told Slate at the time. Titley is the former COO of NOAA.

In particular, the study finds that climate change is already drying the region out in two ways: “First, weakening wind patterns that bring rain-laden air from the Mediterranean reduced precipitation during the usual November-to-April wet season. In addition, higher temperatures increased moisture evaporation from soils during the usually hot summers.”

This study and others make clear that for large parts of the not-terribly-stable region around Syria — including Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and parts of Turkey and Iraq — brutal multi-year droughts are poised to become the norm in the coming decades if we don’t reverse carbon pollution trends ASAP.

Climate models had long predicted that the countries surrounding the Mediterranean would start drying out. In general, climate science says dry areas will get dryer and wet areas wetter.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 July 2015 at 10:26 am

The Iran Deal Goes to Washington

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Elizabeth Drew has a good column in the NY Review of Books:

The first thing to know about all the noise being made in Washington over the nuclear deal with Iran is that there’s a lot of play-acting going on. A number of politicians, particularly Democrats, are striking positions to get them past this early period; several significant Democratic Senators simply aren’t yet ready to say they’re for the deal, though many of them are expected to be. The real question isn’t where they are now but where they’ll end up. Therefore some statements shouldn’t be taken literally. When Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said recently that he had questions about the coming deal, some journalists and other observers interpreted this as a sign of trouble; but his statement simply reflected political prudence. To be taken seriously on such a weighty issue, a politician needs to be seen as having carefully considered his or her position.

This may be where the Republicans are making a mistake. Lindsey Graham was caught out by reporters on Tuesday when he condemned the deal and then, in response to their challenges, admitted that he hadn’t read the more than one-hundred-page agreement, nor did he know what was in it. House Speaker John Boehner also immediately denounced the deal. Boehner’s tack, which others also employ, is to charge that the agreement isn’t as tough on Iran as what the president said he would seek. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who officially entered the 2016 presidential race the day before the Iran deal was formally announced, said that it should be abrogated by the next president on day one—which would free Iran to pursue a nuclear weapon and create an unholy mess with our allies. The Republicans’ rush to judgment undermines their position.

In fact, knowledgeable analysts say that the final deal fulfills what was outlined in the interim framework agreement announced in April. Jim Walsh, a security and nuclear policy expert at MIT, describes it as “the most intrusive multilateral agreement in nuclear history.” According to Walsh, the deal’s inclusion of a “snapback” provision—the rapid restoration of sanctions if Iran is caught cheating—is “unprecedented.”

Yet I can find no one on the side of the deal who thinks that it will have majority support in either chamber, which means that the president will veto what Congress sends him. Therefore, beneath all the rhetoric, the realists here are looking for one thing: whether there will be enough votes in the Senate and the House—one-third plus one of the members—to uphold that veto. (A veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both chambers.) It’s believed that there’s a sufficient number of House Democrats who will vote to sustain it. So what happens in the Senate is the crucial question. . .

Continue reading.

It’s sort of depressing to see such an important issue being addressed with partisan ignorance. It’s quite clear that the GOP will, regardless of what the agreement says, oppose it, just as they said when Obama took office that they would oppose anything he proposed, regardless of the merits. Mitch McConnell was quite proud of that thinking.

In the wonderful book by Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (a book that the GOP could profitably study), there is this passage on negotiating with the other side:

To direct their attention toward improving the options on the table, discuss with them hypothetically what would happen if one of their positions was accepted. In 1970, an American lawyer had a chance to interview President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He asked Nasser, “What do you want [Israel’s Prime Minister] Golda Meir to do?”

Nasser replied, “Withdraw!”

“Withdraw?” the lawyer asked.

“Withdraw from every inch of Arab territory!”

“Without a deal? With nothing from you?” the American asked incredulously.

“Nothing. It’s our territory. She should promise to withdraw,” Nasser replied.

The American asked, “What would happen to Golda Meir if tomorrow morning she appeared on Israeli radio and television and said, ‘On behalf of the people of Israel, I hereby promise to withdraw from every inch of territory occupied in 1967: the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jerusalem, the Golan Heights. And I want you to know, I have no commitment of any kind from any Arab whatsoever.’”

Nasser burst out laughing. “Oh, would she have trouble at home!”

Understanding what an unrealistic option Egypt had been offering Israel may have contributed to Nasser’s stated willingness later that day to accept a cease-fire in the ongoing hostilities.

The proposed agreement with Iran does include verification procedures, a point the GOP seems unable to grasp.

The GOP should be asked what they want Iran to do. Their answers would be interesting. Indeed, it’s strange that the question is not asked. Instead, they are asked what they would do, not what they want the Iranians to do.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 July 2015 at 3:58 pm


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