James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Iran

  • The 'Existential' Chronicles Go On

    "The most frustrating part of watching this debate unfold is how many people don't seem to get the elementary fact that stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is impossible. What is possible is discouraging them from wanting to get them or wanting to use them."

    Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif meeting in Geneva last month (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

    Yesterday I argued that it was time for Americans to drop or ignore the words "existential threat" when thinking about Iran and its nuclear potential. The words have become a slogan or incantation taking the place of thought. Now, response:

    (1) A slew of readers have written in with variants of this sentiment:

    The populated stretch of Israel from Haifa to Tel Aviv is about 55 miles as the crow flies. One or two nuclear weapons delivered in minutes by Iranian ballistic missiles and Israel would cease to exist, even if the Israelis were able to make a retaliatory strike.

    Sure seem like an existential threat to me.

    OK. That is "existential" if (a) by the same logic you acknowledge that South Korea is living with an "existential" threat now yet has not seemed terrified or terrorized by it, or motivated to preemptive attack; and (b) you assume that the leadership of Iran is literally suicidal, since any attack on Israel would bring a devastating, nuclear-armed counterattack. The current Iranian government does many destructive things. I have asked "existential" readers for evidence of suicidal moves on Iran's part, and am still waiting.

    (2) From a veteran of the news business:

    In dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, U.S. policymakers knew that the impact would be felt, almost solely, by Japanese citizens. Aside from all else, today’s geographic and demographic realities rule out the possibility of a nuclear attack on, say, Tel Aviv, impacting solely, or even mostly, Israeli Jews.

    That is, in addition to incurring a devastating retaliation on Iran itself, Iranian leaders would know that in attacking Israel they would kill millions of mainly-Muslim others at the same time.

    (3) From reader Robert Levine:

    What I've never understood about Netanyahu's position is what he thinks the alternative might be. Pretty clearly he's been told that Israel does not have the ability to knock back Iran's ability to make nuclear weapons more than a few months, or he probably would have tried that a long time ago.

    Any military action by the U.S. would be without allies other than Israel, and would permanently shatter any diplomatic track. And surely he's aware that such action would be of a "rinse and repeat" in order to keep Iran from moving forward—which, after an attack on their soil, they would inevitably do. The only permanent solutions would be invasion and occupation—or bombing them back to the Stone Age. Neither seems likely, much less wise. I'll bet Netanyahu sees at least the "likely" part.

    The bottom line is that there is no practical way to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons if it wants to, and that military action would make it more far more likely that they would want to. The most frustrating part of watching this debate unfold is how many people don't seem to get the elementary fact that stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons is impossible. What is possible is discouraging them from wanting to get them or wanting to use them. The second is solved by deterrence, which already exists, as you point out.

    (4) From a reader with extensive experience outside the U.S.:

    One of my pet peeves has always been this reflex in the U.S. media, politicians, and Beltway Wise Men types to constantly see history as a series of repeating events ... there is always a Munich 1938 happening somewhere or a new Hitler on the rise somewhere, etc., etc.

    Is this something that is specific to the U.S. only or have you observed it in other countries and regions over the course of your career? I have family in Canada, U.K., Austria, Switzerland, Australia, Dubai, India, and Pakistan, and trust me, when we discuss politics or when I peruse the dailies or new sources over there, I rarely come across somebody arguing on the basis of these shoddy analogies.

    Was just curious if in your experience, this "malady" is specific to the U.S. or if you've seen it in other places too?

    My main answer is to direct readers to the elegant book by (my one-time professors) Ernest May and Richard Neustadt, Thinking in Time, about the use and misuse of historic analogies.

    (5) "Why America’s Obsession With Iran’s Centrifuges Could Give Tehran the Bomb." Joseph Cirincione writes in Defense One about the practicalities of Iranian motivations, and capabilities, which matter much more than generalities on the "existential" risk. (Note: Defense One is part of the Atlantic Media empire.)

    (6) From another reader with extensive professional experience in the Middle East:

    If Israel were governed by referenda, the following three propositions would pass (with decreasing majorities):

    1. Israel should be a Jewish State.

    2. Israel should be a liberal democracy

    3. Israel should retain control of the West Bank in perpetuity.

    The problem is that Israel can have any two of the above, but not all three. Of Jewish Israelis, 20 percent would pick 1 and 2. Fifty percent don't bother themselves about these things, so long as life in Tel Aviv goes on as usual. Thirty percent would pick 1 and 3. The latter group's problem is they cannot say so in polite American society as it implies either apartheid or ethnic cleansing. In so far as Bibi has any principles at all, he (like his ally Naftali Bennet) is in the third group.

    So what does he really think about Iran? An existential threat? Hardly; the man is an opportunist, not a fool. Good domestic politics? Certainly. But above all, it is an opportunity to kick the can down the road. If we Americans focus on Iran, we will not focus on the fact that all too many Israelis, and especially the present government very much want to pick options 1 and 3. And, who knows? Maybe in the context of another disastrous war, the American establishment might just be persuaded to look the other way as that choice's implications play themselves out?

    Pretty cynical, I agree. But then cynicism is a valuable corrective in assessing the actions of cynical people.

    * * *

    Coming soon in this space: starting Monday, February 23, the return of the Chickenhawk chronicles. Coming Monday, March 9, the return of American Futures.  

  • On 'Existential' Threats

    A word that has replaced thought

    Detail from the cover of Nevil Shute's 1957 novel 'On the Beach,' about the existential threat to all of humanity from nuclear war

    I have received a foreseeable flood of mail in response to the collection of Israel-and-Iran letters posted three days ago. I am not going to quote any more of it. As has been evident for many years, there is an unbridgeable chasm in outlooks on this topic. Having offered a sample of the current state of that divide, I'll say Enough for now.

    This makes me all the more admiring of diplomats who try to find ways across the chasm, starting with what I saw from Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and Jimmy Carter at Camp David long ago (as dramatized in Lawrence Wright's play Camp David).

    * * *

    But I will weigh in on one more aspect of the Netanyahu-Obama-Iran controversy, namely the language with which we describe it. If you’d like background on how Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu came to this impasse, please read two reports by David Ignatius, here and here. If you’d like to consider some of the long-term ramifications of Israel’s leader saying that he is the “true” voice of Jews worldwide, including American Jews, please read M.J. Rosenberg in The Nation, or former Congressman Mel Levine and former Israeli Ambassador Oded Eran in Politico.

    From Levine and Eran: “[The U.S.-Israel relationship] is especially threatened when an Israeli Prime Minister is seen as openly challenging the U.S president, asking the country and the Congress to side with a foreign Prime Minister over America’s President on an issue which potentially involves war and peace, a question about which the American public is anguished and divided.”

    From Rosenberg: “Netanyahu’s action, in challenging the American president and claiming to speak for all Jews when he does so, suggests that it is Israel and not the country in which Jews live and vote that is their homeland. This idea is anathema to the overwhelming majority of American Jews. … He is coming to the US Capitol to tell Congress that it should not support a president who is working to secure an agreement that president believes serves national interests, among which he has repeatedly said is the security of Israel.”

    * * *

    On language: We've reached the stage where a particular word obscures more than it clarifies about Iran and its nuclear prospects. That word is "existential," as in this now-standard formulation from Prime Minister Netanyahu: "A nuclear Iran is an existential threat on Israel and also on the rest of the world."

    I have learned in seeing mail that if the first paragraph of a message includes the word “existential,” I know 90 percent of what will come next. In this context an existential threat, literally a challenge to continued existence, means implicitly likening Iran to Nazi Germany—or explicitly equating it, as Netanyahu has done for many years.

    By definition an existential threat justifies any action that might forestall it, from preemptive military strikes to efforts at torpedoing an “unacceptable” diplomatic deal. It makes all compromises suspect. And it means that opinions from other countries lack moral standing, because after all their existence is not on the line.

    In most of Netanyahu’s speeches, as in most of the angry mail I receive, you can find each of those elements. Look for them in the next editorial you read in the WSJ or Commentary. Whenever you see an argument that could be paraphrased as “it’s 1938 again,” you’ve found the real thing. But let’s stop and think about this concept of existential threats.

    Is there an existential threat from nuclear weapons? Of course there is. Throughout my Cold War childhood, families in the United States and the Soviet Union were constantly reminded of the danger that we could all be incinerated in a second. My parents sanely refused to build a fallout shelter, but many neighbors gave in to the fears. On the Beach and Fail-Safe were hugely popular novels because of exactly this danger. Soon after the first use of atomic weapons, Albert Einstein wrote in The Atlantic about the danger to all of humanity. Enough nuclear warheads remain to kill everyone on Earth many times over. I support the Global Zero drive to eliminate them.

    Is nuclear proliferation a problem, wherever it occurs? Of course, yes as well. Each new nuclear power makes the emergence of further powers more likely. This domino effect on other Middle Eastern countries is a very strong reason to oppose Iran's getting a bomb.

    Is there a state that faces a specific existential threat right now? Yes again. That state is South Korea.

    South Korea has no nuclear weapons of its own, though the U.S. has extended its "nuclear umbrella." Its immediate neighbor, North Korea, does have nukes, which it tested and developed while the U.S. was distracted in Iraq. North Korea’s leaders are peculiar, to put it mildly, and have repeatedly promised / threatened to destroy South Korea in a "sea of fire" in rhetoric as blood-curdling as any anti-Israel rant from Iran. South Korea's population center is practically on the border with the North, rather than several time zones away as with Iran relative to Israel.

    It would be better for everyone except North Korea if it had no nukes, but the South Korean president was not invited to address Congress during the GW Bush years to demand tougher action against North Korea.

    Is Israel's situation comparable to that on the Korean peninsula—or, to use the more familiar parallel, to that of European Jews menaced by Hitler in 1938? It most emphatically is not, if you pay any attention to the underlying facts.

    The most obvious difference is that Israel is the incumbent (if unacknowledged) nuclear power in the region, with the universally understood ability to annihilate any attacker in a retaliatory raid. The only similarity between this power balance and the predicament of European Jewry in 1938 is the anti-Semitism. In 1938 the Jews of Germany, Poland, France, and Russia were a stateless minority with no military force of their own to protect them and no foreign power (including the U.S.) willing to step in. In 2015 Israel is a powerful independent state, more heavily armed than any adversary.

    Think of this parallel: The full-tilt U.S. slave economy of the 1850s and the police-shooting abuses of 2015 have in common racist anti-black prejudice, but they are not the same situations. One was resolved only by cataclysmic war. The other is very serious but not the prelude to north-versus-south combat. The Iranian rhetoric of 2015 and the Nazi death machine of the Reich have in common anti-Semitic hate-mongering. But the differences between them are far more obvious than the similarities.

    And is the Iran of 2015 like the Germany of 1938? Oh, please. In 1938, Germany had the strongest military in the world, and the second-largest economy (behind only the United States). Its economy was bigger than France's and England's combined. Today's Iran, by contrast, doesn't even have the strongest military in its region, and its economy is not in the world's top 25. Hitler's Germany was an expansionist force that would grow until it was crushed. Iran makes enormous trouble for the U.S. and others, but no one serious can be proposing that it must be crushed.

    I lay this out not imagining that it might change a single word in Netanyahu’s upcoming speech, nor the fervor of those who support him (and will soon tell me so). And of course Israel will decide for itself whether it feels "existentially" threatened. I am writing to an American audience that must assess our next steps and long-term goals toward Iran. When we call this situation "existential," we’re either saying something that is true for everyone—in the age of nuclear weapons all of humanity is at risk—or we’re making a specific observation that is far less applicable in Israel than in many other places, starting with South Korea. It's a slogan that has replaced thought.

    * * *

    After the jump I have a reader's note marveling at the way we've agreed to discuss Iran as a bottomless evil, rather than as a state with whom we should look for diplomatic ways to manage conflicts, as we have with China and the old Soviet Union—and as Begin did with Sadat.

    More »

  • Reader Pushback on Netanyahu, Iran, and the Speech

    "There is not a single column you write that I agree with," and other views from the readership.

    Allies at the White House last fall (Reuters)

    A word of background: Over the past week, I've argued that Prime Minister Netanyahu's upcoming speech to a joint meeting of Congress is destructive as a matter of procedure and misguided as a matter of policy. For previous installments please see: why the speech itself is unprecedented; why I think Netanyahu's case about Iran is wrong on the merits; more about why he is wrong on Iran; and why it would make sense for congressional Democrats to follow VP Joe Biden's (and Representative John Yarmuth's) example and skip the speech.

    A full roster of Iran-related posts is here. And the distillation of why I care about the episode at all is in this post, ending with:

    Here's why I care. I am deadset against my country drifting into further needless unwinnable wars. I view Netanyahu's arguments on Iran, however sincerely held on his side, as being wrong and unhelpfully warmongering from a U.S. perspective ...

    1. In my view, and as I've argued in my book Blind Into Baghdad and in many articles including "Bush's Lost Year," the decision to invade Iraq was the worst American foreign-policy mistake of my lifetime ...
    2. The arguments made to promote the Iraq war—we must strike before it's too late; diplomacy is a ruse and has run its course; the regime is irrational and can only be crushed rather than reasoned with; military "solutions" will in fact solve the problem—very closely parallel those now being made about Iran. And they are being made by many of the same people, notably including Benjamin Netanyahu ...
    3. Before the Iraq war, I admired State Senator Barack Obama's judgment in opposing it. I admire President Obama's judgment now in pushing hard for a diplomatic solution with Iran, despite huffing about "weakness" from the same people who rushed us into war with Iraq. Many people are doing the huffing, but only one of them has been asked to address a joint meeting of Congress. That's why I'm talking about him.

    I understand that people disagree about this. Today, as promised, a sample of opposing views.

    What you see below, mainly from readers who identify themselves as Jews living in North America or Israel, comes in response to the reader I quoted here, on the question of "dual loyalty," a hoary slur against Jewish Americans. That reader, a Jewish American with family members who had died in the Holocaust, said that he didn't like "loyalty" labels. But he said that if anyone could be suspected of "dual loyalty" in this episode, it would be the (overwhelmingly non-Jewish) Republican politicians who had invited Netanyahu as a way to embarrass the Obama administration and make policy toward Israel a partisan issue.

    You can agree with that or not. Unfortunately, many readers saw the words "dual loyalty" and immediately imagined, incorrectly, that the reader must have been advocating rather than rejecting the standard slur. This is life on the Internet I suppose; yet each time I encounter it I'm taken aback. With all that throat-clearing, here goes:

    * * *

    1) "So utterly offensive." From an American rabbi:

    America's closest ally in the Middle East is Israel. Israel is the region's only true democracy. It is a nation with which we Americans share many western values. Like our democracy, Israel's is imperfect. But like our democracy, it aspires to fulfill the values enshrined in its Declaration of Independence. Israel and the United States share a strong strategic/defense/security relationship. It is because of these and many more core reasons that Prime Minister Netanyahu received sustained applause and standing ovations during his last speech before a joint session of Congress. The thesis presented by your previous commentator does nothing but promote the disgusting canard of Jewish dual loyalty. [JF note: although of course he was writing about non-Jewish "dual loyalty." But I'll stop with the comments now.]

    As an American, a Jew and a religious leader I found the comments related to the charge of dual loyalty and your willingness to publish them so utterly offensive that I've decided to discontinue receiving blog posts.

    2) "Clean hands." From another reader in the United States:

    So you finish up your Bibi-bashing series by posting the opinion of a Liberal American Jew telling you how right you are about everything. Just the person to help you trot out the old dual loyalty canard with clean hands.

    You used to be better than this.

    3) "Support Israel against Iran or risk nuclear contamination of the planet." From a reader in New York, who didn't get into "dual loyalty":

    Netanyahu is not coming to speak to Congress for the sake of the United States, but for the sake of Israel. Let us understand clearly that Israel is being surrounded by Iran and the US is meddling by assisting those who could thwart those developments: Hizb'Allah in Lebanon, Iranian and Hizb'Allah troops on the Syrian-Israel border in the Golan; Shi'a Iranian support of Sunni Hamas; and most recently Iranian support of Yemeni Shi'ites. If the Houthi in Yemen reach Bab el-Mandeb they could blockade Israeli shipping from the Israeli port of Eilat...

    The consequences, if you are wrong about the intentions of Iran to wipe Israel off the map, will be a nuclear confrontation. One generally weighs costs versus benefits in serious matters. The survival of Israel for Israelis is a benefit. The cost of going nuclear, when that scenario could have been prevented, not only by past actions but by present actions as well, is far higher than political and military support for Israel before that terrible mushroom cloud materializes.

    The bottom line: Support Israel against Iran politically and militarily or risk nuclear contamination of the planet. The very idea of pushing Israel into a weakened position in an attempt to control it is a fools errand given the duplicitous nature of Iranian chess playing on an international scale.

    I wrote back to the reader acknowledging his note and saying that I disagreed with some of the factual claims made in parts I'm not quoting here. He replied:

    Mr modest recommendation to you is to visit a classic Eastern European Yeshivah for one hour. Without the process in which the students engage each other nothing real ever happens - not in their world or in ours.

    I replied saying: Yes, I think I've seen the same process at work in Jesuit high schools and some nondenominational debate courses, small-group tutorials, and Socratic-method classes. He wrote back saying, No, it's special to Yeshivahs.

    4) "If you are anti-Zionism then you are anti-Semitic." From another reader I believe to be in Israel. I have somewhat condensed what was a very long and detailed note:

    There is not a single column you write that I agree with. But with this piece I had to email you and completely tear apart your shallow anti-Israel screed.

    As for your reader, I have the same creds as your so-called Jewish reader. But what he established as creds does not provide him automatic entitlement as a Jew. In fact this person is the typical secular American who happened to be born Jewish.

    Based on his comments he long ago traded in his belief in his religion and heritage for the belief in a false idol called left wing socialism which is the new liberalism. That is irrefutable. Every Jewish service prays for the homeland of Jews of Jerusalem and Israel. There is no air between being Jewish and supporting Israel. If you are anti-Zionism then you are anti-Semitic. Martin Luther King Jr. said that once.

    But the anti-Semitic left have created a false narrative to give cover to these fake Jews to separate themselves from Israel.

    Your friend says:

    “I remain utterly baffled by the obeisance American politicians pay to a country that, due to the disproportionate influence of fanatic religious parties in the coalition, sometimes borders on the theocratic.”

    Maybe he missed this, but Israel IS a Jewish state and the U.N. mandate stated as such. A reason for such a state is to prevent another holocaust and that came to use with Jews leaving the USSR and now from Europe. Also his characterization of the political parties shows he has no clue what Israel is or what actually happens there but is simply picking up the narrative of the anti-Semitic left

    “Israel's policies towards the occupied territories are in conflict with international law and US policy, yet we turn a blind eye.”

    What policies are those? He does not say but once again gratuitously parrots the anti-Semitic left. [Much detail on occupation and settlements.]... .

    There is nothing illegal about what Israel is doing in the West Bank and your so-called Jewish friend simply uses radical Islamic and left wing anti-Semitic propaganda – and not facts.

    Israel is America's ally when it serves Israel's interest

    Another shallow anti-Semitic claim and he provides no support for. The fact is that Israel has done a lot for the U.S. even when it was not in their interest.

    Jewish senators and congressmen, who supposedly place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US because of their religion, threatened with being viewed as anti-Israel for not attending Netanyahu's circus

    Again your so-called Jewish friend provides zero evidence which is what people on the left do. They demagogue without support. And to call Netanyahu’s (the leader of Israel) speech to a joint session of Congress a “circus” pretty much disqualifies this abhorrent person as a Jew. That is the view being perpetrated by Obama.

    Netanyahu's interests and Israel's interests are not even the same thing.”

    Really? Why because Obama and his left wing anti-Semitic thugs say so? Try the rest of the country who disagree with you and most are not Jews.

    Here is the real issues for someone who claims to be an American Jew.

    Why was every one of Obama’s foreign policy advisers while he was a candidate in 2008 all with anti-Israel credentials which made him different than the other Democratic candidates?

    Why was Obama’s first call in the oval office to the head of the PLO?

    Why did Obama’s first trip to the Middle East include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey and intentionally skipped over Israel?

    Why did Obama feel it necessary to embarrass and personally denigrate Netanyahu publicly and treat him like a junk yard dog?

    Why did Obama call the Paris deli attack “an act of random violence” and intentionally ignore that it was an anti-Semitic attack?

    Why has anti-Semitism risen dramatically here and around the world coincidentally while Obama has been President?

    Why is Obama the first American President to be overwhelmingly disliked and not trusted by Israelis?

    Your so-called Jewish friend likely voted for Obama twice and ignored that he spent 20 years in the most anti-Semitic church in the country and considered its pastor his spiritual mentor. He ignored the fact that among Obama’s other mentors were Rashif Khalidi and Khalid Al Mansour. Your friend is typical of far too many American Jews who have capitulated to the socialist left and traded in their religion and heritage for loyalty to enemies of their religion and heritage.

    Because you happened to be born Jewish does not mean you are.

    5) "You are wrong." From a reader in Israel:

    1. Your analogy of China/Nixon and Iran/Obama is wrong. China was not planning to destroy Taiwan and murder all is citizens. As Obama begged/demanded that Israel not take military action when it was possible, there is an obligation to make Israel part of the decision process today. The current perception in Israel is that Obama will throw us under the bus for the sake of his "legacy".

    2. Why do American journalists insist on quoting Haaretz; it is read by less than 5% of the population, the extreme left wing anti-zionists. It is not representative of mainstream thinking and never had anything good to say about the country, it's leaders, it's people or its religion. Quoting it reduces your credibility outside of that small elitist community.

    6) Maybe you are right. Just to mix things up, and as a reminder of the heated debate within Israel, a note on this same point from a reader in Jerusalem:

    I wholly agree with both your analysis and comparisons. The Nixon-Taiwan reference is truly illuminating for me.

    My reservation, though, is that your accounts advocating to let Bibi come and speak in Congress neglects to take into account the ways in which American politics play a direct role in our national politics, particularly the coming general elections.

    Bibi has contributed more than any other leader on both sides of the ocean to transforming Israel from a bi-partisan issue to one of great contention. He actively interfered in the 2012 presidential campaign in favor of Mitt Romney. He also managed to hold a joint event with John Hagee on the eve of VP Biden's visit to Jerusalem (a tactic he already used back in 98, when participating in a Jerry Falwell event before coming to Clinton's White House). All of this is happens while Netanyahu remains extremely reluctant to respond positively to most foreign policy initiatives coming from the Administration.

    You write: "let's think carefully about American national interests". I urge you to do exactly that, and remember that unlike Nixon and Taiwan, the US has other interests down here in our neighborhood - the issue of Palestine and its contribution to instability; Jordan's refugee problem and the counter-IS coalition more generally; Egypt's delicate post-Mubarak politics. These interests are compromised by letting Bibi use the Congress podium as the ideal setting for his campaign ads.

    All call, in other words, for a less tolerant approach to Israel's contemporary Chang Kai Shek.   

    After the jump is another long note from a reader in the United States who professes herself (understandably) sick of all sides in this discussion.

    More »

  • 'Anti-Israel, or Anti-American?'

    Questions of "divided loyalty" have been among the nastiest in discussions of foreign policy. A reader says we're asking the wrong questions about the Netanyahu imbroglio.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receiving one of his standing ovations while addressing Congress in 2011 (Reuters)

    I intend to give the Netanyahu speech situation a rest after this, though there will be more to say on the risks and merits of the underlying negotiations with Iran. (For past items on the speech controversy, follow the links in this post.) But here is one last reader message on the speech itself. It's from someone whose real identity I know but am not using here. He lives in the western U.S.

    Let's get the disclaimers out of the way right from the start: I'm Jewish, or at least I was raised Jewish, had a bar mitzvah, and continue to consider myself culturally Jewish.

    A substantial portion of my parents' families died in the Holocaust. One branch survived because they emigrated to Palestine in the early twentieth century. That branch still lives in Israel and they have all served in the Army and many have fought during the numerous wars, starting with independence. My father's family spent a year as refugees in France until a miracle yielded entry visas to the US. My mother's family evacuated at Dunkirk. I've visited family in Israel twice as an adult. So, if you wonder if I appreciate the importance of Israel to Jews around the world, my credentials are solid.

    That said, I remain utterly baffled by the obeisance American politicians pay to a country that, due to the disproportionate influence of fanatic religious parties in the coalition, sometimes borders on the theocratic. Israel's policies towards the occupied territories are in conflict with international law and US policy, yet we turn a blind eye. Israel is America's ally when it serves Israel's interest (which of course is how any rational country behaves, putting its own interests first.)

    Perhaps all the more ironic, a frequent anti-Semitic (or at least anti-American Jew) canard is that American Jews place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US (a claim one doesn't hear applied to western European immigrants, like the Irish, in spite of decades of support for IRA terrorists).

    So here we have Jewish senators and congressmen, who supposedly place loyalty to Israel ahead of the US because of their religion, threatened with being viewed as anti-Israel for not attending Netanyahu's circus, yet the Republicans behind this spectacle are not being questioned about their loyalty to the US for apparently placing Israel's interests ahead of the US. And of course, Netanyahu's interests and Israel's interests are not even the same thing.

    So, when the cameras show who attends and who doesn't, who applauds and who doesn't, let's not think about who is pro-Israel or anti-Israel, let's ask who is pro-American or anti-American.

    I know from other correspondence with this reader that his aim is not to launch some different sort of re-directed loyalty witch-hunt. Rather it is to ridicule or challenge the general idea of "loyalty tests" and instead to concentrate on the sanest long-run pursuit of U.S. national interests.

    To my mind those interests lie with seeing if an acceptable deal with Iran can be found—a prospect that cannot possibly be helped by the spectacle of a foreign leader addressing Congress to criticize the administration's approach to negotiations, while those talks are still underway. Again, imagine Congress inviting Chaing Kai-shek to address a joint meeting on the problems with the Nixon opening to China, while the negotiations that would lead to the Shanghai Communique were still going on. No American strategist would have thought that was a good idea at the time, and similar logic applies now.  But I've made this point already and will move on.  

    * * *

    Time for the periodic housekeeping note about reader mail. Unless specified otherwise, I consider any incoming message to be available for quotation here. I don't have an open-comments section, because I don't want to commit the time necessary to moderate and tend it (as Ta-Nehisi Coates has so impressively done). But I try to give an idea of the range of response by quoting samples of what's come in.

    I generally want/need to know a reader's real name before quoting a message. That's to avoid trolling, phony claims about background or identity, false-flag-style arguments, etc. But I don't ever use a reader's real name on our site unless agreed in advance.

    * * *

    Update: I've gotten some querulous traffic to the effect of, What's it to you? Why are you singling out Netanyahu? Etc.

    The obvious first-stage answer is of course that John Boehner and Ron Dermer are the ones who have singled out Benjamin Netanyahu, by setting him up for an unprecedented appearance. But beyond that, why do I care?

    Here's why. I am deadset against my country drifting into further needless unwinnable wars. I view Netanyahu's arguments on Iran, however sincerely held on his side, as being wrong and unhelpfully warmongering from a U.S. perspective. Or at least from my U.S. perspective, as developed over the years:

    1. In my view, and as I've argued in my book Blind Into Baghdad and in many articles including "Bush's Lost Year," the decision to invade Iraq was the worst American foreign-policy mistake of my lifetime. The Vietnam War was more damaging overall, but also more understandable. As laid out by Les Gelb and Richard Betts in The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked and by other authors elsewhere, the eventual calamity of the Vietnam war was the result of step-by-step decisions each of which seemed "rational" at the time. Iraq, by contrast, was a wholly unnecessary self-inflicted wound.
    2. The arguments made to promote the Iraq war—we must strike before it's too late; diplomacy is a ruse and has run its course; the regime is irrational and can only be crushed rather than reasoned with; military "solutions" will in fact solve the problem—very closely parallel those now being made about Iran. And they are being made by many of the same people, notably including Benjamin Netanyahu. Read this astonishing Haaretz story for more on that front.
    3. Before the Iraq war, I admired State Senator Barack Obama's judgment in opposing it. I admire President Obama's judgment now in pushing hard for a diplomatic solution with Iran, despite huffing about "weakness" from the same people who rushed us into war with Iraq. Many people are doing the huffing, but only one of them has been asked to address a joint meeting of Congress. That's why I'm talking about him.

    So when the Middle East is not my beat, why do I care about this episode? Because we can't stand to drift into another of these wars.

  • The Case for Democrats Skipping the Netanyahu Speech

    Why should they willingly serve as GOP-Likud campaign props?

    US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at the nuclear negotations in Vienna last year (Reuters)

    For the record, and as explained in posts collected here, I am not a fan of:

    (a) the idea of a foreign leader being invited to criticize existing U.S. foreign policy before a joint meeting of Congress, something that has never happened before; or

    (b) the specific critique Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to advance in this setting, which, based on his statements over the past decade, is likely to involve such impossible conditions and strictures for an "acceptable" deal with Iran as to torpedo the negotiations. Not to mention ...

    (c) the idea that a military strike on Iran's nuclear installations merits serious consideration for either the U.S. or Israel.

    So, factor that in as you will. A recent crop of developments:

    1) A Congressional statement you really should read. Vice President Biden showed one way of distancing himself from this spectacle, through the super-important though not-yet-specified "foreign trip" he'll need to make just when Netanyahu is here.

    Representative John Yarmuth of Kentucky, a Democrat from Louisville (and one of 19 Jewish members of the House) demonstrated the other approach. Yesterday he put out a remarkable statement with the heading "Why I Will Not Be Attending PM Netanyahu's Speech to Congress."

    Seriously, this is worth reading, for what it says both about the specifics of U.S.-Israeli relations and about larger institutional dangers in the conduct of foreign policy as a whole. Here are a few samples.

    On the conversion of a "policy" speech into a political and lobbying stunt, with emphasis added:

    It is both sad and ridiculous that attending this speech will be used as a litmus test for support of Israel. In short, roll will be taken, and some outside organizations have even threatened potential absentees with electoral repercussions ...

    It will become a matter of score-keeping as to who stands up and applauds and who doesn't. Having visited Israel only months after Netanyahu addressed Congress in 2011, I know how much political impact these scenes have in that country. There is pressure to join the applause even if a member does not agree with statements made.

    On the "informational" value of the appearance:

    We know what he is going to say. Netanyahu’s position on the ongoing negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program is not a secret. Like many other members, I have been visited by the Israeli ambassador and understand what they want and how that differs from what U.S. negotiators are attempting to accomplish.

    The Prime Minister has plenty of other places to express his opinions. In fact he has done so many times.

    On interference in U.S. policy-making by a foreign leader:

    Speaker Boehner invited the Prime Minister to address Congress specifically to refute President Obama’s position. I will not contribute to the impression that this body does not support the President of the United States in foreign affairs.

    Congress has a broader responsibility than the security interests of Israel. While it certainly is important that we understand the Israeli perspective, the American people will hear only Netanyahu’s perspective, creating a public perception that could undermine a broadly supported resolution to the Iranian nuclear situation.

    This is as gutsy and non-boilerplate a statement as you're going to see from any congressional office. The way to encourage more such behavior by elected officials is to recognize it when it occurs.

    2) Why the obligatory applause lines can be the most damaging parts of the speech. From a reader who makes a point parallel to Yarmuth's:

    I just had a flash of what that address to a joint Congress will look like. All members must attend, lest they be branded anti-Israel. And, in the fashion of a State of the Union address, Netanyahu will deliver his speech with the intention to evoke applause. And, like the State of the Union address, the cameras will pan, and if a member is seen not applauding to a key policy point, he/she will be branded anti-Israel. Netanyahu will have been given an extreme American political power, given only to one other person on earth: the President of the United States ...  

    This, for me, brings into clear focus the patent harm caused by Citizens United: The ability of money to highjack [sic] American political processes is a dangerous thing. And the, shall I say, chutzpah of Israel, a foreign power, to inject itself (with disrespectful swagger) into the heart of the American political process should be seen as a real harbinger of those dangers. How much of the dark money being invested into 501(c)(4)'s has its origins in foreign treasuries? Israel is a potent example of how a savvy foreign power can, with careful political management and financial investment, hijack American politics. The analogy to a virus or a cancer springs to mind. And the vector is money. And its ability to neutralize our own self-protective evaluative and deliberative mechanisms very directly resembles an auto-immune disorder ...

    And I must make what seems to have become the obligatory disclaimer: I must clarify that I am not anti-Israel, anti-Jew, anti-semite [sic]; I'm actually part Jewish by culture, though not by faith. And I do think that the interests of the Jewish state are very important. But that should never displace a clear-headed perspective on what American interests are, and an independent evaluation of Israel's policies and actions, on our terms.

    As the doubly partisan nature of this spectacle becomes more obvious—partisan in U.S. terms, as part of the struggle between Obama and the Republicans, partisan in Israel as its own election nears—the case for Democrats simply absenting themselves becomes more powerful.

    As an intellectual matter, there is nothing they will learn by attending the speech that they haven't already heard. As a matter of short-term politics, they put themselves and their president in a no-win situation just by showing up. (If they don't applaud, they "lose." If they do applaud, they "don't win.") And as a question of long-term governance, everything about the situation is bad. As Josh Marshall argued two days ago, emphasis in original:

    The idea of a foreign head of state appearing before Congress as an advocate in a debate that is a matter of great controversy within the United States is basically without precedent. This is quite apart from the equally unprecedented idea of a foreign head of state addressing Congress to advocate against a sitting President. Mainly this is because foreign heads of state or government are by definition not American.

    Why enable any of this? Why agree to serve as props for what has become a GOP-Likud stunt? If Vice President Biden and Representative Yarmuth can stay away, so can the rest of you.

    * * *

    3) I've also received a lot of mail on the merits of the Iran negotiations. More about that shortly. For now, one more reader note on an under-covered aspect of the situation:

    I'm not as bothered by Netanyahu's speech as you are, but I am disgusted more generally by the ongoing efforts to sabotage negotiations and I don't see it covered much elsewhere in my media universe. Anyway, my point is below:

    It seems to me that Israel's chest thumping about war has moved the center of the Iran debate into such extreme territory that crippling economic sanctions are treated as merely symbolic. Many of the same politicians who take sanctions so lightly talk a lot about the suffering in America caused by the Great Recession (and rightly so). Well, we've done much worse things to Iran's economy than the recession did to ours. We've caused immense human misery in the Iranian population. Is economic suffering only real when it happens in America?

    Maybe after weighing the risks and benefits, sanctions were indeed the right thing to do (particularly if these negotiations succeed). I'm skeptical but uncertain. But I am fairly certain that the sanctions aren't weighing on the consciences of those who are inflicting them to the degree that they should.

    In the realpolitik of this moment, sanctions seem the only plausible alternative to talk of outright military confrontation. Thus for me they are clearly the lesser evil. But the reader rightly points out how taken-for-granted they have become.

  • The Netanyahu Speech Drama Goes On

    The prime minister doubles down, making a bad initial calculation worse.

    Netanyahu shares views with the United Nations in 2012. (Reuters)

    I have been on the road and off line during the festering of the Netanyahu speech drama. Updates:

    1) Now that Even Abraham Foxman™ and Even Commentary Magazine have said that the speech is a bad idea, it has seemed a matter of time before Benjamin Netanyahu develops a cold or hangnail, has a pressing last-minute commitment, needs to wash his hair, or has some other reason not to become the first foreign leader ever to criticize existing U.S. policy address before a joint meeting of Congress. (See past foreign-leader addresses here.)

    2) The most valuable positive idea for moving past this imbroglio comes from Matt Duss of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He suggests:

    If it really is that important for Congress to hear from Netanyahu in person, I propose this conflict-ending solution: Invite Netanyahu to testify.

    I recognize that having foreign heads of state testify before Congress is not something that’s usually done, but having foreign heads of state attack the President of the United States’ foreign policy agenda before Congress isn’t something that’s usually done, either. [JF note: Actually, never.] Not only would this arrangement address concerns that Netanyahu might use his speech to Congress for his own domestic political advantage, it would also give members of Congress the opportunity to ask questions and probe his views more deeply.

    Sign me up.

    3) Netanyahu himself apparently is not deterred. According to Haaretz:

    Haaretz

    Interesting to speculate on the reaction to any other international figure who purported to "speak for all Catholics," "speak for all Sunnis," "speak for all Buddhists"—or even, for a religion with a comparable number of worldwide adherents as Judaism, "speak for all Mormons." Additionally interesting given that Netanyahu manifestly does not even "speak for all Israelis."  

    4) A week ago I argued that Netanyahu's presentations on Iran boil down to "it's always 1938," which is in fact the way he put it at one point. From a reader who agrees:

    Another reason it is not 1938 is Iran has no borders with Israel. Germany, on the other hand bordered Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark.

    Israel to Iran, 1000 miles.

    So if Iran was developing weapons, it would need accurate delivery systems.  It does not have these.

    Perhaps one day a wise Iranian leader will say we will end all our atomic programs and destroy all materials if Israel does the same. Then what?

    4A) From another:

    As far as the threat of an actual nuclear altercation between Iran and Israel, some people like to refer to former Iran President Rafsanjani’s musing that in such instance 8 million Iranians might die, but all of Israel would be destroyed.

    Really? Israel is thought to have 200 deliverable warheads. Tehran alone has 8 million inhabitants. The biggest six-dozen-plus cities in Iran, including Tehran, contain 30 million people. Israel can not only take out all of those cities and people but render the rest of Iran as habitable as Chernobyl.

    In the meantime, regarding the destruction of Israel, nuclear kill zones have a nasty habit of being circular. In order to fully destroy Israel with nuclear weapons, Iran would also have to destroy much of Jordan, Lebanon, and the most inhabited western part of Syria, to say nothing of 4.4 million mostly Muslim Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and 1.7 million mostly Muslim Israeli Arabs. So who in fact has the most effectively deployed human shields?

    4B) From Efraim Halevy, the former head of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, in an interview with The Times of Israel:

    Netanyahu commits a “terrible mistake” by defining the Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a matter of life or death, Halevy said, “because I do not believe there is an existential threat to Israel. I think the Iranians can cause us a lot of damage, if they succeed in one way or another to launch a nuclear device which will actually hit the ground here in Israel. But this in itself would not bring the state of Israel to an end.”

    ‘Netanyahu preaches despair as a motive for making aliyah to Israel and this is abhorrent’

    Speaking of Iran’s nuclear drive in those existential terms tells the Iranians that Israelis believe Tehran actually has the power to destroy the Jewish state, said Halevy, who spent most of his career in the Mossad, served also as Israel’s ambassador to the EU, and was national security adviser to prime minister Ariel Sharon.

    “It’s almost inviting them to do so, because they will say, ‘If the Israelis themselves believe that they are vulnerable and can be destroyed then that is sufficient basis to go and do it.’”

    5) On the other hand, from a reader who disagrees:

    We don't know what Netanyahu will say in front of Congress, and I doubt he will be directly critical of the White House.  He is not seeking to influence a U.S election, he is seeking to influence U.S policy.

    Given that Israel has been our partner in trying to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, and has not taken military action to attempt to stop uranium enrichment, they have been acting under the administration's negotiating umbrella.  Why should Congress not hear from a partner who believes we may go astray on regional proliferation?  Particularly as the administration is purported to be seeking a way to structure any agreement so as not to require Senate approval.

    This is an existential issue for Israel in the near term, and for much of the world should a nuclear arms race develop in the Middle East as a result of Iran going nuclear.  I can think of few topics more important for our elected leaders to spend their time on, perceptions of comity notwithstanding.

    I'll just say: If Netanyahu wants to influence U.S. perceptions, he has never been lacking for outlets. And on this trip a Congressional hearing would be an ideal venue.

    6) On the general prospect of an allied foreign leader addressing a joint meeting of Congress to dissent from existing U.S. policy—something that, I will say once again, has never happened before—here is a message representing many I have received:

    I have been thinking about Iran as you have as a potential breakthrough based on sanctions working and long term reality, demographics and economics.

    The total disrespect and dog whistle play to the meme of our "black, Kenyan, socialist, Muslim loving, community organizer, weak, appeasing, naive" President is what is at work here. The entire inane racist meme is at work here. If he were white Boehner would NEVER have done this.

    I hope we can reach an accord with Iran because the chicken Hawks have no clue what a real war would look like with a real, armed nation like Iran with a huge, well equipped army would look like. WW III could explode here and I can see an early casualty being a US aircraft carrier sunk early on sending a message to the world we are not invincible ... besides losses in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

    Tom Clancy probably wrote this book... Iran goes up ...Israel goes rogue... China goes for Taiwan and the Seikaku isles, Russia blitzes Ukraine....and so it begins....but the right is so oblivious to the real world they cannot accept we cannot win that war ...no one will.

    6A) More bluntly in the same vein, from another reader, in Texas:

    Forgive the language I'm about to use, but I think it's necessary.

    With all due respect, I think you and lots of others have this issue all wrong.  The title of the article on this subject which needs to be written is "The President as Nigger."

    The North did in fact win the Civil War but now that the Republicans have won both houses, I think their goal is to win it back and the contemporary Confederates sure aren't going to cotton to any black President.

  • Netanyahu, Roberts, and the Norms on Which Governing Depends

    A nation can't possibly come up with rules to outlaw every form of misbehavior. It relies on norms to guide behavior—which is why some current violations of those norms deserve attention.

    John Roberts being nominated by George W. Bush nearly 10 years ago (Reuters)

    Back during the heyday of the filibuster era, I tried always to note that the rules governing Senate filibusters hadn't dramatically changed and weren't necessarily a huge problem. What had changed were the norms about how often the filibuster would be used. By its two-votes-per state structure, the Senate has always over-represented certain minority interests. And through the centuries the filibuster and other procedural tools have been there as protections for minorities in situations where they felt particularly threatened by what the majority wanted.

    The innovation of then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was to disregard the previous norm that the filibuster should be a special-use-only tool. Starting in 2006, when Democrats won control of both House and Senate, most bills and nominations became subject to a 60-vote "supermajority" requirement in the Senate. This practice became so routine that news organizations began saying that a bill was "defeated" when it got 57 or 58 votes. I complained about the Republicans' misuse of the tool, and will do so about the Democrats if they try something similar. (Which for the next two years they presumably won't, since President Obama has his still-practically-unused veto power to exercise if need be.)

    Now, two ongoing questions of rules-and-norms. The first involves diplomacy and features our friends Ron Dermer, Israel's ambassador to the United States, and Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    Amb. Dermer (Reuters)

    It's perfectly normal for one country's leaders to have a rooting interest in the outcome of some other country's election or power struggle. When my wife and I were living in China during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, officials we spoke with there were clearly hoping that John McCain would win so Republicans would stay in the White House. (Explanation some other time.) This year, Germany and other countries were closely watching the elections in Greece. It's obvious that the Obama administration would be delighted if the Netanyahu era came to an end when Israelis vote next month.

    What is not normal is for one country's governments openly to meddle or take sides in another (friendly) country's internal politics. Obama is not heading to Israel to address the Knesset on what's wrong with Netanyahu. He did not choose as the U.S. ambassador someone with a background in anti-Likud politics. When the CIA has over the years meddled illicitly in elections, that is seen as a bad thing.

    This is the diplomatic norm that Dermer and Netanyahu seem happily to have disregarded. Dermer was until fairly recently a U.S. Republican-party operative; as Bernard Avishai argues in an excellent New Yorker item, for all practical purposes Netanyahu has decided to become one as well. As Avishai puts it:

    In their wars of ideas and political networks, Netanyahu’s Likud and his American supporters are an integral part of the Republican Party’s camp, and Israel is too involved in the American political landscape and defense establishment for Netanyahu to be considered as distant as a foreign leader. Netanyahu and Obama are at odds not only diplomatically, in their positions on Iran, but in their affiliated political parties and overarching strategic visions

    No foreign leader, ever, has done what Netanyahu is preparing to do: criticize the existing foreign policy of the U.S. government before a joint meeting of Congress. There has been no explicit rule against outside leaders doing so. No one has thought to try.

    The disregard for diplomatic norm and precedent is specific enough to Dermer and Netanyahu that the delegitimizing effects won't spread to allies or diplomats, and probably not to US-Israel relations under different administrations. But the episode shows what disregarding a norm can do.

    * * *

    The other norm contest involves the Supreme Court. Since Marbury v. Madison, the court's power as final arbiter has been accepted. But norms have usually kept Justices away from outright partisan-politics activism—this is one reason they don't applaud during State of the Union addresses—and centuries worth of legal reasoning have evolved to keep them from meddling in areas better left to other parts of governance.

    Matthew Brady's famous photo of Chief Justice
    Roger Taney, who had a lot of "answering to history"
    to do. (Wikipedia)

    That is the outlook Chief Justice John Roberts so memorably, and in retrospect it seems so cynically, expressed in his "I just call balls and strikes" testimony at his confirmation hearings. In yesterday's NYT, Linda Greenhouse had a powerful essay about why the norms keeping the Supreme Court out of direct party activism, already so frayed by Bush v. Gore, are at further risk under Roberts in the latest Obamacare case, King v. Burwell.

    I hope you read the whole essay, whose main point I'll oversimplify as the following: Justices obviously and properly disagree on the interpretation of Constitutional principles. But they have practically no disagreements on statutory interpretation, that is, on how to read the letter of existing laws. The King v. Burwell challenge to Obamacare rests on a statutory-interpretation claim that all nine Justices have rejected in other circumstances: namely the opponents' argument that specific words or clauses in a law should be read in complete isolation from the context of the law as a whole. So if the conservatives accept that reason to overturn programs in which millions of people are already enrolled, it will show that they are not conservatives at all but merely activist Republicans.  

    As Greenhouse writes:

    I said earlier that this case is as profound in its implications as the earlier constitutional one. The fate of the statute hung in the balance then and hangs in the balance today, but I mean more than that. This time, so does the honor of the Supreme Court. To reject the government’s defense of the law, the justices would have to suspend their own settled approach to statutory interpretation as well as their often-stated view of how Congress should act toward the states ...

    I have no doubt that the justices who cast the necessary votes to add King v. Burwell to the court’s docket were happy to help themselves to a second chance to do what they couldn’t quite pull off three years ago. To those justices, I offer the same advice I give my despairing friends: Read the briefs. If you do, and you proceed to destroy the Affordable Care Act nonetheless, you will have a great deal of explaining to do—not to me, but to history.

    No country could ever come up with laws quickly enough to cover all these contingencies. Which is why it's important to defend the norms, and to point out when they're at risk.

  • Let Netanyahu Make His Case, Then Consider Why He's Wrong

    The Israeli prime minister argues that the world of 2015 is fundamentally similar to that of 1938. Americans can give him a hearing, and then pursue a more reasonable policy based on less far-fetched comparisons.

    Prime Minister Netanyahu warning the UN about Iran in 2012 (Reuters/The Atlantic)

    Here is a look at a big controversy of the past week, and of the week to come. Namely, the plans developed by House Speaker John Boehner, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a Netanyahu speech before Congress on the need for further sanctions on Iran.

    * * *

    1. How unusual is this, really? Very unusual, and more than most discussion so far has emphasized. In fact, if there is any precedent for a foreign leader addressing a Joint Meeting of Congress with the obvious intention of criticizing the policy of the current U.S. administration, I haven't come across it.

    You can see a list of some major past addresses here. Many were honorific or celebratory, for instance Corazon Aquino as the first post-Marcos leader of the Philippines or Vaclav Havel after he became president of a free Czechoslovakia. One appearance that might theoretically have been contentious—Socialist President Francois Mitterrand of France appearing at a time of numerous U.S.-European frictions during the Reagan administration—in fact was harmonious and solidarity-supporting.

    Chiang Kai-shek, who was not invited to appear before
    Congress and complain about the Nixon administration's
    policy toward mainland China (WIkipedia)

    To come up with something like the Netanyahu event, you would have to imagine Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, after they had won full Democratic control of the Congress in 2006, inviting in a European leader who had opposed the Iraq war to scold George W. Bush over that war or his anti-terror policy. If Pelosi and Reid had dared do that, you know that the GOP leadership, Fox News, and the WSJ editorial page would have competed with Dick Cheney to see which of them could be most fervent in saying that this amounted to treason-in-time-of war.

    Here's another example: Imagine that the Democratic-controlled Congress of the early 1970s, under House Speaker Carl Albert and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, had invited Taiwan's Chiang Kai-shek to give an address denouncing the Nixon administration's opening to mainland China.

    Obviously that didn't happen, and as best I can tell nothing quite like Netanyahu's planned address ever has before.

    * * *

    2. Was the administration's miffed reaction a surprise? In a news-making interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Ambassador Ron Dermer contended that he and his prime minister had no idea that the speech would be seen as disrespectful to a sitting U.S. president.

    To which anyone who knows about American politics should say: Oh, please. For reasons based on point No. 1, above.

    Netanyahu is practically an American, after his years at Cheltenham High School, MIT, and the Boston Consulting Group, plus his countless visits and dealings with politicians here. Dermer was actually born and raised American and worked on congressional tactics with Newt Gingrich and Frank Luntz. These people certainly know the lay of the land in Washington and elsewhere. In saying that they are shocked, just shocked, to have an insulting gesture toward a sitting president taken as an insult, they are asking us to believe either that they are unbelievably naive, or that they are simply unbelievable. Take your pick.

    * * *

    3. On the merits of things, what year should we be thinking of? Is 2015 more like 1938? Or like 1971? The heart of the disagreement over Iran turns on what Prime Minister Netanyahu himself (and others, for instance, here, here, and here) have described as the belief that we're living through 1938 again. Nine years ago, in a speech in Los Angeles, Netanyahu laid out his views about Iran in just those terms. As an account in Haaretz put it:

    "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs," Netanyahu told delegates to the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly, repeating the line several times, like a chorus, during his address. "Believe him and stop him," the [then] opposition leader said of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "This is what we must do. Everything else pales before this."

    While the Iranian president "denies the Holocaust," Netanyahu said, "he is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state."

    This is what "compromise" looked like in 1938. And now?

    In case the implications aren't obvious, let's spell them out. If it's 1938 again, then the threatening power of this moment is equivalent to Nazi Germany; the ambition of that power should be understood as the full extermination of its foes, starting with the Jewish people; there can be no compromise with flat-out evil; the only failure lies in being too slow to recognize the threat; and anyone who dreams of compromise risks being seen by history as similar to the man who shook hands with Adolf Hitler in 1938, Neville Chamberlain.

    From my point of view, this comparison is imprecise, to put it mildly. In fact, it's crazy. By the late 1930s, Nazi Germany had perhaps the strongest military in the world and one of the most powerful economies. Today's Iran is not close to having either. Hitler's Germany was so relentlessly expansionist that 10 years after he took power, the world was in flames. Iran, by contrast, has been ruled by Islamists for well over three decades yet has not expanded its borders by one inch. The Germany of 1938 was perfecting the obscene science of internal death camps. No one has suggested anything remotely comparable about repression in Iran. The position of a nuclear-armed state of Israel, the dominant military power in its region, is vastly different from that of Europe's persecuted Jewish population of the 1930s. The record of Iran's leaders contains no evidence of the will-to-national-suicide that an attack on Israel would entail. Today's Iran is not yesteryear's Reich.

    But as I say, that's just me. Benjamin Netanyahu is not asking me for strategic advice on this or a range of other subjects. As long as his countrymen keep him in power, they can choose to make his "it's always 1938" outlook the basis of Israel's policy. It's their country and their right.

    Yet their misperception, however sincere, should not be the basis of American policy. From the U.S. national point of view, as I've written before, it's far more useful, realistic, and clarifying to think "it might be 1971 again" rather than "it's probably 1938."

    Nixon goes to China, in 1972. (Wikipedia)

    In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon understood that despite long-lasting, serious disagreements with mainland China, it was far better overall to find a way to work with Mao and his successors, rather than trying to bring them to heel through continued isolation. There was more to gain than lose through this non-Chamberlain-style "compromise." The government of Taiwan and its supporters in the United States bitterly resisted this change, but from America's point of view they were wrong.

    I believe that something similar applies with Iran as well. As with China in the 1970s and Cuba in recent years, there is no evidence that the national population itself has become deeply anti-Western or anti-American. Restoring relations, while it would hardly eliminate all disagreements, would have enough benefits to be worth pursuing as a strategic goal. Even if the pursuit doesn't pay off, the potential benefits, from the American point of view, are substantial enough not to give up prematurely, by imposing pre-conditions that would make any negotiations impossible.

    * * *

    So now that things have gone this far, bring on Prime Minister Netanyahu and his warning against any conceivable deal with Iran. Listen to his argument that the best model for understanding today's Iran is yesteryear's Nazi Germany (which is what Netanyahu's claim really comes down to). Let's listen; let's set aside, if we can, the unprecedented and insulting nature of his appearance before Congress; and then let's think carefully about American national interests, which no foreign leader can define. I believe they're very different from what Netanyahu is advocating.

  • Would a U.S. Strike Against Iran Actually Work?

    Please read Jeffrey Goldberg's new analysis of the split between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. Then please read a decade-old article about what a "preemptive" strike against Iran would really entail.

    President Obama having a pleasant talk on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu back in 2012 (Reuters)

    The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg has put up an excellent and authoritative analysis of the strategic problems that Benjamin Netanyahu has created for himself, his party, and his country. It's the most-trafficked item on our site at the moment, so it may seem superfluous to suggest you read it. But if you haven't done so yet, please give it a look.

    Once you've read this new item, there's an older article that I hope you'll consider too. It came out in the December 2004 issue of our magazine, it was called "Will Iran Be Next?", and as it happens its author was me.

    The premise of the article was to conduct a war game-style exercise to examine the feasibility and effects of an American preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. The upshot of the exercise was that such a strike could not possibly "work." Set aside questions of whether a bombing raid would be "necessary" or "just." From a strictly military point of view, according to the defense-world authorities who took part in our war game, the strike would almost certainly be a counterproductive failure. It could not put more than a temporary damper on Iran's capacities and ambitions; it would if anything redouble Iran's determination to develop nuclear weapons (so as to protect itself from such strikes in the future); and it could unleash a range a countermeasures that would make the United States rue the idea that this could have been a "clean" or "surgical" exercise. You can read the details for yourself.

    That was more than a decade ago. Since then, only one aspect of Iran's leverage has weakened: there are no longer tens of thousands of U.S. troops next door in Iraq as potential Iranian targets. In all other ways, Iran is 10 years further along in protecting its facilities and considering its options. "After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," our main war-game designer, retired Air Force colonel Sam Gardiner, said at the end of our 2004 exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work." That was true then, and truer now.

    Here's why I bring the story up. I disagree with one clause in Jeff Goldberg's story—only one, but an important one. It's the part I've put in bold type below:

    Whatever the case, the only other way for Netanyahu to stop Iran would be to convince the president of the United States, the leader of the nation that is Israel’s closest ally and most crucial benefactor, to confront Iran decisively. An Israeli strike could theoretically set back Iran’s nuclear program, but only the U.S. has the military capabilities to set back the program in anything approaching a semi-permanent way.

    Israel doesn't have the military capacity to "stop" Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.

    Why does this matter? As a question of negotiation, I think it's fine for U.S. officials from the president on down to act as if they might seriously be considering a military strike. George W. Bush and Barack Obama alike have consistently said that "all options are on the table" when it comes to Iran, and that's fine too. It can be shrewd to keep an opponent guessing about what you might do if provoked.

    This negotiating stance could be useful, as long as it doesn't spill over from fooling the Iranians to fooling ourselves. (A la, "we'll be greeted as liberators!") Letting Iran's leaders think the U.S. is contemplating a strike might pay off. Actually contemplating it could be disastrous.

  • Friday Mid-Day Reader: Iran, Etc.

    The substance and the politics of several ensnarled issues.

    Following last night's China roundup, another batch of news items before we get back to Greenville, South Carolina:

    1) The Iran deal: substance. As a reminder, the interim U.S.-U.K.-French-German-Russian-Chinese deal with Iran holds no guarantees. But if it should succeed in re-integrating Iran as a "normal" country, the benefits to the world in general and the U.S. in particular would be enormous, similar in concept (though not in scale) to the benefits of re-integrating China a generation ago. Thus it is worth giving the negotiations every chance to succeed—and resisting the cynical congressional effort to guarantee failure by adding impossible poison-pill conditions.

    In the upcoming issue of The New York Review of Books, Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former National Security Council staffer on proliferation issues, underscores the importance of the deal and the danger of the congressional effort. Her essay, headline shown above, begins:

    In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, for the first time, have broken through more than a decade of impasse over Iran’s nuclear program. Significant differences remain, but at long last, both governments appear ready to work their way toward a resolution. Yet the US Congress, acting reflexively against Iran, and under intense pressure from Israel, seems ready to shatter the agreement with a bill that takes no account of Iranian political developments, misunderstands proliferation realities, and ignores the dire national security consequences for the United States.

    She goes on to make the case on all counts. As does Steven Walt, in Foreign Policy, with a catalogue of the sweeping benefits for the United States if relations with Iran should improve. And Fred Kaplan in Slate.

    Why is Congress threatening to make a deal impossible, before one can be struck? The only real opposition comes from some hardliners inside Iran, who have no U.S. constituency; plus the current governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel, who have an easier time getting the attention of U.S. legislators. Mathews says:

    Prime Minister Netanyahu greeted the agreement with a barrage of criticism. Even before it was completed he called it a “Christmas present” for Iran; later, “a historic mistake.” His too attentive audience on Capitol Hill followed suit. Many of the criticisms suggest that the critics haven’t appreciated the terms of the agreement. Senator Charles Schumer dismissed it as “disproportionate.” The observation is correct, but upside down, for Iran gave far more than it got.

    2) The Iran deal: politics. The poison-pill legislation is officially known as S. 1881, the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2013 (full text here), and informally as the Kirk-Menendez bill, after Senators Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). Most Republicans say they're for it; the Obama administration is (obviously) dead-set against it. The only discernible reason why some Democrats are lining up with the GOP is AIPAC's strong push for the bill. 

    A report this week by Ron Kampeas in JTA is worth reading closely on the political dynamics. For instance:

    AIPAC has been stymied by a critical core of Senate Democrats who have sided with the Obama administration in the fight. While AIPAC’s bid to build a veto-busting majority has reached 59 — eight short of the needed 67 — it has stalled there in part because Democrats have more or less stopped signing on....

    AIPAC, however, says its bid to pass sanctions is on track.

    “Our top priority is stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and consequently we are very engaged in building support for the Menendez-Kirk bill which now has the bi-partisan co-sponsorship of 59 senators,” AIPAC’s spokesman, Marshall Wittman, wrote in an email to JTA. “This measure would provide our negotiators with critical leverage in their efforts to achieve a peaceful end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”

    Kampeas has an update on the substance and politics here. And John Hudson, in Foreign Policy, describes the pressure AIPAC is putting on Debbie Wasserman Schultz, longtime representative from Florida and national chair of the Democratic National Committee, to switch away from her announced support for the administration's approach. And Mathews's article says:

    The bill’s most egregious language explains why so many senators leapt onto this bandwagon: it has become a vehicle for expressing unquestioning support for Israel, rather than a deadly serious national security decision for the United States.... Senators report that AIPAC’s advocacy of the bill has been intensive, even by its usual standard.

    In two previous big showdowns with the administration—over Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense, and over military intervention in Syria—AIPAC de-escalated and said it hadn't really been looking for a fight, once it became clear things weren't going its way.* As the Iran-sanctions issue gets more attention, my bet is that something similar will happen. For good reason, there is zero American-public appetite for a showdown with Iran. Since the interim deal was announced, polls have shown support for giving the talks the best possible chance. E.g.:

    As the talks go on and everyone except the Saudis, the Netanyahu administration, and AIPAC extol their possibilities, it will be harder for leading Democrats to explain why it makes sense to defy their party's president, secretaries of state and defense, and congressional leadership, plus most of the rest of the world, on this issue. (Also see Greg Sargent in the WaPo, and another from Kampeas.)

    [* The Syria situation was of course muddled. Initially AIPAC and the administration were both pro-intervention. After Obama's surprise decision to seek Congressional authorization, AIPAC pushed hard for a pro-intervention vote.] 

    3) Gates and Afghanistan: substance. It's worth reading this analysis, by Gareth Porter, of Obama's first-term approval of a "surge" in Afghanistan. Robert Gates's book appeared to put Obama's approach in a bad light. Porter makes the contrary case:

    The Gates account omits two crucial historical facts necessary to understanding the issue. The first is that Obama agreed to the escalation only under strong pressure from his top national security officials and with very explicit reservations. The second is that Gen. David Petraeus reneged on his previous commitment to support Obama’s 2009 decision that troop withdrawal would begin by mid-2011.

    Further details in his essay.

    4) Gates and Afghanistan: politics.  Mike Lofgren, author of The Party Is Over and veteran of Republican-side congressional politics, has an unromantic assessment of Gates's career and judgment. E.g., what Lofgren saw as a Senate staffer, when Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld at DOD:

    Because the Senate Armed Services Committee was overjoyed at seeing the last of Rumsfeld, they asked Gates no awkward questions, either about current strategy or about past events in which Gates had either inside knowledge or active participation – the "tilt to Iraq" which strengthened Saddam Hussein and helped lead inexorably to the first Gulf war and then the invasion of Iraq; or the arming of the Afghan mujaheddin, which helped lay the groundwork both for 9/11 and the Afghan quagmire that bedevils us yet.

    No, at the time of the hearing, I got the sense that the Armed Services Committee members would have liked to carry him in triumph in a sedan chair to the floor of the Senate for confirmation, simply because he was not Rumsfeld.

    That is all. 

  • Iran Sanctions Update: Have Senators Actually Read This Bill?

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein: "We cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war."

    Recently I argued that a dozen-plus Senate Democrats were doing something strange and reckless in signing on with most Republicans in an effort that would abort a potential deal to limit Iran's nuclear ambitions. 

    As a reminder: The U.S. government, along with those of France, Germany, the U.K., China, and Russia, all think this years-in-the-making deal is worth exploring. The governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel manifestly do not. Nearly all Senate Republicans and a significant number of Democratic allies are effectively saying: the Saudis and Israelis see things more clearly. We stand with their judgment—not that of our own government, the European mainstays, and even the Russians and Chinese.

    Developments since then:

    1) From Peter Beinart, in Haaretz, an item based on an important technical analysis of the pro-sanctions bill. Senators sponsoring the bill, Beinart says, claim that they are only trying to "support" the diplomatic process. That proves mainly that they haven't read, or don't understand, what they're signing onto, because in several crucial ways the bill's requirements are directly contrary to what the U.S./U.K./France/Germany/Russia/China have already agreed to with Iran.

    Go to the technical analysis, by Edward Levine, for the point-by-point parsing. And you can see the full text of the bill itself here. But the two most obvious deal-breaker implications are: 

        (a) the requirement that, in order to lift sanctions, Obama must "certify" a number of extra things about Iran that are not germane to the agreement and are simply impossible to prove. For instance, Obama must demonstrate that "Iran has not directly, or through a proxy, supported, financed, planned, or otherwise carried out an act of terrorism against the United States or United States persons or property anywhere in the world," with no time limit on how far back (or forward) in time this certification is supposed to run. And:

       (b) several clauses and references that apparently support the "zero enrichment" demand laid down by Benjamin Netanyahu but explicitly not endorsed by the U.S. government. These clauses, with repeated requirements that Iran "terminate" or "dismantle" its "illicit nuclear programs," are ambiguous but can (and presumably would) be read as applying to the entirety of Iran's nuclear infrastructure, peaceful or otherwise. This could mean a demand that Iran give up the right not just to weapons-grade uranium but also to low-level enrichment suitable for power plants and other non-military use.

    For the background of the "zero enrichment" policy, see this 2009 paper by Matthew Bunn of Harvard's Belfer Center. He argues (as do many other people who have examined the issue) that the zero-option is theoretically appealing but in reality is completely unacceptable to Iran. Thus its inclusion in any set of "negotiating" points is a way to ensure that the negotiations fail. As Bunn puts it, "Insisting on zero will mean no agreement, leaving the world with the risks of acquiescence [to an Iranian nuclear-weapons program] or military strikes." 

    On the basis of logic like this, the United States and its partners have already agreed that Iran should be allowed to retain low-level enrichment capabilities. Also on this point, see The Washington Monthly, and a former Israeli intelligence chief on why low-level enrichment is reasonable for Iran. Plus President Obama's own comments at Brookings last month, on why any agreement will necessarily allow some limited enrichment. This is Obama speaking:

    Now, you’ll hear arguments, including potentially from the Prime Minister [Netanyahu], that say we can’t accept any enrichment on Iranian soil.  Period.  Full stop.  End of conversation... 

    One can envision an ideal world in which Iran said, we’ll destroy every element and facility and you name it, it’s all gone.  I can envision a world in which Congress passed every one of my bills that I put forward.  (Laughter.)  I mean, there are a lot of things that I can envision that would be wonderful.  (Laughter.) 

    But precisely because we don’t trust the nature of the Iranian regime, I think that we have to be more realistic and ask ourselves, what puts us in a strong position to assure ourselves that Iran is not having a nuclear weapon and that we are protected?  What is required to accomplish that, and how does that compare to other options that we might take?
     
    And it is my strong belief that we can envision a end state that gives us an assurance that even if they have some modest enrichment capability, it is so constrained and the inspections are so intrusive that they, as a practical matter, do not have breakout capacity.  

    To wrap this point up: The U.S. and its partners have already declared that they are not asking for the "zero option." That's the premise for the entire deal, and it is one that the Senate bill appears designed to reverse. It would be as if, in the middle of the SALT or START negotiations with the old Soviet Union, the Congress passed a bill requiring that any final agreement include the elimination of the full Soviet arsenal. 

    2) A speech on Tuesday by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, on another important and underpublicized clause in the sanctions bill. It's 501(2) (b) (5), which says it is the "sense of the Congress" that if Israel decides to strike Iran, the U.S. presumptively should back the effort:

    If the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran's nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;

    The "in accordance with the laws..." passage indicates that an Israeli decision would not technically constitute a U.S. declaration of war. It is the main distinction between this clause and a "key point" on AIPAC's current policy-agenda site, which reads: 

    3. America Must Stand with Israel.
    The United States must back Israel if it feels compelled in its own legitimate self-defense to take military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

    But Feinstein, who supported the Iraq war, argued that such before-the-fact commitments unwisely limit U.S. options and could make conflict more likely. Her whole speech is worth reading, and you can see the C-Span video above. Here is the conclusion it built to:

    I deeply believe that a vote for this legislation will cause negotiations to collapse. The United States, not Iran, then becomes the party that risks fracturing the international coalition that has enabled our sanctions to succeed in the first place....

    And then:

    Let me acknowledge Israel's real, well-founded concerns that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten its very existence. I don't disagree with that. I agree with it, but they are not there yet.

    While I recognize and share Israel's concern, we cannot let Israel determine when and where the United States goes to war. By stating that the United States should provide military support to Israel in a formal resolution should it attack Iran, I fear that is how this bill is going to be interpreted.

    3) From a reader:

     Here's my problem with your argument: it's incomplete.  How can a Democrat, or anyone, evaluate whether the agreement should be given a chance without seeing the agreement?  Yesterday we had two separate reports that, if true, would mean the agreement has *already* failed: 1) the Iranian's report of the terms (dubious, but the Administration continues to be coy and not release the main agreement or the reported side agreement) and 2) an alleged Russia-Iran deal that would obliterate the 6-month Agreement's limitations on sanctions.
     
    Personally I too am for Congress holding off, but I'm put off by the tone of the "pro-Deal" crowd that the legislature needs to blindly trust Obama here.  Isn't that what we did with George W. Bush?  (The distinction between Colin Powell's misleading portfolio on WMDs and Kerry's thusfar blank portfolio (or heavily redacted portfolio) is too subtle to have meaning here).  

    The point is not that Congress must embrace a deal without knowing its full details. That will come later, when—and if—final terms are agreed to. Rather the point is that Congress should not guarantee the failure of the negotiations before they've run their course, which is what the sanctions bill would do.


    If I had a senator, I would ask him or her to read this bill carefully, reflect on its destructive implications, and reflect as well, as Dianne Feinstein did in her speech, on the damage done by blank-check security legislation (from AUMF to the Patriot Act) over the past dozen-plus years. Then I would ask my hypothetical senators to vote 'No.'

    UPDATE: Anthony Cordesman has a valuable update on the CSIS site, in which he discusses the pluses and minuses of the administration playing good cop and Congress playing bad cop toward Iran. Really worth reading, but a few highlights. First, on U.S. aims:

    The United States now has every incentive to leverage the success of existing sanctions, take full advantage of the current climate, and to try to make the current negotiations work. They are by far the safest way to remove an Iranian nuclear threat, and it is critical to remember what the threat really is: The real objective is to deny Iran military capability, not to try to deny it technology it has already acquired.

    On the strength of the emerging potential deal:

    The P5+1 and the United States have not yet made fully public all of the terms of the progress they made in defining and implementing the terms of the interim agreement ...

    At least to date, however, the limits on Iran in terms of permitted activities, improved transparency, and increased inspection would make even the most covert production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons extraordinarily difficult. Iran might quietly get to the point of a crude test of a gun or implosion device, but this test could scarcely then remain covert...

    It is extraordinarily difficult to believe Iran could actually deploy reliable nuclear missile warheads and bombs without being detected

    On the Congress's role as hard-line bad cop:

    The key to success, however, will be for the “bad cop” to avoid pushing to the point of failure. The best way to move forward is to do what the Senate Majority Leader, Senator Harry Reid, evidently has already proposed to do: keep the option of new sanctions legislation constantly open, but not confront Iran and other nations by passing such legislation if and when the negotiations fail, or Iran is shown to violate an agreement.

    Defer a vote on new sanctions until the ongoing efforts to fully define and create enforcement provisions for interim agreement effort fail or Iran violates them. And if Iran does move forward and complies with the interim agreement – defer a sanctions vote until it is clear whether Iran agrees to and complies with a permanent agreement. 

    Overall: This bill is a reckless and destructive gesture, and Democrats from Cory Booker to Mark Warner to Michael Bennet to Richard Blumenthal should give it a careful look and back off. 

  • The Iran Vote: This Really Matters, and You Should Let Your Senators Know

    If the nuclear deal is going to fail, let that happen at the negotiating table—and not be engineered under the Capitol dome.

    Denis Balibouse/Reuters

    I have been on the road in the South, and staying in a place with no Internet, and doing interviews for another American Futures installment—this one about the way textile-dependent Southern cities have and have not recovered after those mills went away. That's what my wife and I will be talking about in the days ahead.

    But this is a moment that counts, on an important, time-sensitive issue, so here goes:

    • The Obama Administration, along with some of the usual U.S. allies—the U.K., France, Germany—and such non-allied parties as Russia and China, has taken steps with the potential of peacefully ending Iran's 35-year estrangement from most of the rest of the world. That would be of enormous benefit and significance to Iran, the U.S., and nearly everyone else concerned.

      Obviously potential is not a guarantee, and a year from now everyone could look back on this as a time of deluded hope. But today's potential is far greater than most "savvy" experts expected a year ago. As I argued last month, the U.S. may be in a position right now with Iran analogous to the one with China in the early stages of the Nixon-Mao rapprochement. Nothing is guaranteed, but the benefits of normalized relations would be so great that they must be given every chance to succeed.
       
    • Often there is cleavage within the executive branch—State, Defense, the White House—on the merits of a military commitment or a potential deal. Not this time. Very often there is similar disagreement among Western powers, and most of the time the Russians and Chinese find themselves on the opposite side of strategic calculations from the U.S. Again, not now. All involved view the benefits of re-engaging Iran to be so great, and the consequence of a drift toward war so dire, that they want to make sure that no artificial barriers to a deal get in the way.

      (On the dire consequences of a drift toward war: Nearly 10 years ago, the Atlantic ran a war game concluding that an air strike designed to take out Iran's nuclear potential would be the height of strategic folly for the attacking party, whether Israel or the United States. Nothing that has happened since then makes it a more plausible option.)
       
    • Two countries the U.S. cares about are known to oppose this deal: Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The Saudis, because a stronger, oil-exporting, Shiite Iran probably means a less influential Sunni Kingdom. The Israelis, because the Netanyahu government has cast Iran as the new Nazi Germany, with whom any deal or compromise is by definition doomed. 

      I believe that Netanyahu is wrong, but it's his country, and he is the elected leader. I don't like the idea of him (or the Saudis) trying to derail what our elected leaders so strongly considers to be in the interests of the United States.
       
    • That derailment is what seems to be underway in the Senate right now. Republicans led by Mitch McConnell are pushing for a sanctions bill that is universally recognized (except by its sponsors) as a poison-pill for the current negotiations. Fine; opposing the administration is the GOP's default position.

      But a striking number of Democrats have joined them, for no evident reason other than AIPAC's whole-hearted, priority-one support for the sanctions bill. The screen clip below is from AIPAC's site, and here is some political reporting on AIPAC's role in the sanctions push: NYTPolitico, JTA, Jerusalem Post-JTA, and our own National Journal here and hereAlso see Greg Sargent in the Washington Post.
      AIPAC policy brief, from its site. Note implications of point #3.

      In the long run, these Democrats are not in a tenable position. Or not a good one. They are opposing what their president, his secretaries of state and defense, our normal major allies, and even the Russians and Chinese view as a step toward peace. And their stated reason for doing so—that new sanction threats will "help" the negotiations, even though every American, French, British, German, etc., and Iranian figure involved in the talks says the reverse—doesn't pass the straight-face test.

      Via the AP: "'I think that the Iran sanctions bill is meant to strengthen the president, not in any way impede the ongoing negotiation which should and hopefully will be successful,' Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the legislation, said Tuesday." Oh sure. You can imagine what a person as smart as Blumenthal—or Chuck Schumer, or Cory Booker, or Mark Warner, all supporting the sanctions—would do to similar assertions in normal circumstances. 

    I agree with Peter Beinart, who wrote last month that people tired of U.S. wars in the Middle East should be speaking up more clearly in support of this deal. As Fred Kaplan of Slate, no peacenik, did when the first agreement was announced: 

    See also Andrew Sullivan, and an arms-control expert on technical flaws in the sanctions bill. [Update: and my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, who also argues that this bill is torpedoing the best chance for avoiding an Iranian nuclear program.] Maybe this deal will fail. But if you'd rather that the failure not be engineered in the Capitol, let your representatives know.


    Updates: 1) As many readers have pointed out, Senate Republicans are near-unanimous in supporting the sanctions bill, but Democrats including Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Chuck Schumer of New York have played a big role in promoting it;

    2) Also as many readers have pointed out, one of the Democratic co-sponsors of the bill is Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, whose brother James is the Atlantic's editor-in-chief. Noted for the record.

    3) And, yes, I would let my senators know -- if, as a resident of DC, I had any.

  • Thinking About Iran in 2013, by Thinking About China in 1971

    No historical match-up is neat or perfect, but this one is usefully close.

    Nixon in Beijing, 1972, via Wikipedia

    What follows has no seasonal relevance, unless you consider this the time of Peace on Earth, Goodwill Toward Men. For your background processing during family gatherings and holiday observances, you could try this concept:

    When considering the next steps with Iran, we should think less about Nazi Germany (the frequent P.M. Netanyahu parallel) or North Korea (a parallel often made by opponents of a deal), and more about the China of Chairman Mao. 

    Other people have made this point, but let me lay out the train of reasoning:

    • What happened in 1979. For nearly 35 years, Iran has been at odds with most of the developed world, and China has been interacting with the world. Within the space of a few months in the surprisingly fateful year of 1979, Iranian extremists under the Ayatollah Khomeini took over their country in rebellion against the Shah, his U.S. sponsors, and the West — and Chinese pragmatists under Deng Xiaoping began the series of modernizations whose effects we know so well. These followed the opening of Chinese-U.S. relations that Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong began in the early 1970s.
       
    • The damage of isolation. Iran’s estrangement from the rest of the world has been bad principally for its own people. But it has also been bad for the United States, for world stability in general, and for Israel. Arguably the only beneficiaries, apart from Iran’s governing group, have been Iran’s regional and religious rivals, starting with the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and the current Saudi Arabia.
       
    • The benefits of integration. The world is far better off because of China’s integration rather than exclusion, notwithstanding all the serious frictions that remain. Strictly for reasons of scale, Iran’s re-integration would not be as world-changing as China’s has been. But it would be very important — much more, say, than Burma’s recent switch, or Cuba's eventual one — and on balance would have a positive overall effect on the world: economically, strategically, culturally, and in other ways.

      Because there is no evidence that Iran’s population has been brainwashed into extremism through its outsider era — much less so than with China’s, where the Cultural Revolution had barely wound down when the U.S. re-established relations — Iran’s re-integration with the world would likely be faster and easier than China’s. 
       
    • Regional winners and losers. Although America’s rapprochement with China was clearly beneficial overall, it wasn’t good, or seen as good, for all parties. Even apart from its intended cornering effect on the Soviet Union, it was surprising and threatening to America’s main ally in the region, Japan. (The Nixon-to-China move was one of several “Nixon shocks” that gravely alarmed Japanese leaders.) It was also surprising in South Korea, where U.S. troops were (and are) still stationed along the frontier with China’s main client state, North Korea. And it was seen as nothing less than a life-and-death threat by the Republic of China in Taiwan, since establishing relations with the government in Beijing necessarily meant breaking them with the one in Taipei.
       
    •  “Nixon goes to China.” Because the U.S.-China deal overturned everything that America’s long-dominant, Taiwan-favoring “China Lobby” had stood for, making the deal required sophistication in both domestic and international politics. The cliche about Nixon going to China underscores the importance of Nixon’s anti-Communist reputation. But before the deal he tried to soften up the China Lobby as much as possible — and then he and his successors, Presidents Ford and Carter, overcame it when necessary, especially using business allies to argue that what had been good for the old China Lobby was not necessarily the best course for the United States. 

      In the end, 35 years ago this month, Warren Christopher, as the Carter Administration’s deputy secretary of state, was sent to Taipei. There he was mobbed by enormous angry throngs as he prepared to deliver in person the news that the United States was taking a step that the Taiwan government considered betrayal and that its China Lobby allies in the U.S. had bitterly opposed.
       
    • Bringing this back to Iran. Thus the obvious parallels. With a potential re-engagement with Iran, the United States has a chance to correct a distortion that, if not as harmful as the one with China, has gone on longer. (The U.S. and Mao’s China had been at odds for just over 20 years when Nixon took office, vs. the impending 35th anniversary of the revolution in Iran.) But while an end to the U.S.-Iranian cold war would clearly be beneficial for both those countries and the world at large, it does not immediately help everyone.
       
      A rise in Iranian influence could objectively be threatening to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states, as Saudi representatives have not been shy in pointing out. And the current government of Israel has — utterly wrongly in my view, but they’re not asking  — declared the prospect of a deal to be a huge “historic mistake.” Benjamin Netanyahu has every right to see things that way, but the United States has every right to disagree with him and move ahead.
       
    • The next steps: the varying interests of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States. Of course it’s possible that negotiations with Iran will break down. It was never certain that the U.S. and China would be able to paper over their economic, political, and strategic differences well enough to re-establish relations. But it is overwhelmingly in American interests that negotiations succeed rather than fail — and, as Robert Hunter argued in a piece I’ve cited several times, the very fact of the negotiations represents an important step.

      Because American interests lie with the continuation rather than interuption and failure of the negotiations, the poison-pill legislation now being introduced in the Senate should be considered reckless. It is comparable to lumbering the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations with a number of negotiating guidelines known to be unacceptable to the government in Beijing -- which did not occur. And its military provision is quite strikingly different from the guarantee made to Taiwan. Different how?
       
    • The crucial difference in military commitments. A main ongoing source of rancor between the U.S. and China is the Taiwan Relations Act. It is the principal law governing America’s shift from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing mainland China — and, significantly, it was not enacted while the early negotiations were underway. 

      The TRA guarantees that the U.S. will resist any military takeover of Taiwan (obviously by China), and toward that end promises that the U.S. will continue to provide arms to the government in Taipei. Each time this happens, the government in Beijing complains bitterly. But here is the crucial part of that law:
    It is the policy of the United States …
    (4) to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States;
    (5) to provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character; and
    (6) to maintain the capacity of the United States to resist any resort to force or other forms of coercion that would jeopardize the security, or the social or economic system, of the people on Taiwan.

    (5) if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide, in accordance with the law of the United States and the constitutional responsibility of Congress to authorize the use of military force, diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence;

    • To spell it out, the Taiwan act promised arms of "a defensive character" to protect the island, and said that the United States would resist any resort to force. The Nuclear-Weapon Free Iran act says that if Israel is the first to use force, it will bring the United States along with it. I know of no precedent in U.S. foreign policy for our delegating a war-or-peace choice to some other government. Our NATO and other mutual-defense pacts, and the treaty with Japan, commit the U.S. to defend a country under active attack. This is something different.
       
    • The use and misuse of history. Any historical analogy is imperfect. Usually people cite "lessons" of history to reinforce what they already believe. But because discussions of Iran, Israel, and the nuclear question so often lead to analogies and lessons from Neville Chamberlain and Nazi Germany, it is worth considering this more recent and much better-matched factual case.

      Modern Iran will resemble Nazi-era Germany when it is invading its neighbors one after another, which it has not done; when it is developing the most fearsome attack-oriented military in the world, which it does not possess; and when it has set up a horrific system of internal mass extermination, which it is not doing. The one point of resemblance -- an important one, but one that should not paralyze further reasoning -- is the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric coming from some Iranian leaders, as it had come from the Nazis. That is one similarity; the differences -- in capability, world situation, regional balance of power, and possibility for negotiation -- are more striking and profound.

      And  Hassan Rouhani's Iran will resemble Mao's China in ... well, in the ways mentioned above. The situations are different, but the opportunities and stakes are closer to those Richard Nixon considered in the early 1970s than to those Chamberlain misread in the 1930s. 

    So over the holiday season, reflect on the opportunities and dangers of this moment -- and also the historic mistake that Congressional or other efforts to block the deal might entail. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to those celebrating tomorrow, and upcoming Happy New Year all around.

  • For the Record, I Completely Disagree With Our Latest 'Bomb Iran' Post

    An analysis that answers the easiest questions and avoids the hard ones.

    I've just seen a post on our Global channel by two retired generals, one American and one Israeli, that purports to ask and answer important questions about a preemptive strike by either the U.S. or Israel on Iranian nuclear facilities. Here's how it looks on our site:


    BombIran.png

    No offense to the authors, but this strikes me as the least useful sort of "analysis" to present about a military decision. 
    • Most of the questions it raises boil down to whether the U.S. or Israel would do a more effective job of attacking the Iranian facilities. Even non-generals know the answer to this one: obviously the most powerful military in the world, that of the U.S. Here is a sample of the post's revelations on that point:

      "Q: Which option [Israeli or US attack] would avoid violating the sovereign airspace of third countries?
      "A: 
      Any Israeli operation would have to cross the airspace of at least one other country (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Syria). Yet a U.S. attack could be launched directly toward Iran from bases or aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere." Thank you! Next up in this analytic series: whether it would be easier for Canada's army or America's to invade Mexico "if it must be done." 

    • Most of the questions it brushes past are the ones that matter: whether such an option makes any long-term strategic sense. That judgment is is assumed away in the "if it must be done" part of the subtitle. My at-home version of similar analysis: "would plastic explosives, or a ball peen hammer, be more effective in destroying the neighborhood leafblowers, if it must be done?" Here is a representative sample of their strategic analysis, which I will refrain from annotating:

      "Q: If post-strike escalation leads to war, which country has more efficient mechanisms in place to end the conflict?
      "A: Assessments of the day after an Israeli or U.S. strike range from limited Iranian retaliation that could be checked within days to full-scale regional war. If the United States attacked, however, it would have less moral authority than if Israel attacked -- Israel could legitimately claim that it was acting in self-defense. Moreover, Washington's ability to serve as an honest broker in negotiating a ceasefire would be diminished if it ordered the strike. For their part, China and Russia would be less incensed by an Israeli strike than a U.S. attack, and perhaps more willing to play a role in post-strike de-escalation."
    For the record, we tried to deal with similar what-if? scenarios in an Atlantic-sponsored "war game" about bombing Iran, back in 2004.

    So, if what you really want to know is how U.S. and Israeli bombing abilities compare, I recommend this post to you. If you're interested in the larger strategic choices America (and Israel) have to make, I would direct you elsewhere, for instance starting with this analysis by Anthony Cordesman or this from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists or, from a very different perspective, this from the Times of Israel.

    UPDATE: Just now I got a message about a new analysis from Cordesman and Bryan Gold. You can see the whole voluminous thing here, but I offer this sample:
    It is far from clear that negotiations and sanctions can succeed in limiting Iran's ability to acquire nuclear weapons and deploy nuclear-armed missiles.... [But] a preventive war might trigger a direct military confrontation or conflict in the Gulf with little warning. It might also lead to at least symbolic Iranian missile strikes on US basing facilities, GCC targets, or Israel. At the same time, it could lead to much more serious covert and proxy operations in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, the rest of the Gulf, and other areas. 
     
    Furthermore, unless preventive strikes were reinforced by a lasting regime of follow-on strikes, they could trigger a much stronger Iranian effort to actually acquire and deploy nuclear weapons and/or Iranian rejection of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and negotiations. The US, in contrast, might see it had no choice other than to maintain a military overwatch and restrike capability to ensure Iran could not carry out such a program and rebuild its nuclear capabilities or any other capabilities that were attacked. 
  • A Cloud No Bigger Than a Man's Hand: Iran Dept.

    Let's see how this story looks a year from now.

    In the six months -- yes, it's been that long -- since Barack Obama's re-election, the drum-beats from the United States and Israel about bombing Iran have partly died down. Not totally, of course; recall the Hagel hearings, and also this Congressional resolution appearing to pre-endorse an attack if it occurs. Still, so much else has been going on -- in Syria, in North Korea, with the European economy -- that the topic has moved off the front pages for a while.

    Which is why I found it so interesting to see that the possibility of an attack had literally moved back onto at least one front page. Here are our household's three papers as they looked on the breakfast table yesterday.

    May3FrontPage.png


    With a close-up of the story from the WSJ:

    IranWSJ2A.png

    The Journal's story is by reputable and careful reporters. Let us hope that when we look back on it a year from now (I'm marking my calendar for May 4, 2014) this story seems to have reflected an elaborate scheme of carrot-and-stick, bluster-and-cooptation, that the Obama administration was playing with the Iranians. Rather than an early indication, like those similar stories in late 2002 and early 2003 about a buildup around Iraq, that we were headed straight to war.

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