Archive for the ‘Iran’ Category

Nuclear Policy in an Age of Terrorism and Madmen

Monday, April 12th, 2010

Unfortunately, you need to subscribe to get the whole thing, but Peter Scobolic has an excellent article in The New Republic on nuclear policy in an age of terrorism and madmen. Some excerpts:

That is, in the face of the most aggressive, most highly armed, most revolutionary power the United States has ever known, deterrence worked. It worked despite serious fears about the enemy’s rationality. Indeed, it may have demonstrated that rationality is not the appropriate prerequisite for nuclear stability. Rationality can produce undesirable outcomes; it does not preclude crisis situations (Khrushchev was not insane when he ordered missiles to Cuba, he was just wrong); and in the heat of nuclear battle, rationality is unlikely to guide decisions in any country, regardless of ideology. Demanding rationality of our enemies is therefore both asking too much and asking too little. It is perhaps best that, as the scholar Kenneth Waltz has noted, “Deterrence does not depend on rationality. It depends on fear.

Fear, after all, is an evolutionary imperative in a way that reason is not, and it induces caution in a way that can be understated by cold cost-benefit analyses. No state that values its continued existence would launch an attack that meant its own certain devastation, and there is every indication—from their oppression at home and their manipulations abroad—that the leaders of Iran and North Korea have every desire to survive. True, historically, leaders have made strategic errors that resulted in their downfall. But they did so because they miscalculated their odds of success—an error that is impossible to make in launching a nuclear strike against an adversary that clearly has the capability to retaliate. The only plausible suicide would be an assisted one in which, say, Pyongyang’s leaders feared total military defeat—deterrence does not cover “dictators in the mood of Hitler when he found himself in his final dugout,” as Churchill once put it. That means the United States shouldn’t push nuclear-armed leaders to the brink of extermination, but otherwise deterrence should hold…

…In other words, Iran is already quite bold.

Even if a nuclear-armed Iran were more aggressive, the United States could still deal with it forcefully. India and Pakistan, after all, fought directly and bloodily even when both states had nuclear weapons; and an Iranian incursion into a neighboring country could be met with force. Indeed, non-nuclear states have attacked nuclear states without apocalyptic consequences: In 1973, Israel’s nascent nuclear capability was not enough to prevent Egypt and Syria from attacking it, and, of course, in the subsequent decades it has found itself under near-constant challenge from state-sponsored terrorism and even missile attack during the Gulf war. Nor are nuclear states immune from nonmilitary regime-change efforts – there is no reason we could not support the Green Movement in a nuclear-armed Iran. We simply lose the ability to invade or militarily overthrow the regime. Which makes the rationale for attacking Iran’s nuclear program seem vaguely ridiculous: Regardless of whether we stopped or even delayed the program, we would essentially be taking military action against Iran in order to preserve our ability to take military action against Iran…

Kennedy wasn’t fully in control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, either: According to Stanford political scientist Scott Sagan, during the [Cuban missile] crisis, Air Force officers in Montana “jerry rigged their Minuteman missiles to give themselves the independent ability to launch missiles immediately,” in gross violation of military regulations.

Whatever stability they provide then, nuclear weapons also generate a distinctly non-trivial chance of total catastrophe, and today, that chance is accentuated by the threat from nuclear terrorism. It is unlikely, but certainly not inconceivable that a state like Iran, long a sponsor of terrorism, could share nuclear technology with radicals – or that a radical sympathizer could divert fissile material from one of its enrichment facilities. States have long had trouble maintaining a perfect grip on their arsenals. When the Soviet Union broke up, it found itself riddled with poorly guarded weapons and fissile material that we are still struggling to lock up today. Pakistan’s government insists that its arsenal is secure, but the government itself is not secure. Even the U. S. arsenal has suffered numerous accidents and security problems (most notably the loss of eleven nuclear bombs during the cold war), and, in January, a group of peace activists managed to break into a NATO base where U.S. tactical nuclear weapons are stored.

[Image by jtjtd licensed under Creative Commons.]

Must-Reads of the Week: Google/China, Liberal American Exceptionalism, The Failed War on Drugs, Defending the Individual Mandate, Counter Counter-Insurgency, Idiocrats, and Men Did It!

Friday, March 26th, 2010

1. Google v. China. I’ve refrained from posting on the Google v. China battle going on until now. So much of the praise for Google’s decision seemed overblown and I wasn’t sure what insight I had to offer, even as I read everything on the matter I could. But now, the wave of criticism of the company is pissing me off. I get the source of the criticism – that Google is so quickly criticizing other companies for staying in China after it left, and that Google’s partial exit may have made business as well as moral sense.  But motives are new pure – we’re human. Those who the critics accuse the company of merely using as a pretext for a business decision see the matter in other terms – according to Emily Parker of the Wall Street Journal, “Chinese twitterverse is alight with words like ‘justice’ and ‘courageous’ and ‘milestone’ “ and condolence flowers and cups being sent to Google’s offices in China.

What the Google/China conflict highlights though is the strategic incompatibility of a tech company like Google and an authoritarian state like China. One of James Fallows’ readers explains why Google and China could never get along:

Internet search and analytics companies today have more access to high quality, real-time information about people, places and events, and more ability to filter, aggregate, and analyze it than any government agency, anywhere ever.  Maybe the NSA can encrypt it better and process it faster but it lacks ability to collect the high value data – the stuff that satellites can’t see.  The things people think but don’t say.  The things people do but don’t say.  All documented in excruciating detail, each event tagged with location, precise time.  Every word you type, every click you make (how many sites do you visit have google ads, or analytics?), Google is watching you – and learning.  It’s their business to.  This fact has yet to sink in on the general public in the US, but it has not gone un-noticed by the Chinese government.

The Chinese government wants unfettered access to all of that information.  Google, defending its long-term brand equity, cannot give its data to the Chinese government.  Baidu, on the other hand, would and does…

The reader goes on to explain how China would slow down and otherwise disrupt Google services in China enough to ensure that Baidu would keep it’s dominant position. This, he explains is:

…just another example of the PRC’s brilliant take on authoritarian government: you don’t need total control, you just need effective control. [my emphasis]

Which is why it is so important that a country like China have constant access to search engine data. In a passage deleted at some point in the editing process from a New York Times story (which an internal Times search reveals to be this one), it was reported that:

One Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that China now speaks of Internet freedom in the context of one of its “core interests” — issues of sovereignty on which Beijing will brook no intervention. The most commonly cited core issues are Taiwan and Tibet. The addition of Internet freedom is an indication that the issue has taken on nationalistic overtones.

2. Liberal American Exceptionalism. Damon Linker of The New Republic responds to critics:

[T]he most distinctive and admirable of all [America’s] qualities is our liberalism. Now let me be clear: unlike Lowry and Ponnuru, who identify American exceptionalism with the laissez-faire capitalism favored by the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, I do not mean to equate the ideology that dominates one of our country’s political parties with the nation’s exemplary essence. On the contrary, the liberalism I have singled out is embraced by nearly every member of both of our political parties—and indeed by nearly every American citizen. Liberalism in this sense is a form of government—one in which political rule is mediated by a series of institutions that seek to limit the powers of the state and maximize individual freedom: constitutional government, an independent judiciary, multiparty elections, universal suffrage, a free press, civilian control of the military and police, a large middle class, a developed consumer economy, and rights to free assembly and worship. To be a liberal in this primary sense is to favor a political order with these institutions and to abide by the political rules they establish.

3. The War on Drugs Is Doomed. Mary Anastacia O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal echoes me saying: The War on Drugs is Doomed. (My previous posts on this topic here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

4. Defending the Individual Mandate. Ezra Klein explains why the individual mandate is actually a really good deal for American citizens:

The irony of the mandate is that it’s been presented as a terribly onerous tax on decent, hardworking people who don’t want to purchase insurance. In reality, it’s the best deal in the bill: A cynical consumer would be smart to pay the modest penalty rather than pay thousands of dollars a year for insurance. In the current system, that’s a bad idea because insurers won’t let them buy insurance if they get sick later. In the reformed system, there’s no consequence for that behavior. You could pay the penalty for five years and then buy insurance the day you felt a lump.

Klein also had this near-perfect post on our unhinged debate on health care reform and added his take to the projections of Matt Yglesias, Ross Douthat, Tyler Cowen on how health care law will evolve in the aftermath of this legislation.

5. Counter-Counter-Insurgency. Marc Lynch describes a document he recently unearthed which he calls AQ-Iraq’s Counter Counter-insurgency plan. Lynch describes the document as “pragmatic and analytical rather than bombastic, surprisingly frank about what went wrong, and alarmingly creative about the Iraqi jihad’s way forward.”

6. Idiocrats Won’t Change. Brendan Nyhan counters a point I (along with many other supporters of the health care bill) have been making (here and here for example) – that once the bill passes, the misperceptions about it will be corrected by reality. I fear he may be right, but I believe it will change opinions on the margins soon and more so over time.

7. Theories of the Financial Crisis: Men Did It. Sheelah Kolhatkar looks at one theory of the financial crisis some experts have been pushing: testosterone and men.

Another study Dreber has in the works will look at the effects of the hormones in the birth-control pill on women, because women having their periods have been shown to act more like men in terms of risk-taking behavior. “When I present that in seminars, I say men are like women menstruating,” she says, laughing…

Positioning himself as a sort of endocrine whisperer of the financial system, Coates argues that if women made up 50 percent of the financial world, “I don’t think you’d see the volatile swings that we’re seeing.” Bubbles, he believes, may be “a male phenomenon.”

His colleague, neuroscientist Joe Herbert, agrees. “The banking crisis was caused by doing what no society ever allows, permitting young males to behave in an unregulated way,” he says. “Anyone who studied neurobiology would have predicted disaster.”

A very interesting thesis. And one that strikes me as broadly true. I previously explored other theories of what caused the financial crisis:

[Image by me.]

The Constantly Invoked Hitler-Chamberlain-Churchill Fallacy

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Oh, Michael Ledeen, to whom every Democrat is Chamberlain and every Republican is Churchill! And every crackpot is Adolf Hitler. Reading Obama’s statement to Iran on the anniversary of the takeover of the US embassy – which is celebrated in Iran, Ledeen concludes that Obama is merely “mewling and whining, asking for the Iranian regime to make nice,” in “full Carter/Chamberlain mode.” He links to a report calling Obama’s remarks: “Another respectful statement – if wrapped around a threat.” Yet, Ledeen quotes one section – in which Obama explains all of the things we are doing (and not doing) with regards to Iran that the Green Wave supports. Ledeen objects that our foreign policy regarding Iran has mainly been supported by the Green Wave. And he neglects to quote this passage:

Iran must choose. We have heard for thirty years what the Iranian government is against; the question, now, is what kind of future it is for. The American people have great respect for the people of Iran and their rich history. The world continues to bear witness to their powerful calls for justice, and their courageous pursuit of universal rights. It is time for the Iranian government to decide whether it wants to focus on the past, or whether it will make the choices that will open the door to greater opportunity, prosperity, and justice for its people.

Reading Obama expressing support for the Iranian people, bearing witness to the Green Wave, and making a veiled threat against the regime, Ledeen concludes:

A sad day to be an American, don’t you think? As Churchill said of Chamberlain, we can say of Obama:  You had a choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.

In fact, he’s already got it. It always happens when you become an accomplice to evil.

Yet I am not sure what it is Ledeen wants us to do. He has written consistently and often about the need to change the Iranian regime – but is he really so naïve as to believe that a few symbolic gestures by Obama are all that it would take to cause the downfall of that regime? Does Ledeen believe that some money spent on democracy promotion will destroy it? Does he give any credence to the idea that such funding would undermine these organizations? What does he make of the fact that many of these organizations rejected the funds the Bush administration set aside for precisely this purpose? Reading Obama challenging the Iranian regime, Ledeen suggests it is merely “mewling” and that war is inevitable – has he reversed positions and now suggest we invade or bomb the country – in support of the people?

Ledeen’s remarks on Iran clearly demonstrate one of the fallacies of the neoconservative worldview. It is a worldview that did not learn the lesson of Hungary in 1957 where the CIA radio stations promised military support if the citizens rose up, which the citizens did only to be slaughtered. Nor the lesson of the First Gulf War, where George H. W. Bush called on the Shiia to rise up against Saddam, and then stood aside as Saddam made peace and crushed as American forces watched. Nor the lesson of Georgia, where neoconservatives declared, “We are all Georgians!” and proceeded to do nothing as Russian tanks overran the country. Neoconservative foreign policy has consisted of writing “rhetorical checks” that they have “no intention (or ability) to cash,” or more graphically “hip-shooting onanism.”

In every instance, America took the “right” rhetorical position at first but was unwilling to back it up by sacrificing American lives. If neoconservatives truly believe we must have regime change, then they should make the case for why this fight is worth Americans dying, instead of making easy references to Hitler and Chamberlain.

As a people, Americans support the Green Wave. And as a government, the Obama administration should put what pressure it can for the principles it believes in: including the right to self-determination. But American troops and money can’t buy Iranian self-determination – only the Iranian people themselves can:

This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they – and only they – will choose.

[Image licensed under Creative Commons.]

Must Reads of the Past Two Weeks! (Extended Edition): J Street, NPH, Liberalism, Topless, Colombian Hippos, Grassroots, 1990s Reunion, Insuring Illegals, and the Iranian Time Bomb

Friday, September 18th, 2009

J Street. James Traub of the New York Times profiles the new Jewish lobbying group J Street. For anyone who is interested in the Israeli-US relationship, a very interesting read that tries to profile one group trying to change the dynamic in Washington.

The Unique Figure of Neil Patrick Harris. Andrew Sullivan has an interesting take on Neil Patrick Harris, and speaking with Emily Nussbaum of New York magazine, Neil Patrick Harris also has an interesting take on Neil Patrick Harris. Takeaway line from Sullivan:

Everyone is a shade or two away from normal; and the pied beauty of humanity should not be carved into acceptable and unacceptable based on things that simply make us who we are.

Liberalism Defined and Defended. E. J. Dionne writing for Democracy magazine reviews Alan Wolfe’s book [registration required] (which was one of the inspiration for this post of mine on the 10 Principles of Liberalism). An excellent review of a book I now feel compelled to read:

Wolfe notes that “it is not sufficient for me merely to be left alone, I must also have the capacity to realize the goals that I choose for myself. If this requires an active role for government, then modern liberals are prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.” Exactly right.

Topless. Meghan Pleticha writes for Alternet about her experiment where she “legally exposed [her] breasts in public.”

There they were — in the sunlight, the eyes of God and New York Penal Law 245.01 — my boobs out, nipples blazing. The girls sitting on the blanket next to us giggled. Some passersby glanced over, smiles on a couple of the guys’ faces. My nipple ring glinted in the sun. Amazingly, I felt relatively calm. Warm. Neither lightning nor cops had struck me down. Furtively looking around, I noticed some guys attempting to be respectful. Maybe they were just thinking be cool or she’ll put her top back on, but gentlemen would glance over and grin, but rarely stare.

The Colombian Hippo Problem. Simon Romero of The New York Times describes how Colombia is dealing with yet another of the legacies of the larger than life Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin who was gunned down sixteen years ago: an infestation of hippos who are thriving in Colombia’s ecosystem after escaping from Escobar’s private zoo.

The Right Wing Grassroots. Daniel Larison has a rather insightful piece on his blog regarding the relationship between the conservative elites and the right wing grassroots. I don’t endorse his entire analysis, but worth reading.

Like the Opening of a 1990s Political Joke. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post sketches a 1990s reunion of Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, President Bill Clinton, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. An interesting quote by Trent Lott:

I thought it might be a good time for us to show that a president, a speaker, the leaders, can find a way to come together. If three good ol’ boys from the South like the ones you’ve heard today can find a way to get it done. I know the outstanding leaders that we have in the Congress . . . can get it done.

Insuring Illegal Immigrants. Ezra Klein makes the case persuasively:

Illegal immigrants are clustered in service sector and food sector jobs. They clean buildings, prepare boneless chicken breasts, wash dishes, pick food, and generally do jobs that are much more conducive to spreading germs than, say, blogging is. I don’t know exactly why Rep. Joe Wilson and Lou Dobbs and all the others in their cohort want to make it more expensive to hire American workers and make it more likely that Americans get sick, but that’s why I’m not a political strategist, I guess.

The Iranian Time BombGeorge Friedman of Stratfor sees a world of trouble arising from the Iranians’ pursuit of nuclear weapons – as he analyzes how almost every interested party seems to misunderstand the interests and willingness to act of every other interesting part, which he believes could result in catastrophic consequences à la the opening of World War I.

[Image by Eamonn.McAleer licensed under Creative Commons.]

Iranian Authorities Using Facebook and Twitter for Intelligence Gathering

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

Evgeny Morozov – always a pessimist about the use of technology against autocratic regimes – relays an anecdote from Iran suggesting the Iranian authorities are now using Facebook and Twitter for intelligence gathering:

On passing through the immigration control at the airport in Tehran, she was asked by the officers if she has a Facebook account. When she said “no”, the officers pulled up a laptop and searched for her name on Facebook. They found her account and noted down the names of her Facebook friends.

This is very disturbing. For once, it means that the Iranian authorities are paying very close attention to what’s going on Facebook and Twitter (which, in my opinion, also explains why they decided not to take those web-sites down entirely – they are useful tools of intelligence gathering).

McNamara, Cuomo, Bearing Witness, Iran’s Bomb, Sri Lanken Victories, and Historical Dignity

Friday, July 10th, 2009

It’s that glorious time of the week – Friday. So, here’s my recommendations of some interesting reads for this weekend that came up this past week…

  1. There were a number of excellent obituaries of Robert McNamara published upon his death. But what I would recommend would be reading this speech given in 1966 at the height of his power.
  2. Another speech worth reading is Mario Cuomo’s “Our Lady of the Law” speech from November 2007 which was published for the first time on this blog earlier in the week.
  3. Roger Cohen in the New York Times tries to express the insufficiency of online reporting aggregating news and media – as Andrew Sullivan and Nico Pitney did so usefully did during the Iranian protests. As these two journalists amassed tweets, photos, videos, news stories and every other bit of information about what was going on in Iran, Roger Cohen himself was in Tehran having evaded the Iranian censors. He went to the protests, interviewed the protesters, ran from basij with them. What I could see then was that while what Sullivan and Pitney were doing was new and unique – and extremely useful for understanding what was happening, it was missing a certain urgency that Cohen was able to provide with his bylines from Tehran. So he writes here about the “actual responsibility” of the journalist – to “bear witness:

    “Not everyone realizes,” Weber told students, “that to write a really good piece of journalism is at least as demanding intellectually as the achievement of any scholar. This is particularly true when we recollect that it has to be written on the spot, to order, and that it must create an immediate effect, even though it is produced under completely different conditions from that of scholarly research. It is generally overlooked that a journalist’s actual responsibility is far greater than the scholar’s.”

    Yes, journalism is a matter of gravity. It’s more fashionable to denigrate than praise the media these days. In the 24/7 howl of partisan pontification, and the scarcely less-constant death knell din surrounding the press, a basic truth gets lost: that to be a journalist is to bear witness.

    The rest is no more than ornamentation.

    To bear witness means being there — and that’s not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.
    No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.

  4. Robert Patterson in Foreign Policy brings some measured historical analysis to what would happen if Iran got the bomb.
  5. Robert Kaplan in The Atlantic explains how the Sri Lankan government was able to achieve a monumental victory over a terrorist group – and also why America should not imitate its methods in any way. He concludes bleakly:

    So is there any lesson here? Only a chilling one. The ruthlessness and brutality to which the Sri Lankan government was reduced in order to defeat the Tigers points up just how nasty and intractable the problem of insurgency is. The Sri Lankan government made no progress against the insurgents for nearly a quarter century, until they turned to extreme and unsavory methods.

  6. David Brooks wrote about dignity:

    In so doing, [George Washington] turned himself into a new kind of hero. He wasn’t primarily a military hero or a political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington became a great man and was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”

The Intellectual History of the Green Wave

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Abbas Milani explains the “intellectual history of the Green Wave” in Iran in a New Republic piece that provides a glimpse of the deeper theological and philosophical forces at work in the movement. Milani warns that this intellectual tradition “has not always found itself on the side of the angels,” but makes a strong case for it as an authentic incorporation of democracy and other “Western” 20th century ideas into an Islamic framework:

The roots of Iran’s current divide to a great extent lie at the turn of the century, when the country’s ayatollahs essentially split into two camps on questions of religion and politics. The first was led by Ayatollah Na’ini, an advocate of what is called the “Quietist” school of Shiism–today best exemplified in the character and behavior of Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq. According to Na’ini, true “Islamic government” could only be established when the twelfth imam returned. Such a government would be the government of God on earth: Its words, deeds, laws, and courts would be absolute and could tolerate no errors. But humans, Na’ini said, were fallible and thus ill-fitted to the sacred task of establishing God’s government. As the pious await the return of the infallible twelfth imam, they must in the interim search for the best form of government. And the form most befitting this period, Na’ini argued, was constitutional democracy. The role of ayatollahs under this arrangement would be to “advise” the rulers and ensure that laws inimical to sharia were not implemented. But it would not be to rule the country themselves.

Opposing Na’ini was an ayatollah named Nuri. He dismissed democracy and the rule of law as inferior alternatives to the divine, eternal, atemporal, nonerrant wisdom embodied in the Koran and sharia. As Ayatollah Khomeini would declare more than once, his own ideas were nothing but an incarnation of Nuri’s arguments. But for the moment, at least, those ideas were on the defensive. It would be decades before they would reemerge to dominate Iranian politics.

Explaining Obama’s “Double Standard” Regarding Iran and Honduras

Thursday, July 2nd, 2009

A number of Obama’s critics have pointed out a disparity between Obama’s treatment of Iran on the one hand – and Israel and Honduras on the other.

In their view, Obama has refused to take a side in Iran even though he clearly should be on the side of the protesters if he values life, liberty, and the American way. In Israel, Obama has pressured the Israelis while giving free reign to the Palestinians who are really at fault. While in Honduras, Obama has clearly taken the side of the leftist friend of  Hugo Chavez who was removed from office with the endorsement of courts and Congress of Honduras as they sought to protect their democracy from the president’s power grab. In all of these cases, they claim, Obama has taken the side of anti-democratic forces – and only interfered with our “friends” – presumably because Obama is desperate for the approval of the European Union, which is in itself anti-democratic and leftist. This portrayal of Obama is based on their observation that in Iran Obama has reacted to major violations of the values he claims to hold with muted tones – but in Israel and Honduras he has reacted to minor violations with strident tones.

This caricature of Obama presumes he is acting in bad faith at all times, which is increasingly the sole item of agreement among the Republican opposition; and it attributes to Obama a nonsensical and inconsistent worldview. But you don’t have to be a right-winger to notice the sharp differences in tone between Obama’s cautious approach to Iran and his more aggressive approaches in Honduras and Israel.

David Rothkopf proposes one explanation – that frankly seems a bit too Beltway for me, but I’m sure is a factor in Obama’s change in tone between the Iranian coup d’etat and the Honduran one:

[A] reason for the swift action on Honduras is that old faithful of U.S. foreign policy: the law of the prior incident. This law states that whatever we did wrong (or took heat for) during a preceding event we will try to correct in the next one … regardless of whether or not the correction is appropriate. A particularly infamous instance of this was trying to avoid the on-the-ground disasters of the Somalia campaign by deciding not to intervene in Rwanda. Often this can mean tough with China on pirated t-shirts today, easy with them on WMD proliferation tomorrow, which is not a good thing. In any event, in this instance it produced: too slow on Iran yesterday, hair-trigger on Honduras today.

While I’m sure the law of prior incident played a role, it seems to me that there is a more basic explanation for this disparity – which likewise explains the difference between Obama’s approach towards Israel. The difference in how Obama dealt with these various crises comes from how Obama understands power in foreign relations. The President of the Council on Foreign Relations, Leslie H. Gelb, in Power Rules, defines it:

Power is getting people or groups to do something they don’t want to do. It is about manipulating one’s own resources and position to pressure and coerce psychologically and politically….And American leaders would do well to learn, finally, that power shrinks when it is wielded poorly. Failed or open-ended wars diminish power. Threats unfulfilled diminish power. Mistakes and continual changing of course also diminish power.

Teddy Roosevelt understood this implicitly when he said:

Speak softly and carry a big stick.

Alternatively, George W. Bush used grand language, made many threats:

From Egypt to Georgia, President Bush … wrote rhetorical checks he had no intention (or ability) to cash.

What Bush did not seem to realize – and what right-wingers today still do not seem to realize – is that it weakens the United States to declare, “We are all Georgians!” as Russia invades Georgia and we do nothing – as happened under Bush. Yet the rhetoric is not the problem – as it actually strengthened America when John F. Kennedy declared, “We are all Berliners” and the Soviet Union, given the lengths Presidents Truman and Eisenhower had gone already to protect West Berlin, believed the young president was willing to protect Berlin at high cost. Many right-wingers have cited Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” as a model for what Obama should say to Iran. But what made Reagan’s exhortation more than mere empty rhetoric and bluster was the personal relationship he had with Gorbachev after years of meeting with him. And when Reagan made this statement, he was not demanding it – he was rather challenging Gorbachev to live by the values he claimed he held. Reading the actual speech this challenge is prefaced by an “if.” This is a very different proposal than what right-wingers want Obama to say: which is to endorse one side in an internal conflict and refuse to negotiate with this member of the “Axis of Evil.” Reagan on the other hand negotiated with the “Evil Empire” and stayed out of internal Soviet politics – realizing that the endorsement of an enemy could be toxic.

What Obama has shown in the past several weeks is an impatience with hollow rhetoric which presumes conflicts in other countries are really about us. The striking oratory he does use always seems to have a specific purpose – to reach out to Muslims angered by what they see as a war against them, for example – or to call on Europeans to send more troops to Afghanistan. Obama sees words in foreign policy as tools to be used rather than ways of expressing our feelings about other nations. Thus, despite his apparent feelings about Iran – and his great sympathy for the Green Wave – he does not feel the need to express this publicly if he does not see what it will accomplish. With many Iranians publicly saying they did not want Obama to take the side of the protesters publicly as it would undermine them (for example, here and here), he had little reason to do so.  So far he had not been willing to undermine his and America’s power by using puffery and empty threats on Iran just to please his domestic audience, despite pressure from the right-wing.

But Obama did speak more forcefully on Israel and Honduras. Why? Because in these two places he has significant leverage – and his words can have an impact. Also – in neither of these places was America regularly called “The Great Satan.” (Imagine if Ahmadinjad had endorsed Obama in our election. Would that have helped Obama?) With regards to these nations, Obama can say what America wants and put pressure on those in control there for it to happen as America supplies significant funds to both nations – and has diplomatic, economic, and military alliances.

Speaking about Iran, on the other hand, Obama can only offer wish lists – which he would not be able to pressure Iran to fulfill – and when Iran ignored him, America would look weaker.

I also believe there is another factor at work. I have already stated that I believe the Obama Doctrine – that will and is guiding his foreign policy – is a focus on creating and maintaining states of consent. One of the basic principles which is necessary to create a state of consent is Rule of Law; another is the freedom of people to peacefully protest and speak freely. Obama has limited himself to condemning those actions which have violated the principles underpinning a state of consent. Not having direct knowledge of the election results in Iran, he remained quiet – though the administration raised questions. When confronted with evidence of the violent suppression of peaceful protests and attacks on free speech, he condemned these in strong terms – though he still refused to take a side, saying the battle was internal. In the case of Honduras, the State Department had been working with opponents of President Zelaya as he took illegal and unconstitutional actions to see how Zelaya could be checked. This is why they knew so quickly that the coup d’etat was a clear violation of the Rule of Law. The American State Department had been working with the Honduran Congress and other leaders to determine what the constitutional steps would be to remove Zelaya. At the same time, the intervention of the military set a bad precedent, undermining ability of the people to consent to their government. As Der Spiegel explained:

Anyone who sees the coup as some sort of effort to rescue democracy must ask themselves what version of democracy involves removing the elected leader of a country from office while holding a pistol to their head.

Obama has here still neglected to side with either party – instead insisting both parties follow their commitments to the law of their land, which the military violated. The American position is that Zelaya should resume his place as rightful president – and impeachment or other proceedings could then occur, although the deal being negotiated instead merely ties his hands to prevent him from any further dictatorial actions (demonstrating that the military actually weakened their hand in dealing with Zelaya in overreacting.)

In each of these cases, Obama displays a common goal – to maintain and allow the space for states of consent – free from military or other violent forms of coercion.

What right-wingers are declaring inconsistency is one of results – not goals. The differences in responses can be quite clearly explained by looking at what leverage Obama had and by a consistent moral demand that the nations of the world govern by consent and not force.

[The above image is a product of the United States government.]

What the Iranian Green Revoltion Has Accomplished

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009

Jack DuVall in The New Republic explains (with useful historical examples if you follow the link to read) what the Iranian Green Revolution has already accomplished no matter where it goes from here:

Regardless of whether or not the Green Revolution in Iran succeeds in the coming days, the collective recognition by ordinary Iranians that it is, after all, their country–that its guidance and direction are not the property of one ideological faction or certain privileged clerics–is unlikely to fade. Once you learn how to drive a car, you don’t forget. Once you’ve created space that has commanded the world’s attention and caused armed rulers to hesitate, you are a factor in history and a force to be reckoned with, whether a million people come back on the street for another six days, or 16 days, or 60 days.

[Image by Hamed Saber licensed under Creative Commons.]

Michael Jackson’s Gift to the Ayatollah Khamenei

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

David Rothkopf makes a good point:

Personally, I found the obsessive retrospectives about Michael Jackson a little disgusting. His commercial success for a few years as a pop singer seemed to trump the dark and of his life. But he was no hero. He was certainly no one to be celebrating. Unless of course, you were an ayatollah. Because one of the truly transcendental ironies of recent history has to be the fact that a symbol of the worst sort of Western spiritual and social corruption…celebrity worship, drug culture, financial excess, debauchery…ended up providing just the distraction that the keepers of the Islamic Revolution’s flame in Tehran needed to direct the world’s attention away from their abuses of their own people.