Iran and the Stumble Toward Geneva II

The handling of the issue of Iranian participation in the next round of multilateral discussions on the civil war in Syria has been something of an embarrassment—certainly for the United States, the United Nations, and the conglomeration known as the Syrian opposition. The United States has seemed to be more interested in words rather than in substance in the demands it has been placing on Iran. It finally got its way by strong-arming the U.N. Secretary-General into withdrawing an invitation he had already extended (while the Iranians simultaneously said they are not interested in participating on the basis of the terms being demanded of them). If this whole episode foreshadows how the conference that this is supposed to be all about is apt to go, the odds of success now appear even longer than they did before.

De-Trivializing the Nazis

This week the Israeli Knesset took the first step toward enactment of a bill that poses difficult questions for the legislators because it to some degree abridges free speech but does so for benign purposes. The bill would criminalize derogatory use of the word Nazi or related terms as applied to people other than the real Nazis, or to use symbols related to the Holocaust for purposes other than educational ones. Penalties for violation would include fines and up to six months imprisonment.

One objective of the legislation is to place Israel on stronger ground when urging other countries to take action to curb the rise of neo-Nazi movements. But another important purpose is to check the widespread tendency—observed not just in Israel but also elsewhere—to use comparisons with Nazis so loosely and indiscriminately that the usage debases the historical currency. The trivial use of Nazi-related comparisons and imagery threatens to trivialize the real thing. When comparisons with the Nazi regime keep getting applied to matters that come nowhere close to the horrors associated with that regime, this risks degrading understanding of how horrifying that regime was, as well as constituting an insult to its victims. Combating this tendency is a worthwhile objective.

The Highly Competent NSA

Two basic ways of berating something or somebody are to make charges of ineptitude or charges of ill intentions. With most subjects there is tension between those two modes of criticism. Ill intentions do not matter if there is insufficient ability to act on them. When a particular line of criticism becomes conventional wisdom this tension often is overlooked, as is true of many implications of conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom in criticism of U.S. intelligence agencies has focused most of the time on accusations of ineptitude. “Intelligence failure” customarily gets explained as a matter of organizational incompetence. This is a subtype of a larger leitmotif according to which government agencies overall are said to be less competent than enterprises in the private sector. This broader conventional wisdom overlooks many significant developments that government pioneered before the private sector commercially exploited them, from space travel to the Internet (which Al Gore did not invent, but a government entity—the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense—has the best claim to having done so). Nonetheless, the broader conventional wisdom seems to have become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

Reach Out to Syria's Islamic Front

The military balance in Syria, both between the anti-Assad opposition and the regime as well as amongst various factions of the opposition, has quite predictably and significantly deteriorated. The U.S.-“supported” Free Syrian Army (FSA) is fading into irrelevance; now, the [comparatively] moderate Islamic Front (IF) is essentially the only obstacle preventing more radical, Al Qaeda-affiliated groups – particularly Jabhat al Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shaam (ISIS) – from dominating the opposition and post-Assad Syria – if there ever is a post-Assad Syria.

If nearly half a century of ruthless Baathist rule didn't completely discredit the idea of secular governance in Syria, the FSA's downfall was the nail in secularism's coffin. Now, all options are Islamist, although some, like the Islamic Front, are more moderate than others. Formed in November 2013 with the merger of several powerful Islamist rebel factions, the IF is today one of the most powerful factions of the Syrian opposition, if not the most powerful. Although the IF is not formally linked with Al Qaeda, its members often fight alongside Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria.

ISIS and JN are heavily populated by foreign fighters, who often care more about establishing an Islamic emirate within and beyond Syria’s borders than improving the lives of ordinary Syrians. In contrast, the IF is almost entirely composed of Syrians based in areas where they grew up, and has demonstrated a willingness to adjust its goals and practices to maintain popular support.

The Iran Deal Meets Obamacare

The completion of technical talks to implement the Joint Plan of Action negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States) underscores the falsity of assertions that legislation imposing still more sanctions is somehow needed to keep the Iranians negotiating seriously. The technical talks actually were successfully completed more quickly than some Western officials had expected. Completion means all the T's have been crossed and I's have been dotted on the Joint Plan of Action, a preliminary agreement that freezes or reverses the components of Iran's nuclear program that otherwise would have been most worrisome concerning possible application toward the making of nuclear weapons. In return the P5+1 is providing only minimal relief from sanctions, with the main sanctions regarding banking and oil exports remaining in place.

Gates, War, and Responsibility

Stop the presses: Robert Gates has a revealing memoir that provides penetrating new insights into how Washington works. Such as that election considerations influence how presidents, and presidential aspirants in senior positions, speak and behave. And that Congress is a dysfunctional place where members ask hostile and impertinent questions at hearings. And that different parts of the executive branch compete with each for influence. Oh, wait, we already knew all that. We also knew, and some of us have even written about, more specific things such as how Barack Obama's history of contrasting the “good war” in Afghanistan with the bad one in Iraq shunted him onto the politically attractive but strategically questionable track of ramping up to a short-lived “surge” in Afghanistan before quickly ramping down.

Threats to Israeli Security, Imagined and Real

Everyone should be able to agree that any settlement of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians needs to be consistent with genuine security for the people of Israel. The history of strife between Israel and multiple neighbors demands that. The longer history of the Jewish people, and of the persecution and hatred they have endured, demands it. It is understandable that Israel's security is a major topic to be considered in evaluating any agreement. We do not know all the details of the security plan developed by General John Allen, but it is appropriate that such a plan be part of U.S. efforts to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

It thus should be all the more distressing that the subject of Israel's security gets so badly distorted and exploited in the misleading and manipulative ways that it does. The other day Yuval Steinitz, a right-wing minister in the Israeli government, rejected the portion of General Allen's plan dealing with the Jordan River valley and declared that Israel, for its security, must maintain a presence in the valley forever. We should not even need the expert judgment of a former head of Mossad, who directly contradicted Steinitz, to realize that Israel faces no security threats from across the Jordan River and that there is no need for an indefinite Israeli military presence there.

Dennis the Menace: Rodman Visits North Korea

God Bless Dennis Rodman. At last America has someone who is willing to take the fight for freedom to North Korea. President Obama and his administration barely say anything about a country that has taunted America for decades. They'd prefer for the problem to just go away, which it won't. The most White House spokesman Jay Carney would say is that he wasn't saying anything about Rodman's "outburst."

Rodman was indeed in the highest dudgeon. It was a mesmerizing performance, surpassing anything he performed on the hardwood court. Chomping on a cigar, wearing a pair of shades, and surrounded by a phalanx of former NBA players, who had made great sacrifices, as Rodman emphasized during an interview on CNN, he was treated in an opprobrious manner by the host Chris Cuomo. His motives were impeached, his statements aspersed.

When all Rodman wanted to do was to bring a little lovin' to the Hermit Kingdom. He apparently first bonded with Kim when he and the Harlem Globetrotters visited the North. Now Rodman has become a true globetrotter, consorting with a world leader that almost no one has met. Rodman declared his "love" for newly minted leader Kim Jong-un, who is fresh from polishing off his uncle Jang Song Thaek, and proclaimed that his visit was a "great idea for the world." A slam dunk, in other words.

Might Rodman persuade his new buddy to ease tensions with America?

Breaking Down the Freedom Agenda

The multifaceted push by the George W. Bush to inject more democracy into the Middle East—a set of policies sometimes grouped under the label of the “Freedom Agenda”—has generated much debate about its effectiveness that even several years of added perspective have not resolved. The advent of the Arab spring three years ago led defenders of Bush's policies to claim this phenomenon as a positive consequence of those policies, while critics could still point to some glaring negative consequences.

An impediment to temperate discussion of this issue is how the biggest initiative not just of the Freedom of Agenda but of Bush's entire presidency—the attempt, known as the Iraq War, to inject democracy into the Middle East through the barrel of a gun—was such a blunder and debacle that it overshadows what Bush got right about the political ordering of the region. What he got right was more the diagnosis than the cure. The Middle East was—and still is, the Arab spring notwithstanding—more of a democratic desert than most other regions. And the paucity of channels in the Middle East for peacefully pursuing political objectives and acting on grievances can affect the United States, especially by providing a more fertile breeding ground for violent extremism.

Why Ariel Sharon Could Have Saved Israel

Secretary of State John Kerry is on a peace offensive, or at least he is acting as though he is on one. He has just embarked on his 10th visit to the Middle East, but the frequency of his visits doesn't appear to be producing anything other than frequent flyer miles. The most he seems to have been able to accomplish is to persuade the Israelis to delay the bids for new settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem until he departs on Sunday. If this constitutes progress, then it is hard to see where it is progressing other than towards a prolonged exercise in futility between the Israelis and Palestinians. Kerry is in danger of becoming the Dan Snyder of the State Department, promising a revival, only to watch continual meltdowns.

So what else is new? What's new is that former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who is 85 and has been in a coma for eight years, is apparently about to die. His demise provides the melancholy backdrop to Israel's current predicament. Sharon, whom I met once at Blair House, where he came across as genial and earthy, humorous and shrewd, was a great man. Not greatness in the sense that he had an impeccable record. Far from it. But he was a realist--tough, forceful, a visionary who could chuckle to himself about the peculiarities and fascinating qualities of the land he represented.

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April 25, 2014