1) It's not the video stupid
In an astute column marred only by a cheap shot directed at Mitt Romney in the end, Ross Douthat correctly concludes that It's not about the video.
What we are witnessing, instead, is mostly an exercise in old-fashioned power politics, with a stone-dumb video as a pretext for violence that would have been unleashed on some other excuse.
This has happened many times before, and Westerners should be used to it by now. Anyone in need of a refresher course should consult Salman Rushdie’s memoir, due out this week and excerpted in the latest New Yorker, which offers a harrowing account of what it felt like to live under an ayatollah’s death threat, and watch as other people suffered at the hands of mobs chanting for his head.
What Rushdie understands, and what we should understand as well, is that the crucial issue wasn’t actually how the novelist had treated Islam’s prophet in the pages of “The Satanic Verses.” The real issue, instead, was the desire of Iran’s leaders to keep the flame of their revolution burning after the debacle of the Iran-Iraq War, the desire of Pakistan’s Islamists to test the religious bona fides of their country’s prime minister, and the desire of religious extremists in Britain to cast themselves as spokesmen for the Muslim community as a whole. (In this, some of them succeeded: Rushdie dryly notes that an activist who declared of the novelist that “death, perhaps, is a bit too easy for him” would eventually be knighted “at the recommendation of the Blair government for his services to community relations.”)Barry Rubin provides specific examples and explains why expressing contempt for the video won't win us any friends:
–Examining the current developments, the precise situation in every country is different:
In Libya, the radical Islamists want to overturn a U.S.-sponsored government that will not give them a full Sharia state and which they see as a sell-out. The government doesn’t like the anti-American attacks but its armed forces and administration is heavily infiltrated by radical Islamists so it is not a dependable protector for the very Americans who put it in power.
In Tunisia, a country that is relatively secular by Arabic-speaking standards, the most extreme Islamists are especially frustrated. They are strong enough to cause trouble but not strong enough to pose a serious challenge to power. The Muslim Brotherhood controls the government but is in a serious coalition with moderates and is being cautious as a result. This makes the radicals all the more provocative. And since the Brotherhood in part sympathizes with them, it will not fully crack down.
In Egypt, the radicals are a front for the Muslim Brotherhood government which the Obama Administration has taught that radicalism and anti-American pays, or at least costs nothing. The Brotherhood regime would like to figure out a way to prove it hates the United States without any cost. Now it knows how to do so. Let the radicals go into the embassy with no interference by the security forces and the Obama Administration will still give it $1.6 billion (including security assistance to an army now controlled by the Brotherhood!), help it buy two German submarines, plan about cancelling $1 billion in debt, and make its president an honored guest at the White House. Since what the radicals do doesn’t injure the regime’s interest, it will let them do what they want. The Brotherhood will even join in the demonstrations. There’s nothing to lose.
In other places the goal is to build the revolutionary Islamist movement. And when everyone forgets about this silly little video there will be more pretexts: American support for governments including those of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Israel; anniversaries of past events; terrorists being held in prison; politicized Muslim religious festivities.
–The very numerous Islamists and lots of mainstream Muslim clerics and intellectuals stir up hatred of the West every day even when you aren’t watching. You see the demonstrations outside the embassies but you do not see the lessons in the classrooms, the sermons in the mosques, the articles on the websites, and all of the myriad ways that hatred is spread and radicalization carried out. And virtually no one dares dissent—or they would be quickly shouted down and threatened with death—except in the little ghetto enclaves of liberals and in the few more balanced newspapers and less radical television stations.
There is no end to their list of grievances. You can’t deny them an opportunity to make anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Christian propaganda because they will find one or invent one. You cannot appease someone who is totally determined never to be appeased but to advance step by step to total power, the fundamental transformation of their societies, the destruction of Israel, and the expulsion of the United States and all of its interests in the area stretching from Morocco through Indonesia.
And as the Westerners waste time, ink, and conscience on, “What did we do wrong” and “Why do they hate us?” and “How can we prove we really love Muslims?” the radicals go on arming and organizing. The ultimate irony is that even if America gives them guns (Libya, Syria) and money (Egypt, Pakistan), or intervenes diplomatically on their behalf (Gaza Strip), or proclaims them the absolute best of buddies (Turkey) this will make not one iota of difference.
Imagine a capitalist trying to win over a convinced Communist or a Jew trying to convert the anger of a confirmed Nazi into friendship. At any rate, even the most clever act of contrition or Politically Correct statement will end up being filtered through the Middle Eastern society and the determined Islamist (and nationalist) propaganda interpretation.
2) Rush to judgment against Netanyahu
A New York Times editorial, No rush to war cites a study by the Iran Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center as an authority supporting its conclusions.
The significance of the report by The Iran Project is not just its sober analysis but the nearly three dozen respected national security experts from both political parties who signed it: including two former national security advisers, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski; former Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering; and the retired Gen. Anthony Zinni.This is a wonderful appeal to authority.Among the other experts who have signed on are Lawrence Wilkerson, Chuck Hagel, Lee Hamilton and Joe Sestak. Based on this sampling, it appears that a significant number of the signers are known not to be sympathetic to Israel. This doesn't mean that the report is biased, but it means that it deserves scrutiny.
Furthermore former Defense Department official and Obama supporter, Colin Kahl is credited as an adviser. This suggest that rather than being the product of an independent group of bipartisan thinkers, it reflects the views of the administration and its allies. (Incidentally, in addition to Kohl, among the contributors is Anne Marie Slaughter another former administration official. Noticeably absent from the list though is Dennis Ross, who served as an adviser on Iran in the administration. Was he asked but refused to sign on? Or was he just not asked?)
I haven't had time to read the complete report, (.pdf) but I noticed one section is titled Iran's intention to develop or use nuclear weapons and it included:
In 2012, the Supreme Leader actually re-issued a second and stronger fatwa (religious decree) that bans the use or development of nuclear weapons as “against Islam.” If such a fatwa were violated,the Supreme Leader would lose religious and political credibility and authority. Some authorities on Iran argue that a fatwa can be revised or changed on the basis of significantly changed circumstances—and military action against Iran or an all-out war might constitute such a change. In view of the international attention focused on Iran’s every move, the Supreme Leader is likely aware that a move toward “break out” or a dash to build a nuclear weapon could provoke military action from several states.At the time the fatwa was supposedly re-issued, Lee Smith wrote in Iran's missing Nuclear Fatwa:
Last week the Jerusalem-based Middle East Media Research Institute released a report arguing that Khamenei’s anti-nuclear fatwa doesn’t exist. MEMRI staffers could find no evidence of any such fatwa on the websites belonging to Khamenei—neither his personal site, nor the one devoted exclusively to his fatwas. MEMRI concluded: “No such fatwa ever existed or was ever published, and that media reports about it are nothing more than a propaganda ruse on the part of the Iranian regime apparatuses—in an attempt to deceive top U.S. administration officials and the others mentioned above.” Others beg to differ with MEMRI’s findings, including Middle East experts like Juan Cole. Last week, the University of Michigan professor argued that Khamenei did issue the fatwa—even though Cole couldn’t find the ruling or even notice of it on the Iranian News Agency’s website. According to Cole, the official state news-agency report has simply “gone into the deep web” and the fact that it isn’t surfacing is “irrelevant.”(In this release from Press.TV, a semi-official Iranian "news" organization, there are references to the fatwa but specific quotes from it are non-existent.)
In their more lucid moments, American policymakers know that the Iranians really are building a bomb. Otherwise, Washington would not be leveling sanctions against the Islamic Republic for its nascent nuclear weapons program. Nor would the U.S. intelligence community devote so much attention and so many resources to tracking the program, and we’d be able to reassure our regional allies, especially Israel and Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, that Iran surely can’t be building a bomb, because “Hey, they have a fatwa against it.”
And yet the authors of the report have seemingly concluded "Hey, they have a fatwa against it."
I also looked for any reference to the regular threats against Israel made by Iranian officials and there was a single reference in 31 pages:
In addition to the high level of concern about Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. retains serious concerns about other Iranian behavior—including Iran’s hostility toward Israel, exemplified by Iran’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas and its rhetorical threats against Israel’s very existence.
The U.S. government has also been disturbed by Iranian efforts to undermine and seriously harm U.S. interests in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the region—including by contributing to the deaths of American servicemen through the provision of weapons to hostile insurgents in the region."[R]hetorical threats!" That's two words. There's no mention of the frequency or vehemence of such rhetoric; the regular threats of the regime against Israel merit only a brief mention.
It would be reasonable to conclude that this paper isn't so much a considered approach to the problem of a nuclear Iran. It is rather a brief against taking military action to prevent a nuclear Iran.
This is not to say that attacking Iran would not entail great risks, but that the risks of not preventing a nuclear Iran are much greater. That is the question that the paper didn't consider.
After appealing to the authority of the paper, the editorial continues:
Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel is trying to browbeat President Obama into a pre-emptive strike. On Tuesday, he demanded that the United States set a red line for military action and said those who refuse “don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.”
Later, Mr. Obama telephoned him and rejected the appeal. On Friday, Mr. Netanyahu suggested in an interview that Israel cannot entirely rely on the United States to act against Iran’s program.
Leaders need flexibility and ambiguity, not just hard and fast red lines. And it is dangerous for Mr. Netanyahu to try to push the president into a corner publicly and raise questions about Washington. Is that really the message he wants to send to Tehran?This is a misrepresentation of Netanyahu's argument. Netanyahu isn't "trying to browbeat President Obama into a pre-emptive strike," but he's trying to maneuver the President into stating that he would no rule out such a strike. A few weeks ago Charles Krauthammer wrote The Cordesman Criteria (and referred to again the other day in "The Abandonment") in which he appealed to the authority of Anthony Cordesman to suggest how best to confront Iran.
What to do? The sagest advice comes from Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman is a hardheaded realist — severely critical of the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war, skeptical of the “war on terror,” dismissive of the strategic importance of Afghanistan, and a believer that “multilateralism and soft power must still be the rule and not the exception.”
He may have found his exception. “There are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible,” he argues. Today, the threat of a U.S. attack is not taken seriously. Not by the region. Not by Iran. Not by the Israelis, who therefore increasingly feel forced to act before Israel’s more limited munitions — far less powerful and effective than those in the U.S. arsenal — can no longer penetrate Iran’s ever-hardening facilities.As I understand it, this is exactly what Netanyahu is trying to get the Obama administration to do: to clearly communicate that war is possible if Iran doesn't comply with international demands. Why is this even controversial?
Instead of taking the sensible approach of the Washington Post last week - criticizing the administration for acting like Israel is more of a threat than Iran - the New York Times apparently sees its role to defend the President against any and all critics.
3) Dueling headlines
Obama and Democrats Point to Foreign Policy Strength - The New York Times - September 7, 2012
President Obama and his allies made the case for him as commander in chief Thursday night, saying he was a steady hand in a dangerous world, while accusing Mitt Romney of outsourcing his policy to “neocon advisers” who would lead a return to the reckless adventurism of the Bush administration.
Mr. Obama framed the choice as being between “leadership that has been tested and proven” and a Republican team that is “new to foreign policy,” with a worldview he said was stuck in a “cold war time warp.”
The president said he had delivered on a promise to end the Iraq war and had turned the nation’s focus to counterterrorism, where he said the real threat lies. Mr. Romney, he said, believed that Russia — not Al Qaeda — posed the greatest peril to the United States and that ending the Iraq war was “tragic.” Nor, he said, had Mr. Romney offered a blueprint for winding down the war in Afghanistan.Israeli Foreign Ministry: U.S. ignored Arab radicalization - Ha'aretz - September 16, 2012
The Obama administration, which since the beginning of the Arab Spring has aided, directly or indirectly, the forces that brought down the dictatorial regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Lybia, now finds itself in a position of helplessness. The attack on the consulate in Benghazi, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed, and the storming of the U.S. embassies in Tunis, Sanaa and Cairo, proved the great hostility to the United States and the unwillingness of these country's new leaders to challenge domestic public opinion.
Senior Foreign Ministry officials say their conversations with their Washington counterparts have focused on what Jerusalem terms "radicalizing trends" against not only Israel but also against the United States and the West in general.Gee, we wouldn't want someone "new to foreign policy" running the show, would we? As opposed the experienced hands currently in charge.
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