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: Military

  • Turning Policemen Into Soldiers, the Culmination of a Long Trend

    Another poisoned fruit of the post-9/11 sensibility

    Ferguson, Mo. police watching over their city (Reuters)

    The images from Missouri of stormtrooper-looking police confronting their citizens naturally raises the question: how the hell did we get to this point? When did the normal cops become Navy SEALs? What country is this, anyway?

    There will be more and more mainstream coverage of the modern militarization of the police, a phenomenon mainly of the post-9/11 years. For reference/aggregation purposes, here is a guide to further reading:

    1) The Book on this topic: Rise of the Warrior Cop, by Radley Balko. It came out a year ago and is more timely now than ever.

    2) "Lockdown Nation," a Peter Moskos review of Balko's book last year in PS magazine.

    3) "How the War on Terror Has Militarized the Police," an Atlantic dispatch by Arthur Rizer and Joseph Hartman three years ago. 

    4) "Tanks in Small Towns," a web item I did in 2011 on signs of this trend, including this photo of a police force in South Carolina:

    And this one from a small town in Virginia:

    And this from Florida:

    5) Some other Atlantic coverage here, here, here

    6) Update: An important and well-illustrated report by Matt Apuzzo in the NYT two months ago, called "War Gear Flows to Police Departments." 

    7) Update^2: A new report from Alec MacGillis in TNR on how "anti-terrorist" funding from DHS has equipped police forces with this CENTCOM-style war gear.

    This Ferguson, Missouri episode is obviously about race, and is (another) occasion for pointing readers to Ta-Nehisi Coates's powerful "Reparations" article. It is also about how we govern ourselves, and about how far the ramifying self-damage of the post-9/11 era has gone.

    "Self-damage"? All the literature about terrorism emphasizes that the harm directly done in an attack is nothing compared with the self-destructive reactions it can induce. From Fallujah to Ferguson, that is part of what we're seeing now.

    I won't belabor that theme for the moment but will say: Perhaps these incredible police-state-like images will have some attention-focusing or "enough!" effect, like their counterparts from another era (below). Meanwhile, check out Balko's book. 

     

  • From Inside and Outside the Iron Dome, Once Again

    "If you continue looking up to the sky, you will not notice that the house is already burning from within." A reader in Jerusalem on the real threat to his country.

    Reuters

    I have received lots of mail on the technical aspects of the "Iron Dome" system: its origin, performance, strengths, and potential weaknesses, plus comparisons with its Patriot predecessors. Watch this space for follow-ups as more information becomes known.

    But I intend this to be the last installment on the string begun with the powerful note from an American rabbi in Jerusalem, about his gratitude for Iron Dome protection as Hamas rockets were falling. I have received enough mail since then to be reminded that there is an inexhaustible supply of passionate but irreconcilable, and familiar, statements of who is "more to blame" for the escalating violence and who originally wronged whom. 

    For a sobering example, consider this recent CNN exchange between Wolf Blitzer and Israeli Economics Minister Naftali Bennett. I have heard from people in Israel, America, and Europe who say that Bennett is speaking tough, plain, necessary truths. I have heard from others in those same places who think, as I do, that Bennett sounds appallingly callous about other people's loss of life—in this case, the deaths of the four little boys on the beach. Wolf Blitzer himself seems taken aback by what he is hearing. It's worth noting that Bennett features this clip on his own YouTube site

    I know that Bennett is not "representative," and that his fiercest critics are within Israel itself. I can name lots of American public figures I agree with even less. I know that there are plenty of people in the region and elsewhere who hatefully urge death to Israelis or Jews. But I mention this video because watching it reminded me, through its absence, of the quality of moral breadth, compassion, and bravery that distinguishes people willing to take risks for peace.

    As a young staffer on the periphery, I saw this quality from both Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat at the Camp David negotiations in 1978 (not to mention Jimmy Carter's role, as recently portrayed by my friend Lawrence Wright in the play Camp David). The lasting tragedy of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination (like Sadat's) is that he also had great courage and breadth, and unassailable credentials as a patriot who was strong enough to compromise. I am no one's idea of a Middle East expert, but I see no such figures on any side now.

    With that, two further messages about the political and social ramifications of Iron Dome, both from people in Jerusalem.

    First, from a woman who agrees with the rabbi:

    I have lived in Israel for 21 years and in Jerusalem for the past 14.  I long for peace and would vote tomorrow to give up the West Bank and Gaza for a Palestinian state that would accept the existence of Israel and live in real peace with us.
     
    I (literally) cry over the deaths of innocent Palestinian civilians.  But your reference to "rocket exchanges" obscures the fact that the Hamas - an Islamic terrorist group whose stated goal is to drive out (or worse) the Jews living in the entire territory of Israel - including the area within the Green line - started firing rockets at Israeli civilians and Israel's response was defensive. You can argue about the intensity of the response, but not about the need for a response and a forceful one.
     
    As for Iron Dome, I too am grateful to all who designed, funded, built and operated it and I know that the Hamas leaders are in luxury hotels in Doha and Cairo or in underground bunkers while they leave their people exposed to Israeli air strikes.   

    When you write that many "vastly more Palestinian families have been killed..because of differences in offensive weaponry and defensive systems and other factors" you might mention that the "other factors" included the Hamas government's refusal to build shelters and defensive systems to protect their people, as well as their use of civilians as shields to hide behind when they shoot rockets at Israeli civilians.
     

    Now, from Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson of Jerusalem, who has explicitly asked me to identify him. ("I indeed wish to be mentioned by name, as I believe in the veracity of my claims and am willing to defend them.") He is director of programs for Molad, an Israeli think tank.  

    His message is personally very critical of the rabbi, which I know will be wounding. But since I have kept his (the American rabbi's) identity confidential, and since Dr. Sasson is taking responsibility for his critical views by name, and mainly since his statement is so powerfully argued, it seems fair to give him his say.

    Hillel Ben Sasson writes:

    Reading the words of the anonymous rabbi in recounting his fear in face the warning sirens alerting Jerusalemites of Hamas rockets, I was both enraged and ashamed. 

    I was enraged by the lack of comprehension he showed to the situation in which we - Israelis and Palestinians - have been living for as long as we remember. I was born in Jerusalem in 1979 and lived here for most of my life. An officer in the IDF still fulfilling my reserve duty, I have lived through three wars (Lebanon I - 1982; Gulf I - 1991; Lebanon II - 2006), two Intifada uprisings of the occupied Palestinians (1987; 2000) and three military operations in Gaza (Cast Lead - 2008; Pillar of Defense - 2012; Protective Edge - 2014). Some of these I experienced in uniform. I am also raising two young children in Jerusalem. 

    For us living here, the current military operation and the ongoing drizzle of rockets are neither unbearable nor threatening in an existential way. Iron Dome has enabled Israelis to continue with their normal lives neither terrified nor terrorized. While the Gazans are rained with high-precision ton-heavy bombs falling with no sirens or alert system, we in Jerusalem have heard three sirens in the past nine days, and witnessed no rocket falling.

    When the siren went off in that Saturday afternoon mentioned by the rabbi, I was sitting with my family in a park right across to the Shalom Hartman Institute, compared in his narrative to an U-Boat under attack. From the park where we were picnicking, as it happened, I could see the rocket being intercepted several miles south to Jerusalem, above Hebron, and in contrast to the rabbi's Dresdenian depiction.

    In a cross check with a senior Haaretz correspondent, it turns out that none of the rockets even got close to central Jerusalem - hits were located only around Hebron and Ramat Raziel (a village miles to the west of the city) probably a result of shrapnel from Iron Dome's interceptions. This gets nowhere near WWII (the very comparison is preposterous if not offensive to survivors of that terrible war). 

    I am enraged because the rabbi is presumably a tourist in my city and country, yet in the name of his spiritual and cultural connection to the holy land he feels free to act as its spokesman. By generalizing his personal sense of fear and acting as a spokesman for those who actually carry the burden of living in Israel, the rabbi grossly exaggerated the impact of Hamas terror on Jerusalem and portrayed it with unduly epic dimensions. In so doing, he distorts the actual power imbalance in this tragic situation, in addition to victimizing me and my fellow Israeli citizens.

    As a society, we are a (powerful) side in this conflict, not a helpless victim. To avoid any misunderstanding, I would like to clarify that I am far from disregarding the fear and anxiety felt by many Israelis who are in the line of fire day after day. Writing about Jerusalem however - a city that witnessed three sirens and not even one hit of a rocket - in the way that the rabbi adopted is simply absurd. This absurdity might indicate that his experience is influenced less by concrete reality and more by his already existing perception of victimhood. And this brings me to shame. 

    The blinding victimhood embodied in the rabbi's comments is shameful because it points at an abject moral, spiritual and leadership failure. In the very same Jerusalem and on the very same days, young religious Jews have burnt alive an innocent Palestinian teenager, in the name of national revenge. In this very city, racist Jewish hooligans are marching every night, seeking Arab scapegoats, cracking down on other Jews who dare answer back to them, shouting slogans such as "death to the Arabs" and "A Jew has a Soul, and Arab is a son of a whore".

    Where is the cry of this anonymous rabbi against these far more worrisome threats to our existence and future? How dare American rabbis who keep silent these days continue and call themselves religious shepherds? As an observant Jew, I am ashamed at how few were the courageous voices who took into heart the words of Rabbi A. J. Heschel who marched at Selma with Martin Luther King Jr.: "Few might be guilty - but all are responsible". 

    The rabbi's anonymity, it turns out, is but a metaphor for his inacceptable silence on the real enemies of the Jewish society in Israel - the extremist hateful enemies from within. 

    No, rabbi, you got it wrong. The rockets are not really scary nor are they a true existential threat. Racism, radicalism, and religious intoxication from brute power has become an imminent danger to our old and beloved peoplehood. When people are accustomed to hearing that they are perpetual innocent victims of Palestinian aggression, they eventually translate they frustration into rage and start seeking justice in revenge. If you continue looking up to the sky, you will not notice that the house is already burning from within. 

     

     

  • The FAA's Notice Prohibiting Airline Flights Over Ukraine

    The U.S. government did its best to keep civilian airliners away from the region.

    FAA "Special Notices" section ( FAA )

    [Please see two updates below.] Many crucial questions about the tragic/disastrous apparent shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines flight in Ukraine are still unanswerable. Who did it? Why? With what warning? Or repercussions? 

    But at this point one question can be answered: Did aviation authorities know that this was a dangerous area?

    Yes, they most certainly did. Nearly three months ago, on the "Special Rules" section of its site, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration put out an order prohibiting American pilots, airlines, charter carriers, and everyone else over whom the FAA has direct jurisdiction, from flying over southern parts of Ukraine.

    Here is how the "who this applies to" part of FAA NOTAM 4/7677 looked, in the ALL-CAPS typeface of many FAA communications and in the language the FAA uses to say "this means YOU!"

    A. APPLICABILITY. 
    THIS SPECIAL FEDERAL AVIATION REGULATION (SFAR) APPLIES TO THE FOLLOWING PERSONS:

    1) ALL U.S. AIR CARRIERS AND U.S. COMMERCIAL OPERATORS;

    (2) ALL PERSONS EXERCISING THE PRIVILEGES OF AN AIRMAN CERTIFICATE ISSUED BY THE FAA, EXCEPT SUCH PERSONS OPERATING U.S. REGISTERED AIRCRAFT FOR A FOREIGN AIR CARRIER; AND

    (3) ALL OPERATORS OF U.S. REGISTERED CIVIL AIRCRAFT, EXCEPT WHERE THE OPERATOR OF SUCH AIRCRAFT IS A FOREIGN AIR CARRIER. 

    And here is how the "these are the areas to stay out of" part of the order was written, everything specified as Longitude/Latitude coordinates:

    (D), NO PERSON DESCRIBED IN PARAGRAPH (A) MAY CONDUCT FLIGHT OPERATIONS IN THE PORTION OF THE SIMFEROPOL (UKFV) FIR WITHIN THE FOLLOWING LATERAL LIMITS: 454500N 0345800E-460900N 0360000E-460000N 0370000E-452700N 0364100E-452242N 0364100E-451824N 0363524E-451442N 0363542E-451218N END PART 1 OF 4. 23 APR 22:30 2014 UNTIL 1504270001. CREATED: 23 APR 22:16 2014
     
    FDC 4/7667 (A0012/14) - null AIRSPACE SPECIAL NOTICE UKRAINE 0363200E-450418N 0363418E-445600N 0363700E-443100N 0364000E-424400N 0361600E-424700N 0340000E-424800N 0304500E-434100N 0303200E-441500N 0302400E-444600N 0300900E-455400N 0322500E-454900N 0324700E-455400N 0330600E-455600N 0332700E-455900N 0332900E-THEN ALONG THE CRIMEA BORDER TO 454500N 0345800E.

    Until only a few years ago, most FAA notices—of restricted air space, of special weather hazards, of other areas-of-concern—were promulgated in this same indecipherable Long/Lat form. Now the FAA distributes most information on U.S. airspace via easily understandable graphical overlays. For instance, its Special Use Airspace site, which you are supposed to check before every flight, gives you a color-coded illustration of all active military airspace, restricted zones, etc, at any given time. Here is how part of it looks right now, mainly showing active "Military Operations Areas" in the South. This is a screen shot, but on the real map you can click on each one to see its vertical limits. For instance, those large ones over northeastern Mississippi go from 8,000 feet upward, so we were able to fly under them in our recent visits to the "Golden Triangle" cities in the same area.

    I have not yet seen a map that plots the Long/Lat points of the Ukraine no-fly order onto the route the Malaysian plane flew, and where it was apparently shot down. When I learn of one, I will provide an update. (Credit to Jad Mouawad of NYT for seeing this notice before I did.) 

    UPDATE This FAA notice appears to apply mainly to Crimea and the areas immediately to its north, all of which are south of the reported crash zone. So this rule would apparently not have prevented flights over the exact area of the crash, but it certainly was a sign of a general trouble zone. Thanks to Joel Koepp and other readers for plotting out the Long/Lat readings.

    The point for the moment: the FAA "Special Rules" section tells U.S. pilots and aircraft not to fly over trouble spots ranging from North Korea to Yemen to Syria to Iraq. And since last April it has told them not to fly over certain parts of Ukraine.

    Update-update Thanks to readers who have pointed me to another, later NOTAM, which warned planes about hazards in broader areas of Ukraine, apparently including those the Malaysian airliner flew across. The hazard this NOTAM warned against was possibly conflicting Air Traffic Control instructions from Russian and Ukrainian controllers. A sample of that NOTAM is shown below, with text here. For more information, try this site.

     

  • The Gaza Impasse, in 2 Notes

    "I found it very troubling that you sought to create a perception of parity between my experience and perspective and the death of Palestinian innocent civilians." More from the American rabbi in Jerusalem.

    Last night I posted three reactions from people in Jerusalem to debates about the effectiveness of the "Iron Dome" air-defense system. The first, longest, and most detailed was from an American rabbi who has been in Israel during the latest exchanges of fire. He reported on the stoically tense mood inside a Jerusalem bomb shelter, which he likened to a scene from a WW II submarine movie in which the crew waited out depth charges without knowing when one might hit. He also described tender scenes of parents trying to protect their children.

    After quoting his message, I said that from past correspondence I knew the writer to be a person of broadly universalistic, rather than narrow, human sympathies. Although he had sent his note before the latest horror of the four Palestinian boys killed while playing on the beach, I said that I knew he must be aware of the fear and grief on both sides—with the great disproportion of the recent death and grieving occurring among the Palestinians.

    This morning I got two notes from Americans in the region. First, from the rabbi himself, who objected to my comments. I quote him in full:

    I was taken aback by your juxtaposition of my comment to your reporting of the deaths of the Palestinian children the next day. Those deaths were beyond horrible and tragic. But I found it very troubling that you sought to create a perception of parity between my experience and perspective and the death of Palestinian innocent civilians on the other.

    The death of those innocents lies at the feet of Hamas who began this terror offensive and continued it despite the Israeli government's agreement to adhere to a cease fire.

    If Hamas had not begun to fire indiscriminately thousands of rockets at Israeli cities (and Palestinian ones like Bethlehem and Hebron, and even at its own power electric power station on the Strip), if it had not filled its hundred of underground tunnels with rockets and other munitions instead of using them to provide shelter to its citizens, if it had not encouraged it residents to remain in their homes and not to seek shelter after they received "knocks" text and cell calls from the IDF warning of an impending attack, if Hamas eschewed to the very same Jewish doctrine of the sanctity of life that Islam adopted from Judaism, then those precious, innocent lives and the other precious, Palestinian lives would not have been lost. But the loss of life will continue because of Hamas' warped death theology, and the more you and other commentators continue to perpetuate the "cycle of violence" narrative, the more they and other terrorists will believe that their approach is an effective one.

    The other note is from another American who has lived and worked outside the United States for many decades and in the Middle East for several years. He says:

    Thanks for your comment after the transcript of the rabbi's thoughts, that similar things are happening in Gaza and the Gaza folks don't enjoy the same weaponry as the Israelis.

    I have a few Israeli sympathizers among my friends who rant and rage about the "terror" from the Palestinians but don't acknowledge that there is "terror" also from Israel toward their subjects in Gaza and West Bank. It's nice to see when writers can show a balanced (but not "false equivalent") perspective on this mess.

    Draw your own conclusions. My thanks to both writers.

  • From Inside the Iron Dome

    "I am very grateful for the Israeli 'know how' that created it, the effective AIPAC lobbying that ensured its funding, and the Congressional and Presidential support that made it available to the citizens of Israel." So writes an American rabbi from a bomb shelter in Jerusalem.

    Israeli "Iron Dome" interceptor being launched last week (Reuters)

    On Wednsday I contrasted The Washington Post's front-page story about Israel's "Iron Dome" protective system—"Highly Effective Missile Defense," as the headline put it—with much more skeptical coverage from tech-oriented publications like Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and Technology Review. 

    I said that I didn't know which view was right, but that there was a very long record of high-tech military systems being hailed in immediate reports that were later deflated or debunked. One famous illustration involves the Patriot anti-missile system during the first Gulf War. While the fighting was underway, the Patriots were said to have knocked as many as 80 percent of Iraqi Scud missiles out of the sky. A careful congressional investigation after the war lowered the "strongest evidence" kill rate down to 9 percent. (More info here, from Frontline.)    

    So perhaps Iron Dome will end up seeming as impenetrably effective as immediate heat-of-battle reports have claimed it to be. Perhaps not. For the moment, a range of reader reactions from Israel and elsewhere. 

    1) "If you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world." From an American rabbi now in Israel:

    I have been in Israel since before the Hamas terror offensive began. I was caught outside when the first azaka (Red Alert siren) went off in Jerusalem. And I have also made a run for the miklat (bomb shelter) in the apartment building where I am living when the siren sounded on a Sabbath afternoon.

    On one occasion, I was walking to the Shalom Hartman Institute for a meeting when the siren sounded while I was just  a few feet from the Institute's gated entrance. A father walking with his very young son on the street panicked as the siren went off. I called and waved to him to follow me into the Institute. I ran, along with faculty, administrators, and participants in a Hillel Directors program to the bomb shelter located underneath the Institute's Beit Midrash (study hall where over the years thousands of Rabbis, Jewish educators and lay people from around the world have studied). All the while, I could hear the breath of that father as he ran behind me holding his son in his arms.

    Within the bowels of the bomb shelter we could hear the Iron Dome missiles intercepting the Hamas rockets overhead. The scene was reminiscent of what you might recall from motion pictures about life in a WWII U-boat or submarine when depth charges are dropped from a above and the booms of their explosions sound like they could rattle the teeth out of your head. We counted with our lips and fingers . . . One .  . Two . . . Three.

    In all, five rockets where fired into densely populated Jerusalem. Three were destroyed over our neighborhood and within half a mile of where we were (when we emerged topside we could see the white wisps that remained from the Iron Dome missiles). Two more Hamas rockets were allowed to fall in an empty field adjacent to the neighborhood of Arnona. Had there been no Iron Dome those rockets would have landed in the midst of apartments buildings, houses, schools, and parks.

    My religious tradition claims that if you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world. So, as one of thousands who are now living with the threat of terror from the skies, I am interested little in the academic/ theoretical musings related to the so-called ineffectiveness of the system. I am very grateful for the Israeli "know how" that created it, the effective AIPAC lobbying that ensured its funding, and the Congressional and Presidential support that made it available to the citizens of Israel.

    Best wishes from Jerusalem,

    The rabbi sent this note before the horrific recent episode of four little boys, ages 9 through 11, being killed by Israeli shelling as they played on a Gaza beach. I have corresponded often enough with this reader over the years to know that he means his "if you save one life" thoughts to be universal rather than sectarian. So I am sure he understands that there are also fathers and mothers in Gaza holding their little children in their arms—and that because of differences in offensive weaponry, defensive systems (including Iron Dome), and other factors, vastly more of those Palestinian families have been killed through the rocket exchanges. (According to the NYT as I write, so far 214 deaths in Gaza during the recent violence, and 1 in Israel.)

    2) Proximity fuse does the job. From another person in Jerusalem, who starts out with an exchange I quoted between Ted Postol and Robert Siegel on All Things Considered.

    "SIEGEL: As I understand it, for it to work it actually has to hit an oncoming rocket head on.

    POSTOL: That's correct. "

    Actually, I strongly suspect that Siegel - and Postol for that matter - are incorrect, quite incorrect.

    To the best of my knowledge the Tamir interceptor uses a proximity fuse such that it only has to get "close enough" (and I don't know how that is defined) for it to detonate and destroy the incoming rocket.  As to its overall effectiveness, a crude, but useful measure is how much damage from Hamas rockets is actually occurring on the ground. 

    In this campaign Hamas has fired far more rockets, and more powerful rockets, than in the previous two, and more critically, more rockets into areas of greater population and building density, most notably metro Tel Aviv.  In addition, Hamas has been firing many more simultaneous salvos which increase the likelihood of a hit in a dense region like Metro Tel Aviv.  Nonetheless, there has been far less damage than in the previous two Hamas campaigns.  One would not expect this result if the Iron Dome effectiveness were in the 5% or even 20% or even 50% range.

    The original allegations that Iron Dome is a sham or near-sham came from an Israeli anti-missile systems expert (or perhaps "expert") who, in the aftermath of "Pillar of Defense", dreamed up all kinds of criteria of marginal relevance (I don't recall the details) to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Iron Dome system.  He was responded-to by the developers of Iron Dome, within the limits of the understandable secrecy surrounding the details of the system's performance (any defensive system has its weak points and you don't want to inform your enemy what are those weak points).  In addition, there is a "sour grapes" aspect to this.  Way back when, this original Israeli critic had submitted his own proposal for developing an anti-rocket interception system but his proposal was turned down.

    Finally, with all due respect to the experts cited in the various sources you cited, they are judging the system from a great distance, with a lot of assumptions and missing a lot of info, unless they are privy to secret IDF Iron Dome performance data.  And somehow or another, I am skeptical that they are on the distribution list for those memos.

    3) "I was skeptical. Until last week." From one more reader in Jerusalem:

    I live in Israel and was very skeptical of the ability of the Iron Dome system. Like you write, the military establishment likes to tout and over rate themselves to impress the possible enemy. That was until last week.

    I live in Jerusalem and was going to check for mail when I heard the sirens, so instead of going to a shelter like an intelligent person, I went to see if anything was flying. I looked up and saw two rocket coming towards my location. So instead of running I took out my camera and before I could take a picture, I saw two poofs, no sound, just poofs like a pillow opening up in midair. (I heard the booms about 20 seconds later.)

    I was totally amazed by the ability of the Iron Dome to take out the rockets, there were actually 4 not the two that I originally thought I saw.

    4) "All about convincing Israelis that their government is doing the job." On the other hand, from a reader not in Jerusalem:

    I'm probably super-cynical about anything I read in the mainstream media about Israel, but the Iron Dome stuff is, in my view, all about convincing Israelis that their government is in fact doing the job they desire. 

    I'm sure you know, this, but in the past 75 or so years the success of most military campaigns (and often new technologies) has, with careful retrospective study, proved to have been grossly overstated. [JF note: Agreed.]

    I can't recall the details perfectly, but the Serbian-Bosnian turmoil was supposedly brought to a conclusion by the introduction of a USAF?NATO bombing campaign. Post-conflict NATO expended considerable effort to quantify the accuracy and impact of the bombing campaign, and they in fact concluded that the bombing campaign had been almost entirely ineffective. This conclusion flew in the face of what USAF wished to believe, and not surprisingly it worked long and hard to ensure the NATO conclusions were discredited and/or buried.

    As a country that enjoys such a tight, emotionally-inflammable relationship with the US, Israel and its American affiliates (for lack of a better word) will paint whatever picture most effectively advances its cause, facts be damned. It's interesting that the US just committed another $500 million to Israel's Iron Dome program. How we reconcile that whilst simultaneously working hard to erode social programs escapes me. 

  • Iron Dome—Savior, or Sales Job?

    When the fighting is over in Gaza, one of these stories is going to look strange.

    Washington Post front page, July 15, 2014

    In its lead story this morning, the WaPo tells us that Israel's famous "Iron Dome" air defense system has been a huge technical success that has changed the realities of battle. The system, for the record, was developed in Israel, is produced by U.S. and Israeli contractors, and is mainly funded by the United States.

    That's the Post's front page you see above, with details here. Eg:

    “I can’t even explain with words how great it is,” said Sivan Hadad, 32, who has lived her entire life in Ashkelon and had grown accustomed to staying indoors when the rockets started flying. “Now I can go out. I still get scared, but not like before.”

    To Israeli security officials, the success of Iron Dome is akin to that of the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank, which they say helped bring an end to an onslaught of suicide bombings in the early 2000s.

    The Iron Dome system has rendered rockets so ineffective that Hamas and its allies have, in recent days, been attempting more-creative ways of attacking Israel. 

    Here's why this is interesting. The effectiveness of Iron Dome has been much discussed in the technical press recently, and with a very different emphasis. Five days ago, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, John Mecklin called Iron Dome "the public relations weapon," because it was always touted during battles for results that did not stand up on later inspection.

    Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 10, 2014

     

    A story that same day in Technology Review had a similar skeptical take:

    Technology Review

     

    An NPR segment on July 9 quoted the same technical expert, Ted Postol of MIT, featured in the other stories and was similarly cautionary.

    Part of Ted Postol's exchange with NPR's Robert Siegel:

    POSTOL: We can tell, for sure, from video images and even photographs that the Iron Dome system is not working very well at all. It - my guess is maybe 5 percent of the time - could be even lower.

    SIEGEL: As I understand it, for it to work it actually has to hit an oncoming rocket head on.

    POSTOL: That's correct. And when you look - what you can do in the daytime - you can see the smoky contrail of each Iron Dome interceptor, and you can see the Iron Domes trying to intercept the artillery rockets side on and from behind. In those geometries, the Iron Dome has no chance, for all practical purposes, of destroying the artillery rocket.

    SIEGEL: By way of contrast, when the Israeli Air Force strikes at targets in Gaza, is the weaponry substantially more accurate than these rockets?

    POSTOL: When you're talking about an airstrike from an aircraft, especially with the very, very highly trained pilots Israelis have and, of course, the very advanced equipment that they're using, you're talking about precisions of tens of meters - very, very high precision.

    ***

    Why such a difference in emphasis?

    One possibility is the Post has new information that offsets this raft of skeptical analyses, even though it doesn't mention any of these critiques. If so, that will be very interesting in technical and military terms.

    Another possibility is that when we eventually know what happened in these missile exchanges (and of course I hope no one on either side dies in any further attacks) , this story, and its lead-the-paper play in the Post today, may seem to be another illustration of Mecklin's hypothesis: that militaries hype the performance of high-tech systems during the heat of battle, and by the time the real results are in the press is onto something else. 

    I don't know which is the case, though I will say that there is a very, very long track record of the pattern Mecklin describes. And here is an intriguing journalistic detail that could be either insignificant, or a clue:

    The "Highly Effective Missile Defense" story has the featured, top-of-the-news position in this morning's print paper. Yet a few hours later on the WashingtonPost.com web site, there is no mention of it whatsoever on the home page. No link, no summary, no "see also," no "in other headlines." This is unusual enough—a story that leads the paper being nonexistent on the home page—that I saved a PDF of that page to be sure I wasn't misreading it.

    I called the Post this afternoon to ask if the story's absence from the home page was mere happenstance, or if for some reason the paper was distancing itself from it. The person I was eventually transferred to, a woman on the media relations team, said she understood the question and would get back to me. I'll update this when I hear more.

    Update Someone who asks to be identified as a Washington Post spokesperson sends this reply:

    The story you are referencing (Israel’s ‘Dome’ changes the fight) was featured in the lead position on The Washington Post’s homepage yesterday. The homepage has since been updated with the latest news.

    So perhaps I just didn't see it in time, although I can't help noticing that many other stories from today's print-paper front page are, unlike this one, still featured online. I appreciate the clarification, and we'll see how the Iron Dome story unfolds.

  • Stratfor on American Grand Strategy in Iraq and Ukraine

    "Limiting wars to those that are in the national interest and can be won eliminates many wars." You wouldn't think politicians and thinkers would need to be reminded of this point, but they do. 

    Wikimedia Commons

    Yesterday I presented William Polk's assessment of America's strategic opportunities, and limits, in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and the environs. Among other things this was a caution against continuing to make things worse through continued use of America's most obvious, though often least appropriate, means of influence: its military.

    Now George Friedman, of Stratfor, has an analysis of U.S. options in Iraq and Ukraine that is very much worth reading as a complement. Over the years I've agreed and disagreed with various Stratfor presentations. This one seems very sensible and useful for me. You can read the whole thing at the original site—it's not even very long—but here are a few samples.

    An obvious but often overlooked truth:

    Military operations that cannot succeed, or can succeed only with such exorbitant effort that they exhaust the combatant, are irrational. Therefore, the first measure of any current strategy in either Ukraine or Iraq is its sheer plausibility.

    That truth applied to Iraq:

    There is no native power that can unite Iraq. No one has the strength. The assumption is that the United States could hold Iraq together -- thus the demand by some in Iraq and the United States that the United States massively intervene would make sense.... 

    The U.S. invasion ultimately failed to create a coherent government in Iraq and helped create the current circumstance. As much as various factions would want the United States to intervene on their behalf, the end result would be a multi-sided civil war with the United States in the center, unable to suppress the war with military means because the primary issue is a political one.

    As applied also to Ukraine:

    When we consider Ukraine and Iraq, they are of course radically different, but they have a single thing in common: To the extent that the United States has any interest in the regions, it cannot act with direct force. Instead, it must act with indirect force by using the interests and hostilities of the parties on the ground to serve as the first line of containment.... 

    It is not possible for the United States to use direct force to impose a solution on Ukraine or Iraq. This is not because war cannot be a solution to evil, as World War II was. It is because the cost, the time of preparation and the bloodshed of effective war can be staggering. 

    A golden rule of warfare:

    Limiting wars to those that are in the national interest and can be won eliminates many wars.

    The wisdom of Ike:

    Dwight Eisenhower was... far from a pacifist and far from passive. He acted when he needed to, using all means necessary. But as a general, he understood that while the threat of war was essential to credibility, there were many other tools that allowed Washington to avoid war and preserve the republic.

    Eisenhower was a subtle and experienced man. It is one thing to want to avoid war; it is another to know how to do it. Eisenhower did not refuse to act, but instead acted decisively and with minimal risk. Obama's speech at West Point indicated hesitancy toward war. It will be interesting to see whether he has mastered the other tools he will need in dealing with Ukraine and Iraq. It helps to have been a warrior to know how to avoid war.

    Required credit info from Stratfor as follows:

    Read more, The United States Has Unfinished Business in Ukraine and Iraq | Stratfor Follow us: @stratfor on Twitter | Stratfor on Facebook
     

    Next up for me: back to Mississippi, and Minnesota. 

  • 'The Past Is Never Dead,' Bill Faulkner Told Us—but He Didn't Know About the Iraq War

    Some people have earned the right not to be listened to.

    If you're anything like me, when you hear the words "wise insights about the Iraq war," two names that immediately come to mind are Paul Wolfowitz and Scooter Libby. 

    Fortunately the Hertog Institute has engaged them both to teach a course, "The War in Iraq: A Study in Decision-Making." 

    I will confess that when someone told me about this today, I assumed it was an Onion-style joke. As in, "The Work-Family Balance: Getting It Right," co-taught by John Edwards and Eliot Spitzer. But it turns out to be real. Or "real."

    In the cause of public knowledge, I am happy to offer royalty-free use of several items for the reading list. Like:

    • "The Fifty-First State?" from the year before the war. The Wolfowitz-Libby "study in decision-making" might consider why on Earth so many obvious implications of the war were blithely dismissed ahead of time, including by these two men. Or ...
    • "Blind into Baghdad," about the grotesque combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence that characterized decision-making about the war. Or ...
    • "Bush's Lost Year," about the sequence of advantages squandered, opportunities missed, and crucial wrong bets made in the months just after the 9/11 attacks. Students might find this one particularly interesting, since it begins with a long interview with their own Professor Wolfowitz. For the Cliff's Notes version, see after the jump.

    Somehow I am guessing that the professors might pass up my generous offer. So instead, here's another "at first I thought this was a joke" candidate: a new essay by William Kristol and Frederick Kagan in Kristol's Weekly Standard with advice about Iraq:

    I'll give Kristol and the Kagan brothers this: They are consistent, in attitude as well as typography and headline writing and page layout. Here is what Kristol and Robert Kagan were writing 12 years ago, shortly after the 9/11 attacks:

    Sample of their level-headed and confirmed-by-history views: "The Iraq threat is enormous. It gets bigger with every day that passes." 

    Am I sounding a little testy here? You bet. We all make mistakes. But we are talking about people in public life—writers, politicians, academics—who got the biggest strategic call in many decades completely wrongWrong as a matter of analysis, wrong as a matter of planning, wrong as a matter of execution, wrong in conceiving American interests in the broadest sense. None of these people did that intentionally, and many of them have honestly reflected and learned. But we now live with (and many, many people have died because of) the consequences of their gross misjudgments a dozen years ago. In the circumstances, they might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while. They helped create the disaster Iraqis and others are now dealing with. They have earned the right not to be listened to.

    * * *

    Brian Beutler in The New Republic goes into this standing-to-speak issue very clear-headedly. For the record, he takes my side of the argument, sort of. Also, last week in New York magazine Frank Rich talked about the strange non-accountability of the liberal-hawk faction. His colleague Eric Benson interviewed me on that theme. For Kristol as a special case of someone so wrong so often that he's a reliable reverse-predictor guide to reality, see this, which doesn't go into his enthusiasm even now for Sarah Palin.

    And if you would like to see something not testy but deservedly bitter, consider what Andrew Bacevich says most recently about unrepentant war mongers.

    Update: I hadn't seen until now that Paul "Let's Disband the Iraqi Army, What Could Go Wrong?" Bremer has offered his wisdom about Iraq in the WSJ. Jeesh! Also see this by Steve Benen at the Maddow blog, and this by Katrina Vanden Heuvel in the WaPo.

    * * *

    My article "Bush's Lost Year" was about the very subject of this class, decision-making in the Iraq war. Here is the way it ended:

    To govern is to choose, and the choices made in 2002 were fateful. The United States began that year shocked and wounded, but with tremendous strategic advantages. Its population was more closely united behind its leadership than it had been in fifty years. World opinion was strongly sympathetic. Longtime allies were eager to help; longtime antagonists were silent. The federal budget was nearly in balance, making ambitious projects feasible. The U.S. military was superbly equipped, trained, and prepared. An immediate foe was evident—and vulnerable—in Afghanistan. For the longer-term effort against Islamic extremism the Administration could draw on a mature school of thought from academics, regional specialists, and its own intelligence agencies. All that was required was to think broadly about the threats to the country, and creatively about the responses.

    The Bush Administration chose another path. Implicitly at the beginning of 2002, and as a matter of formal policy by the end, it placed all other considerations second to regime change in Iraq. It hampered the campaign in Afghanistan before fighting began and wound it down prematurely, along the way losing the chance to capture Osama bin Laden. It turned a blind eye to misdeeds in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and to WMD threats from North Korea and Iran far more serious than any posed by Saddam Hussein, all in the name of moving toward a showdown with Iraq. It overused and wore out its army in invading Iraq—without committing enough troops for a successful occupation. It saddled the United States with ongoing costs that dwarf its spending for domestic security. And by every available measure it only worsened the risk of future terrorism. In every sense 2002 was a lost year.

    That was how it looked to me 10 years ago. And still does.

    More »

  • Ukraine and Malaysia Airlines: Why Cable News Should Be on a 24-Hour Delay

    The best reactions to breaking news are rarely the first ones.

    Malaysia Airlines 777, at Kuala Lumpur airport ( Wikipedia photo )

    I have been offline most of these past few days and thus not weighing in on daily developments. But let me mention three items whose similarity concerns cast of mind.

    1) Adam Gopnik on Crimea. This is several days old in The New Yorker but very much worth reading if you have missed it. For instance:

    With Ukraine and Crimea suddenly looming as potential [WW I-style] Sarajevos, the usual rhetoric of credibility and the horrors of appeasement comes blaring from the usual quarters. People who, a week ago, could not have told you if Crimea belonged to Ukraine—who maybe thought, based on a vague memory of reading Chekhov, that it was Russian all along—are now acting as though the integrity of a Ukrainian Crimea is an old and obvious American interest. What they find worse than our credibility actually being at stake is that we might not act as though it always is.  

    As the years go by, I am more and more convinced that the immediate, fast-twitch talk-show responses on what we "have" to do about some development are almost always wrong, and the calm, day- or week-after reflections about proportion, response, and national interest are almost always wiser. If I could, I would put all cable-TV discussion of breaking-news crises on a 24-hour delay. Maybe there has been a case in which immediate reflex-response to big news has seemed wise in the long run. Right now I can't think of any.

    Naturally this reminds me of an adage from the piloting world: In most emergencies, the crucial first thing to do is ... nothing. Take a deep breath, calm down, steady your nerves, count to 10, and then "fly the airplane" as you begin applying knowledge rather than panicked instincts to the options at hand. Which brings us to:

    2) Patrick Smith on Malaysia Airlines. At Ask The Pilot, airline pilot and aviation writer Patrick Smith makes the frustrating but unavoidable point about the still-missing Malaysia Airlines flight: We have no idea what happened, and it may be a long time (if ever) before we do.

    Here are the tactical points involved in this argument:

    • Commercial airline flight is now statistically so safe that when something does go wrong, the causes are often mysterious by definition. That is because the non-mysterious risks for airlines have been buffed away. The most famous recent exception was the Asiana crash at SFO last year. It looked from the start like a simple case of pilot error, and that is where all subsequent evidence points. But many other tragedies have taken months or years to sleuth out. 
       
    • The first reports after a crash should be viewed with great suspicion, because experience shows they're probably wrong. What the NYT says in its current headline about Malaysia Airlines applies to most disaster coverage:

      For this reason it  would be great to have a 24-hour tape-delay on most disaster coverage as well. 

      This goes in spades for any coverage on the lines of, "This latest tragedy proves that [theory X] is true." Most instant-analyses of this sort I can think of were grossly wrong; when they're right, that's often due to luck rather than insight. This principle applies not only to air crashes but also to mass shootings, bombings, episodes of suspected terrorism, and similar tragedies for which people crave an explanation.
       
    • Might the Malaysian plane have broken up in flight? Yes. Might it have been hijacked? Perhaps. Might both pilots have conked out? Maybe. Could there have been an on-board bomb? Perhaps. Does this show a problem with the Boeing 777? Likely not. Does it have anything to do with the Asiana 777 crash in San Francisco? Hard to imagine how it could. Did the stolen passports matter? Conceivably. Might the plane have been hit by a meteor? Or undone by pilot suicide? I suppose anything is possible. But these are all in the realm of "would King Kong beat Godzilla?" until there is more evidence, which can take a long time.

    The strategic point is: We do crave explanations, especially for bad news. Pilots are more prone to this tendency than anyone else. If you pick up an aviation magazine, you'll see that half the stories concern disasters, usually with the theme: Here is why bad things happened, and how to keep them from happening to you. But sometimes bad things happen for reasons no one can explain. Let's hope there is at least an instructive explanation, eventually, for this one. 

    Update: I am sorry to see that the usually excellent Foreign Policy has gone in for speculation-ahead-of-facts in a big way, e.g. here and, with the caveat that it is reporting on speculation, here.

    3) Jim Sleeper on the New Cold War. In an item about Leon Wieseltier for The Washington Monthly, Jim Sleeper gives another instance of what I'm suggesting is a larger point: that rushing, quickly, to larger self-confident, self-righteous stands is usually a source of error. He reminds us of what a group of "strategists" told the public a few days after the 9/11 attacks:

    [E]ven if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack, any strategy aiming at the eradication of terrorism and its sponsors must include a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.

    People who react this way have the right temperament for cable talk shows but the wrong one for decisions about the national interest. Cable pundits are in business to say, "The evidence is not yet in, but we know this means [xxx]." Give us leaders (and accident investigators) willing to say, Calm down. Breathe. Let's wait a minute, and think.

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  • John Boyd, From US News

    Appreciating "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war"

    US News appreciation of John Boyd, 1997 (Pages photocopied from University of Miami library)

    I mentioned last week that among the contents of its pre-2007 archives that US News had irresponsibly eliminated, without warning, was a short essay I wrote when the military strategist John Boyd died. I met Boyd in the late 1970s, described him in (and was guided by him for) my book National Defense, and stayed in touch until his death in March, 1997. 

    Somewhere in the attic I have my physical copies of US News from that era, when I was its editor. But I am not there to go pawing through the boxes, so I am grateful to Bill Tallman of the University of Miami, who went to the library, found that issue, and made a photocopy of the page. 

    Below you’ll see the page layout with a picture of John Boyd in his Korean War-fighter pilot era, followed by the text of the article. I post it here partly in thanks to Mr. Tallman; partly to give this account of Boyd’s life and influence some continuing online existence, now that it has been zapped from its original home; and partly because the latest Pentagon budget (including the decision to discontinue the A-10 "Warthog" airplane) is the kind of thing Boyd would have had a lot to say about. 

    More on the substance later. For now, I give you John Boyd ca. 1997, from back in the era when Dick Cheney was among the "military reformers."



    A Priceless Original

    True originality can be disturbing, and John Boyd was maddeningly original.

    His ideas about weapons, leadership, and the very purpose of national security changed the modern military. After Boyd died last week of cancer at age 70, the commandant of the Marine Corps called him "a towering intellect who made unsurpassed contributions to the American art of war.'' Yet until late in his life, the military establishment resisted Boyd and resented him besides.

    Boyd was called up for military service during the Korean War and quickly demonstrated prowess as an Air Force fighter pilot. More important, he revealed his fascination with the roots of competitive failure and success. U.S. Planes and pilots, he realized, did better in air combat than they should have. In theory, the Soviet-built MiG they fought against was far superior to the F-86 that Boyd flew. The MiG had a higher top speed and could hold a tighter turn. The main advantage of the F-86 was that it could change from one maneuver to another more rapidly, dodging or diving out of the MiG's way. As the planes engaged, Boyd argued, the F-86 could build a steadily accumulating advantage in moving to a "kill position'' on the MiG's tail.

    Boyd extended his method--isolating the real elements of success--while maintaining his emphasis on adaptability. In the late 1950s, he developed influential doctrines of air combat and was a renowned fighter instructor. In the 1960s, he applied his logic to the design of planes, showing what a plane would lose in maneuverability for each extra bit of weight or size--and what the nation lost in usable force as the cost per plane went up. Within the Pentagon, he and members of a "Fighter Mafia'' talked a reluctant Air Force into building the F-16 and A-10--small, relatively cheap, yet highly effective aircraft that were temporary departures from the trend toward more expensive and complex weapons.

    Warrior virtues. After leaving the Air Force as a colonel in 1975, Boyd began the study of long historical trends in military success through which he made his greatest mark. He became a fanatical autodidact, reading and marking up accounts of battles, beginning with the Peloponnesian War. On his Air Force pension, he lived modestly, working from a small, book-crammed apartment. He presented his findings in briefings, which came in varying lengths, starting at four hours. Boyd refused to discuss his views with those who would not sit through a whole presentation; to him, they were dilettantes. To those who listened, he offered a worldview in which crucial military qualities--adaptability, innovation-- grew from moral strengths and other "warrior'' virtues. Yes- man careerism, by-the-book thought, and the military's budget-oriented "culture of procurement'' were his great nemeses.

    Since he left no written record other than the charts that outlined his briefings, Boyd was virtually unknown except to those who had listened to him personally--but that group grew steadily in size and influence. Politicians, who parcel out their lives in 10-minute intervals, began to sit through his briefings. The Marine Corps, as it recovered from Vietnam, sought his advice on morale, character, and strategy. By the time of the gulf war, his emphasis on blitzkrieglike "maneuver warfare'' had become prevailing doctrine in the U.S. military. As a congressman, Dick Cheney spent days at Boyd's briefings. As defense secretary, he rejected an early plan for the land war in Iraq as being too frontal and unimaginative--what Boyd would have mockingly called "Hey diddle diddle, straight up the middle''--and insisted on a surprise flanking move.

    John Boyd laughed often, yet when he turned serious, his preferred speaking distance was 3 inches from your face. He brandished a cigar and once burned right through the necktie of a general he had buttonholed. He would telephone at odd hours and resume a harangue from weeks before as if he'd never stopped. But as irritating as he was, he was more influential. He will be marked by a small headstone at Arlington Cemetery and an enormous impact on the profession of arms.

     

  • George Wilson

    A military reporter for whom combat was never an abstraction

    George Wilson

    I was sorry to learn today that George C. Wilson, a longtime and highly respected reporter on defense matters, had died at age 86. I knew him slightly, mainly during the years he worked at our sister publication National Journal, but I always admired the honesty, realism, and irrepressible and irreverent humor with which he covered questions of war-and-peace. He was also tremendously generous as a person and, to use a term you don't hear about a lot of writers, self-effacing—in the good sense, not wanting his personality to get in the way of the truths he was trying to tell.

    Our mutual friend Chuck Spinney has written a wonderful appreciation of George Wilson, which I hope you will read. It captures this side of his character. For instance:

    George Wilson was one of the great reporters and a friend...His call sign when phoning, at least among my group of friends in the Pentagon, was Captain Black.

    Captain Black always identified with the troops and low rankers at the pointy end of the spear, either on the battlefield or in the bowels of the Pentagon.  And he always did it with humor, modesty, and grace ... and occasionally indignation, especially when the troops were being hosed, but never with any sense of self - importance.  Captain Black did some great reporting on some really big serious issues, and he was at home in the General's offices and on Capital Hill.  But he also loved to walk the halls of Pentagon and pop in unannounced to shoot the bull and gossip -- always laughingly -- about the lunacy in the Pentagon.   It was this unprepossessing humor coupled with Captain Black's ability to skewer the high rollers that I remember the most.

    George Wilson spent most of his career with the Washington Post, which has run an extended and very good obituary by Martin Weil. It includes a photo of George Wilson in Vietnam that I would love to use but to which we don't have the rights. Check it out. 

    Also check out this story by George Wilson in the National Journal, about a Republican congressman from North Carolina who voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq. He later felt that the war, and his vote, had been terrible mistakes and wondered how he could "atone" (the Congressman's own word). As Chuck Spinney points out, George Wilson -- who had served in the Navy and been a combat reporter in Vietnam -- always, always converted discussion of military policy to what that would mean for people on the battlefield. This is a rarer and rarer trait in a political/media world in which people blithely talk about "kinetic options" and "surgical strikes," and it is one of many reasons to note George Wilson's passing and highlight the example that he set.

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  • Our New Champion in Self-Defeating Soft Power: Japan

    Only one step could have made conditions worse among Japan, China, and South Korea, with spillover effects on America. That is the step Japan's prime minister has just taken.

    Main hall of Yasukuni Shrine, via Wikipedia.                 

    At first I didn't believe the news this evening that Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe had visited Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. I didn't believe it, because such a move would be guaranteed to make a delicate situation in East Asia far, far worse. So Abe wouldn't actually do it, right? 

    It turns out that he has. For a Japanese leader to visit Yasukuni, in the midst of tensions with China, is not quite equivalent to a German chancellor visiting Auschwitz or Buchenwald in the midst of some disagreement with Israel. Or a white American politician visiting some lynching site knowing that the NAACP is watching. But it's close.

    Prime Minister Abe going to the shrine today,
    via Reuters and BBC.

    Yasukuni -- which simply as a structure is quite beautiful and reverence-evoking -- is the honored resting place of Japan's large number of fallen soldiers. Unfortunately these include a number of those officially classified as war criminals from WW II. Government leaders and members of the general public in China, and to an only slightly lesser degree South Korea, view Yasukuni as a symbol of Imperial Japan's aggressive cruelty. As a bonus, Americans who visit the "historical" museum at the shrine (as I have done) will note its portrayal of Japan being "forced" into World War II by U.S. economic and military encirclement.

    In short, there is almost nothing a Japanese prime minister could have done that would have inflamed tempers more along the Japan-China-South Korea-U.S. axis than to make this visit. And yet he went ahead. Last month, I said that China had taken a kind of anti-soft-power prize by needlessly creating its "ADIZ" and alarming many of its neighbors. It seems that I was wrong. The prize returns to Japan.

  • 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.

  • Another Set of Questions About Syria

    So that Errol Morris does not have to follow his documentaries on McNamara and Rumsfeld with one on the Obama team.

    A few minutes ago I posted the six-step pattern of pro-escalation rhetoric that Eric Martin laid out two years ago. That followed William Polk's lengthy and important 13-question examination of a strike on Syria. 

    Now on the Foreign Policy site, Tom Mahnken has listed six more questions about the administration's rationale and plans. Here's the importance of his list:

    Before Congress approves an attack, it should be sure the administration has a clear answer on each of these points. The public should expect comprehensible answers from the administration too. Not perfect or irrebuttable answers: especially in combat, things develop in unforeseeable ways. But the president should show that at a minimum he and his team have thought through, and can explain, each of these aspects. Mahnken's list:

    1. What objectives does the administration seek to achieve in Syria?
    2. How does it anticipate that the use of force will lead to the fulfillment of those objectives?
    3. What is the administration's theory of victory?  That is, what are the assumptions that link the use of military force to the achievement of victory?
    4. How does the administration believe that Syria will respond to the U.S. use of force?
    5. What does the administration believe could go wrong?  What unexpected things could happen?
    6. And finally, how does the administration anticipate that this will end?

    Now a related note, with bonus Donald Rumsfeld clip, from a reader who until recently worked at a DC organization that is generally pro-intervention in the Middle East. He raises a longer-term concern about what Rumsfeld used to call the "known unknowns":

    Assuming we do decide to intervene in Syria, and we do not destabilize Assad--the White House has explicitly ruled out regime change as a goal of intervention--the best we can hope for is a situation similar to Iraq from 1991-2003. In such a scenario--heavy sanction, regular weapons inspections (which ended in Iraq in 1998), and a no-fly zone--we'd probably have a tenuous 'peace' thru the end of the Obama administration, but there's no guarantee that the next president would support a system that leaves in place a brutal dictator who has shown himself unafraid to use chemical weapons on his own people and has been known to pursue nuclear weapons. The temptation to 'finish the job' might prove too much to resist, particularly if Assad decides to do something like take a shot at one of our jets patrolling the no-fly zone.

    It might sound far-fetched, but mission creep should be a very real concern. I encourage you to take a look at this clip from Errol Morris's new documentary to see how speculation, distrust, and misinformation turned the Iraq sanctions into the Iraq War. It's not hard to see how it could easily happen again.  

     

    Again, it's good for the country, and for the president himself, that he is taking this case to the Congress. Let's hear him answer questions like these, so that Errol Morris does not have to follow his "how did we get this so wrong?" documentaries about Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld with one on Obama and his team.

  • Your Labor Day Syria Reader, Part 1: Stevenson and Lofgren

    "Attacking Syria is simply not in the U.S. national interest; and absent an objective assessment from a neutral inspection team, and absent a UN resolution, the U.S. has no legitimate authority under any law or treaty to act unilaterally. Period." 

    In the wake of President Obama's (welcome) decision to seek Congressional authorization before striking Syria, long-time Congressional defense-policy expert Charles Stevenson offers these guidelines about what Congress should actually do:

    President Obama's request for congressional authorization for retaliatory strikes in Syria creates tough choices for members of Congress. Do they want to assert their constitutional role in war powers by taking decisive action, or do they want to play political games? Does a majority want to support action, oppose it, or try to set limits and conditions?

    The best model for congressional action is the law they passed in 1983 authorizing participation in the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon, the only time Congress specifically authorized force under the War Powers Act. Public Law 98-119 has several features that should be part of any measure on Syria:

    • It declared the action is part of the War Powers Act process, thus reasserting that mostly ignored law as a proper basis for action.
    • It limited U.S. military participation to a peacekeeping mission as President Reagan had promised -- that the U.S. forces would not engage in combat.
    • It provided expedited, no filibuster rules for considering subsequent amendments to the law.

    The best test of the Obama policy would be a simple up-or-down vote on a joint resolution authorizing the attack but limiting its purpose and scope.  If that is not enough, if some members want to promote a policy of military aid to the Syrian opposition or a no-fly zone, let them vote on that and abide by the results. If it's too much, let them vote that way and deny the President the support he seeks.

    If Congress can't come together and agree on a common policy, they will forfeit their claims to war powers.

    Another long-time Congressional defense- and budget-policy expert often quoted here before, Mike Lofgren, adds these thoughts:

    1. The administration's declassified intelligence summary of the chemical weapons incident  reads like a White House lawyer's advocacy brief rather than a neutral assessment of evidence. Some of it is just circular reasoning, asserting as fact that which ought to be proven. Also, it uses up a paragraph refuting a hypothetical which was never a significant issue: no serious person, to my knowledge, ever asserted that a gas attack never happened....  Otherwise, the paper says, in effect, "we have the intelligence back-up, but you, the public can't see it. Trust us." That really worked out well in the past, didn't it? 
     
    2. There is at least a non-negligible chance this is a false flag operation (cui bono, of course); also a non-negligible chance it occurred because of a break-down of command and control during a vicious civil war, or because Assad cannot control the actions of some of his allies like Hezbollah. But so what...

    Attacking Syria is simply not in the US national interest; and absent an objective assessment from a neutral inspection team, and absent a UN resolution, the US has no legitimate authority under any law or treaty to act unilaterally. Period. The US Government claims it is upholding international norms; but in so acting it is violating those very same norms. The US has in the recent past violated international norms on aggressive war, torture, rendition of POWs, assassination, use of chemical weapons (phosphorous, napalm, etc.), land mines, ad infinitum. The US acting in this manner is like a serial wife beater judging a case of spousal abuse.

    3. Obama appears to believe he can replicate Bill Clinton's "drive-by shootings" with cruise missiles during the 1990s. They didn't really achieve much, but they did allow the commander in chief to "act presidential," etc. But we know Hezbollah is in Syria, and a US strike could result in Hezbollah's launching missile attacks against Israel. That is a very thinkable scenario, and would automatically transform a limited strike into a very messy regional crisis. Once you cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the notion of careful calibration is amateurish.
     
    4. Many have criticized Obama's "red lines" statement as poor policymaking, like writing a post-dated check and not worrying whether someone would cash it. Obama was buying time, while simultaneously narrowing his future options. His domestic negotiations proceed exactly like that: he accepted the sequester he didn't want to buy time for the debt limit increase. Obama negotiated with himself on the fiscal cliff deal, and thereby retained the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts when they would have expired anyway.

    Placing the Syria decision upon Congress is wise, given the alternative, but it also amounts to buying time... It only remains to be seen whether Obama is really such a poor politician who can be driven to results he doesn't want (which raises the question of how he won two cut-throat presidential elections campaigns); or, alternatively, if the foreign and domestic political outcomes of the last five years were outcomes he actually wanted.... 
     
    5. There is something troubling but difficult to define at the heart of Obama's performance in office. It was epitomized by his rhetorical display during the March on Washington, at the precise moment his administration was announcing, "we're going to bomb Syria, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop us." And yet there Obama was, trying to gain moral capital by associating himself with Martin Luther King, the apostle of nonviolence, who denounced the Vietnam war in harsh and specific terms.... Perhaps, like Louis Napoleon, Obama is "a sphinx without a riddle," but at all events he is baffling.

    To address Lofgren's question #4: I don't think these results -- sequester and serial debt-ceiling emergencies, Afghanistan surge, Syrian involvement, etc -- were the outcomes Obama was hoping for. So how has he ended up here, despite the skills shown in two presidential-election victories?

    In large part I think it is because of the often-discussed reality that current GOP positioning makes it harder for them to win national elections, but easy to have an outsized obstructionist impact in Congress. "Outsized" through the combination of gerrymandering in the House (Democratic House candidates, as a group, got more votes than Republicans overall, but the Republicans have a big House majority) and filibustering in the Senate. "Obstructionist" because the only perceived threat to most GOP incumbents is from the right. Obama's political skills and instincts are skewed in a similar way: better matched to national elections than to the day-by-day trench warfare of dealing with this kind of Congress. He is strongest where the GOP is weakest, and vice versa.

    Later today, a very detailed overview of Syrian prospects by William Polk -- plus even more from Holland, Michigan! 

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