News of America's misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Supporters of Hassan Rohani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election. (Reuters/Fars News/)
Here’s a question for the White House: Do you think it’s a good idea to greet the new president of Iran, who might be willing to seek a long-lasting accord with the United States, with a head-on confrontation with Iran and Russia in Syria?
Hint: the answer is no.
Hassan Rouhani, who’ll take over as president of Iran in August, stunned the world with an outright, 50-percent-plus victory in the June 14 election. By all accounts, he’s a thoughtful, centrist cleric with a moderate outlook. As president, Rouhani will have a lot of power, but he will still have to operate within Iran’s very intricate political system—just as, say, President Obama has to do in dealing with Congress, the courts, his own fractious Democrats, the Pentagon and public opinion. In Rouhani’s case, he has to maneuver around Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, Iran’s own conservative-dominated parliament, Iran’s judiciary (and the Guardian Council), the entrenched power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other centers of power.
Thus, Rouhani will need all the help he can get. Some of that help will have to come from the United States, including positive signals that Washington is ready to deal. But an American-backed war in Syria, aimed at forcible regime change against Iran’s chief regional ally, can only weaken Rouhani and stiffen the opposition of Iranian hardliners, including the IRGC. And, of course, the best way for the United States to aid Rouhani in his internal battles will be do sweeten the offer in the now-stalled nuclear negotiations, finally making it clear that Washington is ready to endorse Iran’s enrichment program under proper international safeguards.
In his first post-election news conference on Sunday, Rouhani couldn’t have been more explicit. “This victory is the victory of wisdom, moderation and awareness over fanaticism and bad behavior.” And, in a televised debate just before the election, Rouhani explicitly addressed the nuclear issue. “We have to calculate our national interests. It’s nice for the centrifuges to run but people’s livelihoods have to also run, our factories have to also run.” That doesn’t mean that Rouhani is ready to give away the store on the nuclear issue. He won’t. Not only that, he can’t. But it does mean that—like his chief patron, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the billionaire businessman who’s been chafing under economic sanctions—he recognizes that Iran’s hard line on enrichment has led to the country’s political and economic isolation from the West. Unlike Saeed Jalili, the current nuclear negotiator and ultra hardliner—who, in his own, failed presidential campaign, called for Iran to live under a “resistance economy”—Rouhani and Rafsanjani realize that the nuclear program isn’t Iran’s number-one priority, especially when a workable deal can be so easily reached.
The initial response by the United States to Rouhani’s surprise win was mixed. Naturally, in the United States the right, the neoconservatives and the Israel lobby—and Israel itself—are going out of their way to say Never mind the Iran election! Move on—there’s nothing to see here! But the White House reaction has nevertheless been welcoming—in words, at least. Dennis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, said:
“I see it as a potentially hopeful sign. I think the question for us now is: If he is interested in, as he has said in his campaign events, mending his relations—Iran’s relations with the rest of the world—there’s an opportunity to do that.”
Not that the United States was exactly gracious in greeting Rouhani. As Jonathan Steele, writing in The Guardian, notes:
The Obama administration needs to take stock and think hard after this surprise result, especially as its first reaction was full of hasty blunders. It patronised Iranian voters by saying they showed “courage in making their voices heard” and was rude in urging Rouhani to “heed the will of the Iranian people”. If the White House is really “ready to engage the Iranian government directly”, as it said on Saturday, why did it not have the courtesy to send Rouhani a message of congratulations?
In any case, nice words won’t help Rouhani get the upper hand at home. If the war in Syria escalates, the United States—by arming the rebels, authorizing a covert operations project by the CIA, building up US forces in Jordan—could push Iran and Russia to meet the United States on the Syrian battlefield. And unless the United States offers Iran an explicit deal to eliminate sanctions in exchange for a nuclear deal, Rouhani may not have the leverage that he’ll need at home.
The Wall Street Journal, in an important news analysis, says that the United States and Europe are ready to test Rouhani in future negotiations:
The Obama administration and its European allies—surprised and encouraged by Hassan Rouhani’s election as Iran’s next president—intend to aggressively push to resume negotiations with Tehran on its nuclear program by August to test his new government’s positions, U.S. and European diplomats say.
But it’s a one-way test, according to the Journal:
Washington and Brussels are eager to quickly test whether Mr. Rohani’s unexpected victory could pressure Mr. Khamenei into softening his position on the nuclear issue or scaling back Tehran’s broader rift with the West, these officials said.
Nothing, you’ll notice, about whether the United States will itself make a more palatable offer to Iran in the hope that its new leader will respond in kind.
Rouhani, who was Iran’s negotiator under President Mohammad Khatami—the godfather of the reformist movement who, like Rafsanjani, endorsed Rouhani just says before the election—is a shrewd negotiator himself. In his campaign, defending himself against the hardliners (including Jalili), Rouhani often made the point that when, under his watch, Iran suspended its enrichment program, that allowed Iran to forge ahead by quietly building facilities to advance the program later on. Now, Rouhani skeptics in the West are using those statements against him, trying to portray his as sneaky or duplicitous. But the fact is, no deal was reached in 2003–05, and no deal has been struck since. It’s time for a deal.
Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration insider who’s been critical of the White House, says that now the United States has to negotiate with far more flexibility than its shown so far:
To take advantage of Rouhani’s victory and break the logjam over nuclear negotiations, Washington has to put on the table incentives it has thus far been unwilling to contemplate. It will have to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for agreeing to Western demands. At a minimum, the United States would like Iran to accept IAEA demands for intrusive inspection of its nuclear facilities; cap its uranium enrichment at 5 percent, and ship out of the country its stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent. Iran in turn wants a formal recognition of its right to enrich uranium and, more immediately, the lifting of crippling sanctions on its financial institutions and oil exports. Ahmadinejad is faulted in Iran for wrecking the country’s economy. Populism, mismanagement, and international isolation have combined to put Iran’s economy into a downward spiral. Between 2009 and 2013, real GDP growth has fallen from 4 percent to 0.4 percent, unemployment has risen to 17 percent, and inflation has grown to 22 percent—and those are official numbers, which tend to downplay the gravity of the economic crisis. It is estimated that 40 percent of Iranians live below the poverty line. Reformists will grow in strength if they are able to show that they can reverse that trend by at least getting the West for the first time to offer negotiating away specific sanctions.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
Supporters of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani hold a picture of him as they celebrate his victory in Iran's presidential election on a pedestrian bridge in Tehran June 15, 2013. Reuters/Fars News/Sina Shiri
UPDATE—Iran’s interior ministry confirmed on Saturday that Hassan Rouhani, the standard-bearer of the reformist movement and a decided moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, will be the next president, succeeding Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in August. His election means big changes, and a new attitude that will eventually carry over into foreign policy.
Celebrations, including dancing in the street, greeted the announcement that Rouhani had won.
Here’s an account by the Associated Press:
Wild celebrations broke out on Tehran streets that were battlefields four years ago as reformist-backed Hasan Rowhani capped a stunning surge to claim Iran's presidency on Saturday, throwing open the political order after relentless crackdowns by hard-liners to consolidate and safeguard their grip on power.
"Long live Rowhani," tens of thousands of jubilant supporters chanted as security officials made no attempt to rein in crowds — joyous and even a bit bewildered by the scope of his victory with more than three times the votes of his nearest rival.
Saeed Laylaz, a pro-reform economist and shrewd observer of Iranian politics (who I met in Tehran in 2009, before he was arrested in the post-election crackdown), told the New York Times:
“There will be moderation in domestic and foreign policy under Mr. Rowhani. First we need to form a centrist and moderate government, reconcile domestic disputes, then he can make changes in our foreign policy.”
The paper also quotes a late-in-the-campaign speech by Rouhani, who said, “Let’s end extremism.”
He’s emerged as something of a champion of women’s rights and liberalization of the morality-police repression in the name of ultra Islam, which no doubt helped him amass a total of 50.7 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a runoff on June 21.
ORIGINAL POST—The apparent victory by Hassan Rouhani in Iran’s presidential election yesterday is a game-changer.
As he went to the polls yesterday, here’s what Rouhani had to say:
“I have come to destroy extremism and when I see that these extremists are worried by my response and my vote I am very happy. It means that with the help of the people we can instill the appropriate Islamist behavior in the country.”
And another campaign quote from Rouhani:
“It is not that Iran has to remain angry with the United States forever and have no relations with them. Under appropriate conditions, where national interests are protected, this situation has to change.”
The results aren’t official yet, but Rouhani, who’d been endorsed by two former presidents, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami—the billionaire businessman who’d backed the reformists in 2009 and the godfather of the reformist movement—was riding an electoral wave. As the votes mounted, his total passed the critical 50 percent threshold that would avoid a runoff election next Friday. The other candidates, including a passel of conservatives supposedly including the one “anointed” by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, all had percentages in the teens or below.
So much for the idea that elections in Iran are a joke. So much for the idea that Iran’s voters were so disenchanted by the aftermath of the 2009 election that they’d boycott the vote. So much for the idea that Khamenei, insisting on the election of an ultra-conservative, would rig the vote count against Rouhani, who’d emerged as the standard-bearer for the reformist movement. So much for those analysts who argued that the Green Movement was dead and buried.
Rouhani himself is a critic of the post-2009 crackdown and he’s hinted that he’ll act to release those still held, presumably including Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the 2009 reform candidates who’s vote was hijacked by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani has called for a “rights charter” and said that he’d encourage “freedom of expression, thought and discussion.”
Meanwhile, the former nuclear negotiator for Iran under President Khatami and, before that, top national security adviser to President Rafsanjani will have a chance to “reset” relations with the United States. Just as important, the emergence of Rouhani as president of Iran gives President Obama a tremendous opportunity to restart talks with Iran on a new basis; and the fact that Iran’s next president won’t be named Ahmadinejad means that all of the efforts by hawks, neoconservatives and the Israel lobby to demonize Ahmadinejad are now for naught.
Now that Rouhani might be president, it also means that many of the former officials, ambassadors and policy experts ousted by Ahmadinejad (and kept in political exile by the conservative coalition and military-dominated bloc that ruled Iran under him) can return to office.
The results, of course, have to be certified by the Interior Ministry, still under the control of Ahmadinejad. And, there’s still a chance that the Guardian Council will weigh in. But the announced results so overwhelmingly favor Rouhani that he seems locked in, and if his total falls below 50 percent he’d still be a shoo-in in a two-person runoff.
Listen, now, to the American right-wing and neoconservatives, who’ll argue that the election doesn’t matter, since Ayatollah Khamenei controls policy and decision-making. True, under the Iranian system, the supreme leader is very, very powerful. But Rouhani’s election means that there will be a new team in place, and that Khamenei will have to accommodate it. The last time a reformist was president, intended reforms—enacted by a reformist-controlled parliament—were nearly all overturned by the Guardian Council, with Khamenei’s approval. On the other hand, President Khatami, with Rouhani at the head of the nuclear negotiation team, did indeed negotiate with the European Union in good faith, and at one point (until the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005) Iran suspended the enrichment of uranium temporarily in order to help the talks succeed.
Now, Rouhani says, speaking of the crisis in relations with the United States:
“We have to gradually defuse this hostility, take it down a notch to a tense relationship, and then move toward reducing the tensions.”
Let’s hope so.
Jack Straw, the former UK foreign secretary, who’d met Rouhani, had this to say:
This is a remarkable and welcome result so far and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there will be no jiggery-pokery with the final result. What this huge vote of confidence in Doctor Rouhani appears to show is a hunger by the Iranian people to break away from the arid and self-defeating approach of the past and for more constructive relations with the West. On a personal level I found him warm and engaging. He is a strong Iranian patriot and he was tough, but fair to deal with and always on top of his brief.
A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo, June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
Here’s the thing about a slippery slope: sometimes you maintain your footing and don’t go tumbling down, and sometimes you slip and slide right into disaster. With the apparent decision to arm the Syrian rebels, President Obama looks like he’s going to go kersplat! onto his face and land smack dab in the Syrian quagmire.
It is, of course, a quagmire partly of his own making. Though he’s instinctively resisted getting directly involved in Syria, Obama’s first mistake was made in 2011, when he demanded that President Bashar al-Assad step down. Not only did Obama have no power to make that happen, but by demanding it he turned a relatively small-scale rebellion into a raging civil war pitting an amalgam of rebels, including large numbers of Sunni extremists and Al Qaeda types, against a fully armed modern state army. Second, Obama compounded his mistake by helping Saudi Arabia and Qatar arm the rebels, despite the fact that much of that aid went to the extremists. And then he ordered the CIA to get involved in training the rebels, secretly, in Jordan. Finally, his comments about a “red line” if and when Syria used chemical weapons gave ammunition to hawks, neoconservatives and the far right to demand that Obama go to war in Syria once evidence of a very limited, marginal use of some gases became apparent.
That’s the slippery slope that Obama created, and now he tumbling in.
So yesterday the White House decided to send weapons to the rebels. Reading the White House’s statement on the matter, it’s clear that they’re not quite ready to go all in, but that’s the problem with a slippery slope: once you send in small arms and ammunition, next comes anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and—oops!—before you know it, you’re bombing Syrian airports and imposing a no-fly zone.
The President has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition, and also authorized the expansion of our assistance to the Supreme Military Council (SMC), and we will be consulting with Congress on these matters in the coming weeks.
Saying “coming weeks” makes it sound as if adding the weapons isn’t all that urgent, but the message is clear: the United States will be arming the Supreme Military Council, and it will get worse. Added the White House, the United States will “increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC.” In case we missed the point, the White House added: “These efforts will increase going forward.”
In fact, it may be too late for the United States to alter the course of the war. The commander of the Syrian Military Council himself has flatly turned down Secretary of State John Kerry’s invitation to attend a peace conference, insisting instead that the rebels get advanced, high-tech weapons. In recent weeks the Syrian government has made important battlefield advances, and by all accounts the tide of war has turned sharply against the Saudi Arabia– and Qatar-backed fighters, the Al Qaeda forces and others.
As in Vietnam, when the United States persisted in that hopeless war in part because it felt like to withdraw would damage American credibility, in Syria there is a real chance the President Obama will slide all the way down the slope to full-scale war simply because he won’t want to tolerate an Assad victory. Such a victory would be a big win for Assad, for Iran, for Hezbollah—and for Russia, too, which has bet on Assad’s ability to hang on. If that happens, it’s only because Obama naïvely bet that the Arab Spring movement that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia—and in Libya, with an American military push—would easily knock off Assad.
James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
Saeed Jalili. (Wikimedia Commons)
Iran, it turns out, is having a real election after all.
Tomorrow and over the weekend, I’ll report on the actual election results—and what they might mean for Iran’s relations with the United States and for the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. But today, the election itself.
Last month, after the Guardian Council—the oversight body whose dozen members are appointed by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and by the Khamenei-controlled judiciary—disqualified two opposition-minded candidates (including a former president of Iran) from running, some American Iran-watchers concluded that Iran shouldn’t bother having the election at all. The seeming ultraconservative in the race, Saeed Jalili, now had the field to himself, they said, and had been “anointed” by Khamenei as Iran’s next president; and even many late reports suggest that Jalili is still Khamenei’s preferred candidate.
But that doesn’t mean that Jalili is a lock, and he might not have enough support to qualify for the June 21 two-man runoff if no one wins 50 percent in the first round on June 14. In fact, according to some polls—though in Iran, especially, polls are not overly reliable—Jalili is now in third or fourth place in advance of tomorrow’s election. Not only that, but the reformist movement in Iran is roaring back, in support of Hassan Rouhani, the only cleric in the race and an ally of former President Mohammad Khatami, who this week endorsed Rouhani. Rouhani got another endorsement from another former president, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the would-be candidate who was excluded by the Guardian Council in May.
Another candidate, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the quirky conservative who is the mayor of Tehran, is roughly tied with Rouhani, with Jalili in third or fourth place. Given Iran’s system, in which a lot happens behind the scenes—including the election count—that doesn’t mean Jalili ought to be counted out. But his sternly worded election slogans, in which he pledges no compromise in talks with the United States and says that he favors a “resistance economy,” which could tumble Iran into North Korea–like economic isolation, don’t seem to be resonating with Iranian voters.
There is one sense, of course, in which the election doesn’t matter. Whoever wins the presidency in Iran will still be beholden to Khamenei, who makes the key decisions—including about the nuclear file. But in the past, Iranian presidents have had a real impact, within the system’s relatively narrow lanes, and Khamenei may give the president—whoever he will be—some leeway to act. It’s also possible that Khamenei himself is undecided about which way to go in Iran’s quandary.
Still, the establishment in Iran doesn’t seem happy about Rouhani’s prospects. According to a former Iranian diplomat who spoke to The Nation on background, Rafsanjani and Khatami withheld their endorsement of Rouhani until the very eve of the election in order not to provoke the election authorities and the Guardian Council. (Indeed, even this week there were rumors, apparently untrue, that the Guardian Council would take action to bar Rouhani.) As a popular reformist, the only cleric in the race, and as a former nuclear negotiator under Khatami, Rouhani is gaining momentum. The only other reformist in the race, Mohammad Reza Aref, dropped out last week in order to allow reformists, centrists and moderates to gather around a single standard-bearer. But when Rouhani submitted a campaign video biography for broadcast by Iran’s television network, astonishingly the broadcasters—loyal to the conservative establishment—refused to run it unless Rafsanjani’s endorsement of Rouhani were deleted.
The presence of several other conservative (“principlist”) candidates in the race—besides Jalili, the most prominent is Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati—might split the principlist vote and divide establishment-minded clerics. The Washington Post, reporting from Qom, Iran’s clerical capital and religious center, notes that the thousands of mullahs and ayatollahs there don’t seem to have a preferred candidate. When the Post visited Velayati’s campaign office in Qom, he found it staffed by only two teenagers.
After their experience in 2009, when millions of Iranians flooded the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest the election’s outcome, it’s understandable that many reformists, liberals, business people and middle-class voters might be reluctant to count on Rouhani. Unlike 2009—when I spent two weeks in Iran watching the election excitement build—this time, according to The New York Times, there is far less visible electioneering, street demonstrations, posters and leaflets, and other election paraphernalia visible in Tehran. The authorities, mindful above all of suffering through another 2009-style upsurge, have taken steps to limit political expression and debate, and they’ve changed the format of the televised debates drastically to lessen public interest in the outcome.
But quite a few observers of the election note that a substantial portion of the coalition that backed Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009 is once again ready to go to the polls, even though other voters say that a boycott is the best way to express their political feelings. But, just as Rafsanjani and Khatami backed Mousavi four years ago, the support of the two former presidents has once again excited Iranian voters.
James Harkin chronicles the fight for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.
An audience member uses their smart phone to take a picture of President Obama speaking at a fundraiser on May 29, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
The news about the National Security Agency isn’t a molehill, but it’s not a mountain either. When all is said and done, it’s very likely that it will turn out to be a situation where there’s less than meets the eye at first—at least, if what seems to have met the eye this week is a massive, unchecked NSA that sees all and knows all.
Plus, comparing Obama to George W. Bush is wrong. Bush, you will recall, invaded several nations in search of terrorists that didn’t—as in the case of Iraq—actually exist. Except for Obama’s diminishing use of drones, the Obama administration apparently believes that counterterrorism ought to be the work of intelligence and police. From everything we know, the current program at the NSA is approved by the president, legislated and known to Congress and backed by the courts. That doesn’t mean it’s right. But it also doesn’t mean that it’s the Second Coming of Richard Nixon, the Plumbers and illegal domestic spying by the CIA.
Let’s not get all paranoid about this.
And that might start with the leaker himself, Edward Snowden. As a journalist, I’m strongly in favor of leaks, and for that I’m grateful to Snowden and to The Guardian team, including Glenn Greenwald, who helped Snowden tell his story. As a civil libertarian, I’m encouraged that Snowden’s leaked documents might start a real debate over secrecy, spying and the intelligence community’s extraordinary anti-terrorist powers. But it’s also possible that Snowden, a computer nerd who backed Ron Paul in 2012, is a little paranoid, too. It’s true that he’s facing possible deportation, arrest and prosecution for what he’s acknowledged that he’s done. But when he says that the CIA might “pay off the Triads” to kidnap him in Hong Kong, that’s a little paranoid.
Too many Americans, of course, have reacted to the NSA story with a shrug and the comment that they “have nothing to hide.” And perhaps most of them believe that, but the fact is that nearly all of us do indeed have something to hide, even it’s no more than personal communications, say, between family members, doctors, bankers and others that we’d prefer don’t become public. But what’s often overlooked in this NSA story is that none of that—at least as far as we know!—is happening. No one, including the NSA, is listening in on your phone calls or reading your e-mails. That, however, is not what Americans apparently think. Most of them, fully 85 percent, according to a poll taken before—yes, before—the NSA revelations, believe that the government can “access citizens’ phone calls, e-mails and Internet use without their consent.”
Well, they can’t.
So what about collecting all of the “metadata” on phone calls made to, from and within the United States every few months and storing it all at some huge NSA data bank? That’s troubling, yes. But not really alarming, unless it can be shown that the data is misused, say, in criminal investigations, in tracking the movements of ordinary citizens, and so forth.
In an editorial today, The New York Times asks the right questions:
Are the calls and texts of ordinary Americans mined for patterns that might put innocent people under suspicion? Why is data from every phone call collected, and not just those made by people whom the government suspects of terrorist activity? How long is the data kept, and can it be used for routine police investigations? Why was a private contractor like Edward Snowden allowed to have access to it? So far, no one at the White House seems interested in a substantive public debate.
Every one of those questions needs to be answered. But some of the answers seem obvious. The reason why “data from every phone call [is] collected, and not just those made by people whom the government suspects of terrorist activity” is because if the FBI or other investigators are going to go back and look for patterns of activity after the fact, they’ll need an historical set of data. That’s something that ought to be debated, and if I get a vote, it will be that the threat of terrorism is so low that so vast a collection of data isn’t needed, especially when measured against the civil liberties lost and the potential for government abuse. That’s a debate worth having.
In answer to another of the Times’s questions—namely “Can it be used for routine police investigations”—the answer is no, and in this case we have some proof.
Consider this: if the NSA has metadata stored on every phone call made in the United States from every conceivable landline and cell phone, why would the FBI and the Justice Department need to acquire that very same data on a lot of Associated Press reporters in a leak investigation? Why not trundle over to the NSA and look it up? And in this case, especially, since it involved a leak involving an incident of terrorism and counterterrorism? The reason they didn’t, and instead sought the intrusive method that they actually used, is because this was a criminal case—a leak investigation—and not a case that actually involved terrorism. That, alone, should tell us that the NSA’s storehouse of phone metadata isn’t likely being used improperly.
On the other hand, in its investigation of the Boston Marathon bombers, the FBI and the CIA can indeed use the metadata to search the patterns of the bombers’ phone calls.
Less clear is the case of the would-be subway bomber, Najibullah Zazi, who the administration says was netted in part because of the NSA’s ability to track and monitor e-mail communications. (That’s the subject of another of Snowden’s blockbuster leaks, involving the PRISM program that gives the government entry in social networking and e-mail servers in cases involving foreign targets.) The administration says that Zazi was caught in the NSA’s net, but others say that he could easily have been tracked using the more standard intelligence and law enforcement tools that allow investigators to conduct wiretaps and electronic intercepts. (Dianne Feinstein, on the other hand, reportedly said that Zazi was caught using the NSA phone metadata, which definitely isn’t true.)
As I noted at the outset, comparing President Obama to President George W. Bush—and glibly popularizing phrases such as “George W. Obama”—is just plain silly. It’s comparing, well, apples and invasions. President Bush opted to use the military to invade entire nations in search of terrorists, some of whom didn’t even exist. More rational people, including Obama (and myself) have long argued that battling terrorism primarily ought to be the job of intelligence and law enforcement agencies. (Note to Obama: that doesn’t mean that intelligence agencies ought to use drones!) But if counterterrorism is the province of those agencies, not the military, then we need to discuss, as a nation, what powers those agencies ought to have—and what they shouldn’t.
Lee Fang writes about how intelligence contractors have already abused their power.
Samantha Power. (Wikimedia Commons)
Whether or not the Geneva conference on Syria, backed by both the United States and Russia, takes place—it’s now been pushed back from June to July—the Syrian rebels are not acquitting themselves well. They’ve now refused outright to attend, unless the United States and the Europeans supply them with heavy weapons, a kind of blackmail that won’t sit well with their backers in Washington and elsewhere. General Idris—the commander of the rebel forces, who just had a session with John McCain, who no doubt encouraged him in his anti-Geneva stance—is saying this:
“If we don’t receive ammunition and weapons to change the position on the ground, to change the balance on the ground, very frankly I can say we will not go to Geneva. There will be no Geneva.”
McCain, of course, is incessantly demanding direct American involvement in the war.
Meanwhile, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is making important military gains on the ground while telling the Russians that they’ll attend Geneva.
In a perfect world, Secretary of State John Kerry would read the riot act to the rebel leaders, explaining not-so-patiently that there will be no military solution to the civil war in Syria. Kerry’s message ought to be that the United States will cut off the rebels if they don’t attend Geneva. Further, the United States must start putting intense pressure on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the rebels’s main arms suppliers, to slow down the weapons pipeline, especially to the ultra-Islamists and the Al Qaeda types who are the rebels’s strongest fighters. And Kerry ought to make it clear to the world that Iran will be welcome in Geneva, since Tehran has great influence over the course of the war in Syria.
Meanwhile, Kerry will have to deal patiently, as well, with Susan Rice, the new US national security adviser to-be, and with Samantha Power, the yet-to-be-confirmed replacement for Rice at the United Nations, both of whom are likely to push for more American support for the beleaguered anti-Assad forces.
Perhaps realizing that the alliance between Al Qaeda in Iraq and Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the so-called Nusra Front, had resulted in poor public relations for Al Qaeda, the organization’s top leader—Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as chieftain—has annulled the marriage of Nusra and AQI. According to Reuters:
“The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is canceled, and work continues under the name the Islamic State of Iraq,” he said in the letter posted on the website on Sunday night. “The Nusra Front for the People of the Levant is an independent branch” of al Qaeda, Zawahiri said, urging both groups to “stop arguing in this dispute, and to stop the harassment among the Muslims.”
Zawahiri’s intervention won’t do anything to remove the stain of Al Qaeda extremism from the Syrian revolt, however.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of speculation about what the addition of the two liberal interventionists, Rice and Power, will mean to the decision-making of the Obama administration. In the Los Angeles Times, the headline is: “At White House, liberal hawks ascend.” Says the paper:
Their promotions hints at a new source of fireworks in a growing foreign policy battle in the Obama administration. Liberal hawks and doves in the White House and the Democratic Party are struggling for hearts and minds over whether it makes sense to intervene in Syria and to attack Iran.
But Neil McFarquhar, in The New York Times over the weekend, is fairly certain that the Rice-Power axis won’t make much difference:
Could the fact that both Ms. Rice and Ms. Power have taken very public stances on the importance of humanitarian intervention mean they will shift American foreign policy in that direction? The consensus among experts and their ex-colleagues is that not much will change. Ms. Power’s appointment represents continuity, and neither of them differed publicly with President Obama on foreign policy issues.
James Mann, too, says in The Washington Post that Power, for all her tough talk about preventing genocide, won’t have a major impact at the UN, and that Obama’s own anti-interventionist instincts will hold sway:
Power is likely to get the opportunity to put these ideas into effect at the United Nations. In her daily work, proposals for U.S. military intervention will seem remote, if not entirely irrelevant.
Let’s hope he’s right. But I’m a lot less sanguine than McFarquhar and Mann, and a lot more worried that the pressure to intervene in hotspots from Africa to Syria to Iran will increase once Rice and Power settle into their new positions later this summer.
Two soldiers scan the area with rifles during a security stop on their convoy as members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit drive to a forward operating base in southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder)
Peter Beinart wants everyone to stop talking about the neoconservatives. Perhaps, if we stop talking about them, they’ll go away? No, it’s not that. Beinart, of course, was once a fellow traveler of sorts with the neocons, as editor of The New Republic from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s, when its publisher at the time, Marty Peretz, would reasonably qualify as a neocon or “quasi-neocon.” In that post, Beinart famously supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and then, even more famously—as that war degenerated into a catastrophic series of horrors—apologized for his support.
In a recent piece in The Daily Beast, Beinart takes several writers to task, including me, David Corn of Mother Jones, and Ann McFeatters of the Chicago Sun-Times for, well, talking about neoconservatives and their penchant for war—in particular because many of their tribe are among the loudest backers of war against Syria.
Writing in his usual supercilious style, Beinart first cites Corn:
Earlier this week, I Googled “neocons and Syria” and learned that the former want America to go war in the latter. The first story Google offered me was by David Corn in Mother Jones. “How to Be a Good Neocon When It Comes to Syria,” read the headline. The subtitle read: “With Obama moving cautiously, some hawks are angling for a US invasion.
Got it, I thought. “Neocon” is a synonym for “hawk.” But then, in the first sentence, Corn wrote that the “most hawkish neocons desire … a full US military presence in the air and on the ground.” Hmm. If some neocons are more hawkish than others, then “neocon” and “hawk” can’t be the same thing. Four paragraphs later, Corn referred to former Bush-administration ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton as a “neocon favorite.” Why just a “favorite,” I thought. Why not a “neocon” himself? Then, in the next paragraph, Corn explained that “real neocons, it seems, do not get squishy when the question is US troops on Syrian soil.” So there are fake neocons? How do you tell the difference?
He goes on to tackle a recent piece that I wrote for The Nation:
Bob Dreyfuss in The Nation made things worse. “Neocons, Hill Democrats Push for War Against Syria,” read the headline of his piece. So neocons can’t be Democrats or work on Capitol Hill? Three sentences later Dreyfuss made a distinction between “neoconservatives and right-wing military types,” which presumably means that you can’t be a neoconservative while in uniform.
Why is Beinart so upset about our using the term neocon? Here’s the real reason:
Frequently, what neocon really means is “Jewish hawk.” In that way, it’s a bit like “gangbanger,” “mobster,” “illegal” (the noun), or even “terrorist,” terms that could theoretically refer to someone of any religious, ethnic, or racial group but in America today are often reserved for members of only one.
In other words, Beinart is trying to resurrect the old canard that when critics speak of “neoconservatives” they really mean “Jews.” This is so unspeakably stupid a charge that I don’t know where to begin.
First of all, as Beinart himself acknowledges, not all neoconservatives are Jews—and, by overwhelming numbers, the vast majority of Jews are not neoconservatives. That said, there’s no denying the fact that many, many neoconservatives—perhaps, even, the preponderance, are indeed Jewish. There are plenty of reasons for that, historically, related to how the neoconservative movement emerged as a coherent, intellectual-ideological faction from the 1970s onward. And, as they emerged, they self-consciously separated themselves from the traditional affiliation of most Jewish political activists, intellectuals and idea people with liberalism, Democrats and progressive views on disarmament, diplomacy, civil rights and other topics.
But among the countless thousands of journalists and analysts who use the term “neoconservative,” I can think of none—not one!—who is somehow subtly trying to imply that neoconservatives are a Jewish cabal and that somehow that cabal represents Jews in general.
Beinart seems troubled by the fact Corn and I use terms such as “hawks,” “right-wing military types” and “neoconservatives” seemingly to mean different things. Well, that’s because they are indeed different things. In 2002–03, during the period before the war in Iraq, a coalition arose in support of that war. Among its key members were neoconservatives, liberal interventionists, human rights activists, people opposed to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and various kinds of hawks from the military-industrial complex. They weren’t all the same, and they weren’t interchangeable—but they found common cause in supporting the war in Iraq. But one would have to be deaf, dumb and blind—or an editor of The New Republic in 2003—not to realize that the true organizers of the war in Iraq were the friends of Ahmed Chalabi, the backers of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, the organizers of the Project for a New American Century and their allies—and nearly all of them were card-carrying neoconservatives.
Not only that, but the neoconservatives use the term in reference to themselves, and they do indeed behave as a kind of collective. Here’s one example of their thinking: Back in 2003, following a conference that I attended at the American Enterprise Institute, I approached Max Singer, a veteran neoconservative activist who co-founded the Hudson Institute, to ask if I might call him later in the day for an interview. “Sure,” he told me, and he gave me his card. After I’d left the room, according to a journalist friend who’d remained behind, Singer approached a top AEI official. “I was asked by Dreyfuss for an interview,” Singer said. “Is he one of us?” Now, it’s possible to read too much into the phrase “one of us,” but it’s also true that the neoconservative movement is very much an in-group, with a strong sense of an us-against-them attitude, in which you’re either a true believer or you’re not.
Not that all neoconservatives agree with each other about everything. They don’t. As Beinart points out, that can make it difficult to define exactly what a “neoconservative” is. The simple answer is that, like pornography, you pretty much know a neocon when you see one.
In his piece in the Daily Beast, Beinart tries manfully to figure out what attributes define neoconservativism. He variously suggests that what might link neoconservatives together could be support for a “neo-Reaganite” foreign policy, belief in exporting democracy, backing for American military “dominance,” and so on—all characteristics, for the most part, if most—but not all—neocons.
He then comes very close to accusing me and Corn of anti-Semitism. Corn, he notes, puts Richard Perle in the “neocon” category, while putting Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain in the “hawk” category. And he says:
For his part, Dreyfuss sees Gen. Jack Keane as emblematic of “right-wing military types” while associating the American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka with “neoconservatives.” Yet he doesn’t in any way distinguish their beliefs, leading the reader to surmise that what makes Pletka a neoconservative isn’t what she believes but where she works and who she is.
His implication—well, more than an implication—is that I called Pletka a “neoconservative” because of “who she is,” i.e, that she’s Jewish. (For the record, I don’t even know whether Danny Pletka is Jewish or not. And I wonder if she knows whether I am Jewish or not.) The fact is that most politicians, especially current, elected officials, have such a wide range of views on a wide range of subjects that it’s hard to pin them down as being ideological neoconservatives. I doubt that I’ve ever described a politician or a military official as an unalloyed neoconservative. In part, that’s because most politicians and military officers don’t join, affiliate with, or subscribe to the countless thinktanks, ad hoc committees, “open letters,” and other manifestations that mark the neoconservative effort to shape policy, especially since the 1990s. But, as in the case of the Beinart-supported war in Iraq, many hawks and others did support what was indisputably a neoconservative-inspired war of aggression.
Perhaps I missed it, but in Beinart’s list of things that define neoconservatives, he fails to mention Israel. To his credit, in recent years Beinart has emerged—belatedly, and welcome to the club—as a strident critic of Israel and Zionism. For that, he’s been pilloried by many unthinking backers of Israel’s current policies, including (yes) neoconservatives. But he doesn’t mention in his Daily Beast that neoconservatives—whether Jewish or non-Jewish—are also nearly unanimously united in their militant support for Israel and, especially, for Israel’s right-wing parties affiliated with Herut, Likud and their heirs, including Benjamin Netanyahu. For neoconservatives, the American-Israel alliance—against Palestinians, against Iran, against political Islam, Islamists of all stripes, Al Qaeda et al.—is a defining view. I can imagine a hawk who supports Israel far right but who isn’t a neoconservative. I can imagine a Christian fundamentalist who supports Israel’s far right, as the key to the coming Battle of Armageddon and all that jazz, but who isn’t a neocon. (There are legions of those.) But I have trouble imagining a true neoconservative who doesn’t support Netanyahu and Co.
Beinart wants us to stop using the term neoconservative and replace it with “imperialist.” For my part, I’ll stick with “neoconservative.”
Read Bob Dreyfuss’s take on Kerry’s trip to Israel/Palestine.
Tom Donilon, President Obama’s national security adviser, is out, and Susan Rice is in. Along with Samantha Power, who’s taking over at the United Nations, the new Rice-Power axis will likely mean a much greater emphasis on human rights in foreign policy—which could vastly complicate US relations with Russia, China and Iran.
Serving in that post since October 2010, when he replaced former General Jim Jones, Donilon has played a critical role in shaping Obama’s foreign policy since then, usually joining Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on the relatively dovish, anti-interventionist side of the fence—often ranged against the Pentagon, the military brass, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the hawkish end. Bob Gates, the Republican centrist-hawk who was Obama’s secretary of defense—a carryover from the George W. Bush administration—famously said that Donilon would be a “disaster” if he were elevated to the post of national security adviser, because Donilon wasn’t echoing the military’s view about continually escalating the war in Afghanistan.
More recently, Donilon lined up with Obama and Biden in opposition to direct US involvement in the civil war in Syria, and Donilon reportedly backed Obama’s decision to speed the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in 2013–14 and to minimize the US presence there beyond 2014.
Among Donilon’s recent important efforts have been his travels to Russia, where he tried to rebuild ties with Moscow, and China, where he helped to arrange the critical summit between Obama and President Xi Jinping of China this weekend in California.
Perhaps Donilon’s biggest blunder—or at least, his worst move—was to bring Dennis Ross, a strongly pro-Israeli hawk and ally of neoconservatives, into the White House. Several years ago, I listened to Donilon as he spoke to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Israel lobby’s chief Washington thinktank, as he praised Ross—who’s now a WINEP official, once again—and boasted that he’d helped bring Ross into Obama’s inner circle. No wonder, perhaps, that the Israel-Palestine problem is where Obama has made the least progress in any of the foreign policy challenges he faces.
But now it’s worrying, to say the least, that Susan Rice is taking over at the NSC. That’s made worse by recent reports that Obama will name Samantha Power as Rice’s successor as US ambassador to the United Nations. Both Rice and Power, though they lean liberal, are humanitarian, interventionist hawks. Both Rice and Power backed Clinton two years ago in supporting the months-long American bombardment of Libya, an action that toppled Muammar Qaddafi but ushered in chaos and a militia-dominated, semi-failed state there. They represent a dangerous flank of the liberal establishment in American foreign policy circles, interventionists who believe that every mass killing, or threatened mass killing, borders on potential genocide a la Rwanda. Both supported US bombing of Sudan during the much-inflated crisis in the western Sudanese province of Darfur, for instance, and they claimed that the military assault that Qaddafi planned against Benghazi in eastern Libya was impending genocide, when there was no evidence whatsoever that the Libyan forces were planning to anything more than recapture a city that had been seized by rebels.
Power, who wrote A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, is a staunch advocate for using American military power abroad in defense of human rights. She served on the NSC staff until earlier this year, as Obama’s chief human right aide.
A woman fills in her ballot for the Iranian presidential election in Tehran June 12, 2009. (REUTERS/Caren Firouz)
With ten days to go before Iran’s presidential election, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran, and US neoconservatives are on opposite sides of the regime-change question, as one might expect.
Here’s the reality of Iran’s presidential vote: there isn’t going to be any regime change, despite Khamenei’s fears and the hopes of right-wingers such as Robert Joseph, a former George W. Bush official. The next president of Iran, whoever he is, will settle into a working relationship with Khamenei, and President Obama will have to deal with the actual Iranian government, do business with it, and seek an accord over Iran’s nuclear program. And, because President Ahmadinejad of Iran has been so belligerent and thus so demonized in the United States, Obama will find it a lot easier to sell a deal to the American public that he makes with a president whose name isn’t Ahmadinejad.
Khamenei, widely vilified by outside critics for endorsing the Guardian Council’s decision to ban an Ahmadinejad aide and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from running for president, gave an important speech yesterday—with both Rafsanjani and the Ahmadinejad aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, sitting on the stage with him! Apparently, neither man was so miffed by Guardian Council’s decision that he’d refuse to sit with Khamenei, yet another signal that the Islamic Republic’s political system is staying intact.
In his speech, according to The Washington Post:
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused foreign and domestic critics Tuesday of attempting to undermine the country’s June 14 presidential election…. Khamenei dismissed these criticisms as misguided plots to undermine Iran’s political system.
And he added:
“A vote for any of these eight candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system and our electoral process.”
So it is. That hasn’t stopped the neoconservatives from demanding that Obama abandon his policy of engagement with Iran and, instead, seek precisely the regime change policy that Khamenei is talking about. Writing for National Review, Joseph says:
Tinkering with current policies will not achieve a non-nuclear and democratic Iran. Instead, it is time to “reset” U.S. policy and recognize the need for regime change. This change must come from within Iran and be led by Iranians, but the United States and the international community can provide essential support to encourage and strengthen the opposition inside and outside of Iran.
Weirdly, Joseph goes on to endorse the activities of the cult-like People’s Mujaheddin (PMOI) and its front group, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), which is apparently holding a big rally of its cult member in Paris on June 22, the day after the possible run-off in the election, whose first round in June 14 and second round, if needed, will be June 21. Joseph says that the NCRI rally “is expected to be one of the largest gatherings of the Iranian opposition to date.”
In reality, the NCRI and the PMOI have zero influence and support inside Iran, little backing outside Iran, and rag-tag army of sorts—whose terrorist designation was recently lifted by the United States and which has lucrative ties to former top US officials—that is being shipped out of Iraq by Prime Minister Maliki’s security service.
Intelligently enough, Secretary of State John Kerry says that whoever wins Iran’s presidential election, it won’t affect the Obama administration’s policy of seeking a diplomatic solution. From the Los Angeles Times:
“I do not have high expectations that the election is going to change the fundamental calculus of Iran,” Kerry told reporters during a joint appearance at the State Department with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. “The supreme leader will ultimately make that decision.”
He said the United States would “continue to pursue every effort to have a peaceful resolution” of the dispute.
To be successful, the United States will have to make concessions to Iran that it has been unwilling to make so far, including a decision to state forthrightly that, at the end of the talks, Iran will be able to enrich uranium, on its own soil, under tighter international supervision. But at least Kerry is committed to continuing the talks, despite the pressure from the hawks. Talking with Iran, of course, was a key plank in Obama’s 2008 election campaign.
Read more from Bob Dreyfuss on Iran’s critical elections.
US and Chinese national flags are hung outside a hotel during a US presidential election event. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
All-important talks between the United States and China will happen this weekend, when President Obama meets President Xi in California. So, naturally, the China-bashers are out in full force, including the usual suspects at the AFL-CIO.
But there’s lot of promising news. The Obama administration seems willing to go into the talks with China on the basis of cooperation, even suggesting that it wants to smooth military-to-military ties between the two great powers. Reportedly, the United States and China will establish a committee to look into the reports of China’s hacking and cyberwarfare targeting of US government and corporate targets (and presumably, America’s own robust cyberwarfare capabilities), and China is saying that it’s willing to consider joining the Trans Pacific Partnership, an Obama-inspired trade bloc that has often been described as anti-Beijing. As The Wall Street Journal reports:
China signaled a possible softening on a key point of contention with the U.S. ahead of a meeting between the two countries’ presidents, suggesting it might be willing to join U.S.-led talks to strike an Asia-Pacific free-trade agreement.
With so many critical things at stake in the Obama-Xi summit, why then are pigs getting in the way? By pigs, I mean literally pigs—that is, the report that a Chinese company wants to buy the top US pork producer for $4.7 billion. In the past, anti-Chinese hysteria has blocked China’s purchase of other companies, but Smithfield Foods has little to do with national security. True, some Chinese companies have a poor-to-middling record when it comes to food safety, but operating in the United States the Chinese firm involved, Shuanghui International, will have to abide by American rules, including the FDA’s.
In a New York Times op-ed, Thea Lee of the AFL-CIO warns oddly that the idea of a Chinese company owning American pigs is “inextricably intertwined” with American national security. And, she says, you just can’t trust those huge, state-owned Chinese firms:
State-owned enterprises, for example, have both motivations and financial advantages that set them apart from commercial companies. They may be driven by long-term national government goals (like acquisition of market power or exclusive access to natural resources) that would lead to short-term actions not driven by profit.
Needless to say, Karl Marx would be turning over in his London cemetery if he finds out that the biggest American labor organization is slamming “state-owned enterprises” and condemning firms that are “not driven by profit.” But, sadly for Lee’s comments, Shuanghui International is not a state-owned firm. It’s capitalist to the core, with input from Goldman Sachs. As the Times reports elsewhere:
Behind the bid was a group of savvy investors and global deal makers who hold a substantial stake in the Chinese company: Goldman Sachs, CDH Investments, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund and New Horizon Capital, a private equity firm co-founded by the son of the former Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao.
The group controls nearly half the shares of Shuanghui International, much of which was acquired about seven years ago by helping privatize a company that had been run as a state-owned meat processor.
Naturally, I’m no fan of big capitalist companies’ controlling our food supply, but so they do. Whether they’re American-owned or Chinese-owned doesn’t matter much. But that shouldn’t be fodder for the China-bashers.
Good US-China relations are critically important in dealing with crises around the world, from North Korea’s belligerency to Iran’s nuclear program, and it will be the big issues, not piggies, that dominate the Obama-Xi talks. Biggest of all is how the United States will respond to the emergence of China as a regional, East Asia behemoth and, eventually, as a world power. There is lots of talk about China’s military growth, but cooler heads realize that for decades to come the United States will remain far, far ahead of China in military technology and power—although China will increasingly be able to flex its muscles in disputes over the South China Sea, for instance.
The real, hard nut to crack will be US-Taiwan relations, and the continuing—but foolish—American efforts to bolster Taiwan’s military power. Face it, Washington: first Hong Kong, then Taiwan.
Read more on US-China relations from Bob Dreyfuss.